Savvy dog folks are educating themselves about the importance of healthy nutrition for their companions. They’re learning how to look for better quality pet foods, avoid unwanted ingredients, and read labels. But there are still some things about the commercial pet food industry you may not be aware of – things that can affect the quality of the food you’re feeding your best friend, without your even realizing it.
What follows is a list of “secrets” about commercial pet food that manufacturers don’t want consumers to know about their products. Some, thanks to your own homework, you may already be familiar with…but some you may not.
Secret #1: Low quality dry food alone is not a “natural” diet for dogs.
Dogs are essentially carnivores, and their systems are designed by nature to digest moist meaty meals in the form of prey. Low quality kibble is dry and hard, and consists of pieces of densely concentrated nutrients with a lot of grain and other fillers. It is by definition not “natural” for carnivores to eat unhydrated dry food. And let’s face it: would you want to eat nothing but hard dry food all your life?
Secret #2: The best dry foods are those with the most and best meat protein and the lowest percentage of carbs – commercial pet food labels, on the other hand, don’t give you this information.
A desirable dry food is one with animal protein making up more than half its calories. Add a low percentage of carbohydrate calories from grains or other plant-based material and you have total a decent dry food! But pet food labels are only required to give what is called a “guaranteed analysis”, with the percentage of protein, regardless of the source. So a “high protein” dog food might have little or no meat, if ingredients like rice, corn or wheat gluten meals provide the bulk of the protein. The percentage of carbohydrates in the food isn’t required on labels at all. So unless you pay close attention and learn to “read between the lines” on pet food labels, you could be buying a food with very high grain carbohydrates and almost no meat protein.
Secret #3: Pet food labels aren’t much help in identifying “good fats”.
Pet foods with fats such as sunflower oil, safflower oil and chicken fat give your pooch healthier skin and a more beautiful coat than diets made with generic animal fat or beef tallow. Important Omega-3 fatty acids, meanwhile, are found in fish oil, fl ax, chia, algae, krill, hemp and other sources. But pet food manufacturers are only required to disclose the total percentage of fat, not the fatty acid components. That means foods with low quality fats get a pass. The good news is that premium pet foods that do include one or more of these beneficial fats tend to advertise it, since the manufacturers want you to know they are making a good product.
Secret #4: High quality dry pet foods are worth the extra money, but you’ll get the most out of them if you hydrate and combine them with a moist diet.
Serving water next to dry food is not hydration. Some dogs hardly even chew kibble, so when a bowl of dry food goes into their stomachs, and then they drink a big bowl of water, it creates a big lump of “predigested” dry food. You’ve probably seen a dog throw up about an hour after he eats, and the kibble looks almost the same as it did before it went into his belly! This means it is not getting digested well. High quality meat-based kibble can be hydrated for greater digestibility and makes a great base for a mixed moist diet including fresh meats and small amounts of veggies.
Secret #5: The moisture percentages on low end canned foods are mostly just water – and that’s an expensive way to give extra hydration to your dog.
Millions of people have intuitively turned to mixing canned foods with dry as their way of giving their dog a moist meal, and it can be a great choice for many. But the 78% to 80% moisture percentages on low end canned pet food labels is just a sneaky way of saying “lots of water”. For foods that derive more of their moisture from their meat ingredients, you need to buy premium canned food. Otherwise, it’s just an unnecessarily expensive way of giving extra hydration to your dog. Another way to add moisture is to turn to the natural gravy products made by some premium pet food companies – these add extra flavor and nutrition to a kibble meal.
Secret #6: Just because a dry pet food is “grain free” doesn’t mean it’s a low-carbohydrate, high-meat carnivore diet.
