Understanding Dog Food Labels

Understanding Dog Food Labels 2014-08-12T08:29:11+00:00

Saint Bernards, being a giant breed, come with an inherent concern for proper nutrition. There are many different opinions on what and how to feed – dry, wet, grain free, or raw.

I have been involved in the breed since 1973 – showing and breeding since 1983. The world of dog food has had dramatic changes over that time, some good, some bad. I have relied on feeding commercial dry dog food as do most Saint owners. Since this is what I am familiar with, this article is based on that. I suggest going online to dogfoodadvisor.com as an excellent guide when considering a food. This site gives detailed analysis and reviews for most brands and types. Rather than try to cover all ingredients and supplements in foods, this site explains them well for each food reviewed.  Keep in mind when browsing the foods that they are being judged on ingredients alone.

A food given a 5 star rating may have very good ingredients but not be a balance suitable for a Saint (too much protein the most common concern) and it does not take into account where the ingredients are procured and processed.  Dog food recalls are not uncommon due to poor quality ingredients or processing. The cheaper the food usually the more corners that have been cut. Also, the more abundant of a supply is needed (for example the big box store brands) the more concern over how to provide that much quantity at a reasonable cost and make a profit – their bottom line. I like to see my dog food come from a company whose sole business is to make quality pet food. I also am concerned when a company seems to be concentrating on advertising and promotions as opposed to using their money to make food.

This article will be divided into three sections.

  • PART ONE will be an aid in reading labels when considering a food.
  • PART TWO covers feeding of older puppies through old age.
  • PART THREE will deal with specific challenges in feeding during times of stress – pregnancy, lactation, and neonatal puppies.

I hope this series on feeding will be of help to the Saint Bernard community.  Please consider it as a starting point. Your dog’s health and condition is the deciding factor on the best way to feed.

Part One
Reading Labels and Food Options

Commercial Dry Food – Even though the listed ingredients of different brands look the same (chicken, rice, etc), other variables make a food good or bad. First, ingredients are either from constant source, least cost or a combination. A good brand uses constant source to ensure constant good quality. When comparing foods, this is the first question to ask.  Dog food comes in 3 grades – store brand, premium and super premium. Store brands being the cheapest and most readily available but not a good choice – especially when feeding a giant breed. The nutrition is iffy and inconsistent at best. The ingredients may not be human grade, or may be from overseas sources where there are regulation and safety concerns. The food may contain meat by-products, preservatives, artificial coloring, etc.

Stick with premium or super premium. Ingredients are listed on the label in the order of quantity (most to least). The percentage amounts listed are the minimum but not necessarily the actual amount. This is another reason to go with a better grade of food as the percentages are more accurate to actual amounts. The first 4 or 5 ingredients are important to take note of as they are the building blocks of the food. The first ingredient should be a meat (chicken, beef, fish, etc.). I prefer meal to whole meat as it is meat concentrate absence the water – hence the weight is based on the actual amount of meat. Lamb meal has a caveat as lamb meal only has to be 51% lamb.

Multiple meat sources are good because it provides a variety of protein sources for the body to utilize.  Lamb does not supply as much available energy as other meat sources so a lamb based diet is not adequate for a Saint puppy. A growing pup needs a protein source readily metabolized and both young and older dogs have a lowered ability to manufacture taurine.

There have been studies that seemed to show that lamb based diets lacked sufficient taurine – essential for heart health. When re-examined, lamb has just as much taurine as other meat sources but some of the foods tested had very little lamb. The protein was mostly from plant sources which do not have taurine. I think lamb for an adult Saint is OK if it is a secondary meat source in the food. Rice is a common carbohydrate source in most dry food. Wheat is not a good choice as it is the most likely to trigger allergies, millet is the least likely.

When choosing what treats to feed