The current trend toward heightened awareness of the importance of nutrition, exercise and general health consciousness in our daily lives leads us to make a concerted effort to ensure that our families are receiving balanced, nutritious meals. We have become adept at reading labels (including between the lines) and try to find fresh, organically produced food whenever possible. Just as you are aware of what you feed your family, so should you be aware of the food that your dog is receiving. Reading labels is just as important for your pet as for yourself, as proper nutrition will ensure that your pet lives a long and enjoyable life, not to mention the money you will save on vet bills.

The nutrition to be received from the so-called "complete and balanced" commercially manufactured foods is suspect at best and can be down-right harmful at worst. You say you don't know what to look for? Well, sit back, relax and we'll show you how its done.

We are bombarded daily with advertisements for the "complete & balanced" commercially produced dog foods. The manufacturers would have you to believe that your dog will receive everything he requires from these foods with no need to add or supplement with vitamins, minerals or other additives. Their favorite phrase is that their food meets the minimum daily requirements of the NRC. But let's look at this a little closer.

NRC (National Research Council) standards, or Recommended Daily Allowances, are published every few years by the Subcommittee on Dog Nutrition, which is composed of veterinary nutritionists. The minimum daily requirements are just that, minimum -- not maximum, certainly not optimum. In addition, these minimum daily requirements are based on the average dog without consideration for special needs such as breed size, times of stress, illness, different growth periods, working dogs, older dogs, etc.

The percentages listed for protein, fat, fiber, etc. are "crude" amounts. Protein, for example, would indicate the percentage in the source of protein being used in the product, prior to processing (which can destroy much of the usefulness of even high grades of protein). Different protein sources have different digestibility levels, some 70%, some 90%. Therefore, the actual protein being derived from the food is a function of the processing and digestibility. Other factors that reduce this level are length of time on the shelf or how often the bag has been opened.

The source of ingredients can be extremely vague (for a reason?). Ingredients such as beef or chicken "by-products"; beef, chicken or lamb "meal" do not really say a lot. Since pet food manufacturers are not required to be USDA inspected, they can routinely use "4-D" meats. That is "dead, diseased, dying and disabled" or, whatever the slaughterhouses are rejecting for human consumption. A few companies do voluntarily have USDA inspection (Quaker for their canned and soft-moist and Florida's Winn Dixie for canned). Also, in California no 4-D animals can be used for pet food (but you would have to know where their meat source comes from). Other states may have similar policies, but that has not been reported in the literature I have read.

The reality of what may or may not be included in your pet's food is not for the squeamish and has been reported in various reports, including Prevention Magazine, Consumer Digest and various books. This can range from any part of a 4-D meat source to feather meal, connective tissue, leather meal, fecal waste and hair. Not exactly the most nutritious or palatable products.


Label reading is of primary importance if you are to feed a commercially manufactured product (see section on natural feeding) both for what is there as well as what is not. As a general rule, the first five ingredients will make up approximately 50% of the total by weight. So, obviously, the first five ingredients should be as high quality as possible. Because canines are carnivores and require protein in their diet, the first item should be the protein source (sources in order of preference are lamb, turkey, chicken and beef).

Manufacturers are now producing venison, rabbit, duck and fish diets and these would rate even over the lamb version as coming from sources with the least amount of toxins being used to raise the animals. Some of these protein sources are available in "over-the-counter" foods and others require purchase from a veterinarian. When looking at the balance of the ingredients, it is important to note the grain source. Brown rice or other type of rice is preferable as the grain source. Beware of items such as corn and wheat as these have been shown to cause skin problems in some animals.

Following is a list of additives or ingredients that should be avoided:

BHA/BHT -- Used to prevent fat from becoming rancid. Under inquiry following animal tests showing adverse kidney, liver, reproductive, brain, behavioral and allergic reactions to the additives.

Ethoxiquin -- Originally developed for use in the production of rubber, this common preservative is among the compounds most suspect as causes of severe health problems in dogs.

sodium nitrate -- Usually added to many canned meat products to create the "bloodred" color or as the label will indicate to "retain color." Since 1962, scientists have known that nitrate can combine with digestive, food, and agricultural chemicals to form nitroso compounds, many of which cause cancer in laboratory animals. This is a case of a potentially harmful additive being used merely to enhance the appeal of the food to humans. In Israel, sodium nitrate has been linked with epileptic-like changes in brain activity of laboratory rats being fed even low doses regularly.

soybean meal --

beet pulp --

brewer's yeast -- Manufactures of every type of food and supplement have been jumping on this band wagon for its supposed flea repellant properties. However, what they don't indicate is that the way in which this product will repel fleas is through an offensive odor (to the fleas) that is expelled through the sweat glands. Unfortunately, dogs only have sweat glands on the pads of their feet, fleas have free rein over the rest of the body. In addition, brewer's yeast is an allergen to many dogs. The adverse effects will far outweigh any possible benefits.


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Updated August 30, 2012

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