How To Pick Quality Dog Food (And Avoid The Bad)

There are so many dog and cat foods on the market today - and all of them claim to be healthy. Bags are covered in pictures of chicken and meat, fruits, and veggies - complete with a good-looking dog or cat, front and center. From one bag to the next, it's hard to tell the difference. But there is one place you can always tell the difference: the ingredient panel.

Clever advertising can’t hide the ingredients of your pet’s food. Whether good or bad, these ingredient indicators will help you know whether you should keep your current dog food on your shopping list, or look for a new one. 

10 Indicators of Good Quality Dog Foods

Some of these good dog food indicators are common knowledge, while others are more market secrets. We give reasons why you want to look for each indicator in your pet’s food and what difference it can make in your pet’s health. The more of these markers your pet food has, the more likely your pet food is a quality, healthful choice for your pet.

1. Fresh, Whole, Named Meats & Meals

Whole meats are 100% meat – they do not include animal parts, so you can always be sure of what your dog or cat is getting every day. Make sure they are not listed as meat, poultry, or fish, but are named, such as chicken, beef, salmon, or lamb. These named meats cost more than meat and animal by-products, which are cast-offs of the human-food industry. Named meats and meals also contain less ash, are generally more digestible, and contain more usable protein than by-product meats and meals.  

2. Meat is a Primary Ingredient

It’s not just essential that your pet food contains a quality, named meat source, but it also should include those ingredients high up in the pet food ingredient list. A quality meat source should not be just the first ingredient listed, but there should be multiple protein sources early on. Since ingredients are listed by order of weight, with the heaviest first, more meats listed first means more meat protein will actually be in your pet’s food.

You can’t just judge by the protein content of your dog food. Since protein is contained in grains and even fruits and vegetables, your pet food’s protein content is not an accurate reflection of how much meat is contained in it. This is one way pet food marketers may trick you.

3. Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates, as opposed to simple carbohydrates, take longer to digest, slowly releasing energy into the bloodstream. The result is your pet feeling full longer on the same amount of calories. Since obesity is a growing concern among pets, choosing complex carbohydrates for their lower glycemic index becomes important. Look for ingredients such as sweet potato, whole oats, quinoa, and brown rice. Additionally, these power carbohydrates contain naturally-occurring vitamins and minerals.  

4. Natural Preservatives

Often shown in your pet food ingredient list as mixed tocopherols (Vitamin E), citric or ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), and rosemary extract/oil, natural preservatives help prevent fats in your pet’s food from going rancid for a time. Why do natural preservatives indicate that your pet food is high quality? Natural preservatives are more expensive than their artificial counterparts, and a whole lot healthier.

Many artificial preservatives have been under fire for having some very damaging effects, including increasing cancer risk (BHA & BHT), and are suspect at best (ethoxyquin). While ethoxyquin is recognized as safe by the FDA for use in pet food, it is only approved for use in human foods for a few spices, and at levels well-below those deemed safe for pets.  It's not approved for use in pet foods in Australia or the European Union. The controversial chemical has been linked to cancer, as well as other medical concerns such as allergic reactions, skin problems, major organ failure, and behavior problems.

Look for a pet food which proudly boasts that they use only natural preservatives in their meats and meat meals. These ingredients are more expensive, but they are potentially safer. A pet food company that is concerned enough about your pet’s health enough to take care of the little details like this little-known one is worth it in the long run.

5. Includes Only Fresh Meats (Freeze-Dried or Frozen)

Pet food manufacturers do not need to list the preservatives that went into their ingredients before they received them. This means that while your pet food might look like it’s free of artificial preservatives, it actually contains some unlisted ones. For example, transported fish is often preserved with the controversial preservative ethoxyquin (see above – Natural Preservatives).

Foods made with fresh, frozen, or freeze-dried meats are more likely to be chemical preservative-free.

6. Local, Regional Ingredients

Local ingredients are better for the environment and they support industry at home. But, that’s not where the benefits end. Canadian pet food manufacturing regulations are stronger than many other places in the world. The quality control and food safety standards are stricter, cleaner, and safer than those in places such as China, Thailand, and Cambodia (the top 3 import countries for the US).

It’s not enough to have your food include “Made in Canada” or “Made in the US” on its label. Don’t be fooled by this clever marketing trick. “Made in Canada” only signifies that “the last substantial transformation of the product occurred in Canada, even if some ingredients are from other countries”. This means that foods that are simply “Made in Canada” undergo a significant change, like being extruded into a kibble form, in Canada, but this does not mean that ingredients are sourced from Canada. 

