Dog Nutrition - Part 1: Commercial Dog Food

This article is the first in our series on dog nutrition. It article covers the basics of commercial dog food. Future parts of the series will discuss basic nutritional requirements of the canine; the differences between prescription, premium, and grocery-store dog food; the pros and cons of making homemade dog food; and foods that should be avoided.

Good nutrition is important for the health of your dog

Who makes dog food?

Did you ever wonder what was in that food that you think smells so bad, but your dog can’t get enough of? Interestingly enough, it is primarily made of the same base ingredients we enjoy as humans, although a lower grade of it. In fact, most of the major pet food companies are actually subsidiaries of major multinational food production companies. Hills Science Diet Pet Food Company is owned by Colgate-Palmolive. Heinz makes 9 Lives, Amore, Gravy Train, and Kibbles-n-Bits among others. Nestle brings us Alpo, Fancy Feast, Friskies, and Mighty Dog, while Mars is responsible for Kal Kan, Mealtime, and Pedigree.

What goes into dog food?

When food products for humans are made, the companies simply use the leftover pieces parts to make food for our canine friends. Unfortunately, some of the ingredients may be deemed “leftovers” because they are unfit for human consumption. Mold, contaminants, or poor storage practices may condemn grain products to the animal food industry. Mold growth resulting from improper drying and storage of crops results in the production of aflatoxin which contaminates some grain products.

The parts of cattle, swine, chickens, and lambs not generally accepted for human consumption are put into pet food, labeled as “by-products” of the animals. A problem with the protein sources is that they do not always come from leftovers at the slaughterhouse. Some animals who die of illness or are put down due to injury are also included. These animal products may include the drugs which were used for euthanasia or the disease-causing organisms which led to the death of the animal. Although the cooking process used by pet food companies kills the bacteria, it may not kill all of the endotoxins that are produced by the bacteria before they are killed.

As unappetizing as all of this sounds, very few pet food products actually result in illness in our beloved dogs. (Just think for a moment about all of the other stuff they eat!) One notable exception was the dog food recall of 2007, when many dog food brands were found to be contaminated.

How is dog food made?

The basic process of making dog food is reasonably simple. Dry food is made by blending raw materials, then feeding the mixture into an expander where steam or hot water is added. The mixture is then heated and extruded through dies into the shape of the final product. It is cooked at a very high temperature and high pressure to kill bacteria, then allowed to dry. Fats are sprayed on the outside of the pieces to provide necessary oils to keep the skin and fur supple and to make the food better tasting.

Wet food uses the same basic ingredients, but contains much more added water. Ground ingredients are either left as is, or extruded into chunks, then the mixture is cooked and canned. The sealed containers are placed into a commercial pressure cooker for sterilization purposes.

What’s the difference between types of wet dog food?

There are three types of wet food, which can be distinguished by the description on the can. “All meat” foods indicate that ingredients derived from animals, poultry, or fish make up at least 95% of the total weight of all ingredients in the food. Foods designated as “dinners” contain somewhere between 25 and 95% of the named ingredient. For example, a beef dinner wet food would have between 25 and 95% of the weight of its ingredients derived from beef sources. A product designated as having a specific “flavor” has no minimum content requirement, but is simply formulated to have a specific flavor that is distinguishable by the pet from other flavors.

How is the dog food industry regulated?

The $10-billion per year pet food business is regulated by an industry group named the American Associated of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Using standards set by the National Research Council of the Academy of Sciences, the AAFCO set up chemical analysis tests that are used to determine if foods meet or exceed required nutritional standards. Because the chemical analysis indicates only the elements in the food, but not the availability of these elements to the animal eating the food, the AAFCO added a safety factor, which requires pet food companies to exceed the minimum standards set by the National Research Council.

For example, Pet Food Brand X might contain 30 grams of protein, but only 10 grams of it are easily digestible so that they pass through the intestine walls into the dog’s bloodstream. Brand Y might contain 50 grams of protein, but taste so awful that most dogs won’t eat it. And Brand Z might contain only 15 grams of protein, but it tastes good and is easily digestible, so the dog is actually getting a better product nutritionally with Brand Z than with either of the other two brands.

What happens when canine nutrition is poor?

The composition of food should be of primary importance to dog guardians because inadequate nutrition has been shown to cause a host of problems in canines. Diets that contain a food with less than 70% digestible proteins can cause diarrhea. Urinary tract diseases are also linked to diet. Some dogs show a hypersensitivity to some dog food ingredients, making hypoallergenic foods a multi-million dollar industry. These low allergen foods normally include proteins from exotic animals such as emu, beaver, goat, duck, venison, buffalo, rabbit, trout, kangaroo, ostrich, quail, pheasant, or eel. Dogs who are sensitive to one or more of these can generally find at least one that they can tolerate.

Many commercial dog foods contain more fat and protein than most dogs require. In fact, feeding giant dogs regular commercial dog food can result in growth so rapid that it actually contributes to damage of the dog’s bones and joints. Even if you don’t have a giant breed such as a Great Dane or a Mastiff, high amounts of fat and protein can lead to obesity, a huge health problem for as many as one in four dogs.

What do all of those dog food label statements mean?

Labels on most brands of dog food will contain a statement that the food meets AAFCO standards. There are three important components to the statement. First, the label message will state that the food is complete and balanced. “Complete” means that all of the required nutrients for canine health are included in the food. “Balanced” means that the nutrients are present in the proper amounts and ratios to be effective.

The second portion of the statement will indicate which life stage the food is intended to be used for. Food for puppies will state that it is for dogs in the life stage of “growth”. Food for non-whelping adults will be labeled for “adult” life stage. Food for bitches who are pregnant or nursing will be labeled for the “reproduction” stage.

The third portion of the AAFCO statement tells how the producer’s claims are supported. The choices dog food makers have for this third statement are to analyze the food in a laboratory or using computer-based models, or to use feeding protocols. A feeding protocol involves giving food to live animals under specific conditions to assess the biological availability of the food. Obviously, the second method is more reliable.

What’s next?

Now that you know the basics of commercial dog food, check back for part two of this series, which will review the basic elements of proper canine nutrition.


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