Understanding Your Dog's Diet
Today there are so many foods to choose from that the options can seem overwhelming and the differences inconsequential. This guide is to help give you the tools to discern the differences for yourself and help you find the best option for your dog!
A Brief History Of Dog Food:
Humans first domesticated dogs over 10 million years ago to work on our farms. Up until the industrial revolution created a ‘leisure class,’ dogs worked and often lived outside, eating farm scraps.
The first Farmer’s Almanac written by the Roman Poet Marcus Terentius Varro mentioned the first recipe for dog food: “barley bread soaked in milk and the bones from dead sheep.” It seems like not too much has changed since 116 C.E.
Fast forward to the 1800s; people are now keeping their pets indoors for companionship. A huge boom of ‘lap dogs’ are bred, and people care about their pet's well being more than ever before. The first dry dog food is introduced in the 1840s by James Spatt, and an industry is born.
In 1922 the first canned food was produced, in the 1930s Milk Bones were the first dog food available at the grocery store, and by 1941 canned food accounted for 90% of what dogs were fed. The industry moved quickly to keep up with consumer demands and changed how we think about our animals. They were a part of the family and deserved to be fed food made just for them!
Why the switch back to kibble from canned? Simple. World War II rations made for limited meat and aluminum. The war changed pets' diets out of necessity, not nutrition.
Once the switch was made, kibble took over the industry, and that has not changed since.
Finding The Right Formula
Is kibble the best option for our dogs? For some, yes! Kibble is convenient, protein-dense, and cost-effective.Some dogs do amazingly well on kibble, and every pet owner has a different reason for feeding it. Alternative diets such as dehydrated food, freeze-dried raw, and frozen raw formulas are becoming easier to serve and a more viable option than they ever have been before. These foods do not contain nearly as many carbohydrates as kibble and can be added to any diet.
Ingredient panels are the best way to figure out what exactly is in your pet's food. Reading through what is in the food gives you great insight into what you are actually feeding your pet.
When reading through the list, look into any ingredients that you can't identify. The first five ingredients should be foods you can recognize.
These ingredient panels were taken from two different dog foods. By reading the first few ingredients, it is immediately apparent which food contains more meat and higher quality ingredients.
Ingredient panels list items in descending order by the product's weight before it is cooked. During the cooking process, the moisture or water is cooked out of the ingredients. Potatoes are a great example of this since they are composed of 90% water.
What The Deal With Meal?
Meat meal is a dehydrated protein source that has already been cooked once to remove the water from the meat and is used in many foods to pack more protein into the kibble.
Meal has a bit of a confusing reputation because there are many different kinds. Here is a guide to help discern between the different types:
- meal with the animal it is derived from in the name (ex. chicken meal, duck meal)
- AAFCO defines meat meal as being the clean, rendered tissue of either mammal, fish, or poultry that may include the skin and sometimes bone
- defined by AAFCO as non-rendered, clean remains of a slaughtered animal after all the “edible” parts are removed (often the parts sold for human consumption)
- named by-product such as "chicken by-product meal" only contains one source, whereas "poultry by-product meal" opens it up to mixed proteins
- the leftovers include parts like feet, internal organs, heads, bones, and in the case of chickens, their undeveloped eggs.
- By-product does not include hair, horns, teeth, or hooves.
- meal that does not identify one meal in particular (ex. animal meal, meat, and bone meal)
- since it is unidentified, it often mixed proteins
- lower quality due to lack of standards
Depending on the pet food, different meals are used. Higher quality pet foods often used named meals to get more protein without the water weight.
The Guaranteed Analysis usually consists of crude percentages of the major categories: protein, fat, fiber, and moisture content. Some brands will list other categories such as phosphorus or ash levels, but they are not required.
Wet food will always have a much higher moisture content than dry. To get the dry matter percentages, subtract the moisture percentage from 100 and divide by the remaining percentages. Some online calculators can do the work for you!
Crude percentages will tell you either the maximum or minimum amount, but will not give specific meat vs. plant percentages in the food.
“All Life Stages”/Puppy/Senior Foods
There are different foods formulated for each stage of a pet's life, or they can all be together in one bag.
"All life stages" food is what it says: food appropriate to feed to a dog at any stage of their life. Puppies will often have to be fed more and seniors less. All animals should be fed according to their desired weight and activity level
Puppy food is often higher in fat to give your pet the extra calories they need to grow. Some brands will also add extra DHA for brain development.
Due to it's higher calorie content, it is recommended to wean your pet off of puppy food when they reach about one year old.
Senior food is often formulated to have a lower fat content and higher fiber content to aid in digestion. Senior foods and weight management foods often follow this formula to help keep calories from building up in a dog with lower activity levels.
Most senior foods are appropriate for dogs eight years or older.
Small Breed vs. Large Breed
While some brands create a smaller or larger kibble size to suit your pet, others formulate specific recipes to help your pet thrive.
Small breed formulas are higher protein, and many contain extra anti-oxidants to help build their immune system. Smaller dogs are exposed to more bacteria since they live so much closer to the ground and are prone to tear stains.
Large breed foods are formulated with lower protein levels, and often include extra glucosamine and chondroitin for their hips and joints.
For Large breed puppies, it is vital to get an appropriate puppy food. Too much calcium can result in overgrowth, causing strain on their muscles and tendons.
Finding the Right Fit
Everyone has different priorities when it comes to what they feed their pets. Deciding what matters most to you and your animal can help narrow down your selection, whether that's cost, ingredients, protein levels, or palatability.
Every pet has a different digestive system, and what works great for one dog may not for another. Take time to personalize your pet's diet and be sure to give a variety of proteins!