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How do we Navigate the Sport Dog Food Market? – The Consumer Conundrum

How do we Navigate the Sport Dog Food Market? – The Consumer Conundrum

an assortment of sport dog food ingredients.

Choosing a dog food in today’s market can be a challenge of facts versus fiction

The pet food aisle is a daunting place. Carefully crafted marketing serves up equal doses of promise and guilt. Feed your dog like family! Unleash the inner wolf! Never feed an ingredient you can’t pronounce! It’s enough to make a conscientious dog owner throw up her hands in defeat.

If you stick with the same dog food month after month, you’re relying on that one product to provide everything your dog needs on a daily basis. Your only tool for assessing results is your power of observation – does your dog seem to have enough energy? Are there any obvious signs of an allergy? Does it seem like everything is getting processed appropriately? Your dog certainly can’t tell you – and if they’re anything like my dogs, you could probably serve a bowl of gravel and have them happily wolf it down. It’s difficult to know how to make the best choice.

Compounding this issue are the regulations that control what pet food manufacturers are allowed to print. Many manufacturers have vast amounts of data about their product, but they can’t print a single word of it on the bag. The result is a pretty bland set of canned phrases printed around the ingredients list and minimum guaranteed analysis – with no reliable way for the discerning consumer to choose one product over another.

As a responsible owner who wants the very best for my dogs, I was wrestling with this particular conundrum when I was invited to attend an outreach event at Eukanuba’s Pet Health and Nutrition Center. Their sporting and working dog professional team hosted a diverse cross-section of the gun dog community for a multi-day learning experience. We toured their research facility, listened to presentations on the science of performance nutrition and were given access to their top researchers for all of our questions. Being a science- and data-driven person, this was the opportunity of a lifetime. I gained a deep appreciation for the sheer amount of research that goes into the development of quality dog food. It also reinforced the idea that it’s nearly impossible for a consumer to make the best choice with only publicly available data.

I came away from the experience with a few key points to remember: dogs are not people, all nutrients are not created equal, and – most importantly – quality truly matters. This is not intended to be a sales pitch for any particular brand, because there are many outstanding products available on the market to meet your dog’s unique needs. Also, as with any product advice, your veterinarian has the best perspective on your dog’s intestinal health and well-being, but at a minimum these ideas should help inform your conversation.

Dogs are not people

This is an obvious point, but a tricky one to remember when you’re deciding how to feed your dog. Advertisements tug on our emotions by anthropomorphizing our dogs. Who would dare to eat something called “byproduct meal” or, worse, feed it to a family member?

In reality, it’s a false sense of security to scan the ingredients list for items you’d want to find on your dinner plate. There’s simply not enough research out there to know how beneficial carrots and blueberries really are to a dog’s daily diet. They sound great to the consumer because they are familiar and appetizing to us – which is exactly why they find their way into dog foods. It’s a direct appeal to the human consumer, not to the dog.

All nutrients are not created equal

Following this paradigm shift away from the ingredients list, the focus should really be placed on the product’s nutrient profile. Being true athletes, our hunting dogs have very specific needs to maintain their fitness and stamina. They are pushed to the edge of their physical limits during a hard day afield, so they need the right set of nutrients to help them replenish and recover.

It’s not enough to say that a target amount of protein and fat makes a dog food ideal for our athletes. That protein volume has to be comprised of the right amino acids in order to be easily utilized by the tissues that depend upon them. The fat must contain the ideal balance of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. This concept fits under the subjects of digestibility and bioavailability – are the right nutrients leaving the gut and getting to the target tissue, or are they just passing straight on through?

Quality matters

Ingredient quality is a major differentiator between dog food brands, but it’s difficult to distinguish. Major recalls may dominate the headlines, but the nutritional quality matters as well.

