Some time ago, I stopped into our friendly local Home and Garden Center to pick up a bag of lamb milk replacer for my wife. (Somehow or other, she had ended up the lambing season with nine of the little darlings on the bottle.) While I was waiting for the clerk to finish with another customer, I ambled over to the store’s pet care section to see if they had anything new in the way of dog food . And, as is always the case, I was amazed by the amount of varieties and brands to chose from. We—and our pets— truly do live in the land of plenty.

Dog food! Now there’s a controversial subject for you! Forget politics, forget whether Ralph Nader got a bum deal, forget global warming, forget the status of the economy. In my modest little veterinary practice alone, I’ll bet that one out of every three dog owners that comes through the door, has an opinion, or a question, about dog food.

I can hear it out there now: “So Doc, what are your thoughts about which is, or is not, the best dog food for our pets?” Well, dear readers, my thoughts and humble opinions are many, and I think the best way of sharing them with you would be to pass on a sampling of the questions I’m most frequently asked. But before I do, let me just say that my answers are a reflection of my real-world experiences and represent my unique belief: I’ll also say, that there are lots of good men and women who’ve dedicated their lives to the study of nutrition. And many, as they sit in their all-powerful, ivory towers, will find imperfection with my answers. So be it. As my good friend Stanley would say: “Whatever floats their boat.” Here are some of my most-asked questions.

“Doc, could you tell us which is better, this twenty pound bag sitting on the floor which sells for around six dollars, or this other twenty pound bag sitting right next to it, that sells for eighteen dollars?” I’ll start right off by saying, that in my opinion, there is no such thing as a “bad” commercially-produced dog food. [I can almost hear the wailing and screaming and the tearing of garments from men’s breasts.] This is because the science of nutrition has set minimum standards of quality and nutritive value that all manufacturers, if they want to stay in business, must meet. The biggest reason that bags of the same size can cost up to three times more, is that the cost of the ingredients is greater. Look at the label of an inexpensive food and you’ll see the first listed ingredient is frequently corn, or some other grain. (The ingredients of a dog food are listed in the order of their total percentage of the product.) If you look at the label of a mid-range product, you’ll frequently see animal by-products listed as the first ingredient. (By-products are what’s left over after you remove the choice muscle meats but does not include hooves, hide or hair.) If you look at the ingredients of the premier brands, you’ll see listed as the first ingredient beef or chicken or lamb, etc. (In order to make this claim, the main ingredient has to be greater than 95% actual striated muscle meat—in other words, the “good” stuff.)

“Doc, is this difference in quality of a dog food’s ingredients important?” Without opening up too big of a can of worms here, I’ll sidestep the question slightly by saying it all depends on how you describe quality. If by quality, you mean the safety and soundness of the actual ingredients, then yes, it’s important. This aspect of quality, most of the time, is a given: federal, state, and dog food company standards insures this. (Of course, just like you can get the occasional bad burger or killer bottle of apple juice, so it is also possible with dog food ingredients.) However, if you describe the quality of a dog food in terms of the biological availability of it’s ingredients (as I do), then the answer to the question of how important the quality of a dog food’s ingredients is: Occasionally, yes, but mostly, no. [I can almost hear the screams of the educated elite and all-knowing: blasphemy, stone him!]

I’ll continue with Part II later this week.

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