How to Navigate the Dog Food Aisle

By Katie Quinn

You are giddy with excitement as you prepare to take home your very first dog. Eagerly awaiting the challenges that come with pet parenthood, you stop by the pet store to stock up on all the supplies you will need to provide a safe and happy place for your fluffy bundle of joy. As you stroll through each aisle, carefully selecting the juiciest bones and squeakiest squeak toys, you round the corner beginning the long stretch of available dog food. Quickly you realize that you have to make a decision on what to feed your pet. Not having much knowledge yourself on pet food products, you become overwhelmed and grab the bag with the happiest looking puppy on it.

As a pet parent to three dogs, unique in personality as they are in breed, I find myself in this very situation when trying to decide what is appropriate to feed them. When you have no degree in veterinary science and you don’t have the time to read studies published in medical journals, how do you navigate all the different options there are when it comes to pet food? There are dozens of options lining the shelves at your local pet food store, ranging from dry to freeze-dried, canned, bagged, wet, all-natural, organic, the list goes on. Not only that, but if you try to do your own research on what to feed your pet, the amount of information you come up with can be overwhelming and unreliable. You will begin to realize that similar to the realm of human diets, there are different trends, fads, and advice that could change over time in the pet food world.

In order to assist new pet parents in navigating the pet food world, here is an overview of some of the popular diet trends you will see and what they are all about.

Raw

Whether or not you are feeding your dog “raw”, you are likely to hear the term come up in the pet care community. If you want to sound smart among your pup parent friends, you should at least know the basics of the raw dog food diet.

The motivation for feeding a raw food diet comes from the concept of feeding your dog what they would have eaten in the wild– raw meat, bones, fruits, and vegetables. The main food elements in the raw dog food diet include raw muscle meat, bones, organ meats, raw eggs, green veggies, and fruits such as apples and dairy such as yogurt.

The raw dog food diet has recently grown in popularity as those who are interested in a holistic approach to pet care seek alternatives to traditional kibble and advocate for a grain-free diet. However, it’s important to know that the FDA does not approve of a raw-food diet for pets and it is considered a controversial topic among the veterinary community. Some of the potential risk factors of feeding your dog a “raw-food” diet include bacteria in raw meat, feeding an unbalanced diet or one missing essential vitamins and nutrients, and potential choking hazard on animal bones.

A slightly altered approach to the raw dog food diet is to feed the same ingredients, but cook them before feeding them to your pet. According to Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, for those that want to avoid commercially prepared pet food, a home cooked diet under the consultation of pet nutritionist (one certified by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition) is the best way to go.

The rise in popularity of the raw food diet has benefits that have trickled down to pet parents. Commercially prepared dog food brands are catching up to the trend and are producing their own “raw” food to be sold online or in pet stores. Some of these foods are freeze dried meat patties sold in the freezer aisle of your pet store. Others are direct to consumer and can be ordered online and shipped to your home. Purchasing a prepared raw dog food could reduce some of the risk of un-balanced diet and could also save you a lot of time and guess work. If you do choose to feed your dog a raw diet, it is important to consult a trusted veterinarian to ensure safety of you and your dog.

Kibble

Kibble, or traditional commercially prepared dog food, comes in many forms. There are breed specific, age specific, ailment specific and many other options available, so how do you narrow it down? According to the American Kennel Club,

“A good dog food will contain meat, vegetables, grains, and fruits. The best dog foods contain high-quality versions of these ingredients that are appropriate for your dog’s digestive system.”

The best way to determine if a commercially prepared pet food is high-quality is to a) consult your veterinarian and b) read the label. While pet food labels do not adhere to the same guidelines as human grade food, they still provide a lot of information and are required to list all the ingredients. Be careful not to be fooled by the marketing lingo on the front of the bag however, because the terminology used here can often be misleading. For example, if the bag says made “with beef”, the product is only required to have three percent beef. If it says “premium” or “gourmet” that doesn’t really mean much in terms of what is actually in the bag. Some labelling words such as “natural” and “organic” do have accountability standards for ingredients. However, there is still come deciphering to be done here as there is a difference between “100% organic” “organic” and “made with organic ingredients”.

