By: Dr. Eddy Collins, DVM
What is in dog food is all clearly on the label right? The answer is “No.” A dog food label is actually a legal document. It’s a form of communication manufacturers use to tell you what’s in their food and how it will impact your dog. Unfortunately, it’s a very poor form of communication, very misleading, and often full of tactics that seem to try and hide the truth instead of state it. This makes it necessary to decipher the label, in order to try and discover what’s actually in the food.
The two major goals when evaluating a dog food are nutrition and safety. These together will have the greatest impact on your dog’s overall health. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult if not impossible, to ensure both when feeding a commercial dog food.
The first of these is trying to choose the food that will provide your dog with the proper, and even the best, nutrition. The second is preventing problems by avoiding harmful ingredients and contamination issues. This is much easier said than done. Exposure to a contaminant can quickly alter the life of even the heathiest dog. The healthiest dog can quickly become a very sad and unhealthy pet.
In the simplest terms you have two choices, cook for your dog and know exactly what’s in their food or choose the second best option and take your chances. If you still don’t think you have the time to cook for your dog, 20 -25 minutes a week, let’s look at the latter.
Evaluating the List of What is in Dog Food
Once you understand what the name of each ingredient means, you can then start to evaluate the ingredient list. If you knew the actual quantity of each ingredient, in each food, it would be very easy to make the best decision for your dog’s nutrition. Obviously, pet food companies have this information, but they don’t want you to know it. So, that leaves you to make your best guess based on what you do know.
The truth about what is in dog food.
Ingredients on a dog food label are listed by weight in descending order. This is the pre-cooked weight of each ingredient, which means that water content can play a huge role in where an ingredient shows up on the list. While considering every ingredient listed is extremely important, especially related to safety, it is the first 5 or so ingredients that tell you the food’s nutritional makeup. The further down the list, the less that ingredient is contributing to the overall nutrition of the food. However, depending on the ingredient and the source, it could be contributing greatly to the food being detrimental to your dog’s health.
For dogs, primarily carnivorous animals, a meat should be the first on the list of what is in dog food. However, because uncooked meats consist of about 75% water, the actual amount by weight, of this ingredient in the food will be only 25% of its pre-cooked weight. This can drastically affect the real amounts of some ingredients and make them belong much further down the list.
To add to the confusion, some manufacturers will break a less desirable ingredient into several smaller ones. They can then list each individually, making them show up further down the list. For this reason, you need to consider the sum of directly related ingredients, such as adding all of the grains or corn related products together. Then try to decide where their place would fall on the list when combined.
You also have to consider the sum of the ingredients from each category of foods, such as carbohydrates and proteins. Grains, soy, and corn products such as corn gluten meal are used as protein sources, but are very poor ones for dogs. Some of these can also be very high in carbohydrate content. For example, if chicken is the first item on the list and in the next 4 or 5 ingredients listed there are 3 grains, soy, and/or corn products, it is safe to say this food has very little meat content. It is using cheaper ingredients to provide very poor substitutes for animal based protein while increasing the carbohydrate content. This is very undesirable in a dog food.
Wheat, corn, and their related formulations are also the most likely ingredients to be contaminated with Mycotoxins. While exposure to these can cause an acute illness, regular consumption and their accumulation over time is also a major concern. Wheat, corn, and soy, in their various forms, are also very common causes of canine allergies.
The other dangerous ingredients typically appear near the end of the list. These include chemical preservatives and colorings that are linked to cancer and organ toxicity, flavorings which can contain Salmonella, and sweeteners, such as propylene glycol which causes kidney failure.
Guaranteed Analysis of What is in Dog Food
Since pet food manufacturers won’t tell you the amounts of ingredients in their food, you have to do some math to get an idea. Using the guaranteed analysis on the label and a reference based on typical formulations, you can approximate the percent of animal based protein content. A food that contains 40%, 60%, and 70% animal ingredients will contain approximately 27%, 33%, and 40% protein, respectively.
Many dog foods contain 50% carbohydrates, some contain more, despite the fact that dogs are unable to utilize them very well. This is simply economics, grains and corn are cheaper. Diets high in carbohydrates are a major contributor to canine disease including obesity and diabetes. To determine the percentage of carbohydrates in a dry food, add the values for crude protein, fat, moisture, and ash and then subtract that from 100. This usually confirms a very high grain content.
The manufacturer’s contact information is required to be on the label. Most will include a toll free number and/or a website where you can find out more information about the individual foods and their makers. This gives you a chance to assess their level of support for their products, should there ever be an issue. You can also evaluate how transparent they are as a company and with respect to what’s in their foods.
Some things to look or ask for include more information on the actual quantities of animal based protein, grains, and vegetables, where the ingredients come from, who actually owns the company, and its history. With respect to contaminants, you can ask what steps they are taking to avoid Mycotoxins, or any other, contamination and exposure. You can also ask if they are currently doing routine tests for Mycotoxins in their foods. Be aware that cooking will kill the molds responsible for these, but the toxins will still be present.
General Considerations of What is in Dog Food
Commercial diets are designed to be fed every day. This means your dog is constantly exposed to anything that is in that food. This results in a cumulative effect. Part of this involves the slow accumulation of relatively small amounts of toxins in your dog’s system that over time can add up to a very big problem.
Another aspect of this is linked to the constant exposure of dogs to corn, grain, and soy products which are known to trigger severe allergies. Ideally avoid foods containing corn or any of its many forms. Also, avoid foods containing cereal grains like maize, sorghum, pearl millet, and wheat.
If you aren’t already feeding a home cooked meal, at least some of the time, it’s time to start. By feeding a food that you cook for your dog, even if it’s only 2 or 3 times a week, you can help to break the cycle of constant exposure. This will also help to reduce accumulation and give your dog’s system a much needed break. Every little bit can help and there’s a good chance you will start to see some positive changes that convince you make a permanent switch. Your dog will love it too.
There are many factors that go into making the best nutritional choices for your dog and deciphering a dog food label is extremely challenging, while only partially answering the important questions. However, there is one big question that only you can answer. Do you want to leave your dog’s safety and well-being up to an industry with a very poor track record and little evidence that it wants to change or is it time to take matters into your own hands?