A subject near and dear to my heart. For whatever reason, I know a lot about dog food. It’s a personal interest I’ve spent quite a bit of time educating myself about over the last 10ish years. I know. That’s weird. You can read more about my qualifications here, but let me reiterate, I am not a vet. I am not even a vet tech. I am not a nutritionist. I’ve been a lot of things in the dog world. Currently I’m just an owner, and maybe an over zealous average consumer. All of the following is my opinion, and nothing more.
There have been a few reader requests for more specific information about how much I spend on my dogs and what I feed them. Up until now, I’ve tried to keep my dog posts general, and not too preachy. I’m going to be breaking with that trend a little here. As pet owners, we all do the best we can. I still believe you should feed the best food you can afford, as I’ve said before. However, I do have strong opinions on what is good for my dogs and what is worth spending my money on. Sharing my thought process will lay the groundwork for a further explanation of our pet budget.
If you aren’t a dog owner, or even if you are, this material may be a little dry (no pun intended). Come back tomorrow for regularly scheduled programming.
On with the dog food geekery.
There are basically 3 choice in Pet Food: Canned, Kibble, or Raw
Canned. Let’s start here, because this will be the shortest. By and large, I don’t use canned food. Dogs don’t need it. Cats are another story. The contents are cooked at extremely high temperatures as part of the canning process, greatly diminishing the natural nutritional value. You are paying a premium price for what is mostly water. Water is important, but I can add it to their food myself for a whole lot cheaper. The only exceptions I make for canned food have been few and far between; mostly old dog rescues, who are so shut down they genuinely refuse to eat. This is not be confused with manipulation by not eating, a totally different condition. When it is used, it is as a dressing to something else; kibble or raw, and we transition off of it as fast as possible. I do occasionally supplement with canned products; tripe or sardines (ewww on both counts), but these are not complete diets.
Brands Recommended: None. Save your money. If you are going to use it to supplement, just stay away from grocery store brands.
Kibble. The mainstay of the dog food world. And why not? Its convenient. It’s easy to transport. It’s mostly affordable. No real prep required. Meat cereal is here to stay. That’s right. Meat Cereal. That is what it is. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that, but we should be real about it. It is a highly processed food product. Nutritionally complete (typically) because it’s been supplemented with a vitamin mix, which is (usually) manufactured in China. Do dogs break it down effectively? Maybe. Their digestive tracts are much shorter than ours, which is handy. That’s why they aren’t normally susceptible to things like salmonella, a topic for another time. Short digestive tracts also mean less time to absorb nutrition from processed foods. Like Meat Cereal. This is just one of the problems inherent in the kibble format. Another is the lack of water. Another is the break down of Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) and Amino Acids as kibble is jostled and mixed during transport and use. Then there’s the whole issue with varying degrees of quality. It’s pretty easy to hide garbage ingredients in processed Meat Cereal. Alpo may look the same as a bag that costs 3 times as much. Yet, there is a world of difference. You have to do your homework on who is making your kibble and what is going in there. Then you have to do it again. Just when you think you know your product, things change. Companies get bought. Recalls happen. As you do your research, a bunch of other questions come up: Grains or Grain-Free? High Protein? Biologically-Appropriate? Chicken? or Beef? or Venison? It’s a lot to process, and what you choose totally depends on your dog. Allergies? Age? Activity level? Even behavioral problems.
Brands Recommended: Orijen, Acana (both made by the same manufacturer Champion Pet Foods), Go!, Now! (also both made the the same manufacturer, Petcurean),Great Life, Canidae (some formulas more than others, but a reasonably priced option), Lotus (a baked option, but pricey), Fromms, Addiction, and Nature’s Logic.
