Enter any pet food aisle and you’re immediately bombarded with choices — wet, dry, store brand, trendy brand, healthy brand, raw food and more. If your pup is hungry, there’s definitely a fix for that. But how on earth do you choose?
Picking a healthy brand of dog food is a tough task, given the sheer volume of choice (did we mention fresh-direct brands that will deliver directly to your door?) and, of course, the unintelligible labels on each can or bag.
Because we feel your pain, we asked Cailin Heinze, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and assistant professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, where she teaches biochemistry and clinical nutrition, for a little guidance in the dog food space. Sadly, one of the first thing she reveals is that there is no magical way to decode a pet food label.
“There is nothing you can see on a label, short of maybe the manufacturer’s name, that will tell you anything about the quality of the food,” Heinze says.
And, as you may have guessed, there is no one food that’s good for every dog, because each and every one of them is different. You probably don’t spend a lot of time talking about your dog’s food, but that needs to change now. What your pup is putting in his or her mouth should be a topic of conversation at every single veterinary visit you schedule — it’s that important.
“It should be something that people talk to their veterinarian about and make a best decision based on their pet’s needs,” Heinze says. “It should be a part of every visit to the vet. It should be, ‘This is what I’m feeding, this is what we’re doing,’ because diet does have a role in a lot of health considerations.”
To help dull that feeling of the unknown as you dole out your dog food, Heinze offered nine tips for making this important choice.
1. Don’t choose dog food based on online rating systems
If you’ve diligently tried to research your dog’s food and found yourself on websites with rating systems that rate certain brands with more stars than others, well, here’s a word for you: Stop! Heinze says that certain misconceptions about dog food fuel these rating systems, and what they end up choosing for their dog is “more expensive diets that are the most heavily marketed and not the ones that have the best quality control.”
“A lot of pet owners make their decisions based on online rating systems,” she says. “Invariably, all of the ones I’ve seen rate products more on marketing than on science. They’ll eliminate whole groups of food for no scientific reason other than if they’re not trendy, or that conventional wisdom says they’re bad, but usually not for any science.”
On these websites, she says, certain brands that have don’t grains or have probiotics in them will rank high, “even though we don’t have any data that the probiotics in those diets are helpful or viable even,” Heinze says.
Some will rank high because of the meat content of the diet, but according to Heinze, it’s incorrect to assume that the only protein source for animals should be meat.
“The actual amount of meat in the diet is much less important than the overall combination of protein and amino acids that are coming from all sources,” she says. “You can have an excellent diet that has protein from plant and animal sources, as long as it’s well designed.”
2. Avoid ‘trendy’ dog food ingredients
Just because you’re eating a diet full of super foods doesn’t mean your dog should, too — you are two very different organisms, after all.
“There’s a lot of competition these days to try to have the newest most exotic ingredients, and to follow human food trends,” she says. “A lot of that is just trendy, it’s not based on science, and even if it is a lot of times the ingredients that they’re using in these diets haven’t been well-established as pet food ingredients.”
Bison has been touted as a super food that is rich in protein for humans, but that doesn’t mean you should feed it to your dog.
“There’s no reason to feed bison, there are no benefits to feeding a pet food that contains bison over a pet food that contains beef,” she’s says. “There’s no reason to be feeding quail or pheasant, or any of these things, unless a pet has a specific diagnosed food allergy that you are trying to avoid. Just feeding crazy exotic things isn’t going to prevent a food allergy, and it isn’t going to fix one if you don’t identify what the specific allergy is.”
It’s wise to be skeptical of what you see out there on the market.
“Most pet owners assume that the newer and trendier and flashier are the higher quality because the ingredients look good and the marketing is slick,” she says. “But that is not typically a good indicator, usually that just means that the marketing is slick. You can have a really high quality food and good marketing, or you can have a food that looks great and poor marketing, or you can have poor food and great marketing. It’s very difficult for pet owners to tell that apart. It’s hard for veterinarians to tell that apart sometimes.”
3. Don’t buy products based on what they ‘don’t’ contain
Heinze says you shouldn’t buy into the idea that certain things are bad.
