Choosing The Right Food For Your Dog

September 3rd, 2008

With such a variety of commercial pet foods on the market, which is best for your pooch? Caroline Zambrano speaks to veterinary and pet food experts for advice about choosing the right food for your dog.

With such a range of commercial pet foods available today, its no wonder we end up standing for hours in supermarket or pet store aisles, fumbling through pet food packages in an attempt to decide which one is best for our furry companion.

Dogs Life calls Dr Graham Swinney from the Australian Small Animal Veterinary Association (ASAVA) for some much-needed advice.

Choosing the right commercial pet food varies from pet to pet, he says. The most important thing to consider when choosing a commercial food is if you have a healthy dog or not. The breed or age can also play a role in choosing pet food.

Today, pet food manufacturers offer diets for all life stages such as puppy, mature or senior and food for large and small breeds. Puppy diets tend to be higher in calcium and energy for growth, Swinney says. However, ideally large breed puppy diets have a lower amount of calcium supplement and are not quite as energy dense. It is a case that one puppy diet may not suit all breeds.

When it comes to middle-aged, healthy dogs, Swinney says if they have a tendency towards being overweight, a light maintenance diet is better. Some maintain weight well and can be on a normal adult diet, he says.

Consult a veterinarian

Tons of information is available on the Internet and through marketing pamphlets of pet foods. Swinney encourages dog owners to do their research and consult with their vet, who will advise the type of food that is best suitable to maintain their dogs health.

If you have a healthy pet, I will suggest a complete and balanced food. But if you have a sick dog, then we will recommend a prescription diet for that particular illness, such as kidney failure, he says.

A number of prescription diets are available nowadays from foods for dogs that are overweight, have heart disease (for which they need a lower salt diet) or liver disease, or suffer from arthritis. There is also a brain diet for old dogs that are starting to get cognitive problems and are getting vague, Swinney says. Pet food companies provide a comprehensive guide to their diets, which includes ingredients, nutritional breakdowns, recommendations etc.

More research in pet foods

Over the years, pet food has not only increased in variety to suit different needs of dogs, but also improved in quality. Pet food companies are actively doing research with their food. They learn what works best for some diseases [veterinary prescription diets], Swinney says. In the last few years, they have added fatty acids, which can have anti-inflammatory effect on dogs.

Vets have also recognised that old commercial diets for certain types of stones in the bladder could actually increase risk of other stones. But now, pet food companies have made the change in the prescription diets so that it does not make the animal worse, he says.

Diets are improving because they [pet food manufacturers] are increasing their knowledge on how to manage these pet health conditions, Swinney says, adding that competition in the marketplace helps encourage more research.

What are the benefits of feeding prepared pet food?

Swinney listed several benefits to feeding a quality commercial pet food. Firstly, commercial pet foods are already complete and balanced, so you generally do not need to supplement the diet with any vitamins or minerals etc.

We also have life stage foods, so you can give your dog the most appropriate diet. Plus, you know how much to feed your dog, as it is labelled on the package, he says. Commercial diets produce a more reliable food you know what you’re getting in terms of caloric density.

For dog owners who have a busy lifestyle, buying ready-made food is a great advantage. They spend less time in the kitchen preparing homemade dog food and more time outside having fun with their pooch!

Besides the convenience of feeding prepared pet food, the fact that it is also complete and balanced saves dog owners from worrying if their dog is getting all the necessary nutrients to maintain good health.

Preparing a healthy, balanced home-cooked pet food can be a challenging task, Swinney says. Its not hard work to cook for your pet, but its hard to make it complete [balanced], he says. I know a lot of people are saying raw meaty bones are better, but in the past, when dogs were in the wild, they ate everything not just the meat but also the bones, intestines and organs so they were getting the whole animal.

Complete and balanced pet food means the food is formulated to contain all the nutrients required by a dog (or cat), in the appropriate quantities and proportions to maintain good health.

When the food is labelled complete food, you know you are getting everything your dog needs, Swinney says. What makes it balanced is a sum of all ingredients rather than a single ingredient on its own. Ingredients may vary depending on the need of the diet. For instance, for dogs with allergies, the food has to have a different protein source.

What is a complete and balanced food?

To find out how pet food manufacturers in Australia provide a complete and balanced nutrition, Dogs Life contacts John Aird, executive manager of the Pet Food Industry Association of Australia (PFIAA). The PFIAA is a self-regulatory body that started about 40 years ago to act as a voice for the industry with a common goal of standardising protocols and procedures, and to ensure members met the respective government regulations covering pet food and community expectations.

Aird says that to provide a complete and balanced nutrition, Australian pet food manufacturers follow the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), a US government agency that requires manufacturers to either conduct a structured feeding trial of its pet food or meet AAFCOs specified formulation of ingredients.

Foods that pass the AAFCO trial can carry a label claim to state the food has passed AAFCO tests and therefore provides complete and balanced nutrition, Aird says. If manufacturers are simply meeting recommended nutrient requirements, they’ll carry a claim that says the formula meets the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO.

