Most dogs will eat anything, from trash on the sidewalk to scraps from your table. They’re not picky when it comes to nutrition. So, how do you know if the food you’re buying for them is healthy?
The FDA regulates all commercial pet food, so most products on store shelves do have safe and nutritious ingredients. But it helps to know some basic facts before you choose a brand and dish it out.
1. Look for the nutritional guarantee.
The food that makes up a dog’s main meals should have a statement on the label from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) that the product “provides complete and balanced nutrition,” or that the product “is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles.”
The main ingredient you choose for your pooch -- chicken, lamb, beef, or something else -- doesn’t make much of a difference, says Sherry Sanderson, DVM, an associate professor at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine. The important thing is that he can eat it with no problems.
2. Don’t rule out byproducts or grains.
Chicken and meat byproducts get a bad rap, thanks to companies that claim “real chicken” or “real meat” ingredients are better. The terms “byproduct” and “byproduct meal” refer to ground-up parts of the animal carcass, including bones and organs. But they can be very nutritious, Sanderson says -- even more nutritious than the muscle meat that we, as humans, enjoy.
Grains and cornmeal are also common ingredients in commercial dog foods -- and that’s OK, says Joseph Wakshlag, DVM, an associate professor at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. “Going gluten-free may be a trendy diet for people, but we rarely see dogs with gluten sensitivities.”
If you do think your pal might be allergic to something in her food, don’t make a diagnosis yourself. Ask your veterinarian how to figure out exactly which ingredient to avoid.
3. Premium isn’t always better.
Stores tend to group dog foods into the categories of “popular” and pricier “premium” or “gourmet” diets, but there aren’t any nutritional requirements for these labels.
“I never guilt pet owners into feeling that they have to feed their dog or cat a premium diet,” Sanderson says. “In fact, I feed my own animals a combination of popular and premium diets.”
If cost is key for you, she recommends you buy a less-expensive popular food, and save your money for other things your dog needs, like heartworm preventive medicine.
4. Dogs can go vegetarian.
Unlike cats, which need nutrients found only in animal protein, canines can be healthy on a meatless diet. Sometimes owners choose this option if they're vegetarians themselves, or if the dog has allergies to chicken or other animal proteins.
But it can be tricky to find the right balance of protein, fat, carbohydrates, and nutrients for vegetarian pooches. Sanderson says it’s a good idea to stick with a commercial meatless dog food, rather than trying to feed your pal a homemade diet.
5. Wet food vs. dry food: It’s a toss-up.
Dry food is less messy and easier to store, and chomping on pieces of kibble can be good for dogs’ teeth. But wet food may be the best choice for dogs who have trouble chewing, or who don’t drink enough water on their own.
6. Be careful not to serve too much.
It may seem convenient to leave food out all day for your pup, but it could mean he’ll overeat.
“It all depends if you have a gluttonous Labrador or a picky Pekingese,” Wakshlag says. “But we generally don’t recommend it, because most animals find pet foods these days to be pretty tasty.”
Instead, check the label on your dog’s food for suggested serving sizes based on his weight. Your vet can also tell you if you should feed him more or less, based on how active he is or other nutritional needs. Wakshlag says it’s best to split your dog’s total daily calories into two servings -- morning and evening.