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Selecting a Commercial Dog Food

Commercial dog kibble is a great convenience for us as busy dog owners. We all want the best for our new family member for sure, but with the overwhelming number of foods and claims to choose from, how do you determine the  best choice for your new Ridgeback puppy, now and as he or she grows into maturity?

Standards for Ingredients

The pet food industry is of mammoth proportions, with a staggering $15 billion a year plus in annual revenue in the U.S. alone! Although dog food manufacturers may promote themselves as having the best interests of your puppy at heart, we have to be realistic. They are generally more focused on expenses and bottom lines for their stock holders. This may be particularly true of dog food manufacturers owned by multinational conglomerates. What this translates to is that inexpensive ingredients can often take priority over higher quality ones for the simple reason that profit motivation is the driving force for a more attractive bottom line. That said, there are a few companies pride themselves on their “standardized formulations,” meaning that they always use the same ingredients without fail. This can be a good thing, albeit with a caveat. The ingredients have to be of acceptable quality to start with.

It is acceptable and legal for a dog food to be labeled as “balanced and complete” if it meets the standards set forth by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AFFCO). These standards were formulated a little over a decade ago by panels of canine nutrition experts. A dog food may be certified in a couple of ways: Firstly, they must meet AAFCO’s published standards for content which they call “Nutrient Profiles”. The second requirement is that a manufacturer submits their particular variety for testing. However, even though the majority of researchers concur that feeding trials are far better in determining whether or not the nutritional content is sufficient, clinical experience as well as scientificly formulated studies have substantiated that although a pet food may pass feeding trials it could still not be up to par for a long-term diet. It is also important to realize that the standards set only best and worst case scenarios and not optimum feeding needs. Commercial foods are formulated to be sufficient for the average dog, but not all foods will be suitable for a specific canine's particular needs.

Potential Problems Ridgbacks can develop

Now, we don't believe that all manufacturers pet foods are a problem, but we do have to be reasonably alert as to some issues. Some diseases in Ridgebacks have been traced back to pet food ingredients. For example, Allergic skin disease, food intolerance, obesity, chronic ear infections, cystitis, inflammatory bowel disease, bladder and kidney stones, pancreatitis, certain heart diseases, hyperthyroidism, bloat, and diabetes all are known to have nutritional components — that is, some of these nutritional factors are known or at least suspected to play a role in causing  or perpetuating these disorders. Because of this we need to be aware of our purchases of pet foods. There are instances when a Ridgeback puppy owner having issues have stopped or changed a certain food and seen significant health improvements.

Another important concern with manufactured dog foods is residual pesticide contaminants, antibiotics and growth hormone factors contained in pet food ingredients. There have been incidents where by products from sick animals loaded with drugs have been discovered in these foods. Some of these toxicities have been demostrated to pass unchanged through the various stages of processing to create a finished pet food. We have all heard of recalls dog food by different manufacturers due to mold contamination of grain ingredients. Some fungal toxins are very dangerous. There are documented cases of dogs losing their lives over this issue.

Another problem is the unpredictable quality of common pet food ingredients. By-products, by-product meal, meat and bone meal, and similar ingredients can vary widely in their nutrient composition. Bone meals in the U.S. have had a lead contamination problem for many years. The protein in a meal containing a large amount of bone may be poorly digestible and fail to provide adequate nutrition, even though chemical analysis will reveal an acceptable amount of amino acids.

Commercial dog food processing itself can also be problematic. Meals are cooked at moderate to high temperatures for hours. Extruded foods pass through a steam heat/high pressure device that allows them to “puff” into kibble shapes when they come out of the machine. Even though they move through the extruder quickly, the extreme conditions may alter or damage some nutrients.

Pet food manufacturers are aware of these factors, and most add sufficient extra vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to compensate for losses in the manufacturing process. However, because the AAFCO profiles set only minimums for many nutrients, tests have shown that some minerals may be added to the food in excessive amounts.

