It seems obvious that meat should be the center of our pets’ diet, our dogs and cats are carnivores after all. Unfortunately, choosing the right pet food, isn't always as easy as it sounds. This is because some companies are more interested in profit than our pets’ health.
There're tons of dog food brands out there, but you must consider the many variables and look through the marketing schemes. It's up to you to really judge what's right for you and your dog. Many commercial pet food manufacturers don’t make it easy to judge how much meat is actually in their products or the real quality of their ingredients.
Companies don’t always tell you a lot about how everything is cooked or where all of their ingredients come from. Even the numbers on the label aren’t as helpful as they could be, making comparisons hard. The more detail you can get about these things, the better.
Expect quality pet food to cost a lot more, but make sure you’re actually getting your money’s worth. And, remember that good companies don’t make it difficult to find things out. They’re proud of what they make, and they want you to know.
The product labels on quality dog foods will have more detailed information, not just fancy marketing. Their website should get even more specific. Of course, you’ll see the result in your pet’s health as well.
15 Ways to Make Sure Your Dog Gets Enough Meat (of good quality)
1 Look for a biologically appropriate diet
Physiology sets what we and our dogs should eat, and how much of that we should consume. With today's ever-expanding waistlines, we all seem to have forgotten, but this is definitely true for dogs and cats too.
We should all know what a diet of processed food does to health, and the growing epidemic of obesity in the human and canine worlds should be a big indicator.
Dogs and cats, in particular, didn't evolve to eat a lot of corn, rice, soy, wheat and potatoes – never mind the artificial preservatives and other unnatural ingredients in today's commercial products.
So, why are these ingredients so common in dog food then?
It's because these types of ingredients are cheaper than high-quality meat. Of course, that doesn't mean dogs and cats shouldn’t have any fruits and vegetables. Wild carnivores eat the stomach contents of their plant-eating prey after all.
A biologically appropriate diet is about the right balance, avoiding foods that pets are sensitive to, and using foods with a healthy glycemic index to maintain blood sugar levels.
RELATED: Can Dogs Go Vegan?
2 Make sure commercial dog food brands are complete and balanced
There are some minimum guidelines set up to help you when picking dog food brands.
If your pet food says it's “complete and balanced” on the label, that means:
- it passed Feeding Trial Protocol(s) with the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO);
- it meets AAFCO Dog or Cat Food Nutrient Profiles;
- or, it’s part of a line of products with AAFCO approval.
It means the product has enough nutritional value that it can be used as the only source of daily nutrition for your pet, not just a snack or treat.
It will also tell you if the product is appropriate for:
- or, for all life stages.
Any other specific uses stated on the label are suggestions set by the company.
For example, there are dog foods intended for seniors, particular sized animals, and certain breeds, but there are no official guidelines.
This also might mean that there’s little or no research to back up any claims. Be aware, these are minimum standards too, so it’s just a starting point.
3 Give your dog enough moisture, and know its role when calculating the percentage of protein
If you don’t know what that really means, it might look like canned dog food is a waste of money. The reason most canned dog food brands have much less crude protein is because they have more moisture than dry kibble.
More moisture is a good thing for dogs, because prey animals are about 70 percent water (just like humans). That means wet dog food is closer to what our now domesticated canines evolved to eat, and there might be more meat than you think.
To judge dry and wet dog food on an even playing field, we need to divide by the percentage of the dry matter, then multiply by 100 to get the percentage of protein without the water.
For example, if canned dog food is 78 percent moisture, it’s 22 percent dry matter. That’s the maximum moisture for regular dog food cans under AAFCO rules.
As a quick rule of thumb, multiply the crude protein in regular canned dog food by 4 to get an approximate idea of how much protein there actually is. Stews and gravy pet foods have even more moisture though, so you may need to get your calculator out.
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4 Understand dog food descriptions and types
The best dog food companies are more than happy to tell consumers exactly how much meat is in their products and that's why we rank well very high on our lists of top dog food brands. If it’s not right on the packaging, it’s on their website.
There’s also more information in how manufacturers describe their products than meets the eye too – if you know where to look. For example, if dog food sells itself as “Beef for Dogs,” it has to be 95 percent beef. If the type of meat is just mentioned in the name, it might just be beef flavored, with as little as 25 percent beef according to regulations.
These kinds of products also need some other kind of descriptive term, like:
- or formula.
Since consumers often choose dog food by looking for a particular protein source, it would be nice if the label always told us everything we want to know, but it doesn't.
