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Everything You Need to Know about Dog Food Ingredients

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If you have read our guide

You know how pet food is made and regulated. You know what kind of nutrition your dog needs for each life stage. And you know how to read dog food labels. It’s time to discuss ingredients.

Dog foods today come in several forms: dry, wet (which can include cans and pouches), raw frozen foodsfreeze-dried and dehydrated foods. Dry dog food has long been the biggest-selling segment of the dog food market but some of the other forms of dog food have been growing rapidly in recent years. Owners have become willing to buy different kinds of dog food in order to obtain fresher or better quality ingredients. Some of the alternatives to dry dog food have very high protein percentages, such as raw frozen and freeze-dried foods, which appeals to many dog lovers on behalf of their dogs.

Big pet food companies

There has also been an explosive growth of new pet food companies in the last 20 years or so. While Mars, Nestle Purina Petcare, Big Heart Pet Brands, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Diamond Pet Foods, and Blue Buffalo are the top six pet food companies in the world, there are plenty of slightly smaller pet food companies that make popular super premium* dog foods. (If you don’t recognize some of these big names, don’t feel bad. The companies have been shuffling and rebranding over the last few years. Mars makes Pedigree and many other brands. Purina makes Dog Chow, ProPlan and lots of other foods. Big Heart Pet Brands split off from Del Monte a couple of years ago and they are owned by J.M Smucker now. They make Natural Balance and Nature’s Recipe, among other foods. Hill’s makes Science Diet and prescription foods. Diamond makes their own brand as well as Taste of the Wild and co-packs for many other brands. Blue Buffalo makes their own brand, Blue, and related foods.) 

These corporations own the biggest part of the pet food market but many owners, trying to be more selective about what they feed their dogs, seek out food from smaller companies. There are pros and cons when it comes to buying pet food from big or small companies. Large pet food companies often have money to spend on nutritional research, for example. Mars-Pedigree-Waltham (in England), Purina, Eukanuba (recently sold to separate interests by Procter & Gamble), Royal Canin (in France) and Hill’s have all spent decades and lots of money on canine nutritional research. They have been able to afford to hire researchers and spend money on lengthy research projects so dogs today have better nutrition and live longer. The big corporations have their own manufacturing facilities and they usually have good good quality control. They may have occasional recalls but, considering the tremendous volume of pet food they manufacture, they tend to have good records. Most problems are caught before products leave the factories. Pet food is mass produced on a big scale so the companies can obtain cost savings by buying large quantities from their suppliers. In some cases pet food companies can use leftovers from the human food divisions of their own corporations. They sell to millions of pet owners.

*We use the term “super premium” here because there’s not really another good term for good quality dog foods with better ingredients. Some people think of them as “holistic” or “natural” dog foods, but these terms are vague and not necessarily appropriate. These foods may not be “natural” in all respects, as described by the FDA. The foods are “gourmet” in the sense that the ingredients are carefully chosen but some canned foods use that term, so it would be confusing for kibbles. “Premium” was used for years, before the latest round of preferred foods, so “super premium” is often used to describe the current best foods. Some people have used the term “ultra premium” but that seems a little over the top.

Small pet food companies

On the other hand, small pet food companies have their own advantages. Small companies often make dog food aimed at customers looking for high quality food. This is often a niche market of super premium dog food with good quality ingredients. Foods may contain pre- and probiotics, chelated minerals, and meet other special requirements that customers have. For instance, you can find dog food that is GMO-free, gluten-free, low-glycemic, without artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors, with no corn, wheat, or soy, and so on. Grain free foods are easy to find (even among foods from the big companies.) You can find virtually any kind of specialty food your dog may need, including foods for dogs with allergies or other health issues. (If your dog needs a prescription food, you will probably need to go back to Hill’s, Purina, or Royal Canin because they have the manufacturing facilities to make foods according to precise measurements and conditions.) If you are looking for a food made with certain ethical considerations (cage-free, pasture-raised), you are more likely to find a small pet food company to meet your requirements than a large corporation. Many small companies make food in small batches instead of huge production runs so the food you buy may be fresher. It probably hasn’t been sitting in a warehouse for six months. On the downside, dog food from small companies often costs more – lots more. The ingredients are often better quality and small companies do not get the same deep discounts for buying mass quantities from suppliers that large corporations get. Some small companies like to use the image of being a holistic dog food but they may use lower quality ingredients. Be sure to read the ingredient list. Not everything that’s claimed on the package is necessarily true. Does it really matter if your dog’s food is GMO-free? Or is that just a pricey advertising claim?

