By Nancy Carlson • Columnist • 

What you should, shouldn't see in dry dog food

If you thought you were going to get through the winter without my mostly annual report on the February issue of Whole Dog Journal’s approved list of dry dog foods, sorry. Ain’t gonna happen.

The issue faithfully showed up in my mailbox at the end of January. I duly plowed through the admittedly dull contents of the “Dried and True” article (even WDJ admits that reading this is hard going) by Nancy Kerns, and I am now ready to share my newfound knowledge with those of you who want it (which I understand may not be many of you).

The business of making quality dog food has grown exponentially in the past decade. Last February, I set out to do some amateur investigative reporting and found that virtually all of the stores that sell pet food (well, I didn’t check Walmart, Bi-Mart, or the grocery stores) sell high end dry dog food. I am thinking this development probably coincides with the growing interest in buying locally grown, quality food for the human members of our families. We want to feed them the best that money can buy, and we want to do that for our dogs and cats as well.

Feeding dogs healthy food is a lot more complicated than feeding ourselves healthy food, however. I mean, I know eating fresh vegetables is good for me, but a carrot is a carrot is a carrot. I can worry about how fresh they are, how to cook them, so as to preserve the nutrients, or whether or not they’re organic, but basically I don’t need a chemistry lesson to buy a carrot.

It is possible to feed a dog a balanced diet of fresh, unprocessed food as well. I have done it. But I practically had to quit my job, and instead of that every spare minute I spent in my kitchen chopping, pureeing, and cooking the complicated menu of grains, legumes, supplements, greens and raw meat that would keep my dog healthy. After several exhausting weeks I gave up and bought a bag of quality kibble. My dogs were just as healthy, and probably happier because now I had time to walk them.

So feeding your dog quality food requires a certain knowledge of what goes in, and what stays out, of the good stuff. Since a) as I mentioned earlier, the WDJ article is painfully dull and, b) you probably can’t find a copy of Whole Dog Journal anywhere unless you subscribe to it, I will try to summarize for you what it says should or shouldn’t be in your pooch’s food.

Here’s what you should see on the label:

1) Lots of animal protein as the first ingredient, and the animal should be named (beef, chicken, lamb). It should not just say meat.

2) The next ingredient should be a named animal protein meal (and it shouldn’t just say ‘poultry meal.’ It should say ‘chicken,’ turkey,’ or, who knows, ‘emu,’ but you should know what kind of bird went into the pot.)

3) After the named animal protein and the named animal protein meal, you should find fresh vegetables, fruits and grains. By the way, WDJ says not to stress about whether or not a dog food is grain-free unless your pooch has an actual allergy.

4) A ‘best by’ date that is at least six months away, preferably 11 or 12 months.

Here’s what you should not see on the label:

1) The following words should not be the first on the ingredient list: ‘meat by-products’ or ‘poultry by-products’. I had one admittedly somewhat-militant-about-quality-dog-food friend tell me that for all we know poultry by-products could mean you’re feeding your beloved dog feathers and beaks. Gave me paws for thought.

2) Likewise, you should not see a generic description of ‘animal fat,’ which could possibly include used restaurant grease.

3) Be suspect of added sweeteners. Dogs, like some of us humans, will eat just about anything if you pour a little syrup on it.

4) Artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives (i.e., BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin) You may already know that dogs are color blind. And if the food is made of quality meats and fats, your dog will eat it, no artificial flavorings needed.

Examples of natural preservatives include Vitamin E, Vitamin C, and rosemary extract, but these won’t preserve a food as long as artificial ones. So if the ‘best by’ date is somewhere in the distant future, like a couple of years from now, it’s relying on artificial preservatives.

In the interest of investigative journalism, I bought the cheapest five-pound bag of kibble I could find in town, and looked at the label. Sure enough, the first ingredient was whole grain corn, followed by ‘poultry by-product meal,’ then ‘animal fat.’ Next came five ingredients with vague references to meat meal and grains. After that was a list of no less than 25 additives, most of which I didn’t recognize, followed by colors Yellow #6, Red #4, Yellow #5, and Blue #2. Needless to say, this brand did not make the WDJ approved list.

Which brings us to the dilemma of cost. Like most other things in life, with dog food you get what you pay for. Quality, nutritious food costs more to produce than cheap stuff, and we should expect to pay more. On the other hand, some brands of food listed on the WDJ list cost $3.50 or more per pound. This might work for me if I was feeding one Chihuahua. But I am feeding three dogs, and, although I want to feed them quality food, I cannot by any stretch afford to feed them the canine equivalent of caviar. Fortunately, there were many other, apparently equally healthy brands, of food that cost $2.50 or less per pound, which is still a lot of money but at least I won’t have to mortgage my home to feed my dogs.

Much of the research about the impact of feeding quality food vs. feeding cheap food to our dogs is not nearly as accomplished or sophisticated as that which relates to human health and nutrition. We have figured out that eating certain foods contributes to human diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, so we make our decisions on what we eat based on pretty clear facts. The decisions we make on what we feed our dogs are much more intuitive. I can’t point to any body of research that shows beyond a doubt that feeding my dogs the higher priced, higher quality food on the WDJ list enhances the health or lengthens the lives of my dogs. But it just makes sense to me that it would. So as long as I can manage it, you’ll find me shopping for dog food with the Whole Dog Journal approved list in my hand.

By the way, I don’t think you can get to the list unless you are a subscriber, so if you’re not and would like me to check on whether or not a certain brand made the list, just e-mail me and I will.

Nancy Carlson can be reached at

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