I have heard to avoid fillers and look for meat as the first ingredient. Which ingredients should I look for and which I should avoid and why when looking for a nutritionally superior dog food?
The current answer is good, but I thought I could offer some information about controversial ingredients. The information comes from http://www.dogfoodadvisor.com, a dog food rating website. This site goes through the ingredients on the dog food's label and explains whether they're good or controversial. It also estimates the protein and fat content of individual dog food brands.
Unfortunately, I can't seem to find a page on the site that lists out all of the bad ingredients, but if I go to the page for Beneful, it lists these: whole grain corn, chicken-by-product meal, corn gluten meal, whole grain meal, soybean meal, poultry by-product, menadione sodium bisulfite, garlic oil, and food coloring. Note that the controversial ingredients aren't necessarily entirely bad and there are sometimes conflicting views on them. For the by-product meals for instance, the site says they are low quality products, but often contain good amounts of protein. For garlic oil, the site notes that some people think it is beneficial, but there are studies that say garlic is linked to Heinz body anemia in dogs.
Anonymous meats are also listed as controversial ingredients because some think the pet food industry uses dead pets for this ingredient. It is also possible that it could be from roadkill or rotten meat.
I can't make an exhaustive list of the controversial ingredients, so I would recommend checking the reviews for the brands you're planning on getting or just perusing reviews for bad dogs foods like Purina to get a better idea. You'll probably want to check the five star dog foods, too, so you know what some of the better ingredients are (I look for meat as the main ingredients, like turkey, pork, chicken, venison, etc. Organ meats and chicken fat are also considered to be good). Just in case you didn't know, in the United States the FDA requires the ingredients to be listed in descending order by weight (maybe that's obvious, but I didn't know that for a long time, so I thought I should include it).
Too Much Protein?
From the PetMD article, "The Dangers of High Protein Dog Foods":
Proteins are the building blocks of the body and an absolute necessity for daily function. However, when a dog consumes too much protein in a meal it cannot all be utilized at one time, nor can it be stored for later. The body will then excrete the excess protein through the kidneys and out of the body via urine. Thus the quality of the protein actually becomes more important that than actual amount as a high quality protein is more bioavailable and can be better absorbed by the body.
Another issue is that the meat in these diets acting as the protein source contains other nutrients that you do not want in excessive amounts. For example, when a diet is mostly meat it becomes very difficult to maintain a proper calcium-phosphorus ratio. When this ratio is out of balance disruptions in bone growth or kidney damage can occur. Well formulated dog foods have an appropriate balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates to prevent this from happening.
Is Excessive Protein in Dog Food Bad for My Pet?
Protein is a calorie dense nutrient and many of the high protein diets are extremely high in calories and can quickly lead to weight gain. With over 50% of dogs in the U.S. considered overweight or obese, dog owners need to be aware of where those extra calories are hiding. If a dog has kidney or liver issues consuming too much protein can increase the workload on these organs and upset the balance of nutrients leading to exacerbation of disease.
Rather than look for a dog food that contains excessive levels of protein you should find one that is specifically formulated for your dog’s lifestyle, life stage, and size. A working sled dog, for example, will have significantly different nutrient and caloric requirements than the average pet dog that ventures outside for a few walks a day and spends the rest of the time lounging. These two dogs should not be fed the same diet.
Are All Fillers, Grains and Meat-Meals Bad?
It is a common myth propagated in poorly referenced and researched "articles" as advertisements such as this one, that "commercial dog foods contain soy, corn, and wheat [which are] all common allergens for dogs." In fact, soy, corn and wheat are not at all "common allergens for dogs." Not at all. Per PetMD:
Myth: Dogs are typically allergic to corn, wheat, soy, and other plant-based ingredients.
Truth: In a study of 278 cases of food allergies in dogs where the problem ingredient was clearly identified, beef was by far the biggest culprit (95 cases). Dairy was number two at 55 cases. Wheat came in third with 42 cases. Soy and corn were actually minimal offenders, coming in at 13 and 7 cases, respectively.
In fact, protein sources are more often to blame than grains. Beef, dairy, chicken, egg, lamb, soy, pork and fish were responsible for 231 of the food allergies, while wheat, corn and rice combined accounted for only 54. (Some dogs were allergic to more than one ingredient, which is why these numbers total more than 278.)
Personally, I do use a "grain free" kibble for my 10+yo Lab/Goldy, "Lucy." This is simply because the particular brand has the best list of ingredients for the lowest price available from my local options for commercially produced kibble. I did notice an improvement in Lucy's energy, her coat and overall health when I switched from a cheaper bulk food (50¢/lb) to the Pure Balance brand ($1+/lb - they seem to replace what otherwise might be rice content with peas and carrots). Her urine did get a slightly darker shade of yellow and has a stronger odor which makes me think it might be a little too rich, so I buffer it with rice or oatmeal, cooked carrots, some parsley and such.
Despite the bad press, grains are not at all to be avoided. "Filler" and meat "meal" are no substitute for the necessary protein, fats, minerals and vitamins, but that does not necessarily mean that all filler's aren't alright for your dog:
Reputable dog food companies choose quality by-products to include in their foods so choose a company you can trust.
(from "Choosing The Best Dog Food")
If your dog has not been diagnosed with an allergen, then I wouldn't sweat glutens and grains at all.