The bottom line is that you can find very good dog foods from both large companies and small companies but you have to check the food out before you buy it. Big companies are not evil and small companies are not universally wonderful. Try to keep an open mind when it comes to various dog foods. You never know when you might find a terrific food, no matter who makes it. And there is no reason to believe all the hype about some popular dog foods. The most popular dog food in the world is no good if your dog doesn’t like it or if it misleads the public about its ingredients.

Ingredients to look for in good foods

If you want to be absolutely certain about which ingredients your dog is eating, where they come from, their quality, and how they are made, you will probably have to buy them yourself and either feed your dog a raw or homecooked diet. Even then, you can be at the mercy of butchers, farmers, or the distributors who sell the ingredients, especially if you add vitamins, minerals, enzymes or other supplements to the food, since they have to be sourced. Even if you buy your dog the same meats that you buy for yourself, there are sometimes recalls. No one can ever be 100 percent certain that the food they feed their dog is completely safe. For many owners it can be difficult to make a nutritionally balanced diet for their dogs over a long period of time – though it can be done with success. Feeding a raw or homecooked diet for your dog can be time-consuming for many people, though there are ways to minimize the time requirements. Some owners find ways to use some commercial raw frozen foods or pre-mixes in their preparations to help make things easier.

We don’t want to discourage you from feeding a raw or homecooked diet for your dog but there are other sources for that information. Here we will discuss dog foods and their ingredients.

Here are our basic recommendations regarding dog food ingredients (with thanks to the DogAware.com site):

Look for 2-3 animal proteins in the first several ingredients. We strongly prefer animal protein over plant proteins when it comes to feeding dogs. Animal protein is easier for dogs to digest. Animal protein provides the amino acid profiles that your dog needs. While animal protein usually refers to meat, it can also include fish, eggs, and other animal-based proteins. 

Named proteins and fats. Avoid generic meats such as meat meal, animal digest, and animal by-products. Likewise, try to avoid animal fat. Poultry fat is better, chicken fat or another specified fat is best. The more precise the meat and fat ingredients, the better. Otherwise, you don’t really know what you are feeding your dog. Poor quality (i.e., cheaper) foods tend to use the generic meat and bone meal and animal digest.

Avoid corn gluten meal and wheat gluten meal. These tend to be filler ingredients that jack up the protein levels in lower quality dog foods. Rice protein concentrate and soy protein fit this same profile. Note that this refers to gluten meals and concentrates! This does not mean that you should automatically avoid all grains. That is a different subject.

No by-products or digest from meats. This refers to ingredients such as poultry by-products and poultry digest. The caveat here is that some dog food companies will specify that they are using human grade organs such as liver or kidney (which are by-products) and these would be desirable ingredients in your dog’s food. Otherwise, unidentified meat by-products are usually considered not fit for human consumption.

Named meals and whole meats. Do look for named meat meals and whole meats such as chicken meal and whole chicken in your dog’s food. Some people object to named meat meals but chicken meal and other named meat meals (lamb, turkey, beef) have been rendered and dried. They have had most of the moisture and fat removed. A meat meal such as chicken meal has a higher percentage of protein than whole chicken, which still contains a high percentage of moisture. Many good quality dog foods will use both a whole meat and a meat meal to ensure that the food has a good percentage of meat protein from the named source – but most of the protein comes from the named meat meal.