Pet food manufacturers that are members of the PFIAA not only have to comply with AAFCO standards, but also the PFIAA code of practice, for which a revised version was launched late last year and can be downloaded for free on at

The new version [code of practice] expands on processing and manufacturing requirements, setting new guidelines for manufacturers and seeking to improve product safety for pet owners, Aird says.

Labelling guidelines

Pet food manufacturers must also meet the labelling guidelines at state government level, such as the Department of Agriculture in NSW and the ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) Trade Practices Act. These authorities use the PFIAA Code of Practice as the guideline document, Aird explains.

Furthermore, if manufacturers make a therapeutic claim on their labels, the product must be registered with the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), which involves rigorous scientific assessment aimed at ensuring that, when used in accordance with the label, the product works, is safe and has been manufactured to high quality standards.

The PFIAA works closely with the APVMA to ensure manufacturers claims are justifiable, Aird says. [For more information about registering products with the APVMA, check out the article in #78 Dogs Life July/Aug 2006 edition.]

Also, if the pet food is imported, it has to comply with Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) import regulations and must be certified to come from disease-free animals that were inspected before and after slaughter.

Swinney suggests checking pet food packets for relevant labels to make sure the food is complete and balanced, and safe to use. This also applies to chilled foods, which come in a variety of delicious options to keep your pooch happy.

Many chilled dog rolls are complete food, but some fresh foods are not, he says. If you feed your dog fresh meat, that’s not the sole thing you need to feed your pet all of the time. Consider feeding a supplementary food.

Premium pet food versus cheaper brands

For some pet owners, the price of the pet food makes a difference when choosing one for their dog. But does cheaper mean less quality?

Premium pet foods are AAFCO compliant and are balanced and complete, and labelled accordingly, Aird says. The mix of the ingredients is selected based on a preferred recipe. Often, premium pet foods are also more specific in the target animal they are produced for, such as small breed, athletic breed, senior, etc.

Pet foods may also be formulated using ingredients and the recipe mix designed to meet AAFCO requirements, but at the best cost, he continues. There is no nutritional or biological compromise on quality. These pet foods are designed for the budget-minded consumer, Aird says.

Pet food may also be sold as supplements and not complete. These are designed to be fed in conjunction with other foods and may be priced less than complete and premium foods, he says. Consumers should read labelling information carefully to ensure they are purchasing the product that best suits their needs.

Supplements in pet foods

Swinney explains that every dog has different needs and requirements, and some pet foods contain additional supplements, like fish oil and antioxidants.

Fish oil has omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, which can help inflammatory diseases, while antioxidants help with brain function, he says. Dog owners can find specially supplemented pet foods to help dogs with arthritis, weight loss or dental problems.

Puppy foods will have higher calcium in them because they are growing, he says. Dental diets are supposed to get animals to chew, so they have the mechanical action to clean the teeth.

Speak to your vet to discuss which special diet is suitable for your dogs health condition.

Preservatives in commercial pet foods

Preservatives ensure pet foods keep their long shelf life by preventing fat and other ingredients in the food from oxidising (spoiling), which makes the food not only taste bad, but also unsafe to eat.

Levels of preservatives can vary in some pet food, however, John Aird, executive manager of the Pet Food Industry Association of Australia (PFIAA) tells Dogs Life that when preservatives are used, they are added at very low levels to pet meat.

He adds that PFIAA members review their products and processes to ensure their pet food products maintain quality and stability to ensure the products meet the needs of pets.

In New Zealand, the use of any additive is strictly controlled by the Agricultural Compounds and Veterinary Medicines Act 1997, which allows the use of preservatives/additives only if they have been investigated and found to be safe.

Veterinarian Dr Graham Swinney from the Australian Small Animal Veterinary Association (ASAVA) encourages dog owners to be aware of what types of preservatives are used in some chilled pet food and fresh pet meat and how much.

He says one of the common preservatives added to pet food is sulphur dioxide and other sulphur dioxide releasing preservatives (220-228), which reduce thiamine levels.

Thiamine is required for normal brain function, and if there is a significant deficiency, brain disease may result, and this has the potential to be severe, Swinney says, adding that cooking can also reduce thiamine levels.

Sulphur dioxide is added in varying degrees to fresh meat or processed, un-refrigerated pet food rolls as a method of obtaining long shelf life by masking the signs of putrefaction, such as bacteria odour and red meat turning brown.

Acute signs of thiamine deficiency, as observed by the ASAVA, occur when dogs (and cats) are fed a diet of highly sulphited pet meat exclusively, Swinney says, warning severe deficiency can lead to haemorrhage in the brain and the loss of sections of brain tissue.

In December 2007, the ASAVA sent out a media release calling for levels of sulphur dioxide and any other preservative in pet food to be kept low enough not to interfere with thiamine levels, and for improvements in pet food labelling to make sure consumers understand what they are feeding their dog.

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