For a food’s ingredients to be sourced from Canada, look for a “Product of Canada”:

A food product may use the claim "Product of Canada" when all or virtually all major ingredients, processing, and labour used to make the food product are Canadian. This means that all the significant ingredients in a food product are Canadian in origin and that non-Canadian material is negligible. 

Some ingredients, such as lamb, are hard to source within Canada, but should be sourced from another country with suitable quality control (such as Australia).

7. Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are healthful sources of carbohydrates, rich in essential vitamins and minerals. They also make a more healthful carbohydrate source than many grains, which are a cheap source of calories, carbohydrates, and proteins for many lower quality dog foods.

Aside from being a source of vitamins and minerals, fruits and vegetables also contain antioxidants and add natural sweetness and flavour to your pet’s food. Those pet foods with more fruits and veggies should require fewer additives, since more of these should be naturally-occurring. Look for those pet foods that include a wide range of highly nutritive fruit and vegetable sources, such as blueberries, spinach, sweet potato, and pumpkin. Here's a list of safe fruits and veggies for dogs.

Good Quality Dog Foods - Fruits & Vegetables

8. Quality, Named Fats

Just like meats, fats in pet foods also come in varying qualities. Also like meats, the more descriptive the fat is, the more quality you are likely getting. Non-descript fat sources such as animal fat are very cheap as they are by-products of commercial rendering, which uses extreme temperatures to make unfit meats “safe” for pets to eat. These overly processed fats are an amalgam of extremely low-quality ingredients. They can’t be named because their source is unknown and changes with each rendering batch.

High-quality fats include examples such as pork fat, beef fat, chicken fat, flax seed oil, and coconut oil, while lower quality fats are non-descript, such as poultry fat or animal fat, tallow, lard, vegetable oil.  

9. Contains Healthy Prebiotics

Prebiotics are fermented sugars which help your pet digest more nourishment from their food by feeding bacteria in your pet’s digestive tract. Prebiotics play a supportive role in digestion, and can help boost your pet’s natural digestive flora easily, simply by feeding the yeast there. Quality sources of prebiotics are fructo-oligosaccharides, chicory root, and garlic. A cheaper, lower quality source you may find is dried beet pulp.

Prebiotics are an excellent idea for promoting better digestion and nutrient absorption in a healthy pet. However, if your pet has a sensitive stomach or suffers from GI tract issues, such as leaky gut syndrome, IBD, or IBS, avoid these ingredients in your pet’s food. They can actually make your pet’s conditions worse, since you could be feeding the bad bacteria in your pet’s system instead.

What about probiotics? Many premium pet foods boast the addition of probiotics to their formulas. Probiotics make excellent digestive supplements for dogs and cats. They can help to restore an imbalanced GI tract and improve digestion and nutrient absorption. However, probiotics in pet foods are completely unregulated, which means manufacturers can label however they like and the claims are untested. Live bacteria are unlikely to survive the heat-intensive processing that most pet foods undergo.

What’s more, a scientific study researching probiotics in pet foods found that pet foods that include probiotics “appear to contain very low numbers of viable organisms, and often do not contain the species listed on the label”. The study also found little growth in the good bacteria present. So while an inclusion of probiotics on your pet food label doesn’t necessary mean bad things for your pets, it likely isn’t doing any good, either.

10. Includes Chelated Minerals

All dog food contains necessary minerals for proper canine nutrition, at estimated levels for your dog’s optimal health. However, these synthetic trace minerals are not fully absorbed in your pet’s digestive system.

In a process called chelation, minerals (which are inorganic) are combined with plant fibers, complex sugars (polysaccharides), or amino acids (organic molecules) to make them better absorbed by your pet’s digestive system. This means they are more bioavailable, or better used by your pet’s body, by around 5-15%, depending on the mineral combination.

While the overall benefit may be small, the better absorption may just make the difference for a pet who is particularly active and needs the extra mineral support, or one who is suffering from a condition or illness that may affect nutrient absorption. Chelated minerals are more costly than standard mineral, and their inclusion in your pet’s food is a likely indicator that your pet food manufacturer isn’t cutting corners on nutrition just to offer a cheaper price - just another instance when you get what you pay for.

Most pet foods that include chelated minerals will boast it on the bag, but you can also look on your pet food ingredient list for their presence. Minerals (such as copper, manganese, boron, chromium, iodine, fluoride, silicon, selenium, zinc, cobalt, molybdenum, and iron), will appear with the terms “sequestered”, “amino acid chelate (or complex), “proteinate”, or polysaccharide complex, and that is your indication that the minerals have been chelated.  Standard feed-grade minerals are listed with “phosphate”, “oxide”, or “sulfate”. 