Avoid BHA, BHT, and Ethoxyquin. As already discussed, these are artificial preservatives. Good quality dog foods will avoid using them. Unless a dog food company provides a statement of some kind on their web site saying that they do not use fish meal preserved with ethoxyquin, you should assume that they do. You should contact them directly if you are unsure. Foods that use butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and tert-butyl hydroquinone (TBHQ) (another artificial preservative) will list them on the label. Natural preservatives can be used instead such as tocopherols (vitamin E), ascorbic acid (vitamin C), citric acid, and rosemary and other plant extracts. Natural preservatives are not as strong as the artificial chemical preservatives so food cannot be stored as long. Foods made with these natural preservatives should not have an expiration date more than six months from the date of manufacture. It’s important to protect dog food made with these natural preservatives from light, heat, and air so they won’t become rancid.

Note that BPA (bisphenol-A) is a different ingredient. BPA is commonly used in the lining of pet food cans. Concerns have been raised about its use but so far the pet food industry does not have a good alternative to it – at least not one that is in widespread use. A few companies state that they do not use BPA in some of their cans, but if questioned more thoroughly they often have to walk back their assurances. 

Avoid artificial colors, sugars, and sweeteners, as well as propylene glycol. These include corn syrup and sucrose in foods. Dogs love sweets so these sweeteners can make food more appealing. Propylene glycol is sometimes added to foods to give a chewy texture. Your dog doesn’t need artificial colors in his food. He doesn’t care what the food looks like. Colors and dyes are added to appeal to the buyer – you.

Look for added taurine. Pet food companies began adding taurine to cat food in the 1970s when it became known that cats needed it in their diets. Dogs can convert carnitine from meat to taurine in their diet so it’s not believed to be an essential amino acid for them, but a taurine deficiency can lead to health problems such as dilated cardiomyopathy. Some companies now add taurine to their recipes. Dog foods that have lots of meat in the recipe will naturally have more taurine but adding more seems like a good idea, especially since heat processing affects taurine.

Look for AAFCO approval. As already discussed, AAFCO approval has its good and bad points, but it assures a minimum of nutrition for dogs.

High protein and moderate fat. We suggest that most dogs do well on diets that are higher in protein with a moderate fat percentage. You do not have to buy the highest protein food available, but it’s certainly fine to buy a food with good meat protein that is above the ___ percentage minimum suggested by ____. Likewise, we favor a higher fat percentage than the ___ percentage minimum. We do not recommend feeding foods that are excessively high in fat unless your dog is very active since this will put lots of pounds on your dog – which leads to multiple health problems. Unfortunately, many dog foods with very good quality ingredients tend to be very high in protein AND fat. It’s not always easy to find good foods that have moderate fat percentages.

There are lots of other things you could add to this list. Thetruthaboutpetfood.com has a graphic with an extensive list of items you should avoid in your dog’s food. They do a wonderful job of investigating the pet food industry but we think their list is too restrictive. You may never be able to find a food good enough to feed your dog if you follow this list (though you can check their site to find out).

Harmful food items

There are some harmful food items you should never feed to your dog. You have probably seen warnings about these foods online but it doesn’t hurt to list them here as a reminder.

