Decoding Dog Food: Your Guide to What You’re Really Feeding Your Pet


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Your dog is your best friend and you treat him like family. You wouldn’t feed your family food that could potentially make them sick, would you? You may be shocked to know that the dog food you’re feeding your furry friend could be doing just that.

Finding a quality dog food these days is almost like finding a four-leaf clover: deceptive marketing claims and unclear ingredient lists make it nearly impossible to know what is really in your dog’s food. Even the top brands on the market aren’t necessarily the best when it comes to the quality of ingredients and safety of manufacturing processes. For some dog owners, it’s enough to make them want to try their hand at making homemade dog food.

We reached out to canine nutritional expert Sabine Contreras, author of The Dog Food Project, to figure out how to navigate the tricky world of commercial dog food.

Decoding Dog Food Ingredients

Brown puppy with floppy ears

The pet food industry is largely self-regulated and for this reason, manufacturers like Hill’s, Del Monte, Mars, Nestle, and Proctor & Gamble can stack the deck heavily in their favor. This means some less than desirable ingredients may end up in your pet’s food, including so-called 4D meat (dead, dying, diseased, or disabled). Here’s what Contreras has to say:

“These corporate giants mass-produce incredibly large amounts of pet food with the biggest possible profit margin, largely using leftovers that fall by the wayside for foods manufactured for human consumption…While some of these by-products are not necessarily bad for dogs, they are often not handled or refrigerated properly and are already heavily processed at least once before they even make it into the kibble dough.”

So, how do you tell good dog food from bad?

Unfortunately, you can’t always take the claims made on a pet food package at face value, so it’s your job to do a little digging. The information you need is all right there in the guaranteed analysis and the list of ingredients.

What to Look For:

  • A whole source of animal protein as the first ingredient (ex: deboned chicken, turkey meal, or salmon).
  • A quality source of healthy fats (ex: chicken fat, salmon oil, or coconut oil).
  • A source of easily digestible carbohydrates (ex: whole grains or vegetables).
  • Beneficial supplements such as prebiotic fibers, probiotics, and chelated minerals.

What to Avoid:

  • Non-specified meat or fat ingredients (ex: meat meal, animal fat, bone meal).
  • Artificial preservatives linked to cancer (ex: BHT, BHA, and ethoxyquin).
  • Artificial food dyes and flavors linked to allergic reactions and cancer.
  • Animal by-products (ex: chicken by-product meal, poultry by-product meal, etc.)
  • Low-quality grains and fillers (ex: corn, wheat, and soy products).

For a more comprehensive list of dog food ingredients to avoid, check out Contreras’ guide on The Dog Food Product website.

All About Pet Food Advertising

Closeup of pug licking its lips

When you pick up a food product at the grocery store, you probably take a quick glance at the information on the package. Whether you realize it or not, most of that information is carefully regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). From the words used in the product name to the nutritional information on the back, there are strict rules for what food manufacturers are and aren’t allowed to say and for the definitions of specific words.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for pet food products.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) performs a similar role to the FDA but exclusively for pet food. It is the AAFCO’s job to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feed and pet foods as well as defining and establishing regulations to ensure the safety and nutritional adequacy of pet food products.

Sounds like a good thing, right? The word you want to pay attention to is “adequacy.” AAFCO has developed nutrient profiles for dogs and cats to ensure that pet food products meet the minimum nutritional requirements for the species they are made for. That’s as far as it goes. There are no requirements regarding the quality of ingredients or how they are sourced.

What this means is that pet food manufacturers can make just about any claim they want on a pet food product. Even if a manufacturer labels a food as premium or natural, there is no legal definition for what that is, so there are no guarantees that higher-quality ingredients are used.

“Although pet owners have become more aware of these issues since I began investigating the commercial pet food industry 12 years ago, confusing label laws and almost non-existent prosecution of false advertising still make it difficult for people to understand what they are really buying,” Contreras explains. “Although more pet owners have become vocal and are demanding more transparency, I’m not sure we will see meaningful change in the way pet food is regulated anytime soon.”

