One of the things that surprises me the most about dog care is the continued lack of awareness when it comes to dog food ingredients. We have learned to read ingredient panels for ourselves and our families, yet our dogs somehow don’t merit that same level of attention. It also baffles me that so many people fail to make the connection between what goes into their dog and the resulting health of that dog, as though they’re little machines that just need refueling a couple of times a day rather than mammals with nutritional requirements.
I think of diet as a major part of preventive care. As nutrition from food is digested, it sources the fuel for the cellular and chemical actions that drive the body, and influences gut flora, which has a huge effect on immune function. Nutrition is the foundation of health. Sure, cheap chain-store food will contain sufficient nutrition to sustain your dog, but if optimal health is your aim, you may want to try reducing some of the cheaper ingredients. Minimum guidelines that I use in advising food choices include
- two forms of real meat (not by-product) in the first several ingredients
- free of corn, soy, or wheat (they are the cheapest grains, not well-utilized by dogs and more likely to cause inflammation)
- species-specific ingredients (e.g., “chicken fat” rather that “animal fat”)
- no grain-splitting (when they list more than one form of a grain to avoid having to list it as the first ingredient); likewise, too many grains. Combined, they may make up more of the food than meat
Not surprisingly, the dog foods which are owned by the big companies (like Nestle, Colgate-Palmolive, Heinz, Del Monte, Mars) are those using the cheapest ingredients and fillers (not to mention color dyes and carcinogens like BPA). A very general (and grossly incomplete) breakdown of who own which foods is…
-> Nestle owns Purina, ALPO, Mighty Dog
-> Colgate-Palmolive owns Hill’s (Science Diet)
-> Del Monte owns Natures Recipe, Kibbles ‘n Bits, Gravy Train, Cycle
-> Mars owns Kal Kan, Nutro, Pedigree, Royal Canin
-> Procter & Gamble owns Eukanuba, Iams, California Natural, Evo, Innova
In contrast, an independent dog food manufacturer is focused on producing just dog food, and runs lots in smaller batches, generally making it more conducive to tighter quality controls and fresher ingredients. Many were started by people with a passion for or background in canine nutrition. When considering dog foods, go to the manufacturers’ websites to look up the ingredients, and you’ll see the difference. When you come to an ingredient that’s questionable, or one you can’t pronounce, google it. If you have questions, call the manufacturer and ask. I once called Royal Canin to ask the difference between their Golden Retriever and Labrador Retriever formulas (it’s just a marketing ploy). The Customer Service Rep didn’t know how to answer, but tried to talk her way around it. I’m not suggesting that you call to harass companies, but that’s an example of how you can tell who’s producing a quality food and who just wants your money. A trusted and unbiased online resource is The Dog Food Advisor, where the foods are rated and the rating explained.
A puppy will continue to do fine on a crappy food, much like the neighbor’s kid can continue to do fine eating Happy Meals and frozen pizza. The young body is resilient. As they mature, subtle signs may begin to develop which may not be immediately attributed to food. Hot spots, itchy ears, gas, dull coat, flaky skin, soft poop, lipomas, fleas, and more are often considered a normal part of having a dog, but they should never be seen as “normal” – they are signs that your dog is not in a state of health; usually, they indicate a diet that does not agree with or is not optimal for your dog. Every single one of those conditions can often be corrected (or prevented!) by merely upgrading foods rather than making another vet appointment to get more antibiotics or steroids or chemical treatments.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather put my money in prevention than in treatment.