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There are probably hundreds of brands of dog food available, and almost everyone has a different favourite. Stick to a high quality food. It may cost a bit more than cheaper brands, but your dog will need to eat less and will be much healthier.

The immense array of choices in dog food can be downright overwhelming to the average dog owner. As a result, in choosing a food many simply defer to their vet’s recommendation, or go with a brand they recognize from advertising, without taking the time to look into the differences in dog foods and why one might be a better choice than another. All dog foods are definitely not created equal!

For years we have heard the saying ‘you are what you eat’, and have been told that we will be far healthier if we eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, and eat fewer processed foods filled with sugar, preservatives, and little nutritional value. Why then do some people still not believe the same holds true for dogs? All commercial dog foods will claim they are ‘balanced’, and it is true that they are all designed to sustain life and not cause nutritional deficiencies, but is this ‘optimum health’? We all know people who have poor eating habits but claim they are healthy, and outwardly they might appear to be, but there’s little argument that the person who has made a commitment to healthy eating is indeed healthier overall, likely more resistant to disease, and can be expected to live with more vitality well into old age.

So, what does this have to do with choosing a dog food? – take a look at some dog food ingredient labels and you might get an idea. Compare the first 5 ingredients on two bags of kibble (ingredients are listed on dog food bags in decreasing order, so the bulk of the food is made up of those first few ingredients) – food A lists ground corn, meat and bone meal, wheat mill run, animal fat preserved with BHA/BHT (artificial preservatives), and digest of poultry by-products, while food B lists turkey, chicken, chicken meal, whole ground barley, and whole ground brown rice. Which sounds healthier?

Remember too that dogs generally eat the same diet day in and day out for most of their lives, so it behooves us to make that diet as healthy as possible for them. Think of it as an investment in their present and future health.

Another factor in comparing a dog food besides simply reading the ingredients is delving into the source of these ingredients. Many dog foods use ingredients (particularly meats) that are deemed not fit for human consumption – the “4D” foods: dead, dying, diseased, or debilitated – which are perfectly acceptable for companies to use in making animal feed. Many vets now believe that the dramatic increase in cancer in dogs is due in large part to the long term feeding of such poor quality diets.

Recently another concern has come up in relation to dog food - many companies purchase rice and other ingredients from China, and there was a widespread recall of dozens of foods after many dogs became ill due to a toxic product called melamine which was found in these ingredients. Also it was discovered that many different dog foods are actually manufactured at the same facilities, as both large and small companies outsource manufacturing in order to save money. Contamination issues at some of these plants thus have affected a large number of foods, even good quality ones. This information is not meant to scare, but it is important to be aware and realize how important choosing a dog food can be.

What one dog does well on, another may not, so there is no one perfect food for everyone. Personally I prefer to feed our dogs a chicken or turkey based food, while others find a fish formula works very well, and some are set on other protein sources. A few good websites discussing various foods, advice on choosing a food, and providing full ingredient lists are as follows:

In the case of the first site, I do find that their 'rating' system seems to reserve the highest marks for the grain-free foods, which is a fairly recent development. The argument for them makes some sense, however they may not be right for all dogs due to their super high protein content. In fact after trying one top quality one with our dogs, I was not happy with some of the developments that I felt were due to the food, and have since gone back to a food that, although still predominantly meat based, does contain some grains and has a more moderate protein level.

Some brief tips in choosing a food - make sure the label states the protein source in specifics, eg. chicken or chicken meal, and not 'poultry.' Avoid foods preserved with chemicals such as BHA/BHT or ethoxyquin. Look for foods that list a meat source in the first few ingredients. Avoid foods with ingredients like brewer's rice or wheat middlings, and other similar low quality 'filler' ingredients, artificial colours, or sugars. By-products *may* be perfectly fine, as they can include healthy things like chicken organs, however there is no way to know if they are instead referring to beaks, feathers, and feet, so it's generally best to avoid foods that include them. Just a few companies that produce good quality foods include Petcurean (Go! Natural, Now!,) Merrick, Wellness, Innova, Fromm (4-Star Nutritionals,) Nature's Variety, and Acana, though there are many others as well. Not all the products within these lines are of the same quality, so read those labels.

The one thing about higher quality dog foods is that you won’t find them in your local supermarket, since dog foods sold in supermarkets need a long shelf life, sometimes up to 2 years or more. That’s not to say high quality foods are hard to find, however. They may be available in some pet food outlets (in Canada many excellent foods are available at Global/Ryan's Pet Food stores), but more often they are available through a local distributor.

Many people also like to add little ‘extras’ to their dog’s food, and this is certainly fine as long as these extras are healthy ones and you add them when you’re preparing the food and not after the dog has decided he doesn’t want to eat (this can encourage picky eating as the dog learns to wait for the ‘good stuff’!). Fruits and vegetables (some prefer to mash them in a food processor first to aid in digestibility), cottage cheese, plain yogourt, and hard-boiled eggs are just some healthy foods that can be added in small quantities to a dog’s food.  

In addition to the typical kibble and canned foods, some other alternatives are available. Essex Cottage Farms and Urban Wolf are 'homemade' type foods (both Canadian made,) a mix of sorts to which you add your own choice of meat and other ingredients. We have fed both for specific situations with much success. Another option is N-R-G, a Canadian based dehydrated food. We too have fed this and have been very happy with it (and the dogs loved it,) with one exception - it seemed to result in softer stools than I would like, a problem with a hairy breed like Beardies!

One last point about dog foods has to do with dog biscuits. Even those who choose their dog’s food carefully often don’t take the same care in choosing a cookie or treat. Many commercial dog biscuits are designed more for appearance and palatability than nutrition, and as a result are filled with chemicals, dyes, sugars, and other additives. Again there are healthy alternatives in this area, including the Innova and Wellness biscuits, made with the same quality ingredients as the food, and Old Mother Hubbard biscuits which come in a variety of flavours. There are many other small companies that have come out with healthy treats as well, some of which are available in pet and feed stores. Another option is to bake your own biscuits. There are many different easy to make recipes to be found.