The journal Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica published an interesting study by the University of Nottingham on commercial dog food products. In their tests, only two beef flavored pet foods had more beef in them than the other kinds of meat.
Of the 17 popular commercial canned pet foods in the study, 14 had cow, chicken or pig DNA not listed on the label.
The clearer the company is about the kind of meat used, with specific number values, the better a product usually is. Any vagueness in the marketing should make you immediately suspicious of the company, the manufacturer and the dog food brand itself.
5 Find out where the animals used as a meat source came from
Quality pet food companies will always tell you where their ingredients come from, and often how they were raised or harvested too. There's no reason for them to hide anything.
Developing and third world countries not only have unsustainable farming and fishing practices, but their employees sometimes suffer grossly inhumane treatment, and are even forced into labor and slavery. This transfers directly into pet food manufacturing.
The closer the source of the ingredients are to where they are used, the fresher they probably will be. Quality pet food manufacturers must carefully monitor every stage of their supply chain, so they know the quality and source of everything.
All of that makes for a much better dog food brand, but it raises the final price too.
Ethically raised meat animals are a growing trend in the pet food industry, as well as GMO-free, all-kinds-of-free and organic dog food brands. Some of these labels require certification by third-party organizations, which can give you even more security.
Always look for the country of origin with all ingredients and for words like:
- free range
- grass-fed meat
- human grade
- non-GMO or GMO-free
- certified organic
- wild caught
- hormone and antibiotic-free
6 Rotate named protein sources
In proper dog nutrition, there's a thing called “rotation feeding.”
Regularly changing your dog to a different, high-quality protein sources reduces food sensitivities in the dog.
It’s more than just good for your pet's appetite – it also makes sure that your dog gets all of the nutrients that he needs. A few of these important nutrients include a variety of amino acids, vitamins, minerals and fatty acids.
7 Understand what makes a protein source digestible
Not all protein in dog foods is equally digestible, meaning the body can't actually use and get the amino acids and other nutrients it needs. That’s why a numbered protein percentage can’t tell you everything you need to know.
The biological value is important too.
Eggs are the most digestible kind of protein, followed by fish and fishmeal. Lamb and chicken are more digestible than beef, but quality and processing is key.
Basically, the more natural the meat ingredients are, the more digestible they’ll be.
It’s gross, but a pet lover really can tell the difference if they look at their dog's stool. If it’s too hard or there is too much, it’s a good sign something is off with your dog's diet. Mucus and soft stools are particularly bad, according to veterinarians.
What you should do is look for ingredients that sound like food. If there’s too much you don’t recognize, or that you wouldn't eat yourself, it’s likely not fit for man nor beast.
8 Look for shorter lived fish, lower on the food chain
Fish is very digestible, but it can be high in heavy metals and mercury. The longer a fish lives, the more they pick things like that up.
The same goes for predatory fish, like tuna, Mahi-Mahi and swordfish that quickly get contaminated by the smaller fish they consume on a regular basis.
Where the fish are caught or farmed makes a huge difference too. Shorter lived, smaller fish are safer for dogs, like jack mackerel, herring, sardines and catfish.
9 Know what meat meals are and their quality
Meat, in its natural form, is high in moisture – about 75% water. The more it’s cooked, the more that moisture disappears. Meat meals only have about 10 percent water, and a lot of the fat is removed too.
There are some advantages to this if it starts with meat that’s fit for human consumption, since protein and minerals are concentrated by the rendering process.
According to its definition in the AAFCO Official Publication, blood, hair, hide and other scraps, even manure, stomachs and their contents can go into meat meal.
Just exactly what’s in your dog's food depends on the company, which is why it’s better to look for meat meals that clearly say what kind of animals are used and their quality.
10 Grain-free isn’t automatically lower in carbohydrates or higher in protein
One thing a lot of pet owners get wrong is assuming that grain free dog foods will also have less carbohydrates in them. That is not necessarily the case, however.
Dry pet food from grocery stores is usually between 40 and 60 percent carbohydrates.
Grain-free dog food can be just as high, sometimes replacing nutrient rich whole grains with starchy vegetables, like tapioca and potatoes.
That’s certainly not what consumers want when they look for grain-free dog food brands, but they can be fooled by the marketing into thinking the pet food is healthier.
Certain grains definitely are less digestible for dogs and cats, like corn, wheat, soy and oats. Peas and rice are well tolerated by dogs, but brown rice is better for the blood sugar than white rice, as is the case with humans.
Peas, grains, beans and seeds are often added because they contain protein, so they can raise the crude protein percentage more cheaply than meat. Don’t be fooled into thinking that number always shows how much meat is in the product.