Take chicken, for example. Any consumer would guess that “whole chicken” would be an ideal ingredient, right? Consider that a whole chicken is mostly water; the water goes away during the kibble drying process after it propelled the ingredient to the top of the list by pre-cooked weight. What’s worse, poor quality chicken may actually just be a carcass with a tiny amount of skeletal muscle on the indigestible bone, but it legally qualifies as “whole chicken.” The consumer feels good about chicken’s prominent position on the ingredient list, but in reality, the dog is getting very little nutritional value from that nice mental image.

In comparison, “chicken byproduct meal” sounds wholly disgusting and cruel, but I was surprised to learn that this isn’t always the case. Quality byproduct meal is comprised of dried and crumbled chicken parts such as internal organs, which contain far more digestible nutrients than skin and bone. Because it starts off as a dry product, no weight is lost in the processing. On the other hand, poor quality “byproduct meal” could also be beaks and feet while still fitting the legal definition.

With no way to legally grade the quality of the ingredients, the bags are silent on the matter of what’s really contained in that kibble.

Making an informed choice

Not every consumer is going to get the opportunity to tour a pet food research facility or spend a few days interrogating pet nutritionists. Without seeing and hearing firsthand about the science and compassionate research that goes into these formulations, it’s tempting to react to the emotional marketing. We can certainly do better when it comes to making an informed choice:

  • Research a company’s reputation, being careful to always consider the source of what you read on the internet (this article included!). Be mindful of corporate acquisitions and what that can do to a brand’s quality and reputation.
  • Call the phone number on that bag of food and ask real questions about the formulation and the research behind it. Inquire directly about the quality standards for manufacturing and ingredient selection.
  • Talk to your network of bird dog people – including your vet – and ask if they’re happy with what they are feeding. Have they steered away from other products in the past?
  • Finally, try a few products and see how you like the results. Every dog is different and what works great for one may not be the ideal product for another.

One of the nutritionists at Eukanuba offered a sympathetic comment, “I’m sure glad I’m not an average consumer trying to navigate through the dog food market right now.” It’s not easy, but there are some great companies out there trying to help us get the very best health and performance out of our canine athletes. With our growing bird dog community, we can help keep each other informed on making the best choices for our dogs.

View Comments (14)
  • Not a mention of the grain free, high legume, taurine deficiency controversy? This may become a major dog food issue.

    • Hi Richard – I agree that the subject of grain free dog food needs more attention and, specifically, more available facts. In my opinion, there simply isn’t enough data either way… the initial study was with a pretty small sample group of dogs and there isn’t much data on the long term effects of legumes on canine health. It definitely leaves the consumer (including myself) stuck in the middle. My vet, for example, still strongly advocates for grain-free and yet some of the anecdotes are truly concerning. I look forward to future studies and hope we can find a definitive answer soon.

  • How about looking at corn? Not just from the standpoint that it is a cheap carbohydrate source, but, considering the fact that 93% of corn grown in the US is GMO. Further, the Roundup Ready farming Practices see this GMO corn sprayed with Roundup at least three times from planting to harvest. Many dog foods list this corn as a first ingredient. Monsanto has been successfully sued by misrepresenting the potential of Roundup causing cancer. We don’t even know the ramifications of the Genetically Modified Organism Corn! I’d like to see someone address this corn! I see it at a huge hazard for our dogs! I seek foods with no corn, wheat or soy but not grain free. Cancer is rampant in our bird dog community. Your article points out the obvious, but does not address grain free or what I consider dangerous grains. Of course, if you seek information from the dog food companies, it is like putting the fox in charge of guarding the hen house. Food is ultimately important. And trying to navigate food sources is monumental. Maybe make food a miniseries in your magazine? Dog food deserves a spotlight. Thanks for reading. Love your magazine!

    • Monsanto issue aside, GMO’s have been deemed safe by nearly all scientific studies. These include but are not limited to:

      American Association for the Advancement of Science: ”The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.”

      American Medical Association: ”There is no scientific justification for special labeling of genetically modified foods. Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature.”

      World Health Organization: ”No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of GM foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”

      National Academy of Sciences: ”To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.”

