Finding the right food for your dog is a daunting prospect, especially when you consider the number of options on the market, as well as the number of opinions. Many pet owners get lost sifting through all the marketing and hype, or become alarmed by dietary fads that warn them away from grain, cooked food, kibble, or veterinary advice.
However, the crux of the matter is much simpler and closer to home - perhaps even lying at your feet as you read this. Your dog!
It is a misconception that there is the best food ever for all dogs, which is obvious when you think a little bit more on that concept, as each dog is different, and each dog owner's situation is different as well. Luckily, there is the best food out there for YOUR dog. It just may differ from the best food for your sister's dog, the dog of the raw food faddist on the internet, and even the littermates of your pup.
Here are some things to consider when looking at diets for your dog:
Food Allergies Does your dog have any food allergies? Food allergies are usually common proteins like beef, chicken, or pork, and very uncommonly are carbohydrates. Food allergies get even more confusing when you consider the symptoms. Dogs often get itchy skin, paws, and ears when suffering from a food allergy, and may not display gastrointestinal symptoms. Speak to your vet about figuring out which proteins your dog is allergic to, as this often requires a dietary elimination trial.
Lifestyle & Activity What lifestyle does your dog lead? Do you have an active working dog, or a snoring couch potato? No shame in either of those, but these dogs will likely benefit from very different diets.
Body condition What is your dog's body condition score? Weight is a poor way of determining if a pet is fat, thin, or just right, even within a particular breed. For example, a smaller framed labrador might be overweight at 30 kg, but a larger labrador might be just right at that weight.
Chronic conditions Does your dog have any chronic health conditions or special needs? Common health conditions that benefit from dietary management include osteoarthritis, atopy, anxiety, and dental disease. Health conditions that require dietary management include diabetes, urinary disease, kidney disease, and liver disease.
Don't forget the one that's doing the feeding too - you. The perfect diet isn't perfect if it is too expensive, complicated, or difficult to source for you to feed reliably.
Here's some things to consider for yourself.
Cost What's your budget? While some dogs can benefit from a raw food diet, for example, it is quite expensive to do properly, and feeding an improperly made raw food diet is going to be more risky than beneficial. Some prescription diets need to be fed as the sole diet, so mixing in other, less expensive foods to stretch them out may negate the benefit of feeding them altogether.
Time How much time can you spend on meal prep for your dog? If you're time-poor, a labour intensive diet may not be right for you.
Availability Is it easy enough for you to find at local stores or online? Foods that require refrigeration may not be available to buy online. Some smaller manufacturers may have a limited distribution area, and some pet stores may not carry their products.
Once you've thought about all these factors, you then need to consider the food options with those in mind. The most helpful piece of information is right on the bag of food itself - the ingredient list and nutritional breakdown.
Ingredient lists can be daunting, and pet food marketers take advantage of that. For example, a common boast is "real meat as the first ingredient," implying that other brands of food do not contain real meat, or as much meat. However, almost all premium brands like Hills Science Diet and Royal Canin contain animal protein as the first ingredient, and these brands are often falsely maligned as using cereal products as a "filler."
Ingredient lists sort everything from most to least, so the amount of each ingredient is reduced the further down you go.
The long list of science-y sounding words can also be alarming, but these are all just components of the vitamin and mineral mix that is used to ensure that the food will fulfil the total daily requirements of an adult dog. Artificial preservatives like borate are rarely used except in bottom shelf foods, but pet food marketing still touts those as a hidden evil.
A top tip for reading ingredient lists is paying attention to the first few ingredients, as well as subtle words like "and," and "or." Manufacturers use this trick to allow them to claim that a food is made from a particular ingredient (fish in this example), even though the product may not contain very much fish at all. The following product is marketed as a fish-based diet, but looking at the ingredient list, it may not actually contain any fish protein at all, depending on the batch.
While there's nothing wrong with feeding that food, and it is one of the better cheaper options out there, it can mislead owners into thinking that their dog is getting a joint-friendly fish product when they're not. This is particularly important for dogs with food allergies, as fish-based foods are a popular choice for dogs allergic to common proteins like beef and chicken.
Another common marketing trick is grain-free diets, which implies that grain is a bad thing to add to a dog's diet. This is untrue except for the small percentage of dogs that are sensitive to cereal products, and many more dogs are sensitive to common animal proteins than to cereals. The logic behind grain-free is also a little skewed - grain-free proponents claim that as carnivores, anything that is not an animal product is harmful. However, this overlooks the natural behaviour of all carnivores in the wild, which is to eat the gastrointestinal tract of the carcass first. As most prey animals are herbivores, this means that carnivores living in a natural state actually do still consume vegetable and cereal products as part of their normal diet.
However, the real shame with many grain-free products is that they substitute the carbohydrate content with ingredients that may not be as nutritionally valuable as whole grains, such as lentils and tapioca starch (basically just empty carbohydrates). There is also a concern currently being investigated that grain-free diets may be causing dilated cardiomyopathy, a type of heart disease.
The take home message? Don't just look at the pretty package and soothing claims - take the time to look at the ingredient list and nutritional breakdown to make sure that it lines up with you and your dog's needs.
Check out our little bot too - it does all the ingredient analysis for you!