Foods found on supermarket and box store shelves are typically the ones most heavily marketed, and the ones you should probably avoid.

“It used to be you could only find good quality foods at independent pet food retailers, but that’s no longer true,” Contreras says. “With grocery store offerings, or those of major retailers, you will have to do some research to sort through the claims made by pet food companies and find the truly quality food. Choose products with ingredients that are processed as little as possible, and canned food over dry kibble, or, even better, fresh frozen, dehydrated, or freeze-dried items. The closer you can get to foods in their fresh, whole state, the better.”

Going Raw

Closeup of small white dog lying on floor

Does all this information have your head spinning? It might be easier to just go raw—raw food that is. Contreras highly recommends a raw diet for better health.

“It addresses many health concerns, including dental care, digestive health, skin problems, obesity, and more,” Contreras explains. “Feeding raw isn’t for every dog but the average dog will benefit greatly from eating a raw diet instead of processed kibble.”

Eating raw can be convenient, too. More stores have started to carry raw food in freezers, and if you make your own raw diet, you can keep it frozen for convenience.

“If you would rather not do the homework to research a well-planned DIY raw diet, it’s better to rely on a quality store-bought brand,” Contreras says. “You can still add some raw meaty bones and other odds and ends yourself.”

Look for trustworthy brands like Primal or The Honest Kitchen and if you can’t find your brand on the shelves, ask the store to start carrying it or order online. If you’re worried about your dog getting all the vitamins and minerals he needs, there’s just one thing to look for.

“As long as you choose a food that shows the statement that it meets AAFCO requirements, it is balanced under the same industry guidelines,” Contreras explains. But remember the word “adequacy.” You still need to read the ingredients list to get an idea of what you’re actually feeding your dog.

Keep in mind that your dog will need time to adjust to any new food. Gradually wean him onto the new diet and watch to see how he reacts to the new food. “Most dogs can be switched within two or three days,” Contreras says. “Let the dog be your guide: if there are no adverse side effects except maybe a bit of loose stool, you can move right along, but if the dog has a more difficult time, take it slowly.”

Our Top 9 Picks for the Best Dog Food Brands

At this point, you may be feeling overwhelmed by all of this information. There’s no shame in that, but what matters now is what you do with what you’ve learned.

Your dog’s health and wellness depend on the quality of his diet. The sooner you start feeding your dog a high-quality dog food, the better. If you’re committed to being the best dog owner you can be, feed your dog the highest-quality food you can consistently afford. You don’t necessarily need to feed a top-shelf product, but you do need to consider what we covered earlier about things to look for and things to avoid when shopping for dog food.

If your head is still spinning, don’t worry—we’ve got you covered. Here are our top picks for the best dog food in nine different categories:

Castor & Pollux offers a high standard of organic pet food available in the states. This company produces what it calls “purposeful pet food,” sourcing its ingredients responsibly and formulating its recipes for safety, quality, and nutrition. In addition to most of its formulas being 100% organic, its recipes are non-GMO and its seafood ingredients are certified sustainable.

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This company offers a variety of pet foods that deliver a balanced diet the way nature intended. Every recipe is packed with premium roasted meats from unique sources including wild boar, bison, smoked trout, venison, and roasted duck. Taste of the Wild dog food has always been owned and operated by one family who are pet owners themselves, committed to producing high-quality but affordable dog foods. Every product is made in the USA and each recipe is fortified with essential nutrients, chelated (better absorbed) minerals, and probiotics to ensure premium-quality nutrition.

(For more on grain-free dog food, check out our article about other grain-free dog food recommendations.)