What Is A Balanced Diet For My Dog?
From "What is a Balanced Dog Food" by PetMD:
A balanced diet for your dog should contain protein (from an animal), vegetables, whole grains, fat, and micronutrients (omega 3 fatty acids for skin and brain function; and for large breed puppies and older dogs, glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate).
Dogs and cats also require more than 50 key nutrients, the most vital of which are vitamin C and minerals magnesium, calcium, and phosphorus. The balance between these nutrients is important, too. “The body is a very complex organic place where biochemical reactions are going on,” explains Kerri Marshall, DVM, a licensed veterinarian and chief veterinary officer at Trupanion.
Here's a good overview of how to evaluate your commercially available pet foods and how to read a dog food label. Ingredients are listed by weight, so often chicken, lamb and such are listed first because of the constituent water weight. Look for feeding trial and guaranteed analysis information. Pet food manufacturers paid a lot for those, so the manufacturers that have obtained such information will include it in the labelling.
As for what to look for, these are the AAFCO guidelines for minimum requirements:
Growth & Reproduction Minimum - 22.5%
Adult Maintenance Minimum - 18.0%
Growth & Reproduction Minimum - 8.5%
Adult Maintenance Minimum - 5.5%
See the above linked article for specifics, considerations and further information regarding vitamin and mineral content.
See also: The National Research Council's "Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats." Unfortunately it is an expensive book, so instead here is an excellent overview of essential pet nutrition considerations from Waltham.
How Do I Know If My Dog Is Getting The Right Diet?
Much depends on your dog's activity level. If your feeding schedule and amounts are consistent and the dog's activity level is consistnent, then their weight should be consistent. Your vet weighs your dog at every visit, yes?
There are several ways to evaluate your dog's health with whatever diet you choose choose for them. Some general indicators of health:
- Any odd behavior?
- Energy level. Are they as playful and able to run and fetch as usual?
- Attentiveness. Are they engaged with their surroundings and you as their owner?
- Look to your dog's nose for indications of poor health (it should be normally cool and wet). This is something of a "wive's tale" but check to see if there are dry scales forming?
- Look to their stool for a regular consistency and odor.
- Look to their urine for a normal color and odor.
In addition to healthy food for your pet, regular feeding time and amounts along with exercise will do a lot for their overall health and immunity. Notify your vet of any changes you plan on making and ask their advice regarding a diet that best suits your particular dog's health profile and history.
What Should I Avoid?
As for stuff to avoid, I would take this list with a "grain of salt" as I see no citations to back up the claims, but I do get suspicious when I see ingredients that feel like a science report.
In general, avoid feeding your dog human food. This will rule out a lot of guesswork if and when your dog has health issues. Likely salt, chocolate, grapes, avocados and such aren't on your list of things to feed your dog, but these are common foods that are all bad for your dog. If you are ever wondering about something to feed your dog or that they have inadvertently eaten, a internet search for "is ... bad for dogs" will usually return accurate information. Arguably, cheese (and all dairy) is not a good source of regular food for dogs, but, it is also something they really dig because their sense of smell is so much more acute than ours. Putting a pill in a bit of cheese is fine... but do check with your vet about administering medication if the vet has prescribed your dog pills.
Lastly, dogs' tastebuds are not nearly as sensitive as humans. They do not need variety in their meals and I have found that dogs respond better to consistency and predictability of meals than to change.
Look for foods that have a higher meat content - 80% in good quality brands such as Aatu and Lily's Kitchen. Cheaper brands are I think more like 30 or 40%.
Dogs (and Cats even more so) don't actually need fillers like rice and other carbohydrates, which can also often cause allergies. Meat and veggies are the key, and sweet potato a good option for a dog with dietary issues.
Raw food diet is a fantastic option too and often improves health massively as it is closer to their natural diets.Natures Menu, Nature Diet a couple of other brands.
Not for everyone, but it's quite easy and cost effective to cook your dog food. I get ingredients at Trader Joe's because of price and availability. This recipe has been approved by my vet as nutritionally sound.
1 package of organic turkey legs (6 count)
1 package organic green beans
5 organic carrots (package 15 count)
1 bunch organic celery
5 organic sweet potatoes
1 cup organic white rice
Fill a large soup pot with water, rinse all ingredients, cut produce to bite size chunks, put all ingredients in pot, cover, and cook 45 minutes on medium heat. Do not add salt, oil, or spices. After cooking, cool for 30 minutes, remove skin and bone from chicken legs. Serve. Makes 15 servings. Balance can be refrigerated for up to four days. Double the recipe and freeze half. Perfect for busy weeks. I put a single portion in a ziplock freezer bag and thaw or reheat.
Ingredients cost: $14.00. Less than a dollar a serving.
I have other recipes if interested.
Well balanced dog food should be around 70% meat (meaning meat and innards) and 20% veggies and 10% carbohydrates. As long as your dog is fine with it, any meat will do. Food for younger dogs will typically contain additional calcium and other minerals. Food for older dogs usually contains certain oils that are good for their joints and heart.
If your dog is allergic to certain ingredients, obviously avoid those. You can let a vet test that, if you think your dog might have one. Loss of fur and lot#s of scratching are typical symptoms.