“That is usually marketing and not science,” she says. “It’s very popular. I typically avoid diets that are marketed by the ‘no’ list — no corn, no wheat, no soy, no potato. The no list changes but the idea that certain things are bad and you should feed my diet because it doesn’t contain any of the ‘bad things,’ when there’s usually no evidence that those things are actually necessarily bad. It’s kind of dividing pet food into good or evil — food is not good or evil.”
Marketing stickers or ribbons intended to stand out to the consumer on the shelf, usually don’t have any meaning.
“If you do see a ribbon, those don’t mean anything,” Heinze says. “One company has a ribbon from the low glycemic index group. That’s human. How that relates to pet food is entirely unclear.”
4. Know that a food label isn’t going to tell you much about a dog food
Sorry to say, but there is no key to interpreting what’s written on the side of that can or bag.
“A lot of the words people can’t understand are vitamin and mineral supplements — like calcium pantothenate,” Heinze says. “Sounds chemically right, but it’s vitamin B5. A dog food doesn’t need to sound like something that you would have in your fridge to be safe and healthy.”
It’s smart to be skeptical of brands that tout their human grade foods.
“There’s this misnomer that human grade — which means a food that can be eaten by people — is necessarily healthier for a dog but there’s no evidence of that,” she says. “You can have human-grade and [also have] nutritionally imbalanced. There’s this perception that if you just look at the ingredient list that will tell you all you need to know. The things is, that doesn’t tell you how the ingredients interact, you can’t figure out how much of them there are.”
Even if you can read and understand an ingredient that’s in your dog’s food, that doesn’t mean it should be there.
“Companies will put things in a food in small amounts just to put on the ingredient list so it sounds good,” Heinze says. “The amount of cranberries in your dog or cat’s food is probably barely a fraction of what would be required to show a health benefit, if indeed there was one. But there’s a lot of that kind of marketing with super foods. There aren’t any studies showing that feeding dogs goji berries improves their health.”
5. Research the sources of the brands you choose
You may not be able to decipher via the dog food label what’s inside your dog’s food, but don’t stop there. Heinze suggests doing a little investigative work of your own by answering these questions by searching their website or calling the manufacturer:
How long has this company been around?
Who are the people actually formulating the recipes?
What is their background?
Does the company own their own plants or do they contract with someone else to make their food?
What quality control steps do they have?
What kind of research and testing do they do on their foods?
She also suggests finding out what kind of research and testing do they on their products.
“You technically don’t ever have to feed a food to a dog before you can sell it,” she says. “You can do it all on computer. But then there are some companies that have fed their diets to dogs or cats for years. I would feel a lot more comfortable about a food that’s been fed to dogs for 10 years in a controlled situation than a food that was designed last week to be trendy and may never have been fed to an animal, other than maybe the pets of some of the people who work for the company.”
6. Wet? Dry? Raw? One of these you should avoid due to health concerns
Your vet can help you make choices that are right for your pet, but in general, when in comes to wet or dry food for dogs, there’s no rule that says one is better than the other.
“For most pets, it doesn’t matter, but there are some health problems that benefit more from canned because of moisture like urinary stones and stuff like that,” Heinze says. “But there is no hard and fast rule that animals must be fed dry or canned or a combination.”
Raw is one of the more fast growing areas of pet food right now that pet owners should be wary of, Heinze says.
“It’s got a lot of safety considerations that a lot of people don’t realize,” she says. “There have been over 20 recalls in 2018 alone for contaminated raw food, several of those recalls were started because people got sick, like kids-on-kidney-dialysis sick. Pet owners don’t realize that raw food is the equivalent of feeding raw meat to your family.”
“There are no documented benefits of raw foods that can’t be accomplished with the similar ingredients cooked,” she adds. “There’s no magic mystique of being raw. Digestibility of appropriately cooked meat is very similar to raw meat and there are some nutrient differences but those can be addressed with appropriate supplements. There’s really no reason why a pet owner would ever need to feed a raw diet — and there’s a lot of potential health risks for doing so.”
