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?
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.
Jennifer Wapenski is the managing editor of Hunting Dog Confidential Magazine and co-host of the Hunting Dog Confidential podcast. She has a lifelong passion for the outdoors, dogs, and wildlife; as an adult, she discovered that upland bird and waterfowl hunting were natural extensions of these pursuits. Jennifer lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and their two Deutsch Langhaars.