Nutrition - Part 3: What's the Difference Between Dog Foods?

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This article is the third in our series on dog nutrition. Part one covered the basics of commercial dog food, while part two covered the basics of canine nutrition. Future articles will discuss the pros and cons of making homemade dog food; and foods that should be avoided.

What are the basic choices in dog food?

Because your dog can't talk, you have to make decisions for him about what food will best serve his nutritional needs and his palate. There are four general classes of dog food, each with its own pros and cons. In this article, we will cover holistic or natural commercial dog foods, veterinary prescription or therapeutic foods, and commercial foods. The next article in this series will discuss homemade dog food in some depth. Your choice between the four classes will be individualized, depending on your dog's needs as well as on your lifestyle and budget. This article will help you in making an informed choice.

It may not seem so, but dogs do have a very sensitive sense of taste. This is because much of what we think we taste is actually the result of the smell of the food, and we all know how good dogs' noses are. That doesn't mean that your dog and you will judge the same smells and tastes as "good". In fact, given the choice, your dog would likely choose something that you find immensely disgusting before picking the filet mignon you crave.

Dog and his dinner
Like people, dogs may prefer one food over another.

Because dogs can differentiate between different tastes and textures, they are likely to prefer certain tastes and textures. For this reason, it is important that you buy new food in small bags (or make small portions) until you see how the dog likes it. If he indicates an unwillingness to eat the new food, you may have to switch again until you find a flavor he likes.

Keep in mind that if you decide to switch foods, even among different flavors of the same brand, it is best to do so slowly. Your dog's digestive system needs time to adjust to changes because he has likely been eating the same thing for awhile. Mix the new food in equal proportion to the old food for the first three days, then begin to feed of the old with of the new for about a week before going to all new food. Watch your dog carefully for any signs of illness as you convert him to the new food.

Holistic / Natural Commercial Dog Food

Examples: Honest Kitchen, Sojo's Homemade, and Life's Abundance

There is no standard definition of what "natural" means in either the dog food industry or the human food industry. Some dog food manufacturers take it to mean that they must use organically grown grains and meat sources, produced without pesticides, antibiotics, or food additives. Other manufacturers aren't as picky about the raw ingredients, but don't add artificial preservatives to the food in their own factories. And some consumers feel that a food is not natural unless it has been totally unprocessed, meaning that they feed organic meats and grains to their dogs in raw form.

When dog food is made, it includes many ingredients such as meat and dairy products that must be preserved. Commercial feeds that are not promoted as "natural" or "holistic" can have many chemicals added for the purposes of preventing water and fat from separating and preventing fats from turning rancid, as well as making the product more attractive and more tasty. These additives do not add any nutritional value to the food, but they keep the food fresh and appealing for your dog and allow the grocer to stock shelves weekly rather than daily without fear of the dog food going out of date.

Ingredient Labels

Federal law requires that dog food companies state on their labels which type of preservatives are used in each brand of food. The law also requires that companies conduct safety testing of each ingredient added to the food. There is no such testing requirement, however, for ingredients used together. For instance, if the manufacturer can prove that a certain flavoring ingredient causes no harm by itself and that a certain pH-controlling agent causes no harm by itself, the company has no obligation to see if a combination of the flavoring ingredient and the pH-controlling agent is harmful.

If this troubles you, you may want to consider natural or holistic dog foods, which often use other means of keeping food fresh. They may use natural preservatives such as Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and oils of rosemary, clove, or other spices to preserve the fats in their products. While these natural preservatives are often just as effective at preserving the flavor and wholesomeness of dog food, they do not last as long. Therefore, natural dog food often must be refrigerated or preserved by some other means in addition to the natural additives.

Dog carrying his bowl
Holistic and natural foods are more costly but may be better for your dog so learn to understand food labels.

Why not holistic dog food?

The two biggest downsides to serving holistic or natural food are availability and cost. Because these foods often require refrigeration, it is tough for pet stores and some grocery stores to stock them. The foods must often be purchased online which requires planning ahead sufficiently so you don't run out and being willing to pay shipping costs. Although these foods do often cost more than regular commercial brands, there is a school of thought that says the nutrients are more available to your dog because natural ingredients are easier to digest. This should result in your having to feed less volume while giving your dog the same amount of nutrition.

Prescription or Therapeutic Dog Food from Your Vet

Examples: Iams Veterinary Diet, Purina Veterinary Diet, Royal Canin Veterinary Diet, and Hills Prescription Diet.

Although made by the same manufacturers as commercially-available dog foods, prescription diets are quite a bit more expensive. This is because they are specifically formulated to correct a problem with your dog's health. Some formulae are made to aid in digestion, others boost immune responses, while still others can help in reducing blood pressure or blood glucose levels.

Although the ingredients in prescription dog food may be similar to those in commercial dog foods, the level of the various nutrients is different than that in normal dog food, as it is designed to treat health conditions. Because these alterations may not be appropriate for a healthy dog, these diets are available only with a prescription from your vet.

Commercial Dog Foods

Examples: Royal Canin, Eukanuba, Purina, Iams, Pedigree, and many generic brands

These are the dog foods with which most of us are most familiar. They are available at most grocery stores and pet stores, and vary widely in their quality. Try a small bag in your price range and see what your dog thinks. If he likes it and it doesn't make him sick, you may have found a winner! Some experts suggest changing brands every few months so your dog is getting a better mix of nutrients and doesn't become bored.

One of the biggest differences between foods in the various price ranges is the availability of the nutrients. Cheaper brands typically use ingredients that are not easily digested by a dog. This means you have to feed more food in order for your dog to get the nutrition he needs. In turn, your dog will produce more waste. More expensive foods generally use ingredients in the form that is most digestible, allowing you to give your dog less food and produce less waste.

Corn and soy are common ingredients in dog food
Be aware of ingredient splitting, a technique used to hide the amount of corn and other filler in dog food.

Ingredient Splitting

The best way to compare commercial dog foods is to simply look at the labels. Ideally, you would like protein to be the first thing listed, and a minimal amount of chemicals added. Watch out for "splitting" ingredients on the label. Some manufacturers will list different components of the same grain product separately, so that each component ends up behind the meat in ingredient lists, which must show the top ingredient by weight first, then the 2nd-weightiest element, and so on. If a particular dog food has 8 grams of chicken, 5 grams of corn meal and 5 grams of corn gluten meal, you are actually getting more corn than chicken, but the label will show chicken as the primary ingredient.

Which Dog Food is Best?

If you would like to get a quick comparison of several of the commercial brands of dog food, try the tool on the Blue Buffalo (link to web site. This site is trying to sell you Blue Buffalo brand dog food, but does offer a quick look at several other national brands.

Other resources (with no sales pitch) for more in-depth information are:

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