My advice: Find 3 or 4 kibbles of different brands, with different protein sources that work well with your dog (and are in your price range) and rotate through them every few months. Kibble can be your base diet, but supplement to overcome it’s deficiencies. Something along the lines of:
High Quality Kibble + Essentail Fatty Acids (salmon or anchovy or sardine oil) + Enzymes (yogurt, or raw milk or cottage cheese) + water (always water) + miscellaneous fruits/veggies + raw (keep reading) = a vastly improved diet
Raw: The most controversial choice. If you aren’t familiar with it, you are wondering “Feed the dog raw meat?”. Well yes, essentially. But, no it’s not that simple. Raw diets are based on raw meat, with ground organ, bone, veggies and supplements, usually without grains, processed into a nutritionally complete, easily fed format. It usually comes in a patty or nugget for ease of defrosting. These diets are available at independent pet supply and feed stores. There is a whole lot of variation in price, ingredients and processing. Obviously, food safety is a bigger concern, but really no more of a concern than cooking your own meat. Proper handling protocols should apply. Wash bowls and hands vigorously. Once again the topic of salmonella comes up, which is not a concern for dogs, but is for people. If you aren’t squeamish though, this is, in my opinion, the best way to feed your dog. Where kibble is processed, raw is biologically available. Nutritional absorption rates in the 90% range. Kibble is significantly lower. Raw is better for dental health, due to the presence of live enzymes, which also make it better for digestion. Moisture is inherent in the food, and more easily absorbed. All around, it’s the best choice. However, it is certainly more expensive. You are getting a lot more bang for your buck, but if cost is a concern, there are limitations. If feeding raw exclusively isn’t feasible, even supplementing with raw by either adding it to kibble or by feeding the occasional raw meal will benefit the overall diet.
Brands Recommended: Brands of raw vary regionally. I like Darwins, Northwest Naturals, Answers, Primal (non-poultry varieties), PepperDogz (not the beef), Vital Essentials and Raw Advantage (which does contain grain). Avoid anything labelled ‘Pathogen Safe’, as it is pasteurized with a process called HPP. Much industry debate about this process, but it changes the meat on a cellular level, and does not possess the same advantages as un-processed alternatives.
Other Categories: I am intentionally skipping a couple other options: Dehydrated and Homemade Diets. Dehydrated diets are cost prohibitive in my opinion, with no real benefit over raw. Homemade diets are a whole ‘nother can of worms in regards to nutrition and vitamin concerns and formulation. I’ve disqualified those because a) I don’t use them and b) they would require a whole additional post.
Since I sound all Negative Nancy about much of this, you are probably wondering, what do my dogs eat?
The answer is mostly raw, some kibble, and lots of variety and supplements. Half my gang eats 100% raw, because they are older and don’t tolerate kibble well. The other half eats 50% raw, 50% kibble. This is due to both budgetary restrictions and convenience. Kibble is supplemented with raw goats milk to add enzymes and moisture to the meal. They also receive leftover veggies or fruits, salmon oil, homemade broth, failed yogurt attempts, and whatever else we may have around. For the kibble eaters, I switch the protein source every few months (between fish, venison, buffalo, or duck), and switch the brand whenever it makes sense. The raw is switched up much more often. Breakfast is usually a different brand and protein source than dinner. They switch foods without any issues whatsoever.
This set-up is really not as complicated as it sounds. My dogs have been eating this way, with minor variations, for most of their lives. They are all at ideal weight and we have avoided many of the health problems common in their breeds. I don’t think this is an accident. For me, after years of research, label reading, and anecdotal evidence, I am convinced this is the best I can do for them. Ultimately, that is what’s important.
Whole Dog Journal. A wealth of information on health, feeding and nutrition. They publish a yearly dog food review for kibble, raw, and dehydrated foods.
Also checkout any of the above links to manufacturer’s websites. In particular, Answers Pet Food offers a lot of information about nutrition.
See my previous dog posts for even more information on caring for dogs, in a budget minded sort of way.
If I haven’t yet lost you, all this will segue nicely into next week’s post about the specifics of a large portion of our budget, labeled ‘Pet Spending’. *gulp*