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A Guide to Healthy Dog Food: What it is (and isn’t)

In recent years, more and more attention has been paid to the health of our pets. Much like human health, the link between what dogs eat and the raft of health issues they’re experiencing as a domesticated species is clearer than ever.

And yet, despite pets’ food supposedly being the healthiest it’s ever been, with fresh, wholesome ingredients plastered across the bags of food parents are feeding them, they’re still suffering from increasing rates of obesity levels, heart problems, and digestive issues. So how can that be?

The answer is that the seemingly-healthy dog food brand you see on the store shelves — even the upscale ones — might not be so healthy after all, and could potentially even be dangerous. So in a time when pet parents have more choices available to them than ever before, let’s refresh on what healthy dog food really is — and isn’t:

Healthy dog food is… labeled transparently

The first step in feeding your dog a healthy diet is knowing what you’re feeding them. When you’re dealing with sensitive stomachs or full-blown food allergies, nothing’s more important than identifying problem ingredients and getting them out of your dog’s diet immediately. Unfortunately, most commercial pet foods make that impossible. The ingredients list simply isn’t accurate enough to be trustworthy.

For example, one study found that 13 out of 14 dog food brands contained ingredients (e.g. pork, chicken, and turkey) that weren’t listed on the label. That’s really no surprise, when you consider how many of these products are being manufactured in large, poorly-supervised facilities. If a factory is cranking out dozens of different kinds of “feed grade” (i.e. poorly-regulated, low quality) pet foods, there’s bound to be mix-ups and cross-contaminations.

The safest bet is to go with a food where you can actually see the ingredients it’s made with in the finished product. Kibble and canned foods, which process their ingredients so harshly that they’re unrecognizable by the time they make it to your dog’s bowl, are far harder to definitively tell what’s in them. Fresh foods are cooked much more gently, and typically with less artificial additives and fewer fillers, making it easier to tell what’s actually going in your dog’s bowl.

Healthy dog food isn’t… full of toxins

Perhaps even more disconcerting than the prospect of unlisted ingredients in your dog’s food is the possibility of the presence of toxins in it. It seems unthinkable, but according to the Clean Label Project Pet Food Study, poisonous contamination of commercial dog food is all too common.

This research found that commercial brands of pet food very often contain dangerous heavy metals, like lead, cadmium, and arsenic. Some brands had nearly 20 times more arsenic than you’d find in a typical cigarette. The study also found 980% more BPA (an increasingly-banned plastic component) than you’d find in normal human food, and unsafe levels of mycotoxins, antibiotics, and pesticides.

So what does this mean for responsible pet owners? It means you can’t settle for the accepted levels of cleanliness and sanitation in your dog food, because they’re clearly not adequately protecting your pup. Instead, look for a brand that’s owning and elevating its safety standards independent of industry regulations, using human-grade meat sourced from USDA-certified suppliers, and USDA-certified kitchens to cook it in. Your dog may not be human, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t eat safely prepared food.

Healthy dog food is… formulated with the right balance of vitamins and minerals

When it comes to vitamins and minerals, we tend to think more is better. But this can be a dangerous attitude toward supplements — an excessive amount can actually cause serious problems for canine health.

Too much calcium, for instance, can cause bone and joint issues — especially for large-breed puppies. Large quantities of vitamin A, vitamin D, and phosphorus can also cause vascular, skeletal, and appetite issues in your furry friend. So how do you ensure that your companion animal gets the nourishment they need? Just follow two rules:

First, make sure you’re feeding your dog a nutritionally complete food. Formulated with everything they need — from protein and carbohydrates to fats, fiber, and micronutrients — nutritionally complete food will reduce the need for any additional supplements as your dog will be receiving all its nourishment from its diet.

Second, consult your veterinarian if you’re thinking of giving your dog a nutritional supplement. Whether it’s a vitamin, probiotic, antioxidant, or CBD oil, these are important, potentially high-stakes health decisions, and you’ll should have professional guidance!

Healthy dog food isn’t… just grain-free

Are dogs omnivores or carnivores? There’s a long-running debate being waged on this issue, with staunch defenders on both sides.

For those convinced that dogs are true carnivores, grains seem like cheap fillers, destined to wreak havoc on your pup’s health. But before you run out to buy some grain free, pure-meat dog food, let’s pause and step back. The reality is much more complex. Yes, dogs and wolves descended from a common ancestor. But that doesn’t mean they should eat the same diet — any more than humans should feast on bugs just because tarsiers do.

Dogs have been living with humans for ages, and they’ve long adapted to digesting many of the foods we eat, including cooked meat, fruits and vegetables, wheat, potatoes, fruits, and so on. All these plant foods provide nutritional benefits that they can’t get otherwise, including vitamins and minerals, fatty acids, etc. Plus they’re packed with fiber, meaning much easier number 2’s!

The common reality is grains are a small, but perfectly healthy part of a diet for dogs — but the key is balance and freshness. Grains shouldn’t make up a significant percentage of your dog’s meals, and do become a problem when they’re routinely used as fillers and stabilizers in dried foods. The best bet is to feed fresh food, where you can accurately determine the amount of grains, and your dog can benefit from the nutritious aspects of the properly-cooked grains.

For some dogs, a grain free diet may still be healthiest. There are numerous reports of dogs with intolerances for whom grain-free can be beneficial. But it should be discussed with a veterinarian if you’re curious.

Healthy dog food is… their own

Slipping your dog table scraps seems like one of the best parts of puppy parenthood, whether it’s the kids getting rid of their unwanted vegetables or you indulging those big, begging eyes.

Believe us when we say we’ve been there, and know exactly how hard it can be to resist. But the fact is that table scraps just aren’t the best treat for your canine companion. While it may seem like a great idea for a treat because your food is (hopefully) fresh, human meals aren’t balanced for a dog’s nutritional requirements. Scraps can contain spices, oils, and other ingredients that can upset dogs’ stomachs.

Additionally, if leftovers under the table become a habit, these unaccounted calories can quickly add up, often leading to obesity and a whole host of related health problems. And all this is not to mention the poor manners they can encourage in your pooch.

Your dog should be getting enough nourishment and satisfaction from its own food that it isn’t desperate for yours, but if you do want to share a little something with your dog, there are some great human snacks that also make healthy dog treats. Almost any sweet, crunchy vegetables and fruits are great for your dog; just be sure to avoid grapes and raisins, which are highly toxic to canines. Fruit and veggie snacks taste as great to dogs as they do to us, and they’re low in calories, so you’re unlikely to overfeed your pup.

Something to chew on…

Feeding your dog healthily does definitely take some work, and more than a little self-control, but it’s not really any different to feeding anybody else that you love. Sometimes the kindest thing you can do is say no — especially to unhealthy, junk food. But one of the best things about feeding dogs is that they won’t whine for the junk they’re denied. They’ll equally eagerly devour healthy food, fresh vegetables and all!

With all the health issues dogs are experiencing these days, feeding food you can trust, that’s nutritionally balanced, and free from harmful toxins and processing is the simplest and best way you can care for your dog’s health, in both the short and long term. And choosing one that’s delivered right to your door is a good way to care for yourself too!

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