9 Red Flags of Poor Quality Dog Foods

While it can help to know what good ingredients to look for in a quality food, it can also be beneficial to know what the red flags of bad quality foods are. Look for these indicators of poor quality ingredients in your pet's current food - and please, avoid them at all costs!

Red Flags of Poor Quality Dog Foods

1. Grains Are First Ingredients

Ingredients in dog and cat food are listed by weight, with the ingredients listed first weighing the most and decreasing in order. Grains should never be listed first in your pet’s food. Cats are carnivorous animals who thrive on a diet that consists of large amounts of protein. Dogs handle carbs better than cats, but still have an undeniable carnivorous background.

Be extra cautious if the second ingredient is a meat, and then more grains are listed directly after that. Pet food manufacturers often throw off buyers by placing a meat in the mix to appear healthy and balanced.

2. Unidentified Meat

Many cheaper pet foods will list meat ingredients as non-descript, using the term meat meal, poultry, or fish. This means that the type of meat is inconsistently used, and usually means you are getting scraps from a variety of sources. These ingredients often include 4D animals (diseased, disabled, dying, or dead before processing), expired grocery store meat (packaging in-tact, as some plastic content is allowed!), zoo animals, roadkill, and can even include euthanized animals. Some of these may seem speculative or extreme, but the point is that these extremes are not outside of regulations for these vague terms.

Top offending ingredients are: ingredients with non-descript titles such as meat, animal, or poultry meal; meat and bone meal; blood meal;  animal digest; beef and bone meal.

3. Cheap Fat Sources

In the same way that unidentified or very general meat sources can indicate a very cheap, inconsistent ingredient, unidentified fat sources also show your dog food manufacturer is cutting corners. These non-descript fats are of a very low quality and are typically rendered, which means they are cooked at extremely high temperatures, degrading any nutritional value that may have been there in the first place.

Other fat sources are named, such as beef tallow, beef fat, or lard, but these sources are also low-quality. While these fat sources are appealing to pets flavour-wise, they are all cheap by-products of rendering, and mostly void of nutrition. There are healthful, nutrient-rich, and tasty options such as chicken fat that should be considered instead.  

4. By-Products

By-products are what’s left-over of the animal carcass once meat is removed. It can include: organs, hooves, beaks, feathers, and bones. This type of product has high ash content and can include a lot of non-digestible waste, which just results in bigger, more frequent stools for your pet. These ingredients often contain no meat at all.

By-products can include healthy ingredients such as organ meat and mineral rich bone. However, the main problem with by-products is that these ingredients are inconsistent. You never know what your pet is getting. And, since pet food manufacturers are often looking to make the biggest profit, these are likely to be cheap, nutritionally void source – especially when found in the cheapest foods.

5. Artificial Flavours and Colours

There is no reason that your pet needs artificial flavours or colours in their food. These ingredients have been linked to serious conditions such as cancer and diabetes, and they have no health benefits! The truth comes out – artificial flavours and colours are added to foods for pet food companies to make money.

Cats and dogs love the taste of real meat. So, why would healthy pet foods require artificial flavour? The truth is that artificial flavours are used in pet foods to cover up the taste of substandard, spoiled or rancid meats, or a lack of meat entirely. Even the relatively cheap and flavourful broths are bypassed by ingredients such as sugar (often disguised under other names such as molasses or corn syrup).

Artificial colours are used only to attract pet owners. Colourful foods are more appealing to the consumer’s eye – but pets don’t care what their food looks like! Some artificial colouring has been linked to cancer and other health problems.

Common offenders are: flavour, corn syrup, caramel, propylene glycol (a sweet-tasting sister to anti-freeze), Blue 2, Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6.

Artificial Flavours & Colours - Poor Quality Dog Foods

6. Artificial Preservatives

Dry food needs to last on the shelf at the store. The longer a pet food lasts on the shelf, the less likely it is to expire and be a loss for the food company. Chemical preservatives are used in pet foods because they are cheap and make food last much longer than natural preservatives. Unfortunately, chemical preservatives can also be very damaging to pet health.

Be wary of unspecified fish meals or oils.  As in meat, this ambiguity often indicates poor quality. Fish not destined for human consumption is pre-treated with the preservative ethoxyquin – a questionable additive that has possible links to several health risks, and no safety studies to back it up. And since the fish is treated before, this ingredient does not need to be listed on the pet food label.   

Look for natural preservatives instead, such as mixed tocopherols, citric acid, and rosemary oil.

Some common chemical preservative offenders are: Ethoxyquin , butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), propyl gallate,  tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ).

7. Fillers

Pet owners know that fillers are bad – but what pet food ingredients can be classified as fillers? Fillers are any ingredient added to pet food that has little nutritional value, but exist in quantities sufficient to bulk up food.

