Written by Jennifer Coates, DVM
Dog owners are faced with choices—the plaid collar versus polka dots, a long walk or a trip to the dog park. But on a daily basis, the most important choice we make is what food we offer. Without good nutrition, dogs simply cannot be healthy and happy.
Picking the right dog food is not easy. Labels list ingredients and what percentages of a few nutrients are present, but they say little to nothing about quality… and quality matters.
What is ingredient quality?
A quality pet food ingredient has two important characteristics:
- It is free from contaminants like antibiotic residues, toxins, pesticides, or disease-causing pathogens.
- It is a good source of one or more important nutrients.
When a dog food is made from the right combination of high quality ingredients, it provides all of the nutrients dogs need to thrive. Unfortunately, many pet food manufacturers cut costs by including low-quality ingredients in their products.
What can poor quality pet food ingredients do to my dog?
Contaminants that are present in dog foods often have obvious adverse effects. A striking example occurred in 2007 when the Food and Drug Administration started receiving numerous reports of dogs and cats unexpectedly going into kidney failure. They investigated and found that suppliers in China had been adding melamine and cyanuric acid to raw ingredients used to manufacture pet foods in the United States and other countries. They did this to make the ingredients appear to contain more protein than they actually did. The melamine and cyanuric acid caused destructive crystals to form in pets’ kidneys. A subsequent lawsuit estimated that over 13,000 pets died as a result of eating the contaminated food in the US alone.
Thankfully, events like the 2007 melamine crisis are relatively rare. As a veterinarian, I have seen many more dogs suffer from the subtle, long term damage that results from eating poor quality foods. When ingredients don’t supply ideal levels of nutrients, dogs can become chronically deprived of what they need. Sometimes the issue is fairly specific. For instance, zinc-deficient diets have been linked to the development of skin lesions in dogs. At other times, poor overall ingredient quality can cause increased shedding, gassiness, chronically loose stools, intermittent vomiting, or even obesity if a dog eats more of a nutrient-deficient diet in an attempt to compensate.
How to monitor ingredient quality?
There isn’t much information about ingredient quality on a dog food label, but if you read the fine print, you’ll find some.
Look at the ingredient list. Does it read like a menu or a chemistry experiment? I recommend dog foods that are made primarily from ingredients that you might be willing to eat yourself.
Even if a pet food manufacturer does its best to source high-quality ingredients, they should go the extra mile and perform feeding trials. Actually feeding the food to dogs and monitoring their health is the best way to make sure that the food performs well. To determine whether or not a food has undergone a feeding trial look on the label for a statement that says something like “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Dog Food X provides complete and balanced nutrition.” If you find a statement that starts “Dog Food X is formulated…,” then it has not undergone a feeding trial.
Finally, perform your own feeding trial. No one food will work for every dog, so pick a healthy option and watch how your dog responds to it. Is her coat glossy? Do his eyes shine? Is his digestive function ideal—firm stools, no vomiting, and normal gas production? Is her energy level at least as good if not better than before the diet change? If all this is true, you’ve found a good food for your dog.