How sad it's been well over a year that I've blogged. I can only say that is truly indicative of how busy things have been and that is certainly a wonderful problem to have.
Every semester I give a lecture to my students about selecting petfoods. This past weekend a friend forwarded me some questions and I realized I should blog my response rather than simply email back since others may have similar questions.
My favorite diets are certainly raw or home-prepared diets; however, I am the first in line to understand those diets are not appropriate for every home and every situation. There are many fabulous kibble and canned foods for our beloved dogs and cats on the market today. So, I am going to share with you how I select kibble dog foods. I want to preface this by saying these are my NORMAL recommendations for NORMAL and healthy dogs. There are totally different selection criteria in play when we are dealing with clinical considerations which I am not addressing here.
First decision point is protein source. This may or may not be a major decision for some people but if you know you want a fish diet for example, obviously that's where you start. I RARELY suggest lamb or venison diets. These are "hot" proteins (so is chicken) and most dogs I work with run "hot". That's pretty easy to determine if your dog seeks cool places to lay, stretches out while sleeping and gets hot easily or is easily excitable or easily aroused. These dogs are likely (but certainly not always) "hot"; therefore, cooling proteins are typically better options. Those of you that know my little Keegan, he is my exception. Keegan is ALWAYS cold, even when it's 100 degrees outside. He always sleeps curled up and most often buried under 5 pounds of blankets. You can actually feel cool as you touch his ears and back. Keegan is fed primarily lamb to "warm" him up. If you work with a holistic vet, they can help you determine if your dog is hot or cold. Fish, duck and turkey are good cool proteins, and beef and pork are neutral.
After I've decided if protein source is important to me, I look at fat content. At minimum, fat concentration should be 15% for a kibble. If it's below 15%, I don't consider it further. I am of the strong opinion we have misunderstood the value of fat in diets of carnivores. They are extremely efficient at using them. Even overweight dogs do not need low fat diets, they simply need fewer calories...funny thing...so do we :).
Next, I consider protein concentration. This needs to be in proper ratio with the fat. I want an approximate 2:1 protein to fat ratio. In the case of kibbles, if I've found one that has 15% fat, then the protein needs to be very close to 30%. If the fat is 20%, then the protein needs to be 40%, etc...
If I'm happy with both protein and fat, then I look at ingredients. I prefer the products that have higher protein and fat concentrations. This is because the higher those two, the lower the starch. So, when I'm looking at order of ingredients I like to see 2, if not 3 protein sources at the top. If it says chicken (actual chicken meat with high moisture) then I want the following protein to say "meal" such as chicken meal (dried, rendered chicken). Some of the worst diets in my opinion will have a high moisture meat ingredient like chicken at the top of the list but then quickly be followed up with a carbohydrate fraction that is dry such as peas or potatoes or a grain. When you consider the entire diet on a dry matter basis, suddenly that high moisture chicken is no longer the top ingredient. If you select your diets first based on fat and protein rather than ingredients you likely won't get fooled by this trick because those diets won't even reach the 30% protein and 15% fat minimum in the first place.
I'm pretty happy if I see something like: chicken, chicken meal, turkey meal. You get a meat followed with a meal and your protein and fat will be higher.
I am also OK with "by products" and "by product meals" as long as I can identify the species from which said by products came from. No poultry or animal by products as the quality then becomes rather sketchy in my opinion.
Grains - I'm totally OK with grains. A funny thing, some grain-included foods are actually higher quality than a lot of the grain-free varieties. Another reason I always start with fat and protein concentration before looking at ingredients. A lot of grain-frees won't actually reach 30% protein and 15% fat. Unless I have a known reason to avoid grains, I simply don't. In fact, I use barley, quinoa or oatmeal in my home-made raw diet for my guys. I also will use rice on occasion.
Starches - even the grain-free diets must contain substantial (usually in the area of about 40%) starch to maintain the quality of the kibble itself. So, they use potatoes, fractions of potatoes, peas, fractions of peas and tapioca. Of those, peas are my favorite. I prefer peas over potatoes because of the starch type and glycemic index. The starch in potatoes is extremely digestible and has a high glycemic index. If I asked you if you should eat peas daily or potatoes daily, you'd probably know eating potatoes on a daily basis isn't your best choice...it's not for dogs either (although I'd gladly eat potatoes every day...I LOVE THEM). There are fewer options that only use peas as the starch source; however, more petfood companies are utilizing them more extensively.
A note about plant proteins such as soybean meal and corn gluten meal - I avoid those. I will not deny they are definitely proteins but I don't believe they are the quality for carnivores or have the appropriate amino acids for carnivores that animal proteins or egg proteins have.
Hope that makes your decision making process a bit easier!