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What Makes A Quality Dog Food?

We can all agree that we want to feed our dog quality food.  Marketing by dog food companies will paint a picture that their food is the best out there. With so many brands in the market to choose from how do we know that what we are feeding our dog is good for our dog?  There are several factors to consider when it comes to selecting a quality dog food, but it really just comes down to looking at the ingredient list.  Sure, there are many unheard of and unfamiliar ingredients on the ingredient label which makes understanding the label overwhelming and confusing. However, just familiarizing oneself with a few key items is a great place to start to determine what makes a quality dog food.

Animal Protein At the Top of the Ingredient List

Ideally the first few items listed on the ingredient list should be a quality animal protein and/or animal protein meal.  Animal protein is not only easily digestible, but it also contains all ten essential amino acids that dogs cannot make on their own.  Also an ingredient (i.e. animal protein) that is listed higher on the ingredient list means that the bag contains more of that ingredient (i.e. meat) by weight before processing, whereas ingredients listed lower on the ingredient list means that the bag contains less of that ingredient by weight before processing.  In addition, if we look at the dog’s diet over the years we can see that it has evolved from mainly a carnivore (meat) based diet to an omnivore (meat and vegetation) diet.  However, by feeding our dog a product that contains quality animal protein(s) at the top of the ingredient list, we are mirroring the dog’s natural diet; that is, an ancestral diet consisting mainly of animal protein, an important source of essential amino acids.

Identifiable Source of Protein

Not only should the first few ingredients be a source of quality animal protein, but they should also be named sources of protein (such as chicken, turkey, duck, beef, buffalo) as well as named sources of organ meats (such as chicken liver or beef tripe); that is, the animal source of the protein or organ meat should be clearly identified as oppose to generic terms such as “meat or poultry”. These terms do not specify the animal source.  For example, if you look at the ingredient called “meat meal”, the generic term “meat” can mean just about any type of mammal from road kill to spoiled supermarket meat.

Species Specific Meat Meal

Just as the animal protein should be identified, so should the animal protein meal.  You may ask “What is the term “meal” exactly?”  Meal is actually a concentrated dry form of the corresponding whole meat and it is formed from a cooking process called rendering.  With rendering, the cooking process resembles cooking stew, but here the water is cooked away and the residue oven-baked.  What results from rendering is a meat meal that contains more digestible protein than the whole meat from which it was formed.

Why does the meal contain more protein than the whole form of the meat?  Essentially whole meat in its entire form before cooking contains mainly water, approximately 70% water and only about 15% protein.  On the other hand, meat meal contains about 65% protein before cooking.  Thus, after cooking there is little protein remaining from the whole meat than for the meat meal.  The meat meal contains more protein per pound than the whole meat from which it originated.

Now the quality of the meat meal depends on the source of meat.  Again, look for clearly identifiable sources of meat meal; that is, meal from species specific animals.  Look for terms such as “chicken meal” or “beef meal” as oppose to generic terms such as “meat meal, animal meal or poultry meal.”  Also avoid generic terms with “by-product” along with the term meal such as “chicken by-product meal.”  These generic terms represents inferior ingredients which can include just about anything from spoiled meat to slaughterhouse waste.

No Animal By-Products

A quality dog food also will not have animal by-products listed on the ingredient label.  Products that list animal by-products such as “meat by-products” or “poultry by-products” on the ingredient list should be avoided.  They are inferior quality ingredients. The type and quality of these animal by-products can vary, and as a consumer, you cannot know from the words “animal by-product” what the quality and type of by-product this is.  Essentially animal by-products are slaughterhouse waste (what’s left after slaughter) that is unfit for human consumption and can include items such as brain, intestines, heads, beak, feet, and feathers…ingredients that provide no value and you probably do not want to feed your dog. 

And so we have it…

In sum, with a basic understanding of dog food labels you can spot a quality dog food. So get your bag of dog food, flip to the ingredient list and…

  1. Look for quality animal sources of protein and/or animal protein meal ranking the top of the ingredient list.
  2. Look for identifiable protein sources.
  3. Avoid animal by-products.
  1. Sagman, M. The Mysterious Meat Concentrate Most People Know Little (or Nothing) About.
  2. Sagman, M. How to Avoid Choosing Dog Food with Inferior Meat Content.