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Choosing the Best Food for Your Dog

What seemed the most surprising to consumers was that some of the “premium” brands, such as Iams, Hills and Nutro—beneficiaries of greater consumer confidence—like the others, don’t always produce their own food. Instead, their recipes and “formulas” are jobbed out to contract manufacturers, companies like Menu Foods, Diamond and Doane, who actually make the foods and purchase raw ingredients in cost-saving bulk. This is a much cheaper way of producing the food because each brand doesn’t have to invest in expensive manufacturing equipment themselves. Which is how wheat gluten (a low-quality protein source) appeared in so many products, under so many different brands (co-packers like Menu also make store-brand pet foods for Wal-Mart and Kroger, among others).

So what is a responsible dog caregiver to do?

In the next few issues of Bark, we will be taking a closer look at the issues we face as we make our pet food-buying, or feeding, decisions. Because Bark is a bimonthly publication, we can’t be a source for late-breaking news, but luckily, outstanding work is being done by many other organizations and bloggers and we urge you to track the information being provided by these resources online. (See resources.)

We decided to start our series by speaking with two of the leading authorities, people who questioned commercial pet food industry practices years before the subject caught the public’s attention. Donald Strombeck, DVM, PhD and professor emeritus, University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, spoke candidly to us about his viewpoints on pet nutrition and offered opinions on food safety and the industry’s lack of regulatory control.

It should be noted that during his long career, Dr. Strombeck did research for Ralston Purina, so his forthrightness on these matters was especially welcomed. It should also be noted that, though research has advanced what we know about nutrition, ingredients and additives since Dr. Strombeck wrote Home-Prepared Dog and Cat Diets, his book still serves as an excellent reference. Ann Martin, a tireless advocate, has investigated everything from the ugly side of rendering plants to the challenges that consumers have in understanding pet food labeling. She has been a thorn in the side of the industry for over 10 years, ever since she wrote the book Food Pets Die For. We present this historic overview to give context to problems that have long been known to exist in the industry and, we hope, to suggest ways to affect changes.

We also opened space for a guest editorial by Patty Khuly, DVM, a Florida veterinarian who provides a perspective on how she and most of her colleagues were blindsided by the recall, and remain ill-informed by Menu itself. (As this issue goes to press, hearings are scheduled in Washington to investigate this matter, and it is hoped that Sen. Durbin and his committee will be calling for much-needed changes.)

Increased regulation and scrutiny of pet food manufacturing are truly important. Consider this news item: In a USA Today story (4/9/07) it was noted that the FDA “inspects only about 1% of the imported food it regulates … and the agency’s resources, compared with its vast mandate, are minuscule and shrinking.… Last year, the FDA had 640 food inspectors, more than 25% fewer than it had in 2003.” (And this at a time of heightened concern about national security!) There is no doubt that something must be done about this, but it is also no wonder that the safety of pet food does not top the agency’s agenda. Not only that, but even if there had been FDA inspectors checking the Chinese wheat gluten shipments, they would not have inspected for melamine because it was not considered toxic.

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Submitted by Brett | January 30 2010 |

Informative article. There are quality dog foods out there. Just stay away from by-products, grain fillers, and preservatives. I give my pup Newman's Own which he loves and is good for him as well. You may have to pay more, but it will ensure that your dog is healthier and will give you peace of mind.

Submitted by Christina chambreau | October 22 2010 |

It is wonderful that you did the research and made an educated choice of diet. Just like with people, some dogs can eat a high quality prepared food and be healthy, while others show many of the early warning signs of illness. If your dog needs a bath because of doggy odor, or has crud in the corner of the eyes in the morning, or has behavior issues, a better diet could be needed.

Make your choice of foods - fresh or processed, then carefully track the health of your dog. Keep a journal, tracking any illnesses as well as the early warning signs. The Healthy Animal's Journal makes it easy.
Dr. Christina Chambreau

Submitted by Christina chambreau | October 22 2010 |

As always, Bark is doing a great job addressing current dog issues.

When I lecture, one question people love to answer is how old their dogs lived decades ago. Their answers frequently echo Claudia's childhood dog who lived to 20. Now many dogs die at much younger ages and/or have severe health issues. While lots of research has been done, processed food, as Claudia says, just does not make health sense. In the 50 years I have been in the veterinary profession there have been many heath problems actually caused by insufficient research by food companies. In the 80s many cats developed blindness and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy because the processed food did not have the taurine needed by cats.

If you wanted your children to be maximally healthy, would you feed a wide variety of locally, sustainably raised fresh foods or mostly processed (canned, frozen, full of corn sugar)? Of course you would do the former. Just as with food for people, every individual dog and cat may need different food, so the key not mentioned in this article is the importance of tracking the specific symptoms to pick the best diet. I totally agree with Christie Keith that canines are, overall, rather forgiving nutritionally. I am so glad bark will be addressing brands, preparing meals (cooked or raw), or buying raw meat diets. I am thrilled dog guardians can look forward to many more healthful alternatives in future issues.

Submitted by Anonymous | November 19 2010 |

I feed my 35 lb German Shepherd mix Solid Gold Wolf Cub (soon to be Wolf King)as well ass Nature's Variety Raw (lamb, rabbit and bison) and my cats get Nature's Balance Reduced Calorie... Are these good brands? I try and stay FAR FAR AWAY from the grocery store brands...Yuck!

Submitted by Ryan Lau | April 6 2011 |

I'm getting a dog for the first time in my life, and as an imminent father, I have been obsessively researching various dog products. I came across Orijen by recommendations from friends and it seems to be widely regarded as a very high qualtiy dog food that is made from ingredients "fit for human consumption" in "human grade facilities." I'd love to make homemade dog food for my new pup, but I can imagine that this is not always feasible. My guess is that alot has changed in the pet food industry since 2007, and since 2007 was referred to as the "tipping point," I assume that means that things have changed for the better. Any insight into this would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

Submitted by Renee | June 2 2011 |

I started feeding my two dogs (6mo puppy and 7y spayed female) a homemade / sometimes raw diet about 4-6 mo ago. Especially when the puppy came home. Not exclusively, I still offer the kibble. I only give my 7y about an ice cube size portion in the morning and again in evening. She is free to fed the rest of the day-which has never been an issue before. We just came from the vet and she has gained 7 pounds in the past year or two! She has not been weighed in awhile so I don't know how recent the gain is. Now, she is getting a lot of treats the past 3 mo due to puppy (puppy gets treat for potty, she does too) but they are little tiny bites (half-pea size). Not enough to make 7 lbs. So, I'm left thinking that it is due to the homemade food. I know it is healthier for her (current batch is gr beef with pumpkin, spinach, raw egg, carrots) but weight gain is not! But would maybe 1/3 cup of raw food a day make that much difference in her weight? She has exercised more in the last 3 mo due to puppy than in years, but still the weight gain. Any words of wisdom?

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Submitted by Helen Billet | November 27 2011 |

Excellent article. The one hurdle that people seem to face with feeding quality food to their dogs is price. Finding good coupons seem to help with that and I use a site that I check weekly to see if any coupons are available for the dog food that I use: http://petfoodtalk.com/dogfoodcoupons/. I very rarely pay full price for my dog food anymore.

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