Dog Food Shopping Checklist

The most reputable manufacturers of “superpremium” and “natural” foods agree with holistic veterinarians and other experts that the very best diet for your animal companion is one that you make yourself. A homemade diet, carefully balanced nutritionally and using organic foods, is closest to what Mother Nature intended. However, many of us do not have the time or energy to do home cooking, especially for multiple animals or large dogs.

For those of us who rely, partially or entirely, on commercial foods for our animals, we have prepared a checklist to use in selecting a good-quality diet.

Research by many organizations has revealed that the pet food industry is extremely secretive. Manufacturers will not disclose very much information about the sources of ingredients, how they are processed, their quality control standards, or, in some cases, even where the food is made. Based on this information, here are a few guidelines to help you in searching out a dog food product.

When selecting a commercial food for your puppy, make sure the label has an “AAFCO guarantee,” preferably one that references “feeding tests” or “feeding protocols” rather than just a list of Nutrient compositions.

  • Stay away from foods containing “by-product meal” or “meat and bone meal.” These ingredients are the most inexpensive sources of animal protein. The contents and quality of these meals can vary widely from batch to batch, and are not a reliable source of nutrition for your animal. However, "Chicken meal", "Lamb meal", or other types of meat meals are good.

  • In general, avoid foods that rely on by-products as the sole source of animal protein. By-products consist of organs and parts either not desired, or condemned, for human consumption. An occasional can of by-product-based food may be okay, since, in the wild, carnivores do consume the whole prey including the organs, but these foods are not acceptable as a steady diet.

  • Look for an identifiable meat or meat meal (“lamb” or “chicken meal,” for example, instead of a generic term such as "meat") as the first ingredient.

  • In general, avoid generic or store brands. These may be repackaged rejects from the big manufacturers, and generally contain cheaper — and consequently poorer quality — ingredients.

  • Unless specifically recommended by your veterinarian, avoid “light,” “senior,” “special formula,” or “hairball formula” foods. These foods may contain acidifying agents, excessive fiber, or inadequate fats that can result in skin, coat and other problems.

  • In general, select brands promoted to be “natural.” While they are not perfect, they may be better than most. Several brands are now preserved with Vitamins C and E instead of chemical preservatives (such as BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin and propyl gallate). While synthetic preservatives may still be present, the amounts will be less.

  • Check the expiration date to ensure freshness.

  • When you open a bag of dry food, give it a sniff — if there is any rancid odor at all, return it immediately for an exchange or refund.

  • Store dry pet food in a sealed non-porous container (a large popcorn tin is ideal) in a cool, dry place. Canned food is best removed from the can and refrigerated in a glass or ceramic container.

Guidelines for Feeding Your puppy

  • Switch brands or flavors of dry food every few months to avoid deficiencies or excesses of ingredients which may be problematic for your Ridgie. The "change up" is also very enjoyable for your dog.

  • When changing dry foods, start off by mixing about a quaerter of the new food with three quarters of the old food, and increase the new food a little each day. Some finicky animals may require a slower change over a two or more week period. Return to the old food if diarrhea develops.

  • With any new food or supplement, watch for subtle changes in your dog’s skin and coat, appetite, energy level, mood, itchiness, discharges or odors, body weight, and the size and consistency of stool. If negative changes occur, try a different food. If the change persists, consult your veterinarian.

  • If your companion is on a prescription diet, check with your veterinarian periodically (at least every 6 months) to make sure the diet is still correct. Many conditions resolve over time, and a diet that was needed for a younger animal may be inappropriate when she is older.

  • It's better to feed one or two meals per day rather than leaving food out all the time. For one thing, our Ridgies love to eat, and they will get fat easily.
  • Feed some canned food occasionally, which generally contains more animal protein and less grain than dry foods. Plain dry food does not clean the teeth and is not an essential for dogs.

