Making good food choices

In light of the recent dog treat recalls, it seems like a good time to talk about food. How is one to select a good quality food and not break the bank? Does more expensive automatically mean better quality? Does made in the USA really mean made in the USA? Is that actually better? Even with human grade food, the USA track record hasn’t been so hot with peanut butter, cantaloupes, strawberries, spinach- can we expect dog food to be any better? Let’s take a step back and figure out how to pick a food first.

In the US, food labels (ingredients) are listed in order of greatest pre-cooked weight. This is the same for dog food. The only difference is that the manufacturer is not required to tell you the amounts. We’ve also consistently heard look at the first five ingredients; these are the most important and likely in the greatest amounts. This is not entirely true. The ingredients that need to be looked at are all the ingredients up to the main fat. This means that it could be three ingredients, or five, or eight. Anything after the fat is added for function (preservatives), or added flavor, manufacturing, or dietary benefits (vitamins and minerals).

Once you’ve established the main ingredients (how ever many that is), evaluate the quality of those ingredients. Dogs eat meat, and unless they need to eat a vegetarian diet meat should be the first ingredient. It seems obvious but the type of meat should be specifically called out, i.e., beef as opposed to meat. Also, something that I learned researching for this article, high quality meat meal is acceptable in dog food and actually important as part of the meat + meat meal as first ingredients combination. The Dog Food Project has a fantastic website explaining the selection of proteins in dog food.

Fats and oils are critical to brain processes and keep the skin and coat healthy. Mineral oil is commonly used in lower quality foods, as opposed to fish oil. You can always add a fish oil supplement if your food is low in the appropriate fat or oil.

Carbohydrates can be found as rice, oats, corn, and potatoes, among others. Every dog has different tolerances for carbohydrates. Reggie doesn’t has a strict allergy to potatoes, but they do aggravate his skin condition. His food recently changed the grain to oatmeal (from rice) and he doesn’t seem to like it. He has never presented with a gluten allergy, but oats are a high-gluten grain compared to rice and could be a problem for him. Beware of brewer’s rice as this is actually just a fragment and found in lower quality foods. Also, grains that are unfit for human consumption can legally be used for animal feed.

Some foods are preserved naturally, but here’s the catch: manufacturers only have to list what they have added themselves. If they purchase all ingredients elsewhere and just “assemble” the food themselves, there could be all kinds of things in the final product that you don’t know about. In terms of added preservatives, acceptable ones to look for are limited; mixed tocopherols are a common listing.

Sweeteners and dyes are unnecessary and should be avoided. Some supplements are acceptable, but be aware that the majority of supplements are actually manufactured in China, up to 90% depending on the supplement. For instance glycerin is in some dog treats as a binder. Glycerin can be vegetable glycerin or animal glycerin (fat). If it’s not  listed, I have to assume it is animal- most likely beef fat- and Reggie is allergic to it. Reggie was needing to take a supplement last year and on the label it was listed “natural flavors”. I called the manufacturer to find out what the flavors were and they wouldn’t tell me- they said it was proprietary. Well, at that point I was sure I was not going to give this product to Reggie if the manufacturer wasn’t to give me any information, but they offered to get back to me if I told them his allergies. I listed al of his allergies for them and they called me back the next day and said their “natural flavors” were not a conflict. Well, they don’t get to make that call I do.

For a short form list of ingredients to avoid, The Dog Food Project has summarized what to avoid when food shopping. It’s not easy, and I’m not going to pretend that I have the best food on the market. Reggie is a difficult eater, and trying to find a combination of all these requirements with Reggie’s allergies is…a challenge, to put it mildly. This is a great help of a list to be the best advocates for our animals that we can be, and keep them happy and healthy.

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