Dog Food Ingredients

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What You Need to Know When Buying Dog Food

Sometimes it seems like this is a dog’s world and we’re just living in it. According to the latest estimates, there are some 89 million pet dogs in the United States and millions more in Canada and Mexico. Naturally, we have to feed all of those lovable companions and that brings us to the almost overwhelming number of dog foods available today. How are you supposed to choose which food is best for Max or Bella (the current most popular male and female dog names)?

You might be interested to know that ideas about what makes the best food for dogs are currently changing. You’ve probably seen online articles that tell you to avoid grains and carbs, for example. Well, veterinary advice is pushing back because of some health problems that may be related to ingredients in grain free dog foods. You might be surprised by some of the foods and ingredients that are now being recommended for dogs.

What Nutrients Does Your Dog Need?

Your dog needs the same nutrients that he’s always needed, regardless of which dog foods are popular.

  • Water
  • Protein
  • Fats
  • Carbohydrates
  • Crude Fiber
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals

And many dog foods will also add probiotics and prebiotics to their formulas.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) sets guidelines for animal nutrition. They recommend that adult dogs have a minimum of 18 percent daily protein in their diet. Growing puppies need a minimum of 22 percent protein. Adult dogs need a minimum of 5 percent fat in their diet; growing puppies need a minimum of 8 percent fat. There is no dietary minimum for carbs but they are required for energy. Carbohydrates do need to be cooked well so they don’t cause problems and so dogs can digest them well. Dogs don’t require fiber in their diet but it does provide health benefits for the gastrointestinal tract. Vitamins and minerals are usually added to dog foods to exceed requirements because most foods are cooked at high temperatures. This can destroy the natural vitamins and minerals in the ingredients so adding vitamins and minerals to the food ensures that it contains the nutrients your dog needs.

Grain Free Dog Foods

For the last 10-15 years grain free dog foods have been increasingly popular for various reasons. Some of these foods are high in protein. Some foods contain exotic ingredients which appeal to pet owners. In actuality, grain free foods were developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s for dogs with food allergies that really needed them. If you had a dog with a food allergy at that time, the only way to feed your dog was to cook for him. (I had a dog with food allergies in the 1980s and I had to cook lamb and rice for him several days per week. Lamb was a novel protein at the time.) Now people often buy grain free dog foods because they are avoiding corn or wheat or other ingredients that they have been told are “bad.” Even people who have dogs without any kind of food allergy or sensitivity automatically buy grain free dog foods because they think they are better dog foods than grain-inclusive foods.

It turns out that there might be some problems with feeding grain free dog foods.

In July 2018 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) put out a warning saying that they were investigating a possible link between ingredients in grain free dog foods and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs. The ingredients they were investigating included peas, other legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, and potatoes (including sweet potatoes). The FDA continues to investigate the possible connection and has expanded their investigation to include exotic meats. DCM can be fatal if it’s not treated. So far the FDA has received over 300 reports from dog owners that have had their dogs diagnosed with DCM.

From a February 2019 update:

Based on analysis of the 196 DCM reports to FDA in which dogs were fed only a single, primary diet (i.e., didn’t eat multiple food products, excluding treats), approximately 90 percent of the foods were reported to be labeled “grain-free” (or labeled as zero-grain) and approximately 10 percent ate diets containing grains, some of which were vegan or vegetarian. A large proportion of the reported diets in DCM cases contained peas and/or lentils.

You may find articles online that downplay or pooh-pooh the FDA’s investigation but these results should be taken seriously. The dogs diagnosed with DCM are only from among the dogs that have been tested. There are likely many other dogs that have been eating these foods which have not been tested and which could have DCM.

Researchers and veterinary cardiologists have not said that you need to entirely avoid grain free dog foods. However, they have indicated that dog owners should avoid ingredients such as peas, legumes, lentils, potatoes, and sweet potatoes that are main ingredients in dog foods. Dr. Josh Stern, one of the primary DCM researchers, suggested avoiding foods that have these ingredients among the first five ingredients listed. The FDA has suggested avoiding foods that have these ingredients among the first 10 ingredients listed.

Which Ingredients Should You Look For?

Considering that you might be looking for a grain-inclusive dog food for your dog, it means that there could be some changes in the ingredients you look for.

Grain-inclusive dog foods will not have the high protein percentages found in grain free dog foods. That’s because ingredients such as peas, lentils, and other legumes boost the protein percentage in grain free foods. These foods contain lots of protein but much of it is plant-based which is not always easy for your dog to use. You need to adjust your expectations. Grain-inclusive dog foods usually have protein percentages in the 22-28 percent range.

  • A named meat is still a good ingredient. A named meat meal is also good and often found along with a named meat. The moisture has already been removed from a meat meal so it has more protein per ounce than whole meat.
  • Named meat by-products. Named meat by-products include parts such as liver, kidneys, brains, tripe, sweetbreads, and tongue. These are good parts to include in dog food and things that your dog loves.
  • Named fats are good. Chicken fat is a great natural source of glycosamine. Fat is good for your dog and some vitamins are fat soluble so your dog can only get them through fat.
  • Corn is a good grain! Forget what you have been told in the past about corn. As long as the corn has been cooked well, your dog can digest it. Corn is also a good source of the amino acids methionine and cysteine. Methionine helps produce cysteine; and cysteine is required for your dog to synthesize taurine in his body. Low taurine has been linked to some cases of DCM. As long as your dog is not allergic to corn in particular, there is no good reason to avoid it in dog food because your dog needs these amino acids.
  • You can still try to avoid added preservatives, colors, and artificial flavors.
  • Probiotics and prebiotics are good for your dog. Probiotics usually have long, Latin-sounding names like Lactobacillus acidophilus. Yoghurt is also a probiotic when it has live, active cultures. Prebiotics include ingredients such as chicory, inulin, and beet pulp (also a fiber). Many ingredients do double duty in dog foods.
  • Look for the AAFCO nutrient statement. This statement tells you that the food has met some kind of AAFCO approval, either through feeding trials (preferred) or by means of a nutrient profile.

If this list of ingredients is different from some other lists you have seen, that’s intentional. Many of the companies that have been hailed as making the “best” dog foods have been linked to dogs with DCM. It’s time to re-think dog foods and ingredients. Which dogs are staying healthy and living long lives? What are they eating?

Some Dog Food Brands We Recommend

Veterinary cardiologists that have been working with dogs diagnosed with DCM have been adamant about recommending dog foods that meet the requirements of the World Small Animal Veterinary guidelines. Guidelines include having a veterinary nutritionist on staff, doing research on pet food, providing information about the company’s quality control measures, along with information about the nutrient analysis of the food, and more. Many new or smaller companies do not meet these requirements.

Companies that makes foods that do meet these requirements include:

Other foods which have been doing well with dogs that have been tested for DCM include:

There are probably other brands that we don’t know about yet. It’s true that some of these brands may have ingredients you won’t like but most of them have been formulated by veterinary nutritionists. The big companies do lots of research into canine nutrition. Their foods have been performing well. Dogs fed these foods have not been diagnosed with DCM.


Until the FDA completes it’s investigation, we recommend that you use caution about buying grain free dog foods. If your dog can eat a grain-inclusive food, we suggest that you look for one. Or at least look for a grain free food that does not contain large amounts of peas, lentils, legumes, potatoes, or sweet potatoes. Tapioca can be used in place of grain, for example, or you can look for a food that uses one of the less common grains such as oats. Rice is another alternative to grain (it’s a cereal). We would like every dog to be healthy and live a long life. We hope this information is helpful to you.



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