What to look for in a dry dog food:
Meat, more meat, and did I mention meat?
Dogs are carnivores – they thrive on a diet based on meat. They have no evolved need for carbohydrates. Grains (carbs) are added to pet food because 1) they’re cheaper than meat, and 2) they hold the kibbled bits together. They aren’t added for the sake of proper nutrition for your meat-eating pet.
The source and quality of protein in the formula is crucially important for your pet’s health. Look for whole food sources at the very top of the ingredient list like ‘beef,’ ‘turkey,’ ‘lamb’ or ‘chicken’ -- one-word descriptions.
Meat and fat ingredients should be identified by species (turkey, lamb, beef, fish, etc.). Avoid any formula that uses unidentified sources, described non-specifically as ‘meat,’ ‘animal’ or ‘poultry.’
The next ingredient of better quality foods will probably be a meat source followed by the word ‘meal.’ Meat meal (with the meat source identified, as in ‘chicken meal’ or ‘turkey meal’) is considered a relatively high-quality protein source by processed pet food standards.
Ingredients three and four should be vegetables (avoid corn, wheat or beep pulp) and unless the formula is grain-free (which I recommend), a whole grain source like brown rice. Organic grains are preferable where grains are included, but they are no substitute for meat content. Avoid formulas with ‘grain fragments’ -- these are non-nutritive fillers. Grain-free formulas will frequently use potatoes as the starch, which holds the food together during processing.
Whole fruits as a portion of ingredients three and four are fine -- especially if they replace grains.
In addition, it’s also important to be aware of a labeling practice known as ‘splitting.’ Splitting occurs when different components of the same ingredient are listed separately on the label to improve the look of the ingredient list.
If, for example, rice makes up 50 percent of a formula and meat only 25 percent, it’s possible to list the rice as three or four individual ingredients all under 25 percent each, for example, brown rice, white rice, rice bran, and rice gluten meal. Listing the ingredient ‘rice’ in this manner allows the manufacturer to list the meat -- at 25 percent -- as the first ingredient.
Look for foods preserved with vitamins E and C, often called tocopherols.
It’s important to note that on pet food labels, ingredients are listed by weight. Because meat is inclusive of water, it is heavy, so it can be listed first on the label. When the water is removed from meat (which happens when a kibbled or dry food is produced) the meat is reduced in weight by roughly 80 percent, meaning the bulk of the food is probably coming from ingredients two, three and four – yet the meat will appear on the label as the first ingredient.
It can be confusing to figure out the relative quality of a pet food you’re thinking of purchasing, and in many ways, it’s intended to confuse. But with practice, you can become expert at reading labels and understanding the nutritional value of the food you feed your pet.