What is in my dog food? From grain free to homemade, to organic and raw diets, the dog food landscape is overflowing with expensive, complicated answers to that question, which is one some pet parents don’t even think to ask. Why spend extra money and extra time on dog food, when there’s a perfectly good option right there on the grocery shelf?
Is all the hype about grains and fillers in dog foods true? If so, how are we supposed to extend our limited budgets for our pets, when doing so for our human family members may be hard enough?
Primary Concerns with Budget Dog Foods
As in most areas of our lives, we must make compromises if limited budgets are pulling the strings. Knowing which of the biggest pitfalls to look out for can help any pet lover make the smartest decisions for four legged family members and their diets. If you can’t adhere to all the guidelines, you can pick and choose the ones that suit your personal philosophies, as well as your budget.
First 5 Ingredients
The FDA requires that ingredients be listed in the order of quantity. The first ten ingredients tend to make up 80% of the food, even though some dog foods have more than thirty-five ingredients! Still, what matters most are the first ten, and even more so, the first five.
Meat should never be referred to generally. You want all your meat products, and especially those in the first five, to be specified whole proteins. For example, “chicken” is a whole, specified meat; “poultry” is not. Specified protein parts may be “chicken giblets”; not “animal by-products”; specified animal fats may be “chicken fat,” but not “animal fat”.
Avoid By-Products Altogether
This is especially true if by-products are listed in the first five ingredients. By-products may include rendered carcass parts including feet, lymph nodes, intestines, and feathers, all of which are “meat” products with no nutritional value. Many by-product meals are derived from meat sources that were rejected for human consumption because they came from animals that were dead, dying, disabled or diseased.
Grains, Fillers, and Carbohydrates in General
It’s best to avoid dog foods that list grains among the first five ingredients, but that’s a tall order when taking budget limitations into account. To adjust this principle, avoid foods whose first, second, or third ingredients are corn, wheat, or grain meals like corn gluten meal or soybean meal. Corn on its own may not be so terrible, but as the primary ingredient in your lovable carnivore’s diet, it’s not great.
Be a Back of the Package Person
There are dog food brands even non-pet owners can name, simply because their branding is so ubiquitous. From halfway down the grocery aisle, you can spot that bright yellow bag with the cartoon dog on the front. No matter how recognizable the brand, no matter how convincing the commercials with their utopias of raining vegetables and silky coated leaping dogs, we recommend you flip that bag over. The front doesn’t count. It’s what’s listed on the back - and what’s inside that bag - that does.
Adhere as closely as you can to the First Five guidelines listed here, and also check out the guaranteed analysis section on every bag, can, or box of dog food. The FDA requires dog food companies to report minimum protein and fat content, and maximum fiber and moisture content. Companies are not required to report carbohydrate content, but if you add up the previous four, the balance (up to 100%) is likely to be the percentage of carbohydrates in the food. Shoot for foods and treats that have a higher protein content than carb content.
Many long-time dog owners are committed to their brightly packaged, heavily advertised kibble and swear by the less expensive brands. They point to the generations of healthy, happy, dogs they’ve raised as proof that organics and raw trends in pet foods are hoaxes, designed explicitly to manipulate pet lovers into parting with ever more cash.
However, it’s possible that all those “happy, healthy dogs” didn’t actually die of old age; or that their old age didn’t have to take them so quickly. More and more, the average pet parent is moving away from dry, grain-based dog foods. Many are making their own pet foods, and are saving money. Pet food companies are changing tactics to meet the growing demand of pet lovers, and are working to provide healthful, safe, modern alternatives for every household, and for every budget.
Diets for Dogs: Here’s What You Need to Know
Raw Food Dog Diet
Grain Free Dog Food: Cut Down on Carbs
Natural Dog Food: Holistic and Organic Dog Food Diets
Homemade Dog Food for Your Pet
This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian. It has however been reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Joe, a board certified veterinary nutritionist and graduate of Cornell University's program for Veterinary Medicine.