Navigating the Minefield of the Pet Food Market
Choosing a diet that works for you and your dog
Column by Alice Clark RVN
There’s certainly no shortage of choice when it comes to choosing your pooch’s diet, but to the untrained eye the selection available can be daunting to say the least. With the UK pet food market worth billions of pounds and growing each year, it’s no wonder that we’re continually seeing new companies and brands getting in on the action.
This part is pretty important if you want to understand what actually goes into the packet you might pick up off the shelf. We care about our pets, so pet food manufacturers know that with clever labels and packaging they can give us the impression that their food is wholesome, healthy and tasty. So how can you tell what is what?
The term ‘complete’ is a legal definition and means that the food must contain all of the nutrients your dog needs to maintain healthy bodily function when the product is fed as directed. This is probably the most important thing to look out for on your dog food labels and means that you don’t have to feed your dog anything else (although we all like to give our dogs a treat). I would always recommend feeding your dog a complete diet. Although some dogs thrive on homemade diets, it takes a huge amount of knowledge, understanding and time to balance the diet out correctly.
The term ‘complimentary’ (you guessed it), refers to products that are not nutritionally balanced and must be fed alongside something else. For example, treats are complimentary, as are ‘mixers’ which aren’t as popular as they once were. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. Ingredients may be listed by their specific name (chicken) or in categories such as ‘meat and animal derivatives’. This term, although it may seem vague, is actually legally defined and describes meat-based ingredients which are sourced as a by-product from the human food chain (such as offal). These products will likely contain a mixture of meats and the named meat on the front of the packaging will be the highest quantity.
Cereals or grains may be present in a diet in the form of rice, wheat, barley, sorghum or maize (corn) and provide a source of carbohydrates and therefore fibre. Grain-free diets are becoming much more popular (more about that later), so some diets substitute these ingredients with other carbohydrates such as potato or sweet potato.
Additives in pet foods can include vitamins, flavours, preservatives and colours. Many diets also contain supplements to support mobility, coat and digestive health. Within each category of food – dry, wet and raw, there are some important differences in how they are prepared. For example, dry food can be made by a number of methods such as extrusion, baking, cold pressing and air drying/freeze drying, so it’s worth doing your research in order to understand how they work.
Deciding what you want
Now you can decipher those daunting labels, it’s time to decide what is important for you when picking a diet for your dog. This is a very individual decision and it will depend on your lifestyle, budget and pre-existing beliefs about pet food. If you’re looking for a higher quality food, my top tip is to look for a diet that names a specific protein rather than a category, for example chicken vs. poultry.
There have been some massive trends in recent years when it comes to pet food. One of the biggest is probably grain-free diets. The idea that dogs don’t require grain in their diets is linked to the concept of ancestral diets; that is that early dogs (and wolves) ate diets high in protein. Diets containing grain also seem to get a lot of the blame for dogs suffering from ‘dietary intolerances’ which usually show as stomach upsets or skin problems, however the incidence of true dietary intolerance in pets is actually very rare. In fact, research has shown that more common allergens for dogs include chicken, beef and dairy products.
Also following the ancestral diet model, increasing numbers of dog owners are feeding raw diets to their dogs. Now, the subject of raw feeding is a controversial one, especially in the veterinary world. I’m not ashamed to say that all of my dogs are fed pre-prepared complete raw diets and thrive on it. As with all types of dog food, this diet has it’s pros and cons. My pups have beautiful coats, are in fabulous lean condition and best of all their poops are much smaller and firmer than if they were on another type of food. However, raw feeding has had a lot of bad press recently with regards to the risks of bacteria. If you are considering feeding your dog a raw diet, I always strongly recommend you feed a pre-prepared complete diet from a manufacturer who is registered with the Pet Food Manufacturer’s Association (PFMA). The PFMA ensures all of their members produce nutritionally balanced food with safe manufacturing practices.
Many people purchase raw meat and bones from supermarkets with the intention of feeding these to their dogs, however the likelihood of contamination with bacteria (Salmonella, E.Coli and Campylobacter) is much higher as supermarkets expect us to cook this meat before consumption! Raw dog food companies know their foods will be served raw, so ensure their products are stringently tested for bacteria before selling. As with any raw meat, you should always be careful when defrosting, handling and storing it, so remember basic hygiene rules.
What should your aims be?
First of all, you want your dog to enjoy what they’re eating! We don’t enjoy eating our food if it isn’t something we like, so why should your dog? Saying that, roast beef and cheese for every meal doesn’t offer a balanced diet. Therefore, your dog’s diet should be nutritionally balanced and complete, suit their digestion and energy requirements and be of the highest quality you can afford. In puppies it is also vitally important that the diet is formulated for puppies, in order to support correct growth. Ultimately we should all aim for happy and healthy lean dogs, with clean and shiny coats, which produce firm (easy to pickup!) poops. Remember, what works for one dog won’t necessarily work for another, so find what works best for you and your dog!
Where to go next?
The PFMA website is a fantastic source of information on all things pet food and you can find a list of their members here. My favourite website to peruse on a regular basis, All About Dog Food, is a treasure trove of all things dog food and has an amazing dog food and dog treat directory with independent reviews and a 5-star rating system. You can choose to rank pretty much every dog food available based on food type, cost, rating, dog statistics and country of origin – simply amazing!
Now for a few shout-outs to my favourites. When I say my favourites, I clearly don’t eat them myself (although I’ve been known to sample a few different dog treats and food brands..), however I favour them for various reasons:
Nutriment – Described as ‘enhanced raw dog food’, Nutriment produce food in a variety of flavours and include a range of high quality supplements on their ingredient lists. They also offer a puppy and senior formula and a whole organic range.
Natural Instinct – Raw food to suit all canine life stages and working dogs. Each variety contains 80 percent quality British meat and bone, with the other 20 percent made up of fruits, vegetables and supplements. Their food comes in handy 500 gram and one kilogram tubs, much less messy than Nutriment’s 1.4 kilogram ‘chubbs’.
Although my dog’s main meals are made up of raw food, I like to use a selection of high quality dry foods for enrichment purposes (don’t worry, I’ll write another column on the canine enrichment movement).
Guru – Produce dry cold-compressed complete food, which resemble pellets rather than classic kibble. The cold-pressing process preserves more of the ingredient’s natural nutrients compared to cooked dry food. I love using Guru’s food in puzzle feeders and have friends who feed this to their dogs. It also smells amazing and fresh, not ‘dog foody’ at all!
Nineteen 87 – Produced in North Wales, Nineteen 87’s range of complete baked dog food is made from nutritious ingredients sourced from UK farms. My dogs adore their ‘Baked Bars’ and ‘Baked Bites’ treats and the tiny pieces of dry food are also perfect for puzzle feeders.