11 Don’t rule out the right amount of fat
Low fat sounds healthier to many consumers, but fat is actually a vital energy source with more than twice the energy found in carbohydrates.
Some fats, like fish oil containing omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) provide extra essential nutrients that benefit our pets’ skin, hair and brain. It's also one of the most well-researched supplements with its effectiveness proven in clinical trials.
Fat, in the right amount, keeps our pets immune systems healthy and properly regulated.
The younger the animal, the more fat they need to fuel their activity and growth. Even weight control dog food usually has about 5 percent fat. Somewhere between that and 10 percent is suitable for adult maintenance foods.
You can also always supplement your dog's diet with the right amount of fish oil.
12 Avoid hydrolyzed dog food products
Hydrolyzed protein dog food is a newer trend in the pet food industry, often marketed towards pets with allergies or sensitive digestion.
These dog foods can be expensive, and even show up as prescription dog food brands.
For the uninitiated, hydrolyzing agents are applied to the meat ingredients, and they’re cooked and ground with special additives (source). Then, they’re steam cooked again under high heat and pressure to form a slurry or powder.
When it arrives at the pet food plant, these meat ingredients are often cooked again with the other ingredients. Almost any animal byproducts and protein can be used, including feathers, because everything is broken down into amino acids.
However, the result will always have less bioavailability than natural animal muscle meat and organs, which quickly decreases the value and nutrition of that particular dog food.
Research shows that very little of the hydrolyzed protein can be used by our pets’ bodies.
According to Johns Hopkins University and Arizona State University study (PDF here), feather meal is more likely to have drugs and contamination from personal care products as well. High heat destroys a lot of the nutritional value in your dog's food.
13 Avoid unnamed meat by-products
At best, it’s just doggy junk food.
However, the same cannot be said for organ meat from named animal sources, like livers, hearts, kidneys and tripe, which are absolutely great and nutritional for dogs.
Meat byproducts might have organs just like that in them that humans don’t like to eat, but there can be stomachs, udders, hair, horns, teeth and hooves too. Meat byproducts are sometimes disguised under other labels as well, like “modified beef” (source).
If a pet food manufacturer doesn’t even name its meat and bone meal sources, they can change them according to what’s available.
When these products don’t come from USDA-inspected rendering plants, it might not even be from cows, pigs and chickens. Basically, it could be anything.
Remember that honest and good pet food manufacturers will tell you exactly what’s in their dog food and name all meat and bone sources, as well as specific organs.
FURTHER: How Commercial Dog Food Is Made?
14 Consider making your own cooked pet food
The pro of cooking for dogs and making homemade dog food is that if you make your own meals for your dog, you’ll know exactly what’s in it.
However, you need well-balanced homemade dog food recipes; otherwise, you risk making your dog or cat sick, or worse yet, making them malnourished.
You’ll probably need to add additional vitamins and mineral supplements into your homemade dog food meals as well to make sure they get everything they need.
The correct amount of everything for your pet’s body weight is important too. It's best to work with your veterinarian or a canine nutritionist to create a list of homemade dog food recipes that will meet your pet's individual needs.
But remember that even recipes created by vets are no guarantee.
The University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine tested 200 recipes, but many didn’t have enough iron, copper, calcium or zinc. Look for advice from certified pet nutritionists or PhD-trained animal nutritionists.
If you need a list of homemade dog food recipe ideas to go over with your vet or nutritionist, we have a huge library with guides and videos on homemade dog foods.
15 If considering raw meat, use caution
There are some advantages to this, since it’s more natural, but you have to be careful.
Patrick has written a good article on the many disadvantages and potential dangers of feeding your dog raw, and why pet owners should avoid feeding raw dog food.
I'm not leaning that far against it, but there are things you absolutely must consider.
Don’t feed your dogs raw guts or stomachs because they can get parasites, like roundworms, hookworms and tapeworms. If you’re hunting with your dog, keep that in mind too. Muscle meat is safer if it’s frozen for at least 3 days to avoid toxoplasmosis.
All cats and dogs can be carriers of salmonella, but it’s more of a concern if they eat raw meat. Pets can handle more bacteria than we can, so they don’t necessarily get sick. However, pet owners can pick up bacteria from the feeding area, fur and waste.
Whether feeding raw or not, always keep the area where your dog eats clean and wash your hands after petting your dog or cat or handling their stools. Even commercial raw dog foods have a lot more recalls than other pet products, so extra caution is required. Whenever possible, use anti-bacterial dog feeding mats to avoid spreading bacteria.