A Quick Guide to Choosing the Best Pet Food for a Long, Healthy Life

10 Best Dog Foods

Photo: ColorblindPICASO/Flickr

Watching all the ads for pet food on TV, you’d think that every meal for your dog or cat is a sumptuous buffet of meaty flavors, packed with vitamins and minerals.

Back in the real world, however, it’s a different story.

What makes this difficult is that billions of dollars are spent to convince you, your breeder, your vet, your government and most of your pet-owning friends that you must vaccinate your animal every year, feed only scientifically 100 percent balanced nutritional pet food, etc.

Are pet owners irresponsible — or worse, actually harming their pets’ health — when they don’t stick to the conventional wisdom about pet care? The growing interest in natural food and the recent spread of alternative medicine is one sign that we are changing the ways we do things, slowly rejecting the “way things have always been done.”

The bottom line: In my opinion, it’s impossible to find a commercially produced pet food that can provide a complete substitute for a balanced diet prepared at home. This is food as nature intended it.

I’m speaking as a veterinarian, and in my own practice I have stumbled upon something amazing:

When I simply ask pet owners to change their pets’ eating habits, the supplements they take regularly and the way they exercise, those pets have discovered a joy, vitality and health that their humans did not believe was possible.

The Goal of Good Nutrition

The goal of good nutrition is to supply the body with appropriate, absorbable nutrients.

The commercial pet food industry tries to standardize and regulate its foods. They do this through “guaranteed analysis.” To qualify as a pet food, the product must list the following four categories on its label:

  1. Crude protein
  2. Crude fat
  3. Crude fiber
  4. Moisture

But it is important to pay attention not only to a pet food’s chemical composition, but also its bioavailability (specifically that of its raw ingredients).

If You Buy Commercial Pet Food, Listen Up…

Yes, it may be the case that many dogs and cats have gotten by on a diet of low-quality kibble, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best choice for your own pet.

Think like a chef and start with the ingredients. Just because a bag is colorful and says, “Formulated by a veterinarian” or “Now with even more meat!” doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Also, terms like “gourmet” and “premium” on pet food labels are practically meaningless. These products are not required to uphold any higher standard of quality.

Even a claim of “human-grade meat” is questionable. For example, meat that was once deemed safe for people may have spoiled and found its way into the pet food.

How to Read the Labels

If you’re shopping for a healthy commercial dog or cat food to use as a base diet for your pet, there are some important things to keep in mind as you’re looking at the labels.

First, the way you’ll find things worded by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) can be quite sneaky. Ask yourself why the ingredient names go in a particular manner. If it seems mysterious or nonspecific, consider switching brands.

The best pet food for most is high in protein and low in fillers. In general, at least two meat sources that are named such as “lamb,” “turkey,” “chicken,” “elk,” “salmon,” “beef,” should show up within the first five ingredients.

A protein formula that is adequate should be able to maintain the health of not only your animal’s body but also its immune system, all without causing too much stress to the kidneys and liver.

TIP: If you want to assess a pet food’s quality quickly and easily, look at the FIRST TWO ingredients on the label. One of these should include a specifically named protein, such as “beef,” “turkey,” “lamb” or “chicken.” Stay away from pet foods that contain chicken byproducts and meat byproducts as these frequently include waste parts as well as rejected meats.

Avoid common, inexpensive fillers — though their presence isn’t necessarily a deal-killer. Poorer-quality grains that are reused from human industry are common but low in nutritional value. The pet food should ideally contain whole grains (ideally organic) that have their nutrients and fiber intact. Avoid grain byproducts such as white flour, brewer’s rice, bakery fines and wheat middlings — these have lost most of their nutrition during processing.

Another hugely important element is high-quality protein. At my practice, we recommend choosing a food that is “super premium” and is selected based on the age of your cat or dog. You can find super premium foods at many non-chain pet stores that specialize in healthy pet foods.

Supplement the super premium food using fresh meats that are human-grade and preferably free-range or organic as well as free from antibiotics, pesticides and hormones. Yes, you can cook the meat.

Other Dangerous Ingredients

Let’s return to those low-quality supermarket pet foods we talked about earlier. Keep looking at that label. “Animal fat” and similar nonspecific ingredients are frightening. Working from the vague AAFCO definition, we can even assume that animal fat may be 4-D (meaning the animal was dead, diseased, disabled or dying before it was slaughtered).

Not to mention, the chemical additives and preservatives used to process animal fats may cause chronic allergies and skin problems. With a super premium food, you’ll get higher-quality fats — vegetable oils rather than highly processed animal fats.

Ethoxyquin, a poison, is banned from human food — but incredibly, it’s fair game in some commercial pet foods. So are BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), which have been linked to cancer. Make certain these three preservatives are not on your chosen brand’s list of ingredients.

You should look for natural preservatives (such as the herb rosemary or vitamins E or C) instead of chemical additives (such as propylene gallate, propylene glycol, BHT, BHA or ethoxyquin). Even though there is more and more evidence now that these chemical-based preservatives may harm your pet’s health, it is still normal within the industry to slip them into various pet foods. These chemical additives and preservatives may lead to aggressiveness, mood swings, hyperactivity, and regurgitation after meals or skin allergies.

