Joan Merriam: Dog food 101

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One of the most common questions I get is, “What food should I feed my dog?” Unfortunately, there is no single, definitive answer. Before, we didn’t have a lot of choices about what to feed our dogs: there was friskies, and there was … friskies. (Yes, there were a few other brands, but by and large the dog food landscape was pretty bleak.)

Today we know that dogs, like humans, have different nutritional needs, sensitivities, physical conditions, and likes and dislikes. For example, if your dog has a chicken allergy (and this is a surprisingly common allergy), you need to be extra careful when choosing a food that does not contain domestic poultry. If your dog is having digestive problems and not tolerating grains (and believe it or not, this is a surprising, rare allergy, despite manufacturers’ claims about the benefits of grain-free), you need to find a grain-free alternative.

Some dogs – again like humans – carry around a little too much weight, so you want to be sure that the food you choose has more protein and less carbohydrates. If your puppy has an illness there is likely a prescription food specially made for it: kidney disease, urinary tract problems, and gastrointestinal problems are just a few. While these prescription diet foods will consume a larger chunk of your wallet, in many cases they will save your pup from serious health problems.

I don’t recommend a particular brand for a number of reasons, not least because I’m not a veterinarian. Furthermore, there are too many good options today to choose from. Finally, I don’t know your particular dog and its taste or health. For example, Joey refuses to eat most of the vegetables, even if they’re cooked. He detests peas the most: after he’s finished eating, I find a single pea in the center of his empty bowl.

That being said, I’d like to make one strong recommendation when it comes to choosing dog foods: bookmark the Dog Food Advisor website ( What makes this site so valuable? First, they refuse to accept advertisements or manufacturer advertisements, they are privately owned and completely independent. As a result, they are not obliged to anyone. You are doing one thing, and doing it well: You study and interpret government-regulated and standardized animal feed labels.

Second, the foods that are on your Editor’s Choice list are categorized, such as food for your particular 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 because of the dog food recall alerts. If the FDA or a manufacturer recalls a dog food, you will know immediately. Sometimes the recall is for something relatively small, but all too often it is because of a major, and sometimes fatal, problem with the food or one of its ingredients. Subscribing to these alerts is free and has saved the lives of more than one dog.

So what should you look for and avoid in a dog food? The debate over grain-free dog foods and whether they are linked to a deadly heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy continues. While we all hope that the ongoing studies will shed a more definite light on the subject in the near future, in the meantime, I encourage you to reach out to your veterinarian with any concerns or questions.

Regardless, here is the most important piece of advice I can give: If you are buying a commercial dog food, be sure to check out the first three items on the ingredients list. (Federal law requires the most common ingredient to be listed first, followed by the rest of the ingredients in descending order.) Look for brands that name the meat in question, such as beef, chicken, lamb, etc. Look for general ones Terms like “meat by-products” or “poultry meal” that say nothing about the type of meat or poultry. Warning signs include coloring, high sugar and salt content, and preservatives such as BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin.

Examine the label of a premium dog food and you will find that the first three ingredients are almost always meat and meat based. Now look at the nutrition label on a bag of store-bought dog food. Take Beneful, for example: the first three ingredients are ground yellow corn, chicken by-product flour, and corn gluten flour. Purina One lists whole grain corn, meat and bone meal, and corn gluten meal. The first three ingredients in Pedigree are ground whole grain corn, meat and bone meal, and corn gluten meal.

I am not saying that all grocery store foods are inferior, nor are all premium foods superior. Rather, I am saying that the key to finding a good, nutritious meal for your best friend is to READ THE LABEL before you buy it. Your dog will thank you!

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

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