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4 Surprising ingredients in your dog's food

Dr. Katy Nelson is a contributor to Pet360 and an associate veterinarian at the Belle Haven Animal Medical Centre. She also hosts "The Pet Show" on Washington DC's News Channel 8.

Your dog is what he eats. Understanding surprising ingredients will help you make healthy decisions.

There are many misconceptions about the ingredients included in the foods we feed our furry friends every day. Not all pet foods are created equal, so arming yourself with information about potentially harmful ingredients can help you make better decisions about what to feed your canine companion.

The most important tip that I can give is to start by reading the label carefully. All pet foods are required by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) to list the ingredients in order of weight, meaning the top 10 ingredients in a pet food typically comprise about 80 percent or more of a dry pet food's entire formula. This can provide you true insight into the formula’s overall quality.

However, some less reputable companies will split their ingredients so that the lower-quality ones appear lower on the list. For example, instead of listing "corn" as the first or second ingredient, a company may list it as ground corn, corn gluten and corn bran. Beware of multiple types of one ingredient on the label as this may indicate deceptive practices.

Let's debunk a few myths about ingredients commonly found in dog food.

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By-product meal

By-products, whether from poultry or meat-producing mammals, include the edible parts of the animal that are not muscle meat. By-products can include organ meat, such as liver, kidneys, lungs and clean intestines, as well as meat scraps and bones. They cannot include hooves, feathers, hides or intestinal contents.

In other words, by-products are the nutritious organs that are not usually consumed by the American public, but the first things consumed when wild or feral animals eat their prey, and many are considered delicacies in other countries. Compared to muscle meat alone, they actually provide more nutrients.

Sourcing of by-product meals can be of some concern, especially based on internet reports about euthanized pets or "roadkill" finding its way into pet foods. However, renderers associated with USDA-inspected plants will receive animal products only from USDA-inspected slaughterhouses. By working exclusively with these renderers, pet food companies can have greater control over the specific ingredients they are obtaining for their products.

Vegetable proteins

We all know that dogs and cats are carnivores, and are therefore best fed with animal-based proteins. However, many pet foods list vegetable proteins, or glutens, on their ingredient lists. Does this make that food a lower quality?

Corn gluten meal is the protein-rich fraction left after the oil, starch and bran are removed. Soybean meal is the protein-rich fraction left after the oil is removed. Neither corn gluten meal nor soybean meal contains 100 percent of all the essential amino acids dogs or cats need, so if used alone or un-supplemented, the quality of the food would indeed be low. However, when used with complementary proteins, they can form complete diets with a full profile of essential amino acids.

Even so, I still recommend avoiding foods made with vegetable proteins as it may indicate that the animal-based proteins used are either of lower quality or of insufficient quantity than is required to achieve the protein profile needed to make the food complete and balanced.

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Chemical preservatives

Since pet foods contain meat products, fats and oils, they are prone to go rancid without some type of preservative. Many pet food manufacturers have switched to more natural preservatives such as vitamin E or vitamin C, typically listed on the labels as "tocopherols" or "ascorbate."

However, there are still many foods on the shelves that contain chemical preservatives. Products like propylene glycol and ethoxyquin are considered "non-toxic" in the amounts that are used in pet foods, but when fed daily for a pet's lifetime, it's the possible cumulative effects that are worrisome.

Other preservative products like butylated-hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated-hydroxytoluene (BHT) have been named by the World Health Organization (WHO) as potentially carcinogenic, but can still be found in many commercially available pet foods.

The effects of these chemical products are currently under investigation, I recommend avoiding foods made with chemical preservatives. While natural options may be more expensive, they are often a healthier option for your dog.

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Artificial colors

Food coloring is perfectly safe to eat, but the use of it in pet foods is totally unnecessary. It is simply added to make the food more appealing to the humans that are feeding it, not the pets that are consuming it. To me, this suggests that the company is more concerned about marketing than nutrition, so I advise my clients to avoid foods made with artificial colors.

woman speaking with veterinary

Photo credit: SelectStock/Vetta/Getty Images

In summary, there is no perfect pet food out there, and choosing the best food for your pet is not always easy. However, by working with your veterinarian to best determine the nutritional needs of your pet and doing your homework before you enter the pet food aisle, you may be able to find the food that works perfectly for your pet. And that could mean a big difference for your pet’s health.

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