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Category: Dog Food

Choosing Dog Food​

Choosing dog food can be overwhelming.  You are bombarded with marketing from pet food companies all the time.  They throw around words like human grade, all-natural, whole (insert protein source here), and so on.  What does it all mean? Well, you’re about to find out.

Let’s start with some definitions.

AAFCOThe Association of American Feed Control Officials; this is an organization that helps consumers compare pet food products by standardizing labels.

USDAThe United States Department of Agriculture; regulates food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues based on public policy, the best available science, and effective management.

APHISAnimal Plant and Health Inspection Service; The agency in the USDA that keeps livestock safe and healthy

FDA: The Food and Drug Administration; regulates the manufacturing of animal feeds and drugs

WSAVA: The World Small Animal Veterinary Association produces the Nutrition Guidelines that we use when evaluating diets.

Meat: muscle tissue of the animal, including the heart.  If the species is not specified it may be cattle, pig, sheep, and/or goat meat.  It does not include bone.

By-products: include some of the parts that some Americans eat (such as livers, kidneys, and tripe), but also parts that they typically do not. Although the USDA does not deem certain byproducts, such as udders and lungs, edible for human consumption, they can be perfectly safe and nutritious for other animals.  It never ceases to amaze me the people who so proudly purchase dog food without by-products turn around and give their dogs pig ears or pizzle sticks as treats.  Those are by-products.

Poultry: these are the parts of the bird as found in whole chickens or turkeys in aisles of grocery stores.  Unlike “meat,” it may include the bone, which, when ground, can serve as a good source of calcium.

Deboned poultry: poultry without the bone, of course.

Poultry by-products: Similar to meat byproducts, these are parts of the bird that would not be part of a raw, dressed whole carcass, and may include the giblets (heart, gizzard, and liver) or other internal organs, as well as heads and feet.

Rendered products: meat and poultry that have been cooked to destroy harmful bacteria and ground before being shipped to the pet food manufacturer.  These are the “meals” on the ingredients lists, such as meat meal, meat and bone meal, poultry meal, animal by-product meal (meal made from by-products), etc.

Human-grade: no AAFCO definition.  Manufacturers who use this term process animal feed in the same way as human food.  It doesn’t mean anything in terms of the nutrition or safety of the food.

GRAS: Generally regarded as safe.  Many ingredients in pet food were not specifically tested to be safely consumed by animals.  Sugar is an example.

Complete: the diet has all the required nutrients

Balanced: the diet’s nutrients are present in the correct ratios

Life Stages: there are 4 life stages according to AAFCO- gestation/lactation, growth, maintenance, and all life stages.  Senior is a made-up life stage with no official definition.

Natural: a feed or feed ingredient derived solely from plant, animal, or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur in good manufacturing practices.  In other words, pretty much everything and every kind of manufacturing process is “natural.”

Organic: produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster the cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.  The organic label is only used when the is USDA-inspected organic.

Natural Flavors: essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating, or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or any other edible portions of a plant, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose primary function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.


Information about Labels

Dog food labels must contain certain things to be legal.  One of them is the ingredient list in order from the most plentiful ingredient to the least by pre-processed weight.  This becomes important when discussing some of the marketing gimmicks some pet food manufacturers use to deceive consumers.


Dog food should have an AAFCO statement that the diet is complete and balanced for the life stage of your dog or all life stages.  There are 2 labels for nutritional adequacy.

“___________ is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog (or cat) Food Nutrient Profiles for ___________.

The first blank is the name of the diet and the second black is the life stage of the animal.  This means the food was chemically analyzed and meets AAFCO standards.

The second possible label is

“Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that ______________ provides complete and balanced nutrition for _____________.”

Same fill-in-the-blanks.  This label means the manufacturer went through the additional time and expense to test the diet in real live dogs according to AAFCO standards.

If the label says “for intermittent or supplemental feeding only” it is not meant to be continuously fed long-term because it is not a complete and balanced diet.

Dog Food Manufacturing Marketing Gimmicks


Total gimmick and dangerous for your dog.  There is nothing harmful about grains.  Grains provide a good source of carbohydrates for energy.  Grain-free diets are most likely the cause of non-hereditary dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a potentially fatal heart disease in dogs.  Damning evidence for that is dogs with non-hereditary dilated cardiomyopathy improve when they are placed on a diet with grains.  This doesn’t work for dogs with the hereditary form.