  1. Avocadoes and other pitted foods (cherries, peaches). Actually, the flesh from these foods is fine to give your dog, but the large stones or pits can be dangerous. They can cause obstructions in the gastrointestinal system.
  2. Alcohol
  3. Onions and garlic. Onion and garlic are in the alium family. They can produce anemia in dogs.
  4. Coffee, tea, other caffeine. In large enough quantities caffeine can be fatal to dogs.
  5. Grapes and raisins. Even small amounts of these foods can be toxic to dogs. It’s not clear why they are poisonous to dogs but it’s thought they could have a mycotoxin on the skin that is harmless to humans but dangerous to dogs.
  6. Macadamia nuts. Even eating a few macadamia nuts can be fatal to dogs.
  7. Xylitol. This artificial sweetener is used in all kinds of products today, including cookies, gum, toothpaste, and peanut butter. It can cause your dog’s blood sugar to drop and lead to liver failure. Be sure to check any foods you give your dog to make sure they don’t contain xylitol.
  8. Chocolate. Chocolate can be toxic to dogs if they eat enough of it. Darker chocolate is more dangerous. Small dogs don’t have to eat very much dark chocolate to feel the effects. Large dogs have to eat more. The harmful ingredient is theobromine which can set the dog’s heart racing and cause tremors, seizures, and death.
  9. Cooked bones. Giving your dog a raw meaty bone to gnaw on is often a joy. However, you should never give your dog cooked bones. Raw bones are relatively soft and pliable. Cooked bones can snap when your dog chews them, leaving jagged edges that can puncture his esophagus or other parts of his gastrointestinal system.
  10. Yeast dough. A dog that eats yeast dough will find the dough rising in his stomach, much to his discomfort. It will also release alcohol as gas while it ferments in the dog’s stomach which can make him drunk – and sick. If you have yeast dough in your house, take precautions so your dog can’t reach it. It can be very dangerous to any dog.
  11. Dairy products (borderline). Some dogs are lactose intolerant. They lack the ability to make the enzyme lactase so they can digest the lactose (sugar) in milk, cheese, and other dairy foods. Other dogs can digest dairy foods without a problem. And some dogs are somewhere in between. They can digest small amounts of dairy foods, or they can digest some but they might have a little gas. (None of this affects puppies. Any lactose intolerance does not begin until after puppies are weaned and begin eating solid foods.) You will know your dog better than anyone else. Milk has the most lactose, with yogurt having a moderate amount. Cottage cheese and other cheeses have small amounts. You can decide if your dog should have any of these foods or if he can have some in small amounts. Most dogs are able to eat small pieces of cheese, in moderation, without a problem, or they can has cookies with some cheese in them even if they are otherwise lactose intolerant. Some dog foods contain various dairy products (cheese, skim milk) but unless your dog is seriously lactose intolerant this should not be a problem. The exceptions to this are whey and whey protein which are leftover milk proteins from cheese production. They often have much higher lactose levels than other dairy products. These ingredients in dog foods might be a problem for lactose intolerant dogs causing some diarrhea.

You can find other foods online that people warn against but they are often personal preferences or based on inaccurate information. For example, some sites warn against feeding your dog raw meat. Raw feeders would likely disagree with that warning.

Does your dog need human grade food?

Many people today want the very best, safest, healthiest food they can find for their dogs. To many people that means feeding “human grade” food. This term is a little confusing when applied to dog food, however. The various agencies that regulate pet food don’t like to have this term applied to pet foods. According to AAFCO the term has no definition in animal feed regulations. There is currently no legal definition for the term. Very few pet food products could officially be considered fit for humans to eat or “human grade.” The USDA defines products that are fit for human consumption to be “edible.” Those products are made in facilities that are processed and pass inspection for human food. The safety regulations for those foods are made with humans in mind. There are specific standards and regulations for edible human foods. The only way that pet food can claim to be “human grade” is if the food is made following these same standards and regulations that are used for human food. Otherwise, if a company claims a pet food is “human grade,” the food is considered to be misbranded which can lead to enforcement action, i.e., a lot of trouble for the company.

Dog food is supposed to be nutritionally balanced for dogs – not humans. Your dog won’t be healthy eating a diet that you might eat. Pizza is human grade. Chocolate cake is human grade. Pickles are human grade. So, not all human grade foods are nutritious for your dog or even healthy or safe for him. 

At one time no dog food companies were allowed to use the “human grade” statement regarding their food. As some companies started using better quality ingredients, some of them started making the “human grade” claim, which earned the ire of the FDA. One of these companies was the Honest Kitchen. Honest Kitchen took them to court over the ability to claim to have “human grade” dog food – and won. Honest Kitchen was, indeed, able to prove that their dog food was food grade (and not animal feed grade) and fit for human consumption. That was in 2007. There are a few other companies who can meet the same standard. However, many companies today freely make statements about being “human grade” on their web sites and in-store advertising, but they do not make these claims on packaging, which can be subject to stricter oversight. Companies also make claims about using “human grade” ingredients without expressly stating that their dog food is “human grade.” There’s a big difference. A company can use all human grade ingredients but unless the food is made at a facility that follows the same standards and regulations used for human foods, the dog food will not be considered “human grade.” If most or nearly all of the ingredients are “human grade” but the food uses some small amount of animal feed grade ingredients, the food cannot be called “human grade.” The FDA has more or less bowed out of trying to regulate the term “human grade” in pet food at this point – which is not good for consumers. It is theoretically in the hands of AAFCO and the states, which seems to be in limbo.