Some fillers are also low grade proteins, carbohydrates, and fibres, meant to bring pet foods up to minimum guaranteed analysis requirements. So they may be a protein source, just not a good one. This can make a poor quality food look like it contains more meat than it actually does, as we usually associate protein with meat protein.

Examples of fillers are: corn (and various types of), maize (also corn), peanut hulls, cellulose, apple or grape pomace, citrus pulp, dried beet pulp, oat hulls, rice hulls, wheat (or other) mills, brewers rice, soy.

Dog Food Fillers - Corn, Wheat, Soy

8. Unidentified Sources

With the frequency of recalls from pet food ingredients sourced out of places like China, it is important that you know where your pet food ingredients come from. If a bag does not specify where ingredients are sourced, they are likely to be from inexpensive, cheap manufacturers, such as those found in China and other developing countries.

Manufacturing standards in Europe, Canada, and the United States are much higher than many other countries. While companies can specify a certain quality of imported ingredients, they have no direct involvement in regulation. They have no way of knowing that certain standards are being met consistently unless they test everything that comes into their facility (also highly unlikely).

While food safety mishaps can happen anywhere, they are less likely to happen where processes are monitored frequently at a high standard.

9. It's Very Cheap

OK, so this is technically not on the ingredient panel, but it is worth noting. While price does not always dictate value or quality, the lowest price item is always guaranteed to cut corners somewhere. Unfortunately, in terms of pet food, this means the cheapest, worst ingredients are included.

If you are feeding your pet the cheapest food you can find, you are going to end up paying for it in the long run – through vet bills, or health conditions resulting from poor ingredients or nutritional deficiency.

3 Signs Your Pet Food is Compromising Quality

So your pet food may have some of the indicators of good quality foods and a few red flags, as well. That's one of the signs that your pet food may be compromising quality for the manufacturer's gain. But your pet food might be even trickier. Here are a few lesser-known signs that your pet food is not as healthy as it's made out to be. 

Pick A Good Quality Dog Food, Don't Compromise

1. Ingredient Splitting

If products are even marginally different, such as corn and corn bran, or types of potatoes, they can be listed separately in the ingredient list. To appear meatier, many low-quality pet foods list a single meat source followed by multiple grains (sometimes 6 or 7). This skews what the actual protein to carbohydrate ratio is, and can hide the fact that a food contains more carbohydrate-dense ingredients by weight than meat.

2. Fresh Meat is the First Ingredient, Followed by Grains

Pet owners know to look for meat as a top ingredient in their pet’s food, and pet food manufacturers know this. Fresh chicken, deboned chicken, or just chicken sounds whole and healthy. And it often is – but there’s a catch.

Fresh chicken (or another named meat) is not processed before it goes into your dog’s food. This means that the water content is high, which accounts for most of the weight. Since most of this moisture weight evaporates during processing, the actual amount of chicken protein in the finished product is less than it appears. If it were weighed after processing, the chicken would end up much further down the ingredient list. See how the way things are measured can skew the facts?

Not all foods with chicken (or another named meat) first on the ingredient list are red flags, though – this is very common in high-quality foods as well.   Your red flag comes when a named meat, like chicken or beef, is high up on the ingredient list followed by 3, 4, or more different grains, or starchy vegetables and legumes such as peas and corn or soy.  These foods have little animal protein. Most of their protein comes from inexpensive vegetables.

3. It Contains Only Meat Meals

Named-source meals (ie. chicken meal) are generally considered a high-quality ingredient in pet food. The same weight of chicken meal has around 300% the amount of protein as fresh, whole chicken because all of the moisture is removed during processing. The problem with meat meals is one of processing.

Meals are ground whole meats with the moisture removed. They are cooked twice: once to make the meal and secondly, in the processing of the dog food itself. While they contain a lot of protein, the double processing can decrease the amount of usable protein, as some of that protein is denatured in the cooking process, which decreases the nutritional content of the meat.

Also, meat meals tend to contain more preservatives than fresh meats, which do not require as many preservatives, if any. This means the quality of the meat is likely lower all-around. For the best nutrition, find a pet food that lists both named meats and meals, or only fresh meat sources.

Why Quality Matters In Your Pet's Food

Quality matters. More and more studies are finding that nutrition has a big impact on our health - why should it be any different for our pets? Sure, exercise and other lifestyle factors are also important, but we can't deny the importance of a healthy, natural diet with plenty of nutrients from real, whole foods. Your pet will reap the health benefits of a quality diet, and will hopefully avoid the possible pitfalls of a substandard one - illness, disease, and cancer. For your pet's best health and best chance at a long and healthy life, start with a high quality dog food.