Some manufacturers claim that grains are not a natural food source for dogs.  They don’t know anything about domesticated dogs.  Dogs evolved with humans.  They ate what we ate.  Humans have been eating grains for 100,000 years.  We started domesticating dogs about the same time we started farming.  Dogs’ genomes changed as they became domesticated over 10 thousand years ago to be able to metabolize diets high in wheat and millet.  Read more here in Science.  Just as people today are not much like our cavemen ancestors (well, most people), dogs today are not much like wolves.

Some argue that their dogs are allergic to grains.  This is highly unlikely.  Food allergies are not that common, and most dogs are allergic to the protein, not the plant source of their food.  The likelihood of a dog being allergic to all grains is extremely low.  As far as gluten, only a few breeds of dog (Irish setters and border terriers for example) have certain lines that are gluten intolerant.  And even they can eat corn.

The bottom line is grains are an important source of carbohydrates for energy as well as certain fatty and amino acids.  They have been a natural part of dogs’ diets for thousands of years.  Dogs have evolved to digest grains.  Due to the risk of dilated cardiomyopathy, we recommend against grain-free diets for dogs.  You won’t find any grain-free diets on our website.

Update: The science is currently pointing towards the problem being with pulses, which are products made from legumes such as peas, chickpeas, lentils, and beans.  Some manufacturers use these ingredients in place of grains as a carbohydrate source.  They also boost the amount of protein in the diet by adding cheap peas instead of animal-based protein.  It looks like pet foods made with high amounts of pulses, peas in particular, are the true culprits, not necessarily grain-free diets.  With that in mind, there are some grain-free diets AS TOPPERS ONLY I recommend because they contain no pulses.  In other words, I still don’t recommend grain-free food, even those without pulses, as a main diet.  But you can add canned, freeze-dried, or fresh complete and balanced grain-free and pulse-free foods to your dog’s diet safely.  You can read more about the particular diets associated with DCM from the FDA’s website.


Gimmick.  So here’s the deal.  Real meat from any animal is mostly water.  So when the dog food label says “real chicken is the first ingredient” what they are saying is the first ingredient is 75% water- most of which is processed out of the final product.  Meat meal has MUCH more protein and nutrients by weight because it is a dry powder made from cooked meat.  So if a meat meal is the first ingredient, most of the protein in the diet comes from animal protein, even if the second ingredient is a grain or legume.  If you want to feed your dog a primarily meat-based diet, then look for a food that has meat, fish, or poultry meal as the first ingredient, not whole meat, fish, or poultry.


When you look at these pictures:

Picture from Blue Buffalo Beef and Brown Rice adult life protection formula website
Picture on Blue Buffalo Life protection adult beef and brown rice dog food bag
Blue Buffalo life bits picture on their website

you think wow, they have a lot of healthy ingredients!  Blueberries and cranberries and flaxseed and parsley- this food must be healthy, right?

Think again.  Here’s the ingredient list

Blue Buffalo life protection formula beef and brown rice adult dog food ingredients

Now, remember when I said the ingredients were listed according to weight, from most plentiful to least plentiful?  Salt is a big divider.  Most dog foods have around 0.6% salt by weight.  That means everything that is listed after salt makes up less than 0.6% of the dog food.  Do you see where the potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, blueberries, cranberries, and parsley are listed?  WAY after salt!  Which means there are barely any of these ingredients in the food.  But look how prominent they are in the website and marketing materials.  They want you to think their dog food is loaded with these super healthy ingredients, but there are hardly any cranberries, blueberries, etc. in the food at all less than 1% for sure!


Here’s another gimmick that a lot of manufacturers use.  Notice that peas are listed as the 6th ingredient and pea protein as the 12th ingredient.  That means there are a lot of peas in this food.  It’s difficult to figure out how much of the total protein is due to peas, but I’d wager it’s a lot more than beef.  Why? Because even though deboned beef is the first ingredient, it is 75% water.  Also, depending on the exact parts used, the beef may be only 60% protein and the rest is fat.  What that means is that if there was 100 g of deboned beef, only about 15g of that is beef protein.  Most of the protein in this diet is likely chicken, followed by peas, then beef.  Not exactly what you’d expect out of a diet that is called Beef and Brown Rice Recipe.


You buy this food thinking the main ingredient is beef.  But this diet is mostly chicken, and there is also fish in it.  If your dog has a food allergy and is allergic to chicken or fish (what species of fish is anyone’s guess), you chose poorly.  Regardless, it’s very misleading to call this diet “Beef and Brown Rice” recipe when it has more chicken protein than beef protein but also contains fish, and it has not only brown rice, but also potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, barley, and oatmeal.

