What’s in Dog Food?

Decode common ingredients and explore nutrient values to give your dog what he needs.

A humorous excerpt from a dog diary makes the e-mail rounds periodically. The joke? No matter the day or time, the entries are identical: “Oh, boy! DOG FOOD! My favorite!”

If only we could be as easygoing about what we feed our furry friends. In recent years, new foods and formulas seem to have debuted as often as American Idol hopefuls. Eye-popping packaging shouts words like “natural” and “organic.” And, as some owners explore home-prepared diets, a kind of militancy has crept in, with the implication being that if you don’t feed a certain way, you’re the fur-mom equivalent of Joan Crawford.

“It’s just overwhelming,” agrees board-certified veterinary nutritionist Tony Buffington, DVM, Ph.D., a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition and professor of clinical nutrition at Ohio State University Veterinary Hospital. “The pet-food industry is very competitive, so there’s sort of this arms race going on.”

Here are some things to consider before pressing that nuclear button and committing to a specific brand or approach:

Beware of buzzwords. “Organic” and “holistic” sound great, but what do they mean in relation to a bag of dog food? It’s murky, says William Burkholder, DVM, a veterinary medical officer with the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a detailed definition for the word “organic” in human food, the agency is “still working on the criteria for pet foods,” he says.

As for the new-agey “holistic,” the government has no “specific, defined meaning” for it, Burkholder says. Consumers “need to make sure that what they think it means is what the manufacturer means,” and that may involve a phone call to the company’s customer-service line.

Context is everything. Under the heading of “guaranteed analysis,” manufacturers are required to list minimum percentages in their foods for protein and fat, as well as maximums for moisture and fiber. But no number is an island.

“Notice that labels do not carry information on carbohydrates, therefore, you can’t look at a label and know exactly how much of a major nutrient, such as protein, fat, or carb, is in the food,” says board-certified veterinary nutritionist Joe Bartges, DVM, a professor of medicine and nutrition at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine.

Plus, making comparisons between different forms of food can be plain exasperating. Bartges contrasts a hypothetical canned food with 75 percent moisture and 4 percent fat to a dry food with 10 percent moisture and 8 percent fat. “Which has more or less fat? From the label, you can’t tell.”

Watch the moving ingredients. Dog-food companies are required to list ingredients in descending order of volume. So, theoretically, a food contains more of the first listed ingredient than the second — unless the manufacturer is creatively categorizing. Ingredient splitting is one way to push a certain ingredient — usually, meat — to the top of the list. In turn, dividing up a grain such as corn into “ground corn” and “corn gluten meal,” for example, lowers its overall ranking on the list.

“There are too many ways to fiddle with these things if people want to,” Buffington says, although he adds that ingredient splitting doesn’t tell consumers anything about the quality of the contents, “or whether it’s a good or bad food.”

Read the fine print. Bartges recommends scrutinizing the label for the usually inconspicuous “nutritional adequacy statement” with the hopes of finding mention of feeding trials.

One way companies can certify that their food is complete and balanced is to conduct these six-month trials, during which dogs eat the food and have their health monitored.
“This tells you that the food was fed to live animals prior to market and that these animals at least performed ‘adequately,’” Bartges says. “In this day and age, we should at least expect the food to be fed to a dog or cat before it goes to the store.”

The other way is by chemical analysis.

Learn the semantics. Some dog-food critics say that a “named” byproduct on the label — such as chicken or beef — is preferable to the vaguer “meat byproduct,” but Buffington says there is an “absence of evidence” to support this recommendation. And no matter what their origin, Bartges says byproducts — which the Association of American Feed Control Officials defines as “the non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat,” including lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, and bone, but excluding hair, horns, teeth, and hoofs — get an undeservedly bad rap.

“Although not necessarily that appetizing when [you see] the official definition, if you look closely, many of these things are sold for human consumption,” such as kidneys and livers, he says. “Byproducts are, therefore, not necessarily ‘less than human grade’ and are, in fact, a good source of nutrition in pet foods.”

And while those same critics say “meal” is less optimal than “byproduct,” Bartges doesn’t necessarily agree. ‘Meal merely means dehydrated, or powdered, which is necessary when making a dry product.”

Peruse the preservatives. Semantics are also at play with the antioxidants used to prevent foods from spoiling. Calling a preservative “natural” doesn’t mean it’s naturally produced, notes Bartges. It just means it occurs in nature.

“Natural” antioxidants such as vitamin E have been touted in recent years because of claims that synthetic ones such as BHT, BHA, and ethoxyquin can cause health problems. Bartges reminds that “synthetic” antioxidants “have not been shown to be detrimental or toxic when used at levels that used to be found in pet foods,” but that may be a moot point. “Most pet-food companies have switched to ‘natural’ antioxidants because of public pressure.”

Wet, dry, or in between? Advocates of canned food applaud its high moisture content and the fact that some foods contain “human-grade” ingredients — another term that does not have an official definition in the pet-food industry. Kibble, by contrast, is dried using a process called extrusion, and is often more affordable and convenient to store and feed.

“You can make perfectly acceptable and perfectly unacceptable pet foods by any form of food preservation,” including “soft-moist” foods that are somewhere in the middle, Buffington says. “But that doesn’t tell you about the quality of the food.”

Bartges agrees that the dry and wet debate is not black and white. “Dry foods are not necessarily ‘bad’ or ‘worse’ than canned food,” he says. “Many dogs do very well on dry food and live long and healthy lives.”

Ask the guy — or gal — on the ground. Buffington says seeking out a food produced by an established, respected manufacturer that conducts feeding trials “will get you to the Zip code” of the food you want to feed, “but it won’t get you to the address.”

For that, he suggests consulting your veterinarian. “He or she likely does not have a degree in canine nutrition, but experience can be a very wise teacher,” he says. “When you practice, you start hearing about the same foods over and over” from clients. Inevitably, a pattern emerges, with some foods consistently landing in the thumbs-up list — and others not.

While no vet can know about every food on the store shelf, dog owners should take advantage of their anecdotal experience with one succinct question, Buffington says.
“Here’s what I’m feeding. What do you think?”

Denise Flaim is a DOG FANCY contributing editor, the pets columnist at Newsday, and author of The Holistic Dog Book: Canine Care for the 21st Century (Howell, 2003, $16.99).

This article first appeared in the September 2006 issue of DOG FANCY magazine.

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