Grain free is the biggest buzz in the pet food business. At first glance, it does seem a smart approach. But just as the pet food industry has managed to sell us low-meat pet foods with lesser quality fats through the power of branding, marketing and advertising, alternative carbohydrate “fillers” like pea fl our and tapioca have created a category of commercial grain free pet foods that do not live up to the promise of a true “carnivore kibble” that the first innovative grain free diets were all about. If a diet has no grain but is loaded with carbs, it’s still not a great food and should be judged holistically by its total ingredients. A true reduced-carb grain free dry pet food should have at least 30% protein. But make sure you see recognizable meat protein ingredients on the label.
Secret #7: Seeing a meat listed first on a dry pet food label does not guarantee the diet is truly meat-based.
Pet food labels list their ingredients in order of weight before processing – not as they exist in the finished product. For example, to process a pound of fresh whole chicken into a dry kibble mixture, it must be “cooked down” from its natural moist state to about one-seventh of its original weight. Cooking the chicken all the way down to 10% moisture means the actual chicken protein remaining after processing is not 16 ounces, but about 2.3 ounces. So if the final ingredient list reads “chicken, corn, corn gluten meal, rice, etc.”, know that the weight of the chicken has largely “evaporated” and the 2.3 ounces of dried up chicken remaining is dwarfed by the next ingredient (corn), which started out dry and still weighs almost a pound. Your dog will only get 2.3 ounces of chicken in that batch of food, but a lot more cereals and gluten meals. If a moist fresh meat ingredient like “chicken” is listed first on a dry pet food label, the next ingredient should be something like chicken meal, lamb meal, beef meal or any concentrated dry meat protein source. Otherwise, it’s probably not a true meat-based pet food.
Secret #8: The pet food “life stage and lifestyle shuffle” is more about dollars than diets.
One way manufacturers of commercial pet foods have managed to gain more market share is by creating “customized” foods that are purported to fill very specific needs for certain animals. We are assaulted with the message that we need different foods for every age, size, activity level, lifestyle and even breed of dog. But wild canines eat only two diets throughout their lives: mother’s milk for a short time, then prey. Adolescents eat like grownups and young moms eat like old males.
The “fractioning” of dog diets into life stages came about because low-meat grain-based dog food did not support the nutritional needs of puppies or pregnant or nursing moms. If all dog diets were truly designed to be high quality carnivore foods, these distinctions would not be necessary. Choose a good food that supports all life stages and only change if you don’t like the results. It’s fine to switch diets to introduce a variety of foods to your dog. But you don’t need to automatically switch just because he turns a certain age.
Secret #9: Organ meats and other “unconventional” foods are very nutritious, but know their countries of origin and how they’re processed.
Liver, heart, kidney, pancreas, tripe and other organ meats tend to be far more nutritious than plain lean muscle meats. They are rich in animal protein, and full of natural A and B vitamins, minerals and taurine. Treats made from liver, heart and lung can be very healthy and preferable to a high carb “cookie” or biscuit snack. Natural chews from connective tissue such as trachea and tendons can be roasted into a consistency almost as hard as bone, so a dog can get tooth-cleaning and gum-scraping benefits. Just remember to buy only North American-made versions of these products.
Moist and tender treats, meanwhile, are typically loaded with preservatives like propylene glycol (also used in antifreeze), potassium sorbate and various forms of glycerin. Glycerin is not a naturally existing food ingredient. It is a “recovered waste” product from the manufacture of soap or distillation of ethanol fuels. But since it starts as vegetable matter, manufacturers can legally label it as “vegetable glycerin”.
Secret #10: If you have cats as well as dogs, their food choices should always include canned wet food.
Cats don’t drink a lot of water, and are at high risk for urinary tract problems such as blockages and infections if they are not eating thoroughly hydrated food and “flushing” their systems regularly. Feed them a high quality canned food.
I hope revealing these secrets will help you and your companions on the journey to healthier nutrition. Use them to help guide you through the often confusing world of pet food and treats, formulas and ingredients. Don’t be hoodwinked by marketing that misleads or obscures the facts. Make the best possible decisions for your best friends!