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How to choose the best dog foods

No generic fats or proteins (eg animal fat or meat meal) — instead, look for named sources such as beef fat, chicken fat or lamb meal (the generic term indicates a mixture coming from a number of sources, a sign of a very poor quality food). I don’t consider poultry fat as bad as animal fat, but “chicken fat” is better. Never feed a food that uses the generic ingredients meat meal, meat and bone meal, or animal fat.

Human grade ingredients (USDA approved). This item is somewhat controversial, as dog foods by law cannot be labeled human grade, but I look for companies that use human grade meats (not meats that were rejected by the human food industry). For even higher quality, look for hormone and antibiotic free meats, especially those that are free range or pasture raised (note that all poultry is hormone free, as it is against regulations to give hormones to poultry).

Avoid foods that use corn gluten meal, a cheap waste product from the human food industry that provides incomplete protein for dogs. I consider this ingredient to be one of the hallmarks of poor quality foods. Wheat gluten meal, one of the ingredients that caused illness and death due to contamination in the recent Menu Foods recall, is similar — a cheap source of poor-quality protein used primarily by the lower-quality foods. Rice protein concentrate, which was also involved in the pet food recalls, is a little better quality than the other two, but still provides incomplete plant protein rather than the more desirable animal protein. Soy protein has the same problem.

No meat by-products or digest (meal is OK). There is some disagreement whether whole meat is preferable to meal. Meal has been rendered, but it is also dried, so if a meal is listed as the first ingredient, you can feel more confident that there is more meat than grains in the food. When whole meats such as chicken, lamb, turkey, etc. are listed as the first ingredient, there may actually be much less meat due to the weight of the moisture in the meat. Both whole meats and meals are considered acceptable as long as they are identified and not generic (eg, not “meat meal” or “meat and bone meal”). By-products may be OK if the company specifies that they are human-grade organs such as liver and kidney, but otherwise they usually signify parts not considered fit for human consumption.

No BHA/BHT or Ethoxyquin (artificial preservatives), another sign of a low quality food.

No artificial colors, no sugars and sweeteners (such as corn syrup, sucrose, ammoniated glycyrrhizin), no propylene glycol (added to some chewy foods to keep them moist, toxic in large amounts).

As few grains as possible (a whole-meat source should be one of the first two ingredients, preferably two of the top three) — watch for splitting, such as listing ground yellow corn and corn gluten meal as separate ingredients which together might add up to more than the first ingredient. Note that canned foods often have fewer grains than dry.

Added taurine. Taurine was added to cat foods in the 70’s when cats began going blind and dying due to taurine deficiency. Taurine is thought not to be an “essential” amino acid in dogs because they can convert carnitine to taurine. However, links are now being found between problems such as dilated cardiomyopathy and taurine deficiencies. Some dog food companies have begun adding taurine to their foods, and this is probably a good idea. Taurine is affected by heat, so there would not usually be enough natural taurine in processed dog foods, though foods that have a lot of meat will have more natural taurine.