"There are foods on the market which are very easy and tasty for your dog but don’t provide the highest nutrition," says Dr. Katy Nelson, a Virginia-based veterinarian who has consulted on the nutritional makeup of dog food products. "Even though your pet may be excited about what’s in their bowl, it won’t necessarily glow afterwards, just like people who regret those visits to fast food restaurants."
Avoid "Fast" Dog Food
How can we tell the difference? Like with fast food for people, very inexpensive dog food may indicate a less nutritious meal.
"Generally, the higher-priced premium brands have higher-quality ingredients, as well as specialized nutrients," says Dr. Amy Dicke, a veterinarian who also consults on the nutritional aspects of pet food. As a general rule, it’s wise to feed your pet the best food you can afford.
"From foods which use human-quality sources, to foods which use the scraps off of the slaughterhouse floor, you truly do get what you pay for most of the time," says Nelson.
After price, look at the list of ingredients. Just like we screen our food labels for unsaturated fats or high fructose corn syrup, there are things to look out for on dog food ingredients lists.
Because ingredients are listed in order of quantity, "always look at the first three ingredients on your pet food’s bag," says Nelson. "If there is corn or something with the word ?gluten’ in those first few ingredients, step away and keep looking." Gluten, a vegetable protein, is a cheap alternative to protein from animal sources. But animal protein is more nutritious for your pet.
Spotting Good Dog Food
Although it’s not a panacea, there is a seal of approval you can look for. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) provides pet food guidelines and regulates the naming of ingredients.
"AAFCO’s nutritional adequacy statement identifies the food is nutritionally complete and balanced and contains all of the required nutrients," says Dicke.
Beyond that, there’s still variation. But Nelson recommends at least avoiding foods without AAFCO approval.
Special-needs Dog Food
Many foods are tailored to special circumstances, like a dog’s health or age. Dicke says these claims are also regulated by AAFCO. Choosing the right one for your dog just involves matching your dog to the goal of the product, which typically falls into the following three categories:
- Age: Growing puppies (0 to 24 months), healthy adults and senior dogs (5 years giant breeds and 7 years and older for other breeds) all have different nutritional profiles.
- Body/Activity: According to Dicke, "Pets that are overweight or underweight need different nutrition than those who are at optimal weight. Pets who get lots of exercise also have different nutritional requirements." These food labels include weight control, performance or maintenance.
- Health History: Your dog may have a condition requiring a therapeutic, or prescription, formula. For instance, dogs with sensitive stomachs can benefit from foods containing prebiotics. These nondigestible food ingredients stimulate the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria that help the digestive system. Other blends are specialized for heart health, dental health, bone/joint health and more.
Ask Your Doctor
In the end, however, Nelson says the most important thing is to discuss your dog’s food options with your veterinarian. In fact, she says the biggest mistake people make when choosing food is seeking advice from the sales associate at the pet store rather than their veterinarian.
"Your veterinarian can help you find the food that’s best because they know the particular issues that your pet deals with," she says. "Your veterinarian has the best interests of your pet in mind."