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When it comes to feeding your pet, it’s not always easy to tell where ingredients come from or how they’re cooked. Even the numbers on the label aren’t as helpful as they could be, making comparisons hard.

Expect quality pet food to cost more, but make sure you’re actually getting your money’s worth. Remember, good quality dog food companies don’t make it difficult to find things out. They’re proud of what they make, and want you to know that.

The product labels on quality dog foods will have more detailed information rather than just fancy marketing. Their website should get even more specific. Of course, you’ll see the results in your pet’s health as well. Here’s a closer look at how you can ensure your dog gets plenty of meat that is actually of good quality and beneficial for his health, from Top Dog Tips.

1. Look for a biologically appropriate diet.

We should all know what a diet of processed food does to health and the growing obesity epidemic in both the human and canine world. Dogs and cats didn’t evolve to eat corn, rice, soy, wheat, and potatoes – never mind the artificial preservatives and other unnatural ingredients in today’s commercial products.

So why are these ingredients so common in dog food? It’s because they’re cheaper than high quality meat. Of course, that doesn’t mean dogs and cats shouldn’t have any fruits and vegetables. Wild carnivores eat the stomach contents of their plant-eating prey, after all.

A biologically appropriate diet is about the right balance, avoiding foods that pets are sensitive to, and using foods with a healthy glycemic index to maintain blood sugar levels.

2. Make sure commercial dog food brands are complete and balanced.

There are minimum guidelines set up to help you when picking dog food brands. If your pet food says “complete and balanced” on the label, that means:

  • passed Feeding Trial Protocol(s) with the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO)
  • it meets AAFCO Dog or Cat Food Nutrient Profiles
  • or, it’s part of a line of products with AAFCO approval.

It means the product has enough nutritional value that it can be used as the only source of daily nutrition for your pet, not just a snack or a treat. Any other specific uses stated on the label are suggestions set by the company. For example, some foods are intended for seniors, but there are no official guidelines.

Be aware, AAFCO standards are minimum standards, so it’s just a starting point.

3. Provide enough moisture, and know its role when calculating the percentage of protein.

Many owners look at the level of crude protein on the label. When comparing labels from kibble to canned food, it may seem like canned food is a waste of money – canned dog food brands have much less crude protein because they have more moisture than kibble. 

More moisture is a good thing for dogs, because prey animals are about 70 percent water (just like humans). That means wet dog food is closer to what our now-domesticated canines evolved to eat, and there might be more meat than you think.

As a quick rule of thumb, multiply the crude protein in regular canned dog food by 4 to get an approximate idea of how much protein there actually is.

4. Understand dog food descriptions and types.

The best dog food companies are more than happy to tell consumers exactly how much meat is in their products either on the packaging or on their website.

There’s also more information in how manufacturers describe their products than meets the eye – if you know where to look. For example, if dog food sells itself as “Beef for Dogs,” it has to be 95 percent beef. If the type of meat is just mentioned in the name, it might just be beef flavored, with as little as 25 percent beef according to the regulations.

These kinds of products also need some other kind of descriptive term, like dinner, platter, entrée, menu, or formula. Since consumers often choose dog food by looking for a particular protein source, it would be nice if the label told us everything we want to know, but it doesn’t.

The clearer the company is about the kind of meat used, with specific number values, the better a product usually is. Any vagueness in the marketing should make you immediately suspicious of the company, the manufacturer and the dog food brand itself.

5. Find out where the animals used as a meat source came from.

Quality pet food companies will always tell you where the ingredients are sourced, and how they were raised or harvested.

The closer the source of the ingredients are to where they are used, the fresher they probably will be. Quality pet food manufacturers must carefully monitor every stage of their supply chain, so they know the quality and source of everything.

Ethically raised meat animals are a growing trend in the pet food industry, as well as GMO-free and organic dog food brands. Some labels require certification by third-party organizations, which can give you even more security.

Always look for the country of origin with all ingredients and for words like free-range, grass-fed, human grade, cage-free, non-GMO, certified organic, wild caught, and hormone/antibiotic-free.

6. Rotate named protein sources.

In proper dog nutrition practices, there’s a thing called rotation feeding.  

Regularly changing your dog to different, high-quality protein sources reduces food sensitivities in the dog. It’s more than just good for your pet’s appetite, it also makes sure that your pet gets all the nutrients it needs – including amino acids, vitamins, minerals and fatty acids.

7. Understand what makes a protein source digestible for dogs.

Not all protein in dog foods is equally digestible, meaning the body can’t actually use and get the nutrients it needs. That’s why a numbered percentage can’t tell you everything you need to know.

Eggs are the most digestible kind of protein, followed by fish and fishmeal. Lamb and chicken are more digestible than beef, but quality processing is key. The more natural the meat ingredients are, the more digestible they’ll be.

