Before you run to the pet store to purchase your dog’s next food it’s important for you to realize that the pet food bag gives you very limited information about the actual quality and safety of the food. A pet food label can give you some information about the general composition, the ingredients within the bag, and the life stage the food is created for. It will also give you information regarding if the product is intended as a “complete and balanced” diet or if it’s just intended for “supplemental feeding”.
It doesn’t tell you the quality of the ingredients, where those ingredients are sourced, how bioavailable those ingredients are for your dogs (aka how nutritious the recipe is!), and it gives you no information about who formulated or created the diet. Unfortunately, there are a lot of “loopholes” in the pet food industry that allow for products with excellent marketing departments, but that haven’t actually put the time and research into producing a quality product.
As an RVT and someone who speaks about dog food on a fairly regular basis I often get asked about “which food is the best”. And honestly – this depends a lot on your dog and their needs. I personally don’t believe there are “best” foods for all dogs. But I do think we can find the “best” food for your dog. To do this you first evaluate your dog and their nutritional needs – based on things like life stage, activity, and medical conditions. Then basically interview dog food companies that meet those needs to see which one has the best answers to your questions.
Below are the questions I ask pet food companies prior to choosing them as an option for my own pets. These questions were adapted from the WASVA Guidelines.
1. Who formulated your dog food?
ANYONE can formulate a dog food and bring it to market, they do not need any experience formulating foods AT ALL. The highest level of education for pet food formulation is a board-certified veterinary nutritionist or someone with a PhD in animal nutrition. The term “pet nutritionist” is unregulated, and is not an equivalent level of experience.
If you are looking for “the best” dog food on the market one good indicator of it being a quality product is if it was formulated by those with the highest level of education in the industry. This will let you know that at the minimum the diet is balanced on paper, and ideally, these professionals will understand and know how ingredient interactions, sourcing, and processing may influence the overall digestibility of nutrients, and where additional supplementation may be needed.
Using a group of specialists – including those with MS/PhD in Food Science and Agriculture (for multiple view-points), and even having someone with a nutritional background on staff is ideal to make recipe adjustments due to supply changes, and adjust recipes as new research comes out to improve recipes.
2. Who manufactures your dog’s food?
Many pet food companies will use a co-packer to produce their dog food, if they do it’s important to know who it is and look up the recall history for all foods produced in the facility as these foods may come in contact with your food, causing a recall. This will also mean that company representatives may not be present to inspect incoming ingredients, or check quality assurance in person – so having a very throughout quality control program for the facility is paramount.
If a pet food company manufactures their own food they have more control over contact points with other contaminants and quality control of the final product. This does mean if there is a recall – they are to blame – so regardless a strict quality assurance program is important.
3. Where do you source your ingredients including your vitamin and mineral supplements?
How and where ingredients are sourced is important to know. Are they sourcing individual supplements or do they use a supplement premix for their diets? How do they choose a “reputable” or “good” supplier – what types of processing or quality controls are suppliers required to present prior to being used? Have they visited or audited suppliers in person or what third-party certification or verification do they use to make sure suppliers are giving them high quality products.
Does the company look for a particular quality (USDA Certified Meats for example) to be included in their foods, or a particular grade (Human Edible vs Feed Grade Corn). Do they place emphasis on farming practices when choosing meats? Examples of these certifications about be “Certified Humane” or “Global Animal Partnership” aka “GAP Level 1-5”
4. What quality control do you perform on ingredients coming into your facility to check for pathogens/purity?
Sourcing a quality ingredient is only half of the equation to making sure they are safe for your dog. The second side of these is to make sure they are not contaminated with toxins or pathogens before entering your facility and requiring third party testing like a certificate of analysis prior to entering. By doing so this will keep production or cooking lines “clean” and prevent cross contamination of these harmful toxins between batches.
If using mealed or pre-ground products where it is especially difficult to differentiate different grades or types of meats doing in-house testing for purity may be a good idea. Many meat meals and dehydrated products will have the same general texture or color – and for hypoallergenic diets cross-contamination is especially important to consider.
5. Are your products human-edible, human-grade or feed-grade?
It is important to note that “human-edible” is a legally defined term, meaning that products using this term have to be sourced from and kept within the human food chain from ingredients to storage to production. Human-Grade is not legally defined, products may use ingredients from within the human food chain but they may or may not be produced, or stored in a way that makes them still human-edible as a finished product. Feed-grade products are recycled from the human industry. Feed-grade products may not be stored, produced or handled the same way as human-edible products. It should be noted that raw foods are unable to be classified as “human-edible” at this time since they are intended to be fed raw and not cooked – and raw meats are not allowed to be considered “edible” for human consumption unless the label has instructions on cooking the product.