  • One thing that we do is to supplement our dog food with other foods, such as steamed, pureed or finely grated vegetables in a food processor. One of their favorites is boiled sweet potato. We will make a sweet mashed potato and mix it with other fruits and veggies and freeze them into patties. These make excellent treats. You can also supplement with tofu and cooked grains;  However, If you are supplementing more than 15-20% of their diet, you should research a little further through one of the variety of available books or online for information on balancing vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.

  • Other helpful supplements that are especially important when feeding commercial food include probiotics such as acidophilus, digestive enzymes, and the antioxidant vitamins E (alpha tocopherol) and C (either Ester C, calcium ascorbate, or sodium ascorbate) Ester C is particularly helpful in growing puppies for bone, muscle and ligament development.

  • Consider making at least some of your animal’s food at home. This puts you in conntrol of the formulation. There are many excellent books, articles, and websites available for more detailed guidelines on ingredients, proportions, and preparations. Even if you only supplement a couple of your own prepared meals a week, it will be a significant improvement over feeding commercial dog food only.

Your veterinarian only sees your dog once a year. This puts you in charge, since you are around him every day. Common sense dictates that you monitor the general health of you dog. Watch for how he responds to the food he’s eating. Pay p-articular attention to changes in appetite, coat quality, or weight, stool, urine, or something so simple as water consumption. Any significant changes need to be reported to your vet.

Vegetarian Pet Foods

Dogs are classified as carnivores, but every dog can thrive on a vegetarian diet. There are several vegetarian and even vegan pet foods available which are supplemented with nutrients unavailable in plants. Your dog might do very well with one of these diets, or even with a balanced homemade vegetarian diet. However, you should watch your dog carefully for problems such as a dull coat, dandruff, low energy, diarrhea, or other symptoms. It can take months or even years for a deficiency to develop.

Dog Food Label "Rules"

  • The 95% Rule: If the product says “Salmon dog Food” or “Beef Dog Food,” 95% of the product must be the named ingredients. A product with a combination label, such as “Beef and Liver for Dogs,” must contain 95% beef and liver, and there must be more beef than liver, since beef is named first.

  • The 25% or “Dinner” Rule: Ingredients named on the label must comprise at least 25% of the product but less than 95%, when there is a qualifying “descriptor” term like “dinner,” “entree,” “formula,” “platter,” “nuggets,” etc. In “Beef Dinner for Dogs,” beef may or may not be the primary ingredient. If two ingredients are named (“Beef and Turkey Dinner for Dogs”), the two ingredients must total 25%, there must be more of the first ingredient (beef) than the second (turkey), and there must be at least 3% of the lesser ingredient.

  • The “Flavor” Rule: A food may be labeled “Turkey Flavor Cat Food” even if the food does not contain such ingredients, as long as there is a “sufficiently detectable” amount of flavor. This may be derived from meals, by-products, or “digests” of various parts from the animal species indicated on the label.

Reading List

Celeste Yarnall. Natural Cat Care. Journey Editions. ISBN 1-8852-0363-2.

Celeste Yarnall. Natural Dog Care. Journey Editions. ISBN 0-7858-1123-0.

Kate Solisti-Mattelon and Patrice Mattelon. The Holistic Animal Handbook: A Guidebook to Nutrition, Health, and Communication. Beyond Words Publishing Co. ISBN 1-5827-0023-0.

Richard H. Pitcairn, D.V.M., and Susan Hubble Pitcairn. Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats. Rodale Press, Inc. ISBN 0-87596-243-2.

Donald R. Strombeck. Home-Prepared Dog & Cat Diets: The Healthful Alternative. Iowa State University Press. ISBN 0-8138-2149-5.

Note: Because pet food manufacturers frequently change the formulations of their products and API would not have conducted the necessary testing, it is difficult to offer endorsements for particular brands of dog food. When we do offer a suggestion, its important to keep in mind that our recommendations are only a snapshot in time. What is acceptable one day, becomes a problem the next. You must stay abreast of recent developments in dog food manufacturing. Consider that many people educated on the toxicities in Dog foods choose to make their own pet food or to purchase natural or organic products found in most feed and specialist stores.

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