Making the right dog food choices
Although dry dog food is convenient to store, pet nutritionists such as DogAware.com's Mary Straus say that canned food can be better than dry food, mostly because it contains fewer preservatives (because the canning process itself acts as a preservative). Canned dog food generally contains less grain and more moisture, which helps keep a dog hydrated and benefits the urinary tract.
Like canned foods, the best dry dog foods have high-quality proteins (named meat and meat meals), along with high-quality carbohydrates, such as potatoes and whole grains. Lower-quality products instead may contain corn, wheat and soy, along with glutens and byproducts. Experts don't consider such ingredients to be highly desirable, and brands containing them may not be very palatable to dogs. Pound for pound, the well-known brands sold in supermarkets and major pet-food chains are obviously a lot cheaper. However, many pet-nutrition experts say that the initial cost difference doesn't tell the whole story. They note that the higher-quality ingredients in premium food mean your dog will actually eat less compared to inexpensive dog food. An added benefit is that because more of the food is absorbed as nutrients, your dog will pass less solid waste.
Experts also point out that suggested serving sizes are just that -- suggestions. Feeding needs vary greatly depending on your dog's breed and activity level, and serving guidelines are merely a good jumping-off point. A dog that spends all day running around in the yard will obviously need more food than a sedentary dog. Observation will tell you if your dog needs more or less food.
Dog food for life stages
Choosing the proper food has become even more challenging since manufacturers started labeling their foods as being suited for certain life stages, such as puppy, large adult or senior, or breeds. According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the body that governs and regulates pet-food labeling, there are only two true designations: a formula for puppies and one for adult dogs. Puppy formulas generally have more calories and protein. Products labeled "senior" or "large breed" mean the food meets requirements for regular adult food. There's nothing regulating those additional terms when they're used on dog food packaging.
Change dog foods periodically, and alternate between dry dog food and canned food. Many experts say you should change brands every few months as well, which will ensure that any nutrient deficiencies in a particular food won't have long-term effects. Find three or four foods your dog likes and alternate among them. High-meat-content canned foods are best used as a supplement to a high-quality dry food.
Look for certification by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). According to the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine website, "An AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement is one of the most important aspects of a dog or cat food label. A 'complete and balanced' pet food must be substantiated for nutritional adequacy by one of two means. The first method is for the pet food to contain ingredients formulated to provide levels of nutrients that meet an established profile. The alternative means of substantiating nutritional adequacy is for the product to be tested following the AAFCO Feeding Trial Protocols."
Choose a food that has whole meat or whole meat meal (lamb meal, chicken meal, etc.) as its top ingredients. Grain sources should also be whole grains, as opposed to glutens or other processed products. Rice and barley is better than corn or wheat. Avoid meat byproducts, particularly ones in which the meat is not named, and meat-and-bone meals.
Avoid BHT, BHA and ethoxyquin as preservatives. A better choice would be foods preserved with tocopherols (vitamin E) or vitamin C (ascorbate).
Observe your dog carefully when trying a new food. Some dogs need more protein and some need less, just as some dogs need to eat more than others, depending on activity level. Look for changes in coat and skin, along with stool consistency.
Pet-food safety is a concern. Past recalls of dog foods -- because of wheat and rice glutens contaminated with melamine -- have spotlighted some major issues regarding pet foods and their ingredients. Recent pet-food recalls have included ones for salmonella that have also made pet owners who had come in contact with the food fall ill. Although the majority of foods are deemed safe, this is clearly an ongoing issue.