Meaningless Terms

Pet food manufacturers use many terms that have no definition or meaning when it comes to what is in the diet.  Here is a list of some of those terms:

  • Holistic: the word holistic means whole health.  Some diets address environmental health, very few address mental health and I’ve never seen a dog food diet address emotional health.
  • Human-grade: The only thing close is the USDA’s definition of edible, which describes the standards for manufacturing human food. It doesn’t apply to dog food.
  • Premium: anyone can slap this label on their food.
  • Healthy: AAFCO has scientific standards that address what we currently know about domestic dog nutrition requirements.
  • Biologically appropriate: ironically most of these diets ignore the fact that dogs are omnivores
  • Evolutionarily appropriate: also ironically, most of these diets ignore the current evolution of dogs that we are feeding.
  • Vet approved or recommended: that’s probably true.  Any manufacturer can find one vet who recommends or approves of their food.
  • Sustainably sourced: no definition; you’d have to look up the manufacturer’s process if it is available
  • Ecologically sourced: same as sustainably sourced
  • Cruelty-free: it means not tested on animals, but don’t you want your dog food tested at least on dogs?!
  • Nutrient-rich: misleads you into thinking it has more nutrients than other diets
  • Hand-crafted: nobody is chopping veggies on their cutting board.
  • Small batches: only means they aren’t selling enough to make larger batches
  • Our kitchen: doesn’t mean it’s cleaner or better than a co-packer kitchen
  • Highly digestible: unless they have digestibility studies, this is a suspicious claim
  • Fillers: no definition; anything can be called a filler

Our Recommendations


Start with a manufacturer that has a veterinary nutritionist on staff or at least consults with one.  That person could have a PhD or MS in animal nutrition or be a board-certified veterinary nutritionist (DACVIM or ECVCN).  A great resource is the Pet Nutrition Alliance which asks manufacturers to provide information on their expertise, whether or not they own the places where the pet food is manufactured or use a co-packer, etc.  Here’s their Pet Food Manufacturer’s Evaluation.  Notice how many supposedly good brands didn’t answer their questions or don’t use anyone with expertise in canine nutrition to help formulate their diets.   An internet search and personal beliefs are not equivalent to 4+ years of education in canine nutrition.


Ideally, the manufacturer is committed enough to canine nutrition to perform and publish research.  Hills, Purina, and Mars regularly publish peer-reviewed research which they use to formulate healthier dog foods.


Co-packers are manufacturers that produce dog food for many different companies.  The dog food company has little control over the process.  That is how so many different dog food brands were affected by the melamine toxicity that occurred in 2007.  Menu Foods bought wheat gluten from China that had melamine added to it to boost the protein levels.  The dog food companies had no control over where Menu Foods purchased their products and therefore no control over the toxicity.  Over 100 brands of dog food were affected.  When dog food producers have their plants, they control and source everything themselves.  This information is available in the Pet Food Manufacturer’s Evaluation.  Purina and Mars brands of dog food are 100% made from plants owned by the company; Hills uses a co-packer for 4% of their foods.


As mentioned before, dogs evolved with humans, eating what we eat.  When we started cooking our food, our dogs started eating what we cooked.  Some breeds, such as Siberian Huskies, kept eating what they could catch for long after dogs were otherwise domesticated.  However, even they are well-suited to cooked meals.

The problem with raw food is that it is extremely difficult to safely process, transport, and store it.  The risk for bacterial contamination is high.  Harmful bacteria such as Listeria, Campylobacter, and Salmonella are more often found in raw dog foods than in kibble or canned foods.  That said, some companies consistently produce safe raw diets, usually dehydrated or freeze-dried.


Home-cooked or raw foods concocted by randos off the internet are the single most harmful diets available.  There have been multiple studies analyzing the nutrition of these meals and it is shocking how incomplete and unbalanced many of them are.  It is extremely difficult for anyone to create a diet that has adequate nutrients in the correct balance.  I have personally seen dogs with serious diseases including rickets, dental disease, fatty liver disease, and other conditions that were caused by poor diets.  Home-made diets are almost always woefully inadequate in vital nutrients and should never be fed long-term.

There is a great website created by the UC Davis Veterinary School called Balance It that will provide healthy balanced homemade diet recipes.   You can also purchase their easy-to-measure vitamin and mineral supplement.  These diets are formulated to be complete and balanced as long as you follow the recipe exactly.  I highly recommend it.

Our Recommended Dog Foods

We grouped dog food to make it easier to shop.  You can search for foods by Life Stage, Form, Medical Issue, and Flavor.  Every dog food we list follows my recommendations.  All of our foods are supplied through Amazon.  We make a small commission when you use our link to buy the food.  Thank you for supporting Family Veterinary Mobile Clinic!