6a. What quality control do you perform on the final product?
How often do they perform quality control testing to check for things like AAFCO nutrient level consistency in the final product? Or are products just checked for guaranteed analysis. What you are looking for here is how often they have or do a “Typical Analysis” on their final products.
A “Guaranteed Analysis” will look at Crude Protein, Crude Fat, Total Fiber, Carbohydrate and Moisture – basically what you see on the pet food label breakdown. A “Typical Analysis” goes into much more detail – this will include vitamins and mineral content along with protein, fat, carbohydrate and fiber. It also may include a breakdown on types of fats, and full amino acid profile. A Typical Analysis will catch things like excessive amounts of certain supplements (like recent Vitamin D recalls), processing/manufacturing abnormalities, and potential sourcing problems.
Does the company test final products for pathogens? If so which pathogens do they test for and how often? Does the company follow Good Manufacturing Practices recommendations by the FDA?
6b. Do you use a “test and hold” procedure to check for pathogens, heavy metals and mycotoxins?
Most pet food recalls are related to pathogens (aka Listeria, E.Coli, or Salmonella), and Mycotoxins within pet food. NONE of these items should EVER be in pet food. Companies should be testing to make sure that they aren’t. Heavy Metals can also be an issue with fish-based diets and sometimes those using certain synthetic supplements – third-party testing on ingredients and the final product is important.
A test-and-hold procedures means that all products are tested to be free of pathogens and toxins PRIOR to leaving the facility to be purchased by consumers. The idea here is the food items contaminated with potential toxins or pathogens are never actually released for consumption.
7a. What research have you done on your dog foods? Do you do AFFCO feeding trials?
AAFCO Feeding Trials are a bit of a controversial subject as they can be limited in scope as the minimum requirement is only 8 dogs, fed a food for 6 months, with 4 lab tests done on them that are normal with no weight loss. However AAFCO Feeding Trials can be robust in nature as well – which you can read about further here. This extra testing and research can help prove the safety of diets, especially when using atypical or new ingredients that have not previously been studied in dogs. As AAFCO feeding trials are very expensive, most new companies will not have performed these, however, “ethics” due to animal testing is not really a viable excuse for not doing AAFCO feeding trials – as these trials have been done with dogs in their own homes as part of a veterinary university study.
7b. Has your company done digestibility trials on your dog food, if so, what is the dry matter digestibility?
Digestibility Trials looks at how much of the nutrients are bio-available within the dog food. Foods with a Dry Matter Digestibility of over 85% on a dry matter basis are considered “highly digestible”. Digestibility trials are can be done in multiple ways – and either be published and peer-reviewed, be part or included in an AAFCO Feeding Trial, or be done by the company without being published.
It is important to note if digestibility was “calculated” on paper or actually done through a feeding trial, and how long that feeding trial was. It can take several weeks in order for a dog’s gut to adjust to a new diet, and digestibility values may be slightly variable each day – thus very short feeding trials may not represent true values. But just like how AAFCO Feeding Trials can be particularly important when using new food items or ingredients – digestibility trials offer an additional tool to prove the safety of new foods, ingredient combinations, and processing techniques for dogs. Without this data, we wouldn’t truly know if all essential vitamins and minerals are adequate and able to be absorbed effectively by the dog.
8. Has your company ever had a recall? if so why was the food recalled and what have you changed to make sure this doesn’t happen again?
No one ever wants to deal with a recall – and ideally, companies do many quality control checks to catch issues before they go to market. But if something happens and a product is recalled it is important to know WHY and WHAT the company has done to improve their products and quality control to make sure this does not happen again in the future.
9. How long have you been in the PET food industry producing dog food?
Though there is nothing wrong with being a new and innovative company, but sometimes newer companies still have a lot of “kinks” to work out, and may have issues with finding the same quality of suppliers as they scale.
Knowing not only the experience of the staff, but the background of the company is beneficial. There are many companies that may have started in farming or manufacturing other foods, then transitioned to pet food. For these companies, it’s good to realize when their pet food manufacturing experience started, and what experienced staff they have brought on to help navigate this space.
I hope these questions will help you narrow down which option might be the best option for your pup (or kitty!) – I know the process of choosing a pet food can be extremely overwhelming since there are literally thousands of options on the market. If you need a bit of extra help – feel free to reach out, I’d be more than happy to help you with this process. I’ve also started to interview different lightly cooked fresh dog food brands so you can compare recipes and their answers to choose the best option for your pup!
- 2021 Gently Cooked Dog Food Brands
- How to Compare Ingredients Lists
- How to Read a Pet Food Label
- Dog Food Feeding Trials – Digestibility and AFFCO Feeding Trials
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