We suggest you use caution with regard to claims about “human grade” dog foods. Some companies may be accurate with these claims but it’s a good idea to read a company’s FAQ section. These sections on a company’s web site usually answer questions in detail and can tell you where ingredients are sourced and if the ingredients are really human grade or not, as well as giving you information about the facilities they use and how their food is processed.

You may also wonder if your dog needs human grade dog food. That’s a perfectly legitimate question, especially considering that few dog foods actually meet the requirements to be considered “human grade.” Here in the midst of this nice article about the Honest Kitchen we find a comment from a professor of nutrition at Tufts University:

Dr. Lisa Freeman, professor of nutrition at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, says the fancy ingredients are likely no better for pets than less expensive food. “There are many myths across the pet industry these days,” says Dr. Freeman. “Ingredient lists are just marketing, and unfortunately consumers are basing their decisions on that marketing.”

The Boston Globe provided comments from another Tufts University professor:

Despite the rush to premium pet food, there’s little scientific evidence to support claims it’s better for pets, said Dr. Cailin Heinze, a nutritionist at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

Heinze said the nutrients in so-called “premium” pet foods are mostly identical to budget-conscious brands, made up primarily of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats…“Words like premium, holistic, and gourmet are marketing terms that can be used by any company to describe any product. They don’t have any reflection of the nutritiousness of the ingredients in that product,” Heinze said.

Broadly speaking, Heinze said trends in human eating, like grain free and gluten free, are not transferrable to pets, who require different nutrients.

“If you’re marketing your pet food predominantly on what ingredients you don’t put in it that’s not science, that’s marketing,” Heinze said.

If you spend a lot of money each month buying very expensive dog food for your dog (and I do – for four dogs) you probably don’t want to hear that less expensive foods are just as nutritious but, in fact, there is a vast spectrum of dog food. Dog food quality is not black and white. If you don’t buy “human grade” food or the most expensive dog food available, that doesn’t mean that the next level of foods are full of horrible ingredients. There are dog foods at the bottom level that are bad which should not be recommended. We hope people will not buy them and can afford better alternatives. However, there are lots of very good dog foods between the very bottom and the very top that are perfectly good foods in terms of nutrition.

Consider this analogy: a five-star restaurant is a wonderful place to dine. You will likely get a very nutritious, enjoyable meal at that establishment. On the other hand, if you are in the military, you may get an MRE for dinner – Meals-Ready-to-Eat. Nutritious, edible, a vast improvement over K-Rations. If you are living on the space station you might be eating rehydrated food and other foods that fit the situation – but still nutritious food approved by a dietitian. These meals (the MRE and the rehydrated foods) may not compare to the five-star restaurant, but they are nutritious. The same can be said for many dog foods. They are not bad foods, even if they don’t compare to dog foods at the very top level of foods.

If you ask your dog, he would probably tell you that he wants your food, no matter what it is, whether it’s healthy for him or not. Your dog is not a good food critic.

Let’s talk about carbohydrates

Technically dogs need protein and fat in their diets. You will see many people online claiming that the wolf ancestors of our dogs didn’t eat carbohydrates at all, or only a very small amount from the intestines of prey animals; and therefore pet dogs today have no need of carbs in their diet. This may be true, although dogs certainly eat berries and vegetables when they come across them. (If you doubt this, ask anyone with a dog and a vegetable garden.) Vegetables provide carbohydrates.

Technically humans have no need of carbohydrates either but we have been successfully making use of them for thousands of years as part of our diets. Humans only developed agriculture around 10,000 years ago. Before that there were no domesticated grains to grow. People were hunter-gatherers. Assuming that wolf-dogs were already eating some of the food we ate, there were no grains, breads, or other carb-heavy foods to eat. However, as the human diet changed, so did the dog’s diet. Our diet relied more on carbohydrates. The dogs living with us adapted. According to recent research, dogs have modified genes that allow them to digest starches more easily, which sets them apart from their wolf cousins. Humans have also developed similar digestive changes. So, while we may think of our dogs as wolf-like carnivores, the truth is that at least 10,000 years of domestication sets them apart from their ancestors. Their food needs, especially when it comes to carbs, are quite different. A wolf would not be able to digest dog food very well, no matter how high the meat content. But most dogs have no problem with kibble, at least from a genetic viewpoint.

