Choos­ing a good kib­ble for your dog doesn’t always seem easy. The labels on the pack­ages appear designed to con­fuse, and beyond iden­ti­fy­ing whether a food is chick­en or lamb-based, peo­ple often come away feel­ing they need a sci­ence degree to deci­pher the rest. And while an ingre­di­ent may sound good and con­jure up images of plump juicy meat parts, you need to be aware that the def­i­n­i­tion of what con­sti­tutes that ingre­di­ent (if it even has a def­i­n­i­tion) can be quite dif­fer­ent. Well, we can’t change the label­ing laws here – but we can give you an overview of what we think you should be look­ing for in a good qual­i­ty dry dog food.

First and fore­most, dogs are carnivore/omnivores – a good pro­por­tion of their diet needs to be meat pro­tein sources. Plant pro­teins tend to be more dif­fi­cult for dogs to digest, are less palat­able and offer less nutri­tion. Grains are low­er than veg­eta­bles on the digestibil­i­ty and nutri­tion­al ade­qua­cy scale.

So, look at the top five or so ingre­di­ents — these form the major por­tion of the food. The ingre­di­ents in dog food are required to be list­ed in order of weight. So that means that the first ingre­di­ent on the list is the one with the great­est vol­ume in the food. We want this to be a named meat source – eg. Chick­en, beef or lamb. Nev­er uniden­ti­fied “meat” and nev­er a “by-prod­uct”. Note also that since the list runs in order of weight, it is bet­ter to see “chick­en meal” than “chick­en” at the top of the list. “Chick­en” includes a high degree of water con­tent, “chick­en meal” does not – so with “chick­en” it is quite pos­si­ble that once the water con­tent is removed, it may actu­al­ly be the fourth or fifth ingre­di­ent, not nec­es­sar­i­ly the first as suggested.

With­in the first five ingre­di­ents we want to see at least two (prefer­ably more) named meat sources, and as few grains as pos­si­ble. The first ingre­di­ent should cer­tain­ly be a named meat source. Grains are almost unavoid­able in kib­ble, but they are not a nat­ur­al source of food for dogs, are often undi­gestible (what’s the point of a food if your dog can’t digest it?) and are com­mon aller­gens. Whole ground grains are far bet­ter than grain frag­ments (floor sweep­ings?) which typ­i­cal­ly have lit­tle or no nutri­tion­al val­ue. Brown rice (a whole grain) is bet­ter than white rice, which has been stripped of about 75% of its nutri­tion­al val­ue. Whole fruits and veg­eta­bles are bet­ter nutri­tion­al sources than grains.

Look­ing fur­ther down the list, we pre­fer not to see any corn prod­ucts in the food (corn, corn meal, corn gluten meal, corn syrup, etc) as corn is very dif­fi­cult to digest, of lit­tle nutri­tion­al val­ue, and a very com­mon aller­gen for dogs. Same goes for wheat products/fragments and for beet pulp or molasses (sug­ar). It should go with­out say­ing that we would nev­er buy a food with any form of corn or wheat in the top five ingredients.

We do not want to see any by-prod­ucts in the food, espe­cial­ly of un-spec­i­fied source. The AAFCO def­i­n­i­tion of “chick­en by-prod­ucts” for exam­ple is “ground, ren­dered, clean parts of the car­cass of slaugh­tered chick­en, such as necks, feet, unde­vel­oped eggs and intestines, exclu­sive of feath­ers, except in such amounts as might occur unavoid­able in good pro­cess­ing prac­tice.” Now some of that stuff is OK – noth­ing wrong with chick­en necks. But it is impos­si­ble to ascer­tain the qual­i­ty and most of the ‘good stuff’ such as hearts, liv­ers, and kid­neys don’t go into by-prod­ucts, they are use­ful else­where, unless the qual­i­ty is too low. By-prod­ucts are real­ly those parts that can’t be used any­where else and a lot of it isn’t OK. With­out any abil­i­ty to deter­mine qual­i­ty, we pre­fer to avoid by-products.

Do not for­get to look at the preser­v­a­tives used. Some of these are car­cino­gen­ics. Some com­mon cacino­genic preser­v­a­tives to look for and avoid are: BHT, ethoxyquin, BHA and propy­lene gly­col (a less tox­ic form of anti-freeze). Cit­ric acid as a preser­v­a­tive can also be prob­lem­at­ic as it dra­mat­i­cal­ly increas­es the risk of bloat if the food is moist­ened before feed­ing (accord­ing to vet­eri­nary research). In our opin­ion, it is bet­ter to pur­chase a food using toco­pherols, ascor­bic acid (Vit­a­min E) or anti-oxi­dants such as rose­mary extract. Bet­ter yet, pur­chase a food that doesn’t con­tain preser­v­a­tives at all (there are a few).

We do not want to see any arti­fi­cial col­ors, fla­vors or sweet­en­ers added to the food.

Cun­ning decep­tions and oth­er issues:

Split­ting” This is where the man­u­fac­tur­er “splits” the total amount of an ingre­di­ent into com­po­nent parts to make it appear as though there is a less­er amount of the ingre­di­ent. An exam­ple would be an ingre­di­ent list that read like “chick­en meal, ground corn, brown rice, corn gluten meal, lamb meal…”. Looks OK – the top ingre­di­ent is chick­en meal. But is it real­ly? Well, prob­a­bly not. The man­u­fac­tur­er has “split” the corn con­tent into com­po­nent parts of ‘ground corn’ and ‘corn gluten meal’. As a total, the corn con­tent is prob­a­bly greater than the chick­en meal (remem­ber that we don’t know the %, only the order of weight).

Unlist­ed preser­v­a­tives: The pet food mak­er is only required to dis­close on the ingre­di­ent list those ingre­di­ents and preser­v­a­tives that they them­selves added to the food. Some ingre­di­ents – usu­al­ly fats, and some fish prod­ucts – have preser­v­a­tives (usu­al­ly ethoxyquin) added before they arrive at the pet food fac­to­ry. You will not see this includ­ed on the ingre­di­ent list. Note that the use of ethoxyquin to pre­serve food for humans is stren­u­ous­ly debat­ed as it is thought by some to be car­cino­genic. The amount of ethoxyquin allowed in human food is a frac­tion of that allowed in pet food.