7. Pay attention to calories in treats, and know that certain types of chews can cause illnesses
“I think the biggest issue with treats is people give too many of them and don’t pay attention to the amount of calories,” Heinze says. “Treats should never be more than 10 percent of your dog’s daily calories. If your pet is eating less of a food because they’re eating too many calories from treats, that can lead to nutritional imbalances of the best foods.”
There’s a common treat found in most pet stores that you’re best to pass over.
“Body part treats, like bully sticks, which are steer penises, pig ears and cow hooves, those have all been associated with bacterial contamination and pet and people illness,” she says. “That’s probably something that a lot of people don’t think about, they don’t think that the pig ear is going to give grandma salmonella. Basically those are just cut off the animal and dried. They’re not necessarily cooked to a safe temperature.”
8. Know the most important information on the pet food label (Go grab your can… We’ll wait!)
While the ingredient list can be misleading, Heinze and the clinical nutrition team at Tufts say there are two useful pieces of information you can find on a label.
One is called the “Nutritional Adequacy Statement,” a.k.a. AAFCO statement, because it is based on the nutritional profiles published annually by the Association of American Feed Control Officials’ (AAFCO). All pet foods sold must put one of these on the package and they’re typically in fine print on the back of the can or bag. Keep looking. You should find it, eventually.
Three examples of what you might see are available on Tufts’ Petfoodology website:
Product X is formulated to meet AAFCO nutrient profiles for Y species and Z life stage. Life stages include “maintenance,” or “growth and reproduction,” which is frequently called “all life stages.” All life stages means it meets growth/reproduction requirements, in which case it will automatically meet adult requirements because a puppy or kitten has higher calorie and nutrient requirements than do adults.
Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Product X provides complete and balanced nutrition for Y species, and Z life stage. Life stages for feeding tests include “maintenance,” “growth,” “gestation and lactation” (pregnancy and nursing), or “all life stages.” (The latter means they’ve done feeding trials for both gestation and growth.)
This product is intended for intermittent and supplemental feeding only.
If the first or second example appears on your pet food label, give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve chosen a nutritionally complete and balanced food for your pet!
If you’re seeing something similar to #3, sorry to say, but the food you’ve chosen is not meeting all of your dog’s nutritional needs. (The one exception to this, the nutrition team says, is if your pet is eating a veterinary diet designed to help manage a medical condition.)
If you picked a winner, don’t go celebrating just yet — because you haven’t really hit the jackpot. The food you chose may be “complete and balanced” by AAFCO standards for minimum levels of all nutrients that a healthy pet requires, but it doesn’t guarantee that the company actually tested that product to ensure that. (We know, insert sad face here.) Therefore, the nutritional team recommends that you select a food made by a manufacturer with the “highest nutritional expertise and the most stringent quality control measures — not just the ones with good marketing.”
The second piece of useful information to be found on a label: contact details. It’s a requirement that pet food labels include a mailing address to contact the manufacturer or distributor. The nutrition team says to avoid companies that don’t provide one of the following extras: a phone number, email address or website. If you’re lucky enough to have found a phone number or email, here’s your chance to make contact and ask your burning questions. (See tip #5.)
9. There’s information out there, so take the time to read it before buying dog food
Feeling overwhelmed? It’s totally understandable — but know that there are “very strict guidelines” in place, according to Heinze, for what companies are allowed to do and what they’re not allowed to do.
“Unlike human foods you actually have to say whether the food is nutritionally balanced or not,” she says, noting guidelines put out by the individual states and by AAFCO. “The challenge is that just because there are those expectations and those rules, in the end it ends up being a bit of an honor system. You just have to have proof that you meet those standards, in case anyone ever checks.”
The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) has some nutritional guidelines posted on their website that you may find useful and Petfoodology.com has an abundance of good information for consumers — including questions you should be asking about your pet’s food and why you shouldn’t judge a pet food based on what you see on the label.
“There are some suggestions out there on how to approach this [decision], certainly talking to your vet is a really good start — and being skeptical,” Heinze says.