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Box of Honest Kitchen dehydrated dog food

The Honest Kitchen is one of a handful of pet food manufacturers that uses 100% human-grade ingredients. Using the highest quality ingredients requires a special manufacturing process to preserve nutritional integrity which is why this brand dehydrates rather than cooking their foods. Every recipe is made from fresh, whole-food ingredients and dehydrated to preserve the nutritional quality of the raw ingredients. Simply rehydrate the food before offering it to your dog (and yes, because it’s human-grade, you can try some yourself, if that’s your thing).

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Bag of primal freeze-dried dog food nuggets

The Primal Pet Foods company is committed to a philosophy of raw nutrition which helps pets digest and absorb nutrients more easily in support of whole-body health and wellness. It offers a wide line of freeze-dried foods made with responsibly sourced, high-quality ingredients. Every formula is nutritionally balanced and species appropriate to ensure that your dog gets exactly what he needs with no unnecessary additives.

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Stella & Chewy’s is a brand focused on raw nutrition and offers a wide variety of freeze-dried and raw frozen products. The brand offers a range of unique recipes featuring premium-quality ingredients that are thoughtfully and responsibly sourced. Their raw dinners contain 90% to 95% meat, organs, and bone and their proteins are free from added hormones and antibiotics. Every ingredient is grass-fed, cage-free, wild-caught, or farm-raised. You can only purchase their raw frozen products in stores or on their website, but most major retailers offer their freeze-dried raw foods.

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The best way to order fresh dog food is through an online delivery service like NomNomNow. This company offers four different recipes (as well as a variety pack), all formulated to exceed AAFCO standards and made with real, whole-food ingredients. This fresh food is delivered in perfectly portioned packages according to your dog’s calorie requirements, delivered right to your doorstep. Each bag is one meal, so you don’t have to bother with scooping or storing leftovers, and it is fresh and ready for your dog to enjoy. The company offers a free trial so you can sign up without committing to see how your dog likes it.

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Open farm sustainably sourced dog food

When it comes to high-quality ingredients, there are plenty of dog food companies to choose from but not all of them are as strict about their sourcing of ingredients as Open Farm. This company offers a variety of high-meat, low-carb pet foods made with ethically sourced, antibiotic- and hormone-free, non-GMO recipes (the company is also openly transparent about where its ingredients come from). Choose from premium-quality dry foods, freeze-dried raw foods, wet foods, treats, and supplements including bone broths and grass-fed kefir.

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Protein should be the foundation of any high-quality dog food and Merrick Backcountry Raw-Infused dry food has it in spades. It is an all-natural, grain-free ancestral diet loaded with premium-quality protein and essential nutrients. More than that, however, it is infused with freeze-dried raw pieces of real meat for an added boost of protein and flavor. Deboned meat, fish, or poultry is the first ingredient and all recipes contain healthy omega fatty acids and essential nutrients for balanced nutrition.
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The Halo Pets company is committed to creating exceptional food that dogs love and parents trust. The company has been consciously crafting high-quality pet foods for more than 30 years, paying attention to every detail. Halo offers a variety of holistic canned food recipes responsibly made with real whole meat, poultry, or fish. Its ingredients are non-GMO and free from antibiotics, artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives. Halo also donates a bowl of pet food with every purchase as part of its Halo Feed It Forward campaign.

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The Bottom Line

Brands like Pedigree, Iams, Science Diet, and Purina employ canine nutritionists, which is great, but the quality of their offerings varies. Even brands that seem healthy, such as Natural Balance, are not necessarily the best foods on the market. If you see it on TV, don’t feed it to your dog without doing your homework. Learn what you are really feeding your dog to keep him healthier and alive longer.

“My most important piece of advice is don’t skimp on food quality,” Contreras says. “You can pay for better food now or for vet bills later. Do your homework, compare information from manufacturers, and if cost is a really big factor, look into the ‘budget’ labels of trustworthy companies.”

Further Reading

Looking for an affordable option in high-quality dog food? Check out our top picks for the best affordable organic and natural dog foods!

More more about the best dog food to feed your pet, check out the articles below.

Top image via Flickr/Sue B

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