When reading the ingredients list, you should be aware of any artificial flavors or colors, preservatives, and other chemicals. Also be aware of where meat is listed– it should be the first ingredient– and what type of meat is used. Just plain “meat” is the preferred first ingredient such as chicken, lamb, beef, venison, etc. Other meat products such as meat meal or by-product meal are lower in quality.

Grain Free

There are mixed reviews on whether or not your dog should be eating a grain free diet. The argument behind a grain-free diet is that your dog’s ancestors did not eat grains, so they don’t need to either. However, most professionals would argue that grains are a beneficial piece of your dog’s diet and it’s ok to choose a pet food with grains. An article from the American Kennel Club states,

“Many people have concerns about their dogs eating grains or animal byproducts. If your dog has a grain allergy, you should certainly choose a grain-free diet, however, whole grains are actually a source of wholesome nutrients.”

In an article from Tufts University, Cailin Heinze, a veterinary nutritionist at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center attempts to answer the question about a grain-free diet. Cummings says,

“There is no reliable evidence that suggests that it’s harmful to feed grains to dogs or cats. Whole grains contain valuable dietary nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and fiber.”

The best solution here is to speak with your veterinarian on whether or not your dog could have a grain allergy and if it’s ok to feed them pet foods with grains in them. Be sure to keep an eye on the quality and type of the grains in your pet’s food.

Other Helpful Tips

Get a second opinion

It’s important to find a veterinarian and a vet practice that you feel comfortable and confident with. When you get your first dog, you should feel free to check out multiple veterinarians before choosing a primary doctor. It’s important that you trust your vet with your pets care as you will be going to them with a lot of questions and concerns. If you don’t like your current veterinarian, get a second opinion. Just as with our doctors, not all vets will have the same opinions. Check out this article on Holistic Veterinarians if you are looking for a more naturalistic approach https://www.gooddog.com/2017/09/16/holistic-veterinarians-expect/

Sign up for dog food recall list

Dog food and product recalls can be a scary thing as a pet parent. You see a viral post on social media about a product that you have in your cupboard and immediately throw it away, hoping that your bag was not contaminated. One way to ease the stress of dog food recalls is to sing up for this free e-mail list (https://www.dogfoodadvisor.com/dog-food-recall-alerts/), which will send you an e-mail with current dog food recalls. It’s free to sign up and totally worth the peace of mind. It will provide you with up-to-date information on which brands and products have been recalled. Recalls happen in the human food industry as well and it’s important to stay up to date on this information.

Make homemade dog treats

I prefer to make my dog treats at home because I know exactly what is going into them and can modify them to be healthful and nutritious. The treats you get off the shelves can be delicious, but too many of these can lead to your dog becoming overweight. Obesity is one thing you want to avoid when it comes to your pets health. A quick search on Pinterest will yield many easy dog treat recipes with few ingredients. Plus, your dog will be drooling as you whip up a batch of fresh dog “cookies” and they will appreciate them even more.

Keep a handy list of not safe to eat human foods for dogs

I think that most pet-parents will feed their dog table scraps at one time or another. Be sure to discuss with your veterinarian what foods are ok to feed your dog and what is on the do-not-feed list. Most of us are aware that dogs cannot eat chocolate, but did you know that onions are also not safe for dogs? I like to keep this list handy on the refrigerator so that when I’m making a recipe, I know if it’s safe to share with my pups.

Resources:

Burke, A. (2016). Best Dog Food: Choosing What’s Right For Your Dog. American Kennel Club. Retrieved from http://www.akc.org/content/health/articles/best-dog-food-choosing-whats-right-for-your-dog/

Dunn, T. J., Choosing the Best Dog Food. PetMD. Retrieved from http://www.petmd.com/dog/nutrition/evr_dg_the_best_food_for_dogs

Heinze, C. (2017). Is a grain-free diet healthier for my dogs and cats? Tufts University. Retrieved from http://now.tufts.edu/articles/grain-free-diet-healthier-my-dogs-and-cats

Lee, E. (2009). Raw Dog Food: Dietary Concerns, Benefits, and Risks. WebMD Pet Health Feature. Retrieved from https://pets.webmd.com/dogs/guide/raw-dog-food-dietary-concerns-benefits-and-risks#1

Spector, D. (2017). Pet Food (What You Need to Know for Your Pet’s Sake. PetMD. Retrieved from http://www.petmd.com/dog/nutrition/evr_pet_food_for_your_pets_sake