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How to Choose the Best Dog Food for Your Pup

Christie Long is a small animal veterinarian with 10 years experience in medicine, surgery, and acupuncture. As PetCoach's Chief Veterinarian, she directs a global team of veterinarians fielding inquiries regarding all aspects of pet car...

There are a lot of different options out there — here's what you need to consider

Walk into any pet specialty store in search of food for your beloved canine, and you can quickly become overwhelmed at the choices. Put “dog food” into the search box of any online pet food retailer’s site, and you’ll be presented with a plethora of choices — a quick search such as this on Petco returned over 1,200 choices.

So what’s a concerned pet parent who just wants to feed a food that will keep their dog healthy and happy to do when presented with so many choices? Read on to learn the best way to choose the best food for your dog.

Read the label

Duh, right? Lots of consumer information these days admonishes us to review nutrition information when it comes to our own health, and the same goes for our dog’s.

All dog foods that are sold in U.S. stores must meet nutritional guidelines that dictate the percentages of macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates and proteins) in a serving of the food. Every dog food label must contain the “guaranteed analysis,” which depicts this breakdown.

Keep in mind that these are minimum standards as dictated by the American Association of Feed Control Officials. Some companies go the extra mile to conduct feeding trials on actual dogs to determine whether their foods provide complete and balanced nutrition, so you’ll likely gain a degree or two of confidence if you purchase a food that’s tested in this manner.

Ask your dog

Your dog’s opinion is important in choosing a dog food, but it’s not the only consideration. Dogs evolved as scavengers, and thus many of our pet dogs today will consume pretty much anything they can find (I’m looking at you, beagle). So choose a dog food that your dog enjoys and eats readily without coaxing, but remember that low-quality grocery store brands tend to have lower-quality ingredients and may not provide the best nutrition for your dog, even though he appears to enjoy them.

Know the ingredients

The restrictions I mentioned above (those formulated by AAFCO) only apply to macronutrients — fat, carbs and proteins. But what about all of the other things your dog needs, like vitamins and minerals? The theory is that if the diet meets those general guidelines, it will provide adequate quantities of those as well, but there’s no guarantee.

In general, foods that are less expensive have lower-quality ingredients. It makes sense when you think about it — a serving of fresh salmon costs more than a meal at Taco Bell, after all. So choose a food for your dog that has as many “whole” ingredients on the label as possible.

One very important nutrient that’s typically left to the discretion of the food manufacturer is omega-3 fatty acids. Most foods don’t add this nutrient because even though we recognize the huge importance of it, we also know that keeping it stable in a bag of dry dog food is problematic. That’s why omega-3 fatty acids in the form of fish oil capsules or liquid are a great thing to supplement in any dog’s diet.

Do your own research

Pet food recalls have done much to open our eyes regarding how and where pet foods are manufactured. Less-than-perfect manufacturing practices, including sourcing ingredients from other countries and contracting out manufacturing to companies that have less-than-scrupulous oversight of how the dog food is made, have resulted in some disasters of epic proportions.

At this point, pretty much every major dog food manufacturer has experienced a recall at one time or another. (You can see a list of all pet food recalls in the last year provided by the American Veterinary Medical Association here.) Don’t panic if the company you’re considering has had a recall, but do read about how they handled the recall. Did they communicate in an open and honest way with consumers and the veterinary profession? Did they cover veterinary bills for pets that were sickened by eating their contaminated foods? Did they make changes to their ingredient-sourcing and/or manufacturing processes to ensure that a problem didn’t occur again?

In this case, the internet is your friend, so take advantage of the information that is available to you in order to choose the best food for your dog.

Treats are not food

There’s a dizzying array of dog treats available to pet food consumers these days, and it’s worth reminding everyone reading this that treats are not food. Treats do not have to be “complete and balanced,” so on their own they do not provide adequate nutrition for adult dogs. Remember this when you find yourself giving more and more treats and less and less actual food. If your dog prefers treats to the point of not eating his food, he’s either got you well-trained or it’s time to consider a switch to a new diet that he considers more palatable.

What about grain-free?

Grain-free diets are easily the hottest trend in dog food manufacturing right now. Because ideas about what is good for us to eat often spawn discussion as to whether the same types of foods are good for our pets, dog food companies pay attention and respond in kind.

While it’s likely that the whole “gluten sensitivity” concept has been exaggerated among humans, many people do report that they feel better when they avoid wheat gluten (and thus, wheat) and other grains — less bloating, more energy, etc. While wild dogs do consume grasses and they very enthusiastically consume the stomach contents of their herbivorous prey, their relatively short digestive tracts aren’t designed to process a lot of grains. It’s likely that domesticated dogs have adapted to today’s commercial diets in some manner, however; if your dog has excessive flatulence, he (and you) may benefit from a switch to a more digestible diet that contains fewer or no grains.

What about raw?

The movement to feed diets composed mostly of raw meat to dogs has gained significant momentum in recent years. Many people swear that their dogs do better on these diets, and while I don’t recommend feeding raw due to concerns for bacterial contamination (both for the dog and the person preparing the meal), I have seen many patients over the years who do well on raw diets. I always ask pet parents to grind their own meat at home since store-bought ground meat is potentially high in bacteria and lightly sear the outside of a large cut of meat first — to sterilize the outer surfaces — before grinding or chopping the rest for consumption.

If you like the idea of feeding raw but don’t want to mess with large quantities of raw meat, consider some of the newer commercially prepared raw diets. These take the guesswork out of figuring out the ideal recipe and provide good nutrition for your dog.

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