Garbage in / garbage out? Why what you feed your dog might affect their health and behaviour.
A trip to your local pet shop or supermarket can be a bewildering experience for many dog owners. Bag upon bag of dog food featuring glossy images of moist chunks of meat with healthy looking vegetables as a side dish. Appetising photos of dog food that would not look out of place in your favourite cookbook or being prepared by a well known TV chef!
But have you ever explored beyond those images to see what goes into your favourite brand of food? Not all dry dog foods (also known as kibble) are made equal, and interestingly, it is not simply a case of ‘you get what you pay for’. There are some very expensive brands that contain extremely cheap, low quality ingredients and some brands that offer decent ingredients and amazing value for money.
There is a growing movement towards raw feeding in the UK but many people still choose to feed dry dog food for many perfectly valid reasons such as pricing, health concerns around handling raw meat and convenience. In this blog we are focusing only on options for dry dog food – we will need to do a whole separate post to cover raw feeding!
So what should you be looking for when choosing your dog’s dinner?
Dogs are omnivores – they evolved from their canine ancestors to survive on a mixed diet of meat, vegetables and carbohydrates often scavenging the leftovers of human food. However, as human diets have changed and become increasingly full of fat, salt and sugar it is now not particularly healthy for dogs to eat our left overs!
We suggest that you really want to be looking for something that goes back to a more ancient diet, similar to what raw and fresh food feeders aim towards, processed in a way that retains as much of the goodness as possible. Ideally, we would suggest choosing a food that uses human grade ingredients as the quality of the ingredients has a huge affect upon the nutritional value provided.
At first glance this may seem impossible within the budget you have for feeding your furry friends, but the aim is to get as close to that as you can for a price you can afford. It is also worth remembering that many higher quality dog kibbles are more nutritionally dense – meaning you can feed less biscuits per meal so a big bag lasts longer. Some smaller dog food companies also do special deals if you buy in bulk, which can also help to bring the price down.
What is it dogs eat? Well the first thing that most people would answer is meat. Have you actually checked how much meat is your dog’s kibble though? Don’t be confused by the terms food manufacturers use. The term ‘meal’ means meat so, for example chicken meal is ground up chicken meat. The term ‘derivatives’ however, could include such things as beaks and feathers! A good quality food will be clearly labelled and be clear as to what you are actually feeding your dog. Here’s an example from Akela’s Suffolk Duck Grain Free Working Dog Food:
80% Duck (46% Rehydrated Duck, 31% Freshly Prepared Duck, 2% Duck Fat, 1% Duck Stock), Sweet Potato 9%, Tapioca 3%, Chickpeas 2%, Alfalfa/Lucerne 2%, Linseed 2%, Vitamins, Minerals, Chicory, Carrot, Tomato, Apple, Pear, Cranberry, Mulberry, Orange, Bilberry, Cowberry, Mixed Herbs, Parsley, Peppermint, Spirulina, Seaweed, Camolmile, Rosehips, Nettle, Yucca Extract, Marigold, Aniseed & Fenugreek, Cinnamon, Joint supplement [Glucosamine (180mg/kg), MSM (180mg/kg), Chondroitin Sulphate (125mg’kg)].
Compare this, for example, to Wagg’s Moist Meaty Chunks with Chicken (remember, the largest ingredient is listed first on food ingredient lists):
Cereals, Meat and Animal Derivatives (30%, including 4% chicken), Various Sugars, Oils and Fats, Derivatives of Vegetable Origin, Minerals, Citrus Extract (0.18%), Yeasts (MOS 0.1%), Yucca Extract (0.06%).
As you can see from the labels – meat is not always the main ingredient in all dog biscuits and, in some cases, the type and quality of the meat on the label makes up very little of what actually goes into the kibble. It is also worth noting that many dogs are also sensitive to other ingredients, often to common protein sources such as chicken. If you are concerned about this it is often worth trying a more unusual protein source such as duck (there’s many other alternatives too) or where your dog seems to have a particularly sensitive tummy, fish is often a great choice.