Ask a veterinarian and they will likely tell you that carbohydrates provide energy for dogs, just as protein and fats do. A dog’s body uses fat and carbohydrates for energy. If there’s not enough fat and carbohydrates in the diet, the body will start using protein that is normally used for maintenance of bodily functions and building muscle for energy and that can lead to health problems

So, carbohydrates in dog food are not mere filler ingredients. There are good quality carbohydrates that provide energy for your dog. Unfortunately, there are cheaper dog foods that have used carbs and some grains as a substitute for animal protein. You can still find some of these foods though consumers are much more conscious about buying foods with lower carbohydrates now. Even grains contain some protein, especially in the form of corn and wheat gluten, rice protein concentrate, and soy products. Technically, gluten refers to the proteins found in wheat (durum, emmer, spelt, farina, farro, KAMUT® khorasan wheat and einkorn – wheat species and hybrids), rye, barley and triticale. But that’s not how the term is used in the pet food industry. In pet food it’s just a jargon term used to refer to the proteins in grains/cereals. For example, you often see the term “corn gluten meal,” even though corn actually has no gluten in the literal sense. When glutens are added to dog food it boosts the protein percentage. The gluten is added in place of animal protein to raise the protein percentage.

Lest you think that carbohydrates or glutens are the worst things that can be added to dog foods, you should check the Dogfoodproject.com site to see what some truly bad filler ingredients look like. 

Just because dogs are able to eat carbs, why add them to dog food? Because carbohydrates are digested at different rates than protein and fats. They can keep your dog from getting hungry between meals. They help keep his blood sugar steady, assuming the food has a good complement of carbs that digest slowly. Dogs digest plant proteins more slowly than meat proteins so your dog is still digesting the carbs from plant sources in his diet after he has already digested the meat proteins. Carbohydrates can also be a source of dietary fiber for your dog’s intestinal tract, depending on the ingredient. For example, oatmeal is both a carbohydrate and a source of dietary fiber. It’s used in some dog foods. Oats are a cereal grain. They turn up in both grain free and grain-inclusive dog foods.

A diet made up only of meat and fat for your dog would be nutritionally deficient. Your dog needs a balanced diet with a full range of nutrition. Even grain free dog foods use other sources of carbohydrates

Grain free or not?

People disagree about the role of grains in a dog’s diet. Some people like grain free dog food and others prefer a grain-inclusive diet. You can find good foods made both ways. What really matters is which food works best for your particular dog. Some dogs can eat both kinds of food while other dogs may do better on one or the other.

Whichever food you prefer – grain free or grain-inclusive – it’s important to remember that they both contain carbohydrates. If you are feeding a grain free dog food the carbohydrates will usually come in the form of an ingredient such as sweet potatoes, potatoes, or tapioca. If you are feeding a food that uses grains, you can avoid corn, wheat, and soy very easily since these ingredients are considered common food allergens for dogs. There are many healthy grains that have not been over-used by the dog food industry such as oatmeal and barley. You will also find some foods that use “ancestral” grains (actually seeds) such as quinoa. If your dog has food allergies or sensitivities to the peas and lentils in grain free foods or to some of the more common grains, a food with one of these ancestral grains might be helpful.

It helps to keep in mind that grain free foods were originally intended for dogs with food allergies. Most dogs are able to eat foods with grains – even corn and wheat, though some foods made with these two grains are lower in quality today and you may want to avoid them. If your dog is having digestive problems or what seems to be an allergic reaction, it’s a good idea to have him see a veterinarian. Don’t always assume that his dog food is the problem.

As far as we know, there are no scientific studies that show that a grain free diet is healthier for the typical dog. Obviously, if your dog has any kind of food allergy or intolerance, you should avoid feeding the food with the trigger ingredient. But there are no health reasons to avoid grains. It’s just a popular trend at the moment, though it may last a long time. Feeding your dog food with grain does not make dogs fat. Overfeeding dogs and lack of exercise makes dogs fat. Make sure you measure how much you are feeding your dog. We do not recommend free feeding or leaving food sitting out all the time.