8. Look for shorter lived fish, lower on the food chain.

Fish is very digestible, but can be high in heavy metals and mercury. The longer a fish lives, the more they pick things like that up.

The same goes for predatory fish, like tuna, Mahi-Mahi and swordfish that quickly get contaminated by the smaller fish they consume on a regular basis. Shorter-lived, smaller fish are safer for dogs – like jack mackerel, herring, sardines, and catfish.

9. Know what meals are and their quality.

Meat, in its natural form, is high in moisture – about 75% water. Meat meals only have about 10 percent water, and a lot of the fat is removed too.

According to its definition in the AAFCO Official Publication, blood, hair, hide, and other scraps, even manure, stomachs and their contents can go into “meat meal.” Exactly what’s in your dog’s food depends on the company, which is why it’s better to look for meat meals that clearly say what kind of animals are used and their quality.

10. Grain-free isn’t automatically lower in carbohydrates or higher in protein.

Dry pet food from grocery stores is usually between 40 and 60 percent carbohydrates. Grain-free dog food can be just as high, sometimes replacing nutrient rich whole grains with starchy vegetables, like tapioca and potatoes.

Peas, grains, beans and seeds are often added because they contain protein, so they can raise the crude protein percentage more cheaply than meat. Don’t be foold into thinking that number always shows how much meat is in the product.

11. Don’t rule out the right amount of fat.

Low fat sounds healthier to many consumers, but fat is actually a vital energy source with more than twice the energy found in carbohydrates.

Some fats, like fish oil containing omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) provide extra essential nutrients that benefit our pets’ skin, hair, and brain. It’s also one of the most well-researched supplements with effectiveness proven in clinical trials.

Fat, in the right amount, keeps our pets immune systems healthy and properly regulated. The younger the animal, the more fat they need to fuel their activity and growth. Even weight control dog food usually has about 5 percent fat. Somewhere between 5 and 10 percent is suitable for adult maintenance foods. You can also supplement your dog’s diet with the right amount of fish oil.

12. Avoid hydrolyzed dog food products.

Hydrolyzed protein dog food is a newer trend in the pet food industry, often marketed toward pets with allergies or sensitive digestion.

For the uninitiated, hydrolyzing agents are applied to the meat ingredients, and they’re cooked and ground with special additives. Then, they’re steam cooked again under high heat and pressure to form a slurry or powder.

When it arrives at the pet food plant, these meat ingredients are often cooked again with other ingredients. Almost any animal byproducts and protein can be used, including feathers, because everything is broken down into amino acids.

However, the result will always have less bioavailability than natural animal muscle meat and organs, which decreases the value and nutrition of the dog food. Research shows that very little of the hydrolyzed protein can be used by our pet’s bodies. 

13. Avoid unnamed meat byproducts.

Rendered meat is usually made from the inedible garbage left over from human-grade meat, or it’s often very low quality in the first place.

However, the same cannot be said for organ meat from named animal sources, like livers, hearts, kidneys, and tripe, which are absolutely great and nutritional for dogs.

If a pet food manufacturer doesn’t even name its meat and bone meal sources, they can change them according to what’s available. Meat byproducts can contain stomachs, udders, hair, horns, teeth, and hooves. When these products don’t come from USDA-inspected rendering plants, it might not even be from cows, pigs, or chickens. Basically, it could be anything.

Remember that honest, quality pet food manufacturers will tell you exactly what’s in their dog food and name all the meat and bone sources, as well as specific organs.

14. Consider making homemade dog food.

Making your dog’s meals means you’ll know exactly what’s in it. However, you need well-balanced homemade dog recipes, otherwise you risk making your dog or cat sick, or worse yet, making them malnourished.

You’ll probably need to add additional vitamins and mineral supplements to make sure they get all the nutrients they need. It’s best to work with your holistic veterinarian or a canine nutritionist to create a list of homemade dog food recipes that will meet your pet’s individual needs.

15. Consider feeding a raw diet.

Raw dog food products are advantageous in many ways. Regardless of point of view, raw is the fastest growing sector in the pet food market. The first change you notice when feeding raw food is improved stools. This is due to its superior digestibility. Raw food is also extremely palatable and pets tend to like it. In addition, feeding raw has the following benefits:

  • No preservatives
  • No wheat, gluten, or fillers
  • Clean teeth
  • Fresh breath
  • Shiny and healthy coats
  • Less shedding
  • Fewer allergy symptoms
  • Firm, hard stools
  • 70% less poop

Remember, a good nutritious diet is the best health insurance money can buy. Ask a Barkery nutrition specialist about the type of raw diet that is right for your pet.