Vegetables and carbohydrates
Dogs need vegetables and carbohydrates as well as meat to provide all the essential vitamins and minerals they need for healthy growth and to maintain joints. You may also have noticed that your dog likes to graze on fruit, vegetables and ‘greenery’. How many of you have dogs that go wild for sticky weed on their walks for example? Carbohydrates are a vital part of a dogs diet but many dogs exhibit allergies and dietary sensitivities to grains such as maize, wheat and even rice in some cases so we recommend a grain free diet where possible.
Many dog food manufacturers add artificial additives, colouring and preservatives to their kibble to make it last longer, look more appealing to humans and taste more exciting for the canine consumers. Similar to the reasons many human foods are moving away from including these ingredients many additives in dog food have also been linked behavioural issues and health problems. Some argue that their dogs love these foods and will not touch other foods. If you feed your child on a diet of fast food burgers and sweets is the transition to healthy food going to be an easy one? Dogs are no different!
Where to look for advice?
So, with all that to consider how on earth do you decide what food might be worth checking out? Luckily there is no need to be overwhelmed as some clever folks have already come up with a handy guide to most of the popular brands of dog food in the UK! When we at Hounds First want to look at a new food for our foster dogs we turn to the All About Dog Food website https://www.allaboutdogfood.co.uk/ (although other dog food review sites are available!). All About Dog Food examines the ingredients in every brand and gives a 0-5 star rating taking all these factors into consideration. They also have a handy budget calculator so you can see how much a move to a new brand would cost.
Obviously in an ideal world, everyone would feed their dog food with a 5 star rating. However, family budgets come into play and of course why have one sighthound when you can have more? So sometimes it is a case of choosing the best you can afford for your dog(s) and also one that they enjoy eating, suits them (no dodgy poos) and they do well on. At Hounds First we decided to use a basis of a minimum of 3.5 stars out of 5 on the All About Dog Food Website as a rough guide to a decent quality food at a price that was affordable to the rescue.
Some of the higher star rating foods favoured by sighthound owners tend to include:
Akela, Millies Wolfheart (there are various different ‘mixes’), Aatu and Eden. The list is not exhaustive though, there are many high scoring foods for you to check out for yourself and new foods come on the market all the time.
If you are working to a really tight budget some of the decent quality foods (3.5 stars or above) that have we have found to work well for sighthounds (especially those with sensitive tums) include:
Skinners Field and Trial Duck and Rice, Harrington’s Grain Free, Arden Grange Sensitive and Fishmonger’s Finest.
Again, it can be a case of trial and error. All dogs are different and what suits one may not suit another. However, whatever your budget, there is no reason to feed a poor-quality food.
Recently, out of interest, we compared a few supermarket own brands on the All About Dog Food website. As a rule, we tend to advise against supermarket own brand dog foods as they generally tend to be low quality. However, there are some that buck the trend and obviously they are more convenient to buy if you live in a remote location or want to avoid buying online.
At the top of the bunch, Sainsbury’s The Delicious Collection Complete (2 varieties) boasts 3.9 stars out of 5. However, their ‘Basics’ version only scores 1.1. Costco’s own brand Kirkland Signature Adult Dog comes in at a respectable 3.6 stars out of 5 and Aldi’s Earls Langham’s complete kibble whilst not making the 3.5 star mark does score 3 stars out of 5. However, Aldi’s Earls Premium Moist and Meaty Complete only scores 0.1.
Bottom of the pack amongst the supermarket brands we looked at were Lidl’s Orlando Complete (2 varieties), Tesco Complete dry dog food and Tesco Senior Complete dry dog food all with 0.1 stars out of 5.
Moral of the story: Don’t believe the advertising. Don’t necessarily take your vet or breeder’s word for it as many are sponsored by the big brands and are taken in by the sales pitches just as much as you might be. Take a good look at the packet yourself, see what’s actually in there and check it out on an independent review site such as All About Dog Food.
PLEASE NOTE: This blog is based on our own opinions and experiences