      The Royal Society of Medicine: ”Foods derived from GM crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world for more than 15 years, with no reported ill effects (or legal cases related to human health), despite many of the consumers coming from that most litigious of countries, the USA.”

      The European Commission: ”The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are no more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”

      American Phytopathological Society: ”The American Phytopathological Society (APS), which represents approximately 5,000 scientists who work with plant pathogens, the diseases they cause, and ways of controlling them, supports biotechnology as a means for improving plant health, food safety, and sustainable growth in plant productivity.”

      American Society for Cell Biology: ”Far from presenting a threat to the public health, GM crops in many cases improve it. The ASCB vigorously supports research and development in the area of genetically engineered organisms, including the development of genetically modified (GM) crop plants.”

      American Society for Microbiology: ”The ASM is not aware of any acceptable evidence that food produced with biotechnology and subject to FDA oversight constitutes high risk or is unsafe. We are sufficiently convinced to assure the public that plant varieties and products created with biotechnology have the potential of improved nutrition, better taste and longer shelf-life.”

      American Society of Plant Biologists: ”The risks of unintended consequences of this type of gene transfer are comparable to the random mixing of genes that occurs during classical breeding… The ASPB believes strongly that, with continued responsible regulation and oversight, GE will bring many significant health and environmental benefits to the world and its people.”

      International Seed Federation: ”The development of GM crops has benefited farmers, consumers and the environment… Today, data shows that GM crops and foods are as safe as their conventional counterparts: millions of hectares worldwide have been cultivated with GM crops and billions of people have eaten GM foods without any documented harmful effect on human health or the environment.”

      • Our decisions about what we feed our companions should not be determined by litigation but by the best science we can find. Unfortunately for our pets, the research on nutrition is only marginally worse than the research on human nutrition. The discussions are littered with personal opinion, unsubstantiated “science” and the influence of money from corporations in the market place. “Follow the money” as Jerry Maguire said in the movie.

      • I disagree 100%. Non-corporate researchers understand that GMO’s are destroying the planet, monopolizing / patenting human food, and harming living organisms in ways that we do not fully understand. No amount of shilling will change this.

        My dogs eat FROMM at home ZIWI Peak in the field. Even my cat eats ZIWI Peak.

      • Cattle in feedlots grow slower on GMO grain than non GMO. Wild pigs won’t eat GMO corn. They can’t read so Results from researchers who are paid to produce results is similar to finding honest politicians.

        • I live on a farm and wild pigs will eat GMO corn. As a cattle producer I can tell you that cattle fed GMO grain grow just as well as any other cattle. Please do not pass false statements as fact. It only undercuts your credibility.

  • Great article Jennifer,

    It was good to meet you at the event. You have done a fabulous job of detailing the issues that consumers face in the grocery or pet store where every advertisement is designed to pull heart strings. Many years ago I was at another event of this type and learned that the two majors feed companies paid for almost 95% of all university research. The Iams company was on of these companies and the other was Purina. All of the other companies ride the backs of the majors by using the research when released. Remember most dogs foods are designed to meet minimum standards and not the high quality performance foods from the top of the line brands My best advice is to ask trainers and other serious competitors what they feed and why.

  • Hard to get good advice from your vet or many trainers and competitors. Vets in my area all carry and recommend Science Diet. And most field trials are supported by Purina Pro Plan. Just look at pics from field trial events. You will see bags of Pro Plan prominently displayed. And each breeder has their own choice as well.
    I do honestly stay away from the “celebrity” endorsed foods. Really don’t think peas and carrots are vital to a dogs diet. Just over priced hype.
    There are a couple of rating websites where you can look up different foods and get some good ideas from. Easy to find. Some of the top rated foods are not available everywhere. And probably super expensive.
    Like the article says, it is tough to decide.

    • Yeah, the AKC is practically owned by Purina. Not that it’s bad food but I think there are better ones. I feed my GWP Victor Purpose Performance. It’s 81% meat protein and contains no corn, wheat, soy, or peas if that’s a concern. Victor is not a well known brand but it’s solid food made from the right ingredients.

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