In early 2015, the law firm of Morgan and Morgan filed a class-action lawsuit against Purina over ingredients found in their line of Beneful Dog Food. Despite this lawsuit and the thousands of complaints of kidney failure that led to it, the products remain available to purchase at a store near you.
Seventy percent of pet owners we surveyed didn’t know all the ingredients in their dog’s food, including the very ingredients at the heart of the Purina lawsuit. Not only that, there are more brands to choose from than ever, most of which pet owners know very little about. They all stake claims to being “premium” and “all natural,” but most of these claims are little more than flashy marketing gimmicks and false advertising. TV personality and veterinarian Marc Abraham weighs in: “Personally, I feel there’s so much choice nowadays. It’s a huge pressure on dog owners to make that important decision.”
It’s with this important decision in mind that we set out to uncover the truth about dog food.
Bad Ingredients Make Dog Food Unsafe and Unhealthy
The Truth About Recalls and Manufacturing Practices
Safety has always been a problem for dog food. Since the 2007 recalls of Chinese-sourced food, many consumers began reading labels to see where their food was sourced from, however even ingredients sourced in the U.S. can be unsafe.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) sets and maintains standards for the proper levels of ingredients in pet food, but it’s the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that determines the quality. FDA regulations, however, don’t guarantee that all ingredients will be safe.
Ingredients from rendering facilities, for instance, should be avoided. You’ll recognize these ingredients on the label under generic terms like “meat” and “meat meal.” In the State of California, they’ve given them the name of “dry rendered tankage.” So why avoid them? It’s almost impossible to tell what’s being rendered: it can be road kill, zoo animals, and sometimes even spoiled meat from the grocery store that’s still wrapped in plastic.
Don’t trust the brand — trust good, safe ingredients
Significant Dog Food Recalls: 2007-2015
Menu Foods conducted a nationwide recall of over 150 brands of dog and cat food because of the presence of melamine. The deadly contamination was discovered after a large number of consumer complaints. It’s estimated that the tainted food was responsible for the deaths of around 1,950 cats and 2,200 dogs. This massive recall led to legislation that put more safeguards into pet-food regulations.
Bad Ingredients, Poor Health
Just verifying all the ingredients in your food are “safe” doesn’t mean they are good. Dogs need the right combination of protein, fat, moisture, fiber, and nutrients to live healthy, happy lives. The wrong ingredients in the wrong combinations can lead to a host of health problems, both physical and mental.
Digestive problems, including bloat and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), are symptomatic of poor ingredients that don’t contain enough whole, unprocessed foods. Food allergies can also lead to digestive issues — many of the experts we reached out to have seen evidence that dogs are sensitive to wheat and corn, both popular fillers.
Obesity is on the rise in dogs. One main reason for this is overfeeding and pampering, but many of the experts we talked to were quick to point out that poor grain-based ingredients are also to blame.
Physical problems are only half of it. There was a unanimous consensus among trainers and behaviorists we talked to that poor diet causes mental-health issues in dogs, including poor temperament and lack of focus. Marc Abraham elaborates: “Certain popular pet food brands on the market contain extra coloring, additives, and E-numbers that, in my opinion, can affect behavior, leading to hyperactivity and difficulty with training.”
Good Ingredients and How They Relate to Your Dog
A Quick Guide to Dog Food Ingredients
|What To Look For
|What To Avoid
|Whole Proteins – Fish, Chicken, Beef, Duck, Liver & Eggs
|Dangerous Chemicals – BHA, DHT Ethoxyquin, Propylene Glycol & Sodium Slenite
|Whole Grains – Oats & Quinoa
|Unspecified Proteins – “Meat”, “Meat Meal” & “By-Products”
|Bonus Healthy Nutrients – Omega 3 Fatty Acids, Glucosamine & Chondroitin
|Unhealthy Grains & Fillers – Corn, Wheat, Soy & Beet Pulp
|Meaningful Labels – Certified Organic
|Poorly Regulated Ingredients – Products from China & Rendering Plants
|Natural Preservatives – Vitamin C & E
|* If not properly processed to remove the harmful persin toxins – Onion, Grapes, Garlic & Avocados
|Good Fruits & Vegetables – Sweet Potatoes, Peas & Carrots
Not only do ingredients matter, but having the right combinations and ratios of ingredients matters, too. Good dog foods contain 30 percent protein and 18 percent fat, with enough side nutritional content — Omega-3s, vitamins, and fiber — to round out your dog’s diet. It’s really what’s best for your individual dog. “Protein is very important for your dog, but there are instances, such as old age or liver issues, where your dog should be on a lower-protein diet. “Make sure you have a conversation with your veterinarian.”
Dog Food Types
When we made our picks for the best dog foods, we looked at all varieties: dry, wet, homemade, dehydrated, and frozen raw varieties. No matter the type of food, the most important determining factor is still the ingredients. After that, what matters is what’s best for you and your dog.
Your dog’s life stage should factor into his or her diet. Puppies and seniors both have specific dietary needs. Large-breed puppies can develop developmental orthopedic disease (DOD) if they eat too much calcium — the maximum amount of calcium listed in their food should be no more than 1.5 percent. Senior dogs often require less protein because they are less active. And if they suffer from arthritis, many formulas contain glucosamine and chondroitin, both of which alleviate joint pain.
According to the experts we interviewed, there’s no indication that specific breeds need specific diets. What you feed your dog is dependent on his or her size and activity level. Foods formulated specially for small dogs, for example, are beneficial because the smaller pieces of kibble are easier for them to eat and digest.
What We Learned: Dog Owners Need to Be As Careful As Ever
After putting in 1,400 hours of research and analyzing over 2,223 formulas, we discovered even some of the most popular brands still make food with unhealthy or unsafe ingredients. Of the 2,223 formulas we looked at, only 125 met our standard of approval — about 5 percent overall. With so many choices on the market, it’s as important as ever to read labels and make informed decisions.
The good news? There are 125 great formulas to choose from, and they represent the best of what the industry has to offer.
- We removed products where the first ingredient is not a meat of any kind.
- We removed products containing corn, soy, wheat, grain, or flour.
- We removed products containing beet pulp or sugar.
- We removed products that contained by-products or sauces.
- We reviewed brands for recalls, ingredient sources, history, and customer satisfaction.
- We reviewed the remaining formulas based on the best ratio of protein, fat, and carbs, as well as the source of protein.
- We ended up with 125 recommended formulas across 27 brands.
Formulas & Ingredients
Ingredients matter most, so we started by eliminating formulas with bad ingredients. It was important that each formula have a meat protein listed first — we removed 194 dog food formulas based on this criteria. We next removed 578 additional formulas that had corn, soy, wheat, grain, or flour in any part of the ingredient list. Overall, this eliminated 772 formulas, taking us from 2,223 to 1,447.
Next, we took out all formulas containing beet pulp or sugar, eliminating 146 more and further reducing the number from 1,447 to 1,301. Formulas that contained by-products and sauces led to 44 additional cuts, narrowing our choices from 1,301 to 1,257.
The 1,257 dog food formulas left did not have any ingredients we wouldn’t feed our own dogs. This was too large a number, however, so our next step was to review the brands themselves and return to formulas later.
Brands and Recalls
The original 2,223 dog food formulas we analyzed comprised 115 brands. But after reducing the number of formulas to 1,257, the number of brands dropped to 93.
Brands that were cut because of their ingredients:
- Chicken Soup
- Hill’s Prescription Diet
- Hill’s Science Diet
- Iams Veterinary Formula
- Nummy Tum-Tum
- Nutro Ultra
- Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets
- Royal Canin
- Breeder’s Choice
- Natural Planet
- Now Fresh
- Nutro Natural
- Pet Naturals of Vermont
- Himalayan Dog Chew
Of the 93 brands left, we went straight to their recall history to look for any major recalls, any significant controversies, and unusually high numbers of customer complaints and reports. Next, we took out brands that had been sold to large companies and, as a result, may be changing or have changed their formulas in a manner that compromises integrity. Anything that is manufactured in countries that don’t have strong food-quality regulations, that were known to include lesser-quality ingredients, or do not have enough available information were also removed from our list:
- Against the Grain: Not enough information
- Artemis: Manufactured by Diamond
- Blue Buffalo: False label claims, bad customer reviews, and outsourced foods
- Canidae: Many negative customer reviews, manufactured by Diamond
- Canine Caviar: Not enough information
- Dave’s Pet Food: Not enough information
- Dogswell: Some ingredients come from China
- Eagle Pack: Never manufactured by Diamond or had any recalls, but removed due to previous formulations containing grains and sister brand’s association with Diamond. We will revisit Eagle Pack in the future.
- Evanger’s: Many consumer complaints and false labeling
- EVO: Sold to P&G and also lost a class-action suit over false labeling
- Farmina: Not enough information
- Go!: Lesser-quality ingredients and issues with upset stomachs
- Great Life: Mediocre reviews and not enough information
- Holistic Select: Never manufactured by Diamond or had any recalls, but removed due to sister brand’s association with Diamond. Also had complaints of gas and loose stool.
- Innova: Bought by P&G
- Merrick: History of recalls
- Nature’s Recipe: Manufactured by Del Monte
- Nature’s Variety: Many recent recalls
- Newman’s Own Organics: Some products made in Uruguay
- Nulo: Not enough information
- Nutrisca: Contains ingredients from China
- Pioneer Naturals: Not enough information
- Premium Edge: Too many recalls
- Solid Gold: Customer complaints of packaging and ingredient changes
- Taste of the Wild: Manufactured by Diamond
- Tiki Dog: Manufactured in Thailand
- TruDog: Not enough information
- Vital Essentials: Not enough information
- Wellness: Manufactured by Diamond until 2012 and had a SKU that was part of the 2012 recalls.
- Weruva: Some of their products are made in Thailand
- Wild Calling: Food is manufactured and packed by Evanger’s
Our Stance On Recalls
We understand our methodology isn’t perfect, and we continue to evaluate it each day, especially when it comes to recalls. We took a hard stance on not including brands that had a history of multiple recalls. That doesn’t mean the products from these brands are worse than the products from brands on our recommended list. Many of these products pass all of our tests when it comes to assessing quality ingredients. Some of the recalls were created proactively by the brands themselves, meaning there were no incidents reported. Still, we had to draw the line somewhere, but we plan to continue to modify and improve our methodology over time.
This left us with 291 remaining formulas. The final step was to determine if they had the proper ratio of protein, fat, and carbs based on our research. And we made sure the largest source of protein came from an animal.
After reviewing all 2,223 formulas, we ended up with 125 dog food formulas — manufactured by 27 brands — that we confidently recommend.