Note: “Tocopherol” in the ingredients list may sound like some sort of harmful chemical, but it’s basically vitamin E’s official name — it is a natural antioxidant.

Why You Should Still Add Veggies

There is a catch with any pet food that is commercially available, including those that are branded as “all-natural”: The food is exposed to very high temperatures during cooking, which destroys many of the antioxidants, phytonutrients and vitamins that occur naturally as well as almost all precious enzymes. So these “life force” nutrients can be found only in raw food.

When you add a daily serving of raw fruits and vegetables as well as a vitamin-mineral supplement to your dog or cat’s diet, you will be providing antioxidants and phytonutrients that are quite different from those poor-quality ones that many commercial pet foods add to “enrich” their products. This is especially important for senior animals or those with any type of condition like arthritis, chronic skin disease or digestive upsets such as chronic diarrhea.

Remember this: Optimum nutrition greatly contributes to your dog or cat’s day-to-day wellness.

Sources:

  • J. Daryll Chester, “Optimum Health And Immune System Support With Proper Nutrition,” Nutricula: The Science of Longevity Journal, May 30, 2013.
  • Animal Nutrition Technologies, “For Consumers” (web).
  • Dr. Robert S. Goldstein, VMD, “Food Plan Recommendations,” Earth Animal Wellness Library (web).

* * *

Dr. SelmerDr. Michel Selmer, DVM, is the founder of Advanced Animal Care Center, in Huntington Station, New York. He focuses on holistic or integrative veterinary medicine, considering all aspects of the animal’s life as well as the combination of conventional and alternative treatments. Dr. Selmer is an accredited member of the New York State Veterinary Medical Society, Long Island Veterinary Medical Association, American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and was the vice president of the Long Island Veterinary Medical Society. For more information or to make an appointment or consultation with Dr. Selmer, call 631-367-7387 or visit http://www.advancedcareforpets.com.

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From Around the Web

  • DorothyUk

    At the risk of sounding a bit of a Bolshevik, (which I am), I have become increasingly concerned about grain in dog food. Over the years it has been illustrated to me that a large percentage of dogs have problems digesting grain. I wish I could say that my dogs had been fed a natural raw diet; unfortunately my last two dogs did not like this.

    If your dog produces loose stools or has a skin problem, select a grain-free dog food from those that are recommended on this list.

  • Kim

    I work for a petstore and often times hear the complaint “Whatever happened to just dog food?” In the old days there wasn’t mass market competition, and people didn’t cut corners to try and make a buck. They probably threw the whole chicken in the machine and didn’t worry about corn, or corn meal, or ways to bulk up the food with less nutrients so that they could make more money off of it. Now we are getting charged mega dollars to pay these people to make dog food that doesn’t even compare. Slowly we are getting around to what is best for our dogs again, but we are paying for it.

  • http://www.petsadviser.com/ PetsAdviser.com

    Thanks Kim. My dog, when I got him, was on an unfortunate diet of Ol’ Roy. Yuck. And boy was he gassy. Switched him to the good stuff, no gassy hound. So there was my proof right before my eyes… er, nose.

  • Dianne

    I’m glad I came across this site. My dog has been on an Ultra Allergen Free diet (the bag of food costs about $65-$70! Plus he needs a prescription for it!). We’ve been introducing typical items back into his diet one at a time to see what it is he is allergic to. Seems to be beef! I’m going to try to buy a small bag of the A+ bags to see if he can stomach it.
    =)

  • http://www.petsadviser.com/ PetsAdviser.com

    Thanks for the comments, Dianne. 70 bucks for a bag of dog food?!! Let us know how the great Allergy Search goes.

  • Jen

    Wow. This is an eye opener. Great resource for us dog owners. $70 dollars for a bag of dog food is ridiculous, Hope what you try works!

  • Faucodasto

    what does this say about the typical diet that we ourselves eat? If it cost 70 for a bag of quality dog food what would it cost to feed ourselves with a comparable “bag” of grocerys?

  • http://www.optimalpetfoods.com/index.php?page=dog-food Dog Food

    Unfortunately the so called prescription dog food diets contain the lowest cost ingredients available to do the job, with little regard for long term animal health. As you said the cost is enormous for what’s actually in the bag.

    What more, the products are neither human grade, contain chemical preservatives and just meet basic requirements for life, not health.

    Many cat and dog foods available at pet specialty stores are very suitable for allergic pets, are much healthier than prescription diets and cost less.

  • Peter

    Thanks for the information. It really is amazing some of the stuff that dogs get fed. It’s so easy to get them on a good diet once you know what to look for.

    Faucodasto – I don’t really think you can relate bags of dry dog food to things that we eat since we don’t really eat any dry meat blends that stay good almost indefinitely. Their digestion is a lot better than ours so they can handle it better though.

  • http://www.mountainstatecanecorso.com Jason

    Wow, I don’t think I could afford to feed our dogs at $70 per bag. I look for a good quality food at a reasonable price. Kirkland’s best is supposedly a decent food for a great price, but only available at Costco. If they sell it at Walmart, it’s junk.