Since people love their dogs and want to provide them with healthy foods, dog food companies have been happy to cater to the demand for grain free foods. We probably do have more foods and better quality dog foods today because people insisted on grain free diets and other special diets. We can all feed these diets to our dogs now, whether they strictly need them or not. Whatever you choose to feed your dog, be sure to pay attention to your dog’s condition. Watch to see if he is gaining or losing weight. How does his coat look? Is he playful? Is he energetic? Do his bowel movement look normal? You can tell a lot about a dog’s health by his bowel movements. A dog that is digesting his food well should produce stools that are small and compact. Diarrhea is a bad sign. If your dog is straining to eliminate or producing hard fecal matter, that is also a bad sign. If food is passing through your dog’s system undigested it means your dog is not absorbing the nutrients in the food. No matter how expensive the food or how good your intentions, if your dog isn’t looking good or acting like he feels well, find a different food. Go back to the last food that agreed with your dog even if it was an inexpensive food from the grocery store.

If you feed a food that contains grains, they should not be one of the first ingredients. You want a food that has a couple of meat ingredients at the top of the ingredient list. Ingredients are listed by weight before cooking. If barley is the first or second ingredient, you would be feeding your dog far too many carbohydrates. You should also add up all of the grain/carb sources in the food when you look at the ingredient list, whether they are the same kind of grain or not. You want to have a good idea of how many carbohydrates there are, overall, in the food. If you figure up the dry matter basis of the food you should be able to get a good estimate of the percentage of carbs in the food. Some foods will have 40 percent or more carbohydrates. This is true for both grain-inclusive and grain-free foods. With some searching you can find kibbles with 20-35 percent carbohydrates (DMB).

If you prefer feeding a grain free dog food you will certainly notice that most of them rely on peas and lentils to fill the void left by grains. Think about that for a moment. If you think it’s not natural for a dog to eat grains, why is it any more natural for a dog to eat peas and lentils? From the perspective of the dog food industry, peas and lentils have a great advantage over grains: they are much higher in protein. Where corn can provide 7 percent protein, peas (split peas, field peas) can provide 22 percent protein. Grain free dog food can be packed with peas and lentils and sold as something that is healthier for your dog because consumers want it. Truthfully, many grain free foods are good foods but not because they are grain free. They are often good foods because they have good meat protein and other good quality ingredients. They would also be good foods if they contained good quality grains.

Many grain free dog foods also contain “fermentation products” or probiotics. These products arrived at about the same time that peas and lentils were added to dog foods. This is not to say that probiotics are a bad ingredient in dog foods. They can be very good ingredients. But many dogs have problems digesting dog foods containing peas and lentils without added probiotics. The fiber in the peas and lentils is hard for many dogs to digest without this extra help. You can find grain free dog foods that don’t use peas and lentils as substitutes for grains but it takes some effort.

The bottom line with virtually all dog foods is that dogs digest meat protein more easily than plant protein. That includes peas and lentils just as it does grains. We think for many dogs it’s important to look for good quality foods with a higher animal protein content. Whether you choose to feed a food that uses grains or one that uses peas and lentils is a secondary consideration for most dogs unless the dog actually has food allergies or sensitivities that prevent him from eating grains.

We don’t oppose grain free dog foods (we feed both grain free and grain-inclusive foods). We do question some dog food marketing and think that some claims are unnecessary. For example, it is virtually impossible for dogs to have Celiac disease. This is a human genetic disease. There has been one recorded case of “gluten-sensitive enteropathy” in a family of Irish Setters in the early 1990s. One documented case. Yet there are people – intelligent people – who claim that their dogs have Celiac disease – and dog food companies now make gluten-free dog food. There could not be a more obvious example of an industry taking advantage of a human food trend even though the problem almost certainly does not exist in dogs.

We encourage you to buy good quality dog food but it’s not necessary to believe every claim made by dog food companies or to follow every popular trend.

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