Joan Merriam: Dog food 101 |

Joan Merriam: Dog food 101

One of the most common questions I get is, “What food should I feed my dog?” Unfortunately, there’s no single, definitive answer. In the “old days,” we didn’t have much choice as to what to feed our dogs: there was Friskies, and there was … Friskies. (Yeah, there were a couple of other brands, but by and large, the dog food landscape was pretty bleak.)

Today we understand that dogs, like humans, have different nutritional requirements, sensitivities, physical conditions, and likes and dislikes. If, for instance, your dog suffers from allergies to chicken (and it’s a surprisingly common allergy), you’ll need to be extra-cautious about choosing a food that doesn’t contain domestic poultry. If your dog has digestive problems and can’t tolerate grains (and believe it or not, this is a surprising uncommon allergy, despite manufacturers’ claims about the benefits of grain-free), you’ll need to find an alternative without grains.

Some dogs — again, like humans — are carrying around a little too much weight, so you want to be sure the food you choose is higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates. If your pup has a medical condition, there’s probably a prescription food made specifically for it: kidney disease, urinary problems, and gastrointestinal issues are just a few. While these prescription diet foods will take a bigger chunk out of your wallet, in many cases they’ll save your pup from serious health problems.

I don’t recommend one particular brand for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is that I’m not a veterinary expert. In addition, there are too many good choices available today to choose just one. And finally, I don’t know your particular dog and what his or her tastes or health conditions are. For instance, Joey refuses to eat most vegetables, even when they’re cooked. Peas are his most detested: after he’s finished eating, I’ll find one solitary pea sitting in the middle of his empty bowl.

That being said, I do want to make one strong recommendation about dog food choice: bookmark the Dog Food Advisor website ( What makes this site so worthwhile? First, they refuse to take advertising or manufacturer promotions, they’re privately-owned, and totally independent. This makes them beholden to no one. They do one thing, and do it well: they study and interpret government-regulated and standardized pet food labels.

Second, the foods that make their “Editor’s Choice” list are organized by category, such as best puppy foods, best senior dog foods, best raw foods, best foods for small dogs, etc. This makes it easier for consumers to find the best food for their specific dog. They also have an excellent guidebook, “An Insider’s Guide to Finding Superior Dog Food Brands.”

The third reason I recommend Dog Food Advisor, and perhaps the most important one, is their dog food recalls alerts. If the FDA or a manufacturer issues a recall on a dog food, you find out right away. Sometimes the recall is for something relatively minor, but all too often it’s because of a major and sometimes deadly problem with the food or one of its ingredients. There’s no cost to subscribe to these alerts, and more than one dog’s life has been saved by them.

So, what should you look for — and avoid — in a dog food? The debate continues over grain-free dog foods and whether they’re linked to a deadly heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy. While we’re all hoping that the ongoing studies will shed a more definitive light on the issue in the near future, in the meantime, I’d advise you consult with your veterinarian if you have concerns or questions.

Regardless, here’s the main advice I can offer: if you’re buying a commercial dog food, read the first three items on the ingredient list. (Federal law mandates that the most abundant ingredient must be listed first, followed in descending order by the remaining ingredients.) Look for brands that name the specific meat, such as beef, chicken, lamb, etc. Watch out for generic terms like “meat by-products” or “poultry meal,” which tell you nothing about what kind of meat or poultry. Red flags are dyes, high sugar and salt content, and preservatives like BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin.

Examine the label of a premium dog food, and you’ll find that the first three ingredients are almost always meat and meat-based. Now, look at the nutritional label on a bag of budget store-bought dog kibble. Take Beneful, for instance: the first three ingredients are ground yellow corn, chicken-by-product meal, and corn gluten meal. Purina One lists whole grain corn, meat and bone meal, and corn gluten meal. Pedigree’s first three ingredients are ground whole grain corn, meat and bone meal, and corn gluten meal.

I’m not saying that all grocery store foods are inferior, any more than all premium foods are superior. Rather, I’m saying that the key to finding a good, nutritious food for your best friend is to READ THE LABEL before you buy. Your dog will thank you!

Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her Golden Retriever Joey, her Maine Coon cat Indy, and the abiding spirit of her beloved Golden Retriever Casey in whose memory this column is named. You can reach Joan at And if you’re looking for a Golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue

Today we understand that dogs, like humans, have different nutritional requirements, sensitivities, physical conditions, and likes and dislikes.
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