Most Americans have the luxury of plucking packages from supermarket shelves and squinting at ingredient lists to determine what's healthy to eat. But their dogs can't, so the burden of choosing a healthy diet for Dino rests squarely on the pet owner. In addition to the flashy and often informative product packaging you'll find on most brand-name consumer-grade dog foods, there are gobs of resources you can scour about choosing good dog food including books, TV shows, magazine articles and websites. One of the best sources for reliable, unbiased information may be a veterinarian.
Chewing the Chow
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Veterinarians, much like pet owners, vary in opinion about dog food.
Pet food politics can be polemical, so it's important to know a veterinarian's stances on a few topics before weighing his or her recommendations. Special considerations that may be important to you or other pet owners include raw, kosher, vegetarian, ancestral, organic, prescription diets and other diets.
Remember, the dog food displayed in the waiting room at a veterinarian clinic may not reflect a veterinarian's opinion about appropriate dog food. Directly ask a veterinarian for his or her professional opinion.
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Veterinarians, much like pet owners and dogs, play favorites.
When a pet owner knows why a veterinarian favors a particular food, it helps the pet owner make informed decisions when that food isn't available or an alternative food passes muster.
AskVetAdvice.com, a website founded by Dr. Maria-Elena Cloherty, an American Veterinary Medical Association member, maintains a list of “Recommended Pet Health Foods." The majority have no artificial preservatives, the website claims. The site encourages people to check ingredients when considering dog food.
AskVetAdvice.com recommends Wysong Pet Food Products, Flint River Ranch, Solid Gold Health Products for Pets, Steve’s Real Food for Pets, Nature’s Recipe, Back to Basics Pet Food, Nutro Canine & Feline Pet Food Products, Precise Pet Products, Pet Guard Canine & Feline Pet Foods, Canidae & Felidae Pet Foods, and Natura Pet Products (Innova, California Natural, Healthwise, etc.). The basis for these recommendations isn't explicitly stated on the website, though.
In an article on dog training guru Cesar Milan's website, Dr. Sherry Weaver recommends consulting a veterinarian or animal nutritionist before changing dog foods.
"To really choose the best food takes some research or requires finding someone knowledgeable who you really trust to advise what is right for your individual dog," Weaver writes. "This is not the salesman at the pet store who has only been informed by representatives from the food companies, and it shouldn't be just some website that made sense to you."
A Book by Its Cover
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Dog food labels, unlike vets, pets and pet people, are subject to governmental packaging laws.
Understanding how to read pet food labels empowers a pet owner to understand veterinarians' dog food recommendations and apply their litmus tests to other products.
In America, the Food and Drug Administration regulates pet food.
According to the agency’s website, “There is no requirement that pet food products have pre-market approval by the FDA. However, FDA ensures that the ingredients used in pet food are safe and have an appropriate function in the pet food.”
That means the meats, grains, minerals, vitamins, flavoring, processing aids and food coloring used in dog food must already be generally considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration.
There are specific rules for the wording on packaging. To simplify matters, the first few items listed on the obligate ingredient label are generally a fair indication of the bulk of a dog food's composition. Claims about "natural," "organic" and similar fodder rest in murkier territory in which the FDA has only cursory purview.
Someone's in the Kitchen
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Pet owners, much like dogs with access to garbage cans, have other dog food options.
FoundersVet.com, a website founded by Founders Veterinary Clinic, in Brea, Calif., includes an article by Paula Terifaj, D.V.M., in which she advocates pet owners cooking their own dog food.
"If you know how to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet, you can apply that same principle to feeding your dog." she writes. "Only the ratio of meat to carbohydrates and size proportions will change."
Terifaj offers sample recipes in that article, although she notes they are intended as guidelines, not dogma.
DogFoodAnalysis.com, one of many dog food review websites, includes a disclaimer that's probably an appropriate caveat for any dog food recommendation, regardless of the source: "There is no guarantee that any food, however highly rated, will suit a particular dog. ... Finding the best food for your individual (dog) does, and always will, involve some amount of experimentation."