  • Janie K.

    Hi:

    Nice detailed article on dog food ingredients. Personally, I prefer the smaller companies that manufacture their own foods or have a human grade facility do it for them where they can closely monitor production. There is less risk of contamination and companies always care more about their own product than the people manufacturing it for them. There are even much better all natural foods than the ones listed above. My own eat dehydrated diets, and they are thriving and love the food.

    Janie

  • KimberlyJ12

    I’m surprised Natural Balance did not make your list, as they are one of the only natural pet food companies that test every single one of their products, and posts all the results on their website’s Buy With Confidence program for consumers to check.  I did a lot of careful research before I got my dogs and we have been lucky to have found their Ultra line and have feed this since our boys were puppies.  Chicken is the first ingredient, and there is no corn, soy, or “fillers” as you mention.    They are my favorite brand and wanted to mention them as I and every pet owner I know from the dog park feed their dogs this premium but affordable brand, and I believe it’s just as good if not better than the brands you mentioned.

    • http://www.petsadviser.com/ David Deleon Baker

      Hi Kimberly,

      Natural Balance is better than most, that’s for sure. However, some of its line was recently recalled.

      It’s important to note that Natural Balance Ultra Premium was NOT involved in that recall. And, as you say, the ingredients in that line are top-notch. I have no idea if any of the vitamins are sourced from China, though this doesn’t matter to some people, because so, so many other pet foods also have vitamins sourced from China.

      Ultimately, it comes down to what works for you and your pet. It sounds like you’ve put a lot of careful research into caring for your dog, and that’s truly awesome. Your dog has a great “mama.”

  • steelergirl

    I agree with the majority of this article right up until some of the recommended “High Quality” food list. Any food that is made by Menu foods should not be on this list. Best to do your own research.

    • http://www.petsadviser.com/ Pets Adviser

      Thanks for the comment. However, we stand by our “Best Dog Foods” list.

  • Lotte

    http://www.petfoodratings.org is also a highly recommended website on dog food nutrition and takes a more realistic analysis compared to the scientific ratings by dogfoodanalysis.com. Well worth a read and I’m sure it will help.

  • Mary

    I’m confused. At one point the article says “it’s even better if the meat source is meal….” but further down it says “watch out for meat meal….it’s made from parts that were unfit for human consumption”. Which is it?!!!? This is what confuses me when I go buy food.

    • http://www.petsadviser.com/ David Deleon Baker

      Sorry for the confusion. Great meals are “named” meals like salmon meal, turkey meal, chicken meal… And the article advises steering clear of generic meals like “meat meal.” What the heck kind of “meat” is it?

  • cynny

    Thank you so much for the information you’ve given. My poor beautiful Collie has suffered for 5 years. We have paid hundreds upon hundreds of pounds for the vets to do blood and skin tests and then give him medication that has made no difference. We were at the point where we considered a “final” visit to the vet to put him out his misery. 48 hours after changing his food and giving him antihistamines we have a different dog. 48hours!!! His skin is almost clear of inflammation, the dead skin has fallen off, he is not scratching at all, his eyes are bright and happy and best of all, his tail is wagging again. I cant believe it was this easy to get rid of. The food is more expensive but he eats half the amount so we can afford to feed him better quality. THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!!

  • Lisa

    So, would you say that one of these brands with brown rice is better than grain-free is better or vice versa? I have a 10 year-old lab with bad gas. Thank you!

  • Pat Corbley Lucero

    My dogs won’t eat the better food they should eat. They eat Authority Weight Control, sold at Pet Smart. Is there any way to find out who makes that food??

    • http://www.petsadviser.com/ David Deleon Baker

      It’s made by a company called… Authority. Sold only at PetSmart.

    • Amber Delima

      We fed Authority to our cats for months before we switched to Wellness. We didn’t really have any problems with Authority but we noticed such a change with their coats after switching to Wellness that we’ve just stayed with them. I’m super incredibly picky about the things I give my pets now, just because I’ve seen the difference that it’s made switching to higher quality foods. Growing up we always fed Friskies and when my husband and I got our cats we fed Friskies as well until our vet told us about researching better foods. I’m a firm believer that pets are family and we should do our best by them. :)

  • montana woman

    I get so frustrated when shopping for dog food. There are people for each brand that are fanatical for it and condemn all others. They have undisputable proof that the kind you buy is the worst one and that only the ones that are priced out of the park are the ones worth considering. I am tired of feeling like I am harming my dogs if I don’t buy “Blue” or something like it. The lack of evidence in my yard and lack of gas in the house, tells me that the brand I am feeding my 2 giant breed dogs is what they need. Plus neither one is overweight. Thanks for the guidelines.

  • myminpin

    Cynny….. what food do you buy for your dog? My little min pin is 8 yrs old and has horrible dandruff now more than ever. I wash him in oxymed dog shampoo for dry skin but it doesnt seem to help. He eats nutro ultra for senior dogs.

  • Cooper

    You shouldn’t feed your pet anything that is sold at Petsmart. Orijen, Fromm, Earthborn, Acana are a few brands that I would recommend.