Your dog has earned its proud place as a member of the family. So, you want only the best for Fido.
Treating your dog right begins with diet. But making sure your puppy gets the best pet food is as much art as it is science, says Dr. Lindsey Bullen, a veterinary clinical nutritionist at Veterinary Specialty Hospital of the Carolinas in Cary, North Carolina.
“Selecting diets based on ingredients is not always clear cut,” she says. “Oftentimes, (it) is very pet-dependent.”
Commercial pet foods generally are safe, although contamination and other problems sometimes occur. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) requires that pet foods must be:
- Pure and wholesome
- Safe to eat
- Produced under sanitary conditions
- Without harmful substances
- Truthfully labeled
Dog food brands to avoid
As a general rule, you can avoid commercial pet foods that have certain extras, such as foods that contain dyes or artificial flavors. But it’s probably not necessary to do so, Bullen says.
“That would purely be a choice of preference, not of safety,” she says. “While it is possible that an individual may react poorly to an ingredient generally regarded as safe, the majority of the population can do just fine.”
Some pets have medical conditions that require them to avoid specific ingredients. For example, a dog with inflammatory bowel disease might require a diet with an alternate source of protein.
“Ingredients are the vehicles for nutrient delivery,” Bullen says. “In general, it is the combination of ingredients that determines whether or not it is appropriate for a pet.”
There are two main approaches to making sure your dog gets the right diet.
Talk to your veterinarian
Turning to an expert for advice is probably the easiest way to find out which foods are right for your pet.
“Consumers should feel comfortable discussing pet food choices with their primary veterinarian,” Bullen says. “If the veterinarian is unfamiliar or uncomfortable, boarded veterinary nutritionists like myself can help.”
You can search for such a nutritionist at the American College of Veterinary Nutrition website.
“Seek nutritional advice from those who have received advanced degrees and training to ensure accuracy of the information provided,” Bullen says.
Take a DIY approach
If you prefer to take matters into your own hands, Bullen suggests evaluating the quality of the manufacturing and formulation of any pet food you are considering buying.
Many pet food companies have credentialed nutritionists on staff. These companies perform extensive research on foods and have stringent quality-control measures.
Such manufacturing and formulation protocols “significantly reduce the risk of food- (and) diet-related pet illness,” Bullen says.
The best way to identify these companies is to look at the back of a bag of pet food and find the nutrition adequacy claim and guaranteed analysis. There, you should find a contact number for the manufacturer.
“The consumer should be able to contact any company and ask if they have nutritionists on staff,” Bullen says. Then, ask what type of research has been done on the product. Some information might be proprietary, but “most quality measures are not,” Bullen says.
More tips for selecting the right pet diet
The American College of Veterinary Nutrition also offers several tips for making sure your dog gets the right diet. They include:
Avoid certain foods at all times. Some foods are toxic to dogs, or may cause other health problems. You can find a full explanation at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals website, but these foods include:
- Chicken skin
- Grapes and raisins
- Bread dough
- Macadamia nuts
- Foods artificially sweetened with xylitol
Watch the calorie count. The ACVN notes that pet foods vary widely in terms of nutrient density. Some foods might contain 300 calories per cut, while others contain 700. The optimal amount of calories depends on your pet's genetics, environment activity level and life stage. So, talk to your veterinarian about the right choice.
Think twice about raw diets. Although "raw" diets for pets are becoming more popular, the ACVN says there is no evidence to support claims that such diets improve a pet's general or oral health. In addition, feeding your pet a raw diet might result in nutritional deficiencies, or an increased risk of bacterial or parasitic contamination.