Have you been taking my advice over the years that the quickest way to choose a high quality dry dog food is simply to make sure that a named protein is the first ingredient on the label? That used to be true without any qualifier – but now I am sorry to say that some super clever pet food companies have found a way to name a protein first on their labels, followed by a lot of what I consider “bottom of the barrel” cheap fillers and “red flag” ingredients that I would never applaud as high quality.

There’s the good news …and then there’s bad news. The good news first, because that’s more my personality! After all these years of my researching the meaning and origins of ingredients on bags of dog food, and preaching to you about doing the same yourself, it seems like some big commercial pet food companies (that make the foods with the sorts of ingredients I cringe at!) have been listening, too!

The companies that make dry foods with the sorts of ingredients that informed pet owners have learned to avoid, nonetheless seem to have been paying close attention to the advice I have been giving you about how to choose a premium dry dog food. At first it seemed as though this could only be a good thing- that pressure from influential pet experts and pet nutrition watch dogs (excuse the pun) had inspired big commercial pet food companies to rethink their formulas and do what I’d consider “right thing” by the dogs in their recipes.

But there is a catch! For years I have told you that the easiest way to identify a quality, nutritious dog food in a bag is to look for a named protein as the very first ingredient. I’d prefer every dog owner to read the nutrition section of my book THE DOG BIBLE in order to fully understand the reasons that mediocre ingredients don’t belong inside your dog; I’d love it if everyone could develop an appreciation of the difference between those cheaper and less nutritious fillers in bagged foods made by the mega-producers, and elements that go into a higher quality kibble like HALO – elements I believe are superior

However, I realized that not everyone is as nutty as I am about monitoring their pet food’s ingredients and being hyper-vigilant reading the labels. Instead, I had to come up with a quick and clever way for people to be able to differentiate between premium dog foods and those that get away with utilizing the remnants of the human food industry which often lack usable (bioavailable) nutrition. What I (and several other pet food experts) advocated was that you only needed to look for a named protein as the first ingredient on the bag, as a short cut to having to take out your handy-dandy magnifying glass (essential to being able to read the small print) and identify all the other components of the food.

I thought everything was fine, until someone called into my new radio show CAT CHAT® & DOG TALK® to ask about one version of a popular dog food sold in supermarkets that had a named protein source in the number one spot – but then went on to list a cascade of components of the food that fit onto the “ No No” lists in THE DOG BIBLE and elsewhere. The word “lamb” did come first – but then was followed by brewers rice as the second most plentiful ingredient (a source of fiber, at best,) corn gluten meal and whole grain corn (the presence of corn being, for me, a tip-off of a lower quality food using an inexpensive component – and these were numbers three and four, so were a significant proportion of the recipe), poultry by-product meal (the word “poultry” being my red flag as less desirable on a label than an actual named source of poultry like “chicken” or “turkey” and then “by-product meal” representing a rendered conglomeration of what I consider less-than-optimal sources of protein), followed by oat meal, animal fat (another huge No-No on nutrition lists for my dog food since it can refer to even discarded restaurant cooking grease), soy flakes (soy often being described as indigestible for dogs), whole grain wheat (wheat appearing high on “to be avoided” lists for pet food ingredients since it is a potential allergen) and soybean meal (another version of soy product which I do not recommended for digestion reasons in dogs).

So there you have the bad news: hiding behind the “named protein source” you have a flow of words generally chosen as “to be avoided in my book (remember the clear messaging on the walls of the Natural Foods section of PETCO: “No corn, no wheat, no soy.” And not one ingredient I personally applaud as quality nutrition after you get past the cleverly placed word “lamb” at the beginning of the list. Smoke and mirrors I believe it is called.

Sorry folks, but you are going to have to get out that magnifying glass, after all, to keep an eye on what else is in your dog’s food lurking behind the “named protein.” Or else, do what I do: choose a food with natural ingredients you recognize and understand, including fresh real meats like HALO and you won’t have to worry about whether someone is pulling the wool over your eyes!

Tracie Hotchner, author of The Dog Bible and The Cat Bible, guest blogs here every Thursday on healthy, natural choices for pets.

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