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You are what you eat

Have you ever taken a close look at the ingredient list of your dog's food? Are you giving your dog feet, tails, hair, beaks, and diseased or chemically treated meat?  I have been feeding Al Pedigree's Adult Complete Nutrition since adopting him because that is what he was used to eating. But I've recently decided to embark on the search for a better doggie diet. I already tested out a healthy dog treat recipe, and now I'm ready to find out more about my dog's food.

Al's current food contains:

GROUND WHOLE CORN, MEAT AND BONE MEAL, GROUND WHOLE WHEAT, CORN GLUTEN MEAL, ANIMAL FAT (PRESERVED WITH BHA AND CITRIC ACID), WHEAT MILL RUN, CHICKEN BY-PRODUCT MEAL, NATURAL FLAVOR, SALT, RICE, POTASSIUM CHLORIDE, VEGETABLE OIL, VITAMINS (CHOLINE CHLORIDE, dl-ALPHA TOCOPHEROL ACETATE [SOURCE OF VITAMIN E], CHOLINE CHLORIDE, L-ASCORBYL-2-POLYPHOSPHATE [SOURCE OF VITAMIN C*], VITAMIN A SUPPLEMENT, THIAMINE MONONITRATE [VITAMIN B1], BIOTIN, d-CALCIUM PANTOTHENATE, RIBOFLAVIN SUPPLEMENT [VITAMIN B2], VITAMIN D3 SUPPLEMENT, VITAMIN B12 SUPPLEMENT, DRIED VEGETABLES (PEAS, CARROTS), MINERALS (ZINC SULFATE, ZINC PROTEINATE, COPPER SULFATE, COPPER PROTEINATE, MANGANESE PROTEINATE, POTASSIUM IODIDE), ADDED FD&C COLORS (RED 40, BLUE 2, YELLOW 6, YELLOW 5).

You probably read the first few ingredients and skipped over the rest. Who has the time? And who knows what all of that really means? Yet it pays to investigate what really goes into your dog's food, otherwise you may not know how bad it really is.

The first ingredient listed, which means that it is present at the highest percentage before processing, is ground whole corn. Corn can be as difficult to digest for dogs as it is for some humans, yet is it used liberally (check the ingredient list of any food product in your home) in human and dog food as a protein, filler and sweetner because it is subsidized by the government and therefore is very cheap. This helps the dog food manufacturers keep costs low - but I have seen what happens to corn in my dog's stomach firsthand.....and that is practically nothing. The day after I let my dog eat a cup of canned corn he pooped it out, looking exactly the same as it had when it went in. I don't like the idea that the main ingredient of my dog's food is there simply to make sure his bowels are still working. While corn that is ground may be easier to digest, it isn't as nutritious as other foods. No wonder Al is always hungry! Additionally, while Al does not appear to suffer from any allergies, corn is a known allergen for many dogs and can cause bloating (i.e. gas).

Second: meat and bone meal. 'Meal' means that the meat and bones have been ground or reduced to small particles. This is not bad, but the problem here is that the particular meat source is not identified. What do they have to hide?

Third: ground whole wheat. Wheat is an even bigger allergen than corn for many dogs. If your dog has been scratching excessively or licking its paws, or has repeated ear infections, too much corn or wheat in the diet may be the culprit, according to dog trainer Victoria Stillwell's How to Have the Perfect Pet.

Fifth: corn gluten meal. More corn to help the food manufacturers' bottom line.

Then there is animal fat (preserved with BHA and citric acid). BHA, or butylated hydroxyanisole, is a common food additive that slows the development of off-flavors, odors, and color changes caused by oxidation. It has been proven to cause tumors in lab animals in large doses. Stillwell writes that these chemicals may also adversely affect dog behavior in the same way junk food and fizzy drinks make chlidren climb the walls. As for the fat itself, it is seperated from meat at the rendering plant using extreme heat and pressure, which can destroy any vital amino acids that were present and would have made the fat beneficial. The fat is then sprayed back onto the food at the end of the processing to make it more palatable. Yum! Just like the meat and bone meal, the particular animal source here is not identified. Many animal fat sources, like beef tallow, are not easily digestable, making this ingredient even more questionable.

Wheat mill run is more wheat, except with less of its natural nutritional value.

Chicken by-product meal is a tasty one. Victoria Stillwell explalins that "By-products include necks, feet, undeveloped eggs, and intestines, including organ meat. Sometimes the head and beak are added. Feathers are allowed, but only those that have slipped in during processing." By-products may not be digestable and may not contain any meat at all. 

Stillwell adds that by-products of other slaughtered animals consist of parts that are unfit for human consumption, "Including heads, feet, tails, hair, ligaments, bone, intestines, lungs, and so on." This doesn't necessarily mean the food is bad. In the wild, organs are usually the best part of the dog's kill. But in the wild this meat is fresh and nutritious, unlike the organ meat in dog food, which may be diseased. If your dog food contains 'digest of beef' or another animal, this refers to material that is chemically recovered from carcasses using enzymes. 

Then follows an extensive list of added vitamins and minerals. This sounds good in theory, but these would not have to be added if the vitamins and minerals that were present in the raw ingredients in the first place had not been destroyed through processing. Vitamins and minerals are easier to absorb by the body when they come from raw sources.

Included in the mix is a brief mention of peas and carrots somewhere very low on the list. A dog food brand that included more vegetables higher up in the list would be ideal.

Appearing last are the added FD&C colors, which are derived from coal-tar and can contain trace amounts of lead and arsenic. While each of the color additives present are currently approved for use in food by the FDA, the administration has made mistakes in the past. I don't think my dog cares what color his food is, so why risk it?

I'm on the hunt for a new dog food, and here are my standards:

  1. It can contain corn, but not as one of the main ingredients.
  2. Meat sources should be clean and clearly identified.
  3. Grains should mainly be whole and unprocessed.
  4. It should be free of chemicals and preservatives.
  5. It should contain a variety of raw ingredients full of vitamins and minerals.
  6. And, of course, Al needs to like the taste.

Meanwhile, I will make sure to supplement Al's current dog food with some fresh, unprocessed tidbits from my own table. Dogs do like the taste of some fruit and vegetables and one of Al's favorite treats is cooked cauliflower (which I detest, so it works out perfectly for me to donate my portion). But if you do feed your dog people food, remember never to share chocolate, poultry bones, raw meat or any of the foods on this list of toxins - all of which can be deadly.

Additional resources: The Dog Food Project; Ingredient Definitions - although this information is provided by a pet food manufacturer and could be biased in favor of their products, it is a good jumping off point for deciphering ingredient lists; Dog Foods - also includes a list of ingredients and their definitions

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