If you're not comfortable feeding your pit bull a home-prepared, species-appropriate diet, but don't want to feed a dog food containing food industry waste products and carcinogenic preservatives either, you're in luck. Never before have there been this many choices for dog owners who care deeply about providing their canine companions with quality nutrition.
Types of Commercial Dog Food
Let's start with an overview of your options:
- Kibble - Nothing beats kibble for cost and convenience, and due to increased consumer awareness about questionable pet food ingredients, a flurry of small companies touting human-grade ingredients and natural preservatives has exploded onto the market during the past decade or so. Some of these foods even offer organic or free-range meats. However, there are still two problems with kibble. The first is the relatively high percentage of starchy carbohydrates kibbles must contain in order for the pieces to retain their shape and the extrusion process to work properly. While grain-free varieties are now available, these foods still contain plenty of carbohydrates in the form of potatoes, sweet potatoes, or tapioca. The second issue is the high temperature at which kibble is processed. While many of the better quality kibbles are baked, not extruded, baking still occurs at 425+ degrees Fahrenheit, destroying valuable enzymes and vitamins in the process. Another potential issue is that kibble requires a lot of preservatives to prevent mold and rancidity, and while the natural preservatives used in high quality foods are a much better choice than the carcinogenic chemical preservatives found in most of the major brands, they also have a shorter shelf life.
- Dehydrated Foods - Freeze-dried and dehydrated foods are a relatively new option that offers much of the convenience of kibble (though dehydrated foods typically need to be "rehydrated" by combining them with water prior to feeding) without the drawbacks. While some dehydrated foods are lightly cooked prior to dehydration, others are completely raw. Moreover, extremely low carb versions are available. The main drawback of these foods is the price. Expect to pay $10/lb (1 pound of dehydrated food makes about 4 pounds of rehydrated food) for a human-grade, grain-free dehydrated food such as Honest Kitchen or ZiwiPeak.
- Canned Foods - Most of the smaller companies making kibble from human-grade ingredients also make canned foods, and these are often a better choice, albeit a more costly one. Quality canned foods frequently contain less carbohydrates and more meat, and since the canning process preserves the food, added preservatives are not required.
- Frozen Raw Diets - These diets typically consist of ground raw meaty bones, organ meats, veggies, fruit, and supplements. They are more or less a ground, ready-made version of the species-appropriate canine diet, although they usually contain more plant foods and supplements. Frozen raw diets will generally cost you 3-5 times as much as you would pay to make the same food at home, especially if the frozen diet isn't available locally and you need to have it shipped.
What to Look For in a Commercial Dog Food
What makes a quality commercial dog food? Here's what you should look for:
- Human-grade ingredients - Look for a dog food that contains ingredients that are USDA-approved for human consumption. If the company's website does not mention that their food is made with human-grade ingredients, assume that it isn't. And that means your dog's food may contain decaying meat, organs from diseased animals, moldy grains, rancid fats and other ingredients marked unfit for human consumption!
- Low carbohydrate formula - Dogs have no nutritional requirement for carbohydrates, so look for foods that contain as few carbs as possible. If you're searching for a quality kibble, a food that uses sweet potatoes as its main carbohydrate source may be your best bet. The first two ingredients listed on the label should be a whole meat source, but beware of ingredient splitting. For instance, a chicken & rice formula that contains more rice than chicken may list rice, rice flour, and rice bran separately, so they'll appear below chicken on the ingredient list. Also keep in mind that meats that are not in dehydrated meal form contain a lot of moisture, so it's possible that a food contains more grain than meat on a dry weight basis although the meat is listed first on the label.
- No generic proteins and fats - Avoid foods containing generic ingredients such as meat meal, meat & bone meal, poultry meal, animal fat, poultry fat, glandular meal, vegetable oil, etc. Instead look for specifically named protein and fat sources such as turkey, lamb meal, venison, chicken fat, flax seed oil, etc.
- No meat by-products and digests - These are almost always ingredients rejected for human consumption.
- No worthless filler ingredients - Avoid foods containing low-quality waste products from the human food industry such as corn and wheat gluten meal, corn bran, brewer's rice, soybean meal, peanut hulls, soybean hulls, oat hulls, potato product, wheat middlings, and other grain fragments and mill waste.
- No chemical preservatives - BHA, BHT, TBHQ, and Ethoxyquin should be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately this is easier said than done, because dog food manufacturers are required to list only the preservatives they've added themselves. If they purchase an ingredient that was preserved with one of these chemicals at the rendering plant, they are under no obligation to disclose this information. For instance, fish meal is required by law to be preserved with ethoxyquin, a preservative banned for human consumption (except in the tiny amounts necessary to preserve certain spices). The fish meal rendering plant can apply for a special permit to use an alternative preservative such as vitamin E, but unless the dog food manufacturer specifically states that the fish meal in their food was not preserved with ethoxyquin, assume that it was.
- No sweeteners or dyes - Sweeteners (e.g., corn syrup, cane molasses, sugar, sucrose, fructose, sorbitol, glucose, propylene glycol) and dyes are a sure sign of a low quality food.
Remember that you don't need to pick one food and stick to it. There's nothing wrong with rotating between 2-3 quality foods on a regular basis. On the contrary, variety is a good thing!