How to Choose a Healthy Dog Food


The choices in dog food can be overwhelming. There's food for small dogs and large dogs, thin dogs and fat dogs, couch potatoes and active dogs, and even food specific to a breed (such as Best Breed Dog Food). But, if you want to insure the best nutrition for your dog, choosing dog food from the array of healthy foods available is the best course.

But what does "healthy" dog food mean? It's a food that contains a dog's basic nutrition needs, a good source of protein, and adequate fat, fiber and moisture - and then some (see "Up the Ante" below).

To start with, any dog food must meet the safety regulations of the FDA. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (or AAFCO) defines what goes on dog food labels but some feel this is inadequate considering that the AAFCO is not governed and includes people in the pet food industry who benefit from certain guidelines. So, we as dog owners are left largely to ourselves to find a safe and healthy food for our dog.

The Basics

An average dog should have a diet that is 50% vegetable, 40% meat and 10% grain. Grown dogs need a minimum of 18% protein on a dry matter basis, whereas puppies require at least 22%. All dogs also require some fat, amount dependent on their level of activity. Dogs also need approximately 4% of their diets to be fiber. These are all, again, on average. In doing a dog food comparison, it is best to start with the labels.

Deciphering Dog Food Labels

Dog Food Ingredients: A good way to determine the quality of a food is the ingredient list. With a little practice, you can find a food that does not have unwanted products and is highly digestible. The ingredients are listed in order by weight.

One trick some manufacturers use is to break an ingredient into several different smaller ingredients and list them separately. For example, the ingredients might include chicken (first), ground corn, corn gluten, and corn bran (further down). You might think chicken is the main ingredient but, grouping the corn ingredients together, they would likely greatly outweigh the amount of chicken.

Guaranteed Analysis

The following must be included on dog food labels:

  • Minimum crude protein
  • Minimum crude fat
  • Maximum crude fiber
  • Maximum moisture

Note: "Crude" does not take into account digestibility or the source. The source could be human-grade beef or chicken feathers.

Some Tricks Of Your Own

  • Look for the first source of fat named on the label, to determine the main ingredients. For example, if chicken fat is listed seventh, the ingredients prior to that are the major ingredients. Those after are secondary.
  • Watch out for the names and description on the package of dog food. For instance, a product called "Doggy Dinner with Liver Flavoring" might have only a small amount of flavoring since a certain percentage is not required.
  • Calculating the "real" amount of each guaranteed analysis can tricky. Manufacturers can be deceptive, using high quality ingredients that contain a lot of water and therefore save them money. For more information on calculations, visit the FDA site.

Up the Ante

Luckily, healthy dog foods are easy to find today. Or, you can try making your own food with healthy dog food recipes. If you choose to do this, consult with your vet and do some research. There is a lot of information online and in books such as "The Whole Pet Diet." Some things to consider for buying or making are:

  • Look for natural and/or organic ingredients. A dog food package with "Natural" stamped on it means nothing - there are no regulations in place to define this. So sifting through the ingredients is vital.
  • Avoid corn, cornmeal, soy and wheat. These are difficult for dogs to digest and can cause allergies.
  • Instead, choose your grains from barley, rolled oats, millet, quinoa, and brown rice.
  • Depending on your dog's ability to digest, check the digestibility of the protein source. For instance, fish is more digestible than muscle and organ meats.
  • Check digestibility of the carbohydrate source. Rice is at the top, followed by, in part, oats and yeast.
  • Avoid animal-by-products which may contain heads, feet, and other animal parts.
  • Avoid preservatives and additives - they have been shown to cause health problems in dogs.
  • Look for Vitamin E and C; they are natural, healthful preservatives.
  • Look for Omega-3; it is good for your dog's coat.
  • Some dog owners prefer to look for "human-grade" food in their dog food. This simply means the food is purchased from human-grade food facilities.

A Holistic Approach

Healthy nutrition is the foundation but don't forget the other elements of a healthy canine lifestyle: exercise, medical check-ups, alternative medicine such as Acupuncture, dental hygiene, and grooming. Manage all of these and you will have one happy, healthy dog.

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