We would all like to think that the critter food companies we patronize are sincerely interested in taking good care of our pets, just like we are as their caretakers. Unfortunately, there are many unscrupulous people interested in making a profit any way they can. Remember the melamine scare? These types of people are only interested in pandering to the misguided information many of us receive, and make a profit from it.
So what do we need to look for in a dog food? As you can imagine, the answers are as numerous as the number of dog food companies, which happens to be a bunch! There are some items to avoid, and other label ingredients to be cautious about. We will start with why melamine was added to begin with. In this country especially, we seem to be protein fixated, even though it is not as important as many would believe. When food is analyzed for protein content, it is often analyzed for nitrogen content, as protein is high in nitrogen. Melamine is also high in nitrogen, so add some of that stuff in, and you can now list a high protein content! Clever, yes? But definitely not good! Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007_pet_food_recalls for a more complete description of what occurred.
There are some undigestible 'real' protein ingredients, as well as other ingredients that you probably do not want to hear about. Skip this part if you are easily queasy, as it is not appetizing in the least. Another method to increase protein content in animal food is to add things like hooves, feathers, beaks, hair and fur, and similar high protein ingredients. However, the protein in these ingredients is not digestible, so the only thing you or your pet gets out of it is a lot more to clean up! This brings up another point about quality dog food - if your pet can digest more of the food they eat, then they need to eat less and leave less mess behind their behind. They need to eat more low quality food to make up for not getting much out of what is put in front of them.
Here is a really bad one - using euthanized and road kill animals to produce animal protein. That's right, all those dogs, cats, bunnies, and other animals that are left in large animal shelters can be used in producing animal food, euthanasia drugs and all. I don't know which companies do this, and how common it is, but this a reported occurrence. I have personally seen the road kill bin at a transportation facility, which was emptied periodically into a protein factory. Type 'euthanized pet food' in a web search if you want to read more about it, but be prepared for what you find.
The ingredients we want to avoid seeing in our pet's food is animal protein, by-products or digest, or other nebulous descriptions. If it says animal, it can come from anywhere. But what about those companies that tout chicken or pig as their big ingredient? First, read the entire ingredients label to make sure there are no mystery ingredients somewhere down the list. If you don't know what the ingredient is or why it is there, ask someone - it might have a purpose, or it just might be a cheap filler.
After checking all the ingredients, there is yet another way to lower the quality of the food - using sick, diseased, or dead chickens, pigs, or cows instead of healthy, and therefore typically healthier for your pet, animals. Other ingredients, such as by-products or digest, can have a lot of unsavory components. If it says by-products, it can be any part of the animal. I was told by one pet food advisor that typically the by-products are the organs, which is often good for your pet, but unless that is verified, you just don't know. After an animal is cleaned for consumption, the left-over bits are put in a large vat, chewed up and digested with microbes and enzymes, and then put in the pet food. Although some of these parts may be acceptable, all of them are certainly not.
Now that you are thoroughly disgusted, what should we look for? Chicken is often not digested well by dogs, and my first dog raised from a puppy (http://cubits.org/Dogs/articles/view/401/) had a terrible time with a chicken based dog food; gassy and bloated quite often. This is when I started learning more about pet food - what to avoid and what to look for. There are many people that highly recommend avoiding prepared pet food altogether, using only fresh ingredients, freshly prepared, for their pets. If you have the time for it, by all means, do that. Many days, I am lucky to find time to make meals for myself and family, let alone the pets, so I opt for prepared dog food.
Since dogs are omnivorous, which means they can digest both plant and animal matter, but are more oriented towards animal consumption, you probably want a decent animal ingredient first - fish, chicken, bison, lamb are all worthy ingredients. Note that what suits one pet will not suit all, so most importantly get what is suited to your own pet. Furthermore, there is evidence that feeding the exact same food for a pet's entire life can lead to allergic reactions to that food, so you may want to mix it up some - fish for a few months, bison for a few months, and so on. When changing food, make sure to do it slowly or else the sudden change will also cause stomach distress. What I do is put about one weeks worth of the old food on top of the new food in their food can. As I scoop it out, it mixes in quite well and seems to work for getting them used to the new food.
Other ingredients to look for include a good mix of fruits and vegetables, some minerals and vitamins mixed in, and maybe even some holistic and healing ingredients, such as for joint health. At the risk of sounding like I am promoting a specific brand of food, my favorite is Solid Gold, and has been for about 20 years. My last dog lived to 17 years old - still running up to his 16th year - on the lamb based formula, and his companion (a rescue mix that weighed about 70 pounds) lived to 13-14 years old. I am currently using the Solid Gold bison based food, alternating that with the Annamaet Option fish formula and Canidae beef and fish formula; I may use others as I feel comfortable about their manufacture, but I am happy with my current selections for now. There are many other foods that should work, as evidenced by the dog food list on PetFoodDirect and other sites, but do your checking first! Remember that what works for one dog is not guaranteed to work for another one, so even a good food can cause problems.
That is Falco above (with 4 legs!) at about 15 years old, hanging out after a 2 mile run to our river spot, and Tigger, the mix, during her last summer enjoying one of her favorite activities: chasing jumping frogs! Below are my current 2, attempting to share a retrieving stick, at just over one year of age. The photos in the banner above are my previous and current buddies.
I hope you survived reading this not entirely appetizing note, and are better informed because of it. Now that you have some ideas on what to look for and what to avoid, I hope we will all become better stewards of those in your care. Please tell us about your own experiences with pet foods, good and bad, and how you are feeding your furry ones.
P.S. There is an informative conversation going on in the 'food' thread. If you found this article interesting, you will probably benefit from the thread below. There is also a dog food database, where we can share experiences and information on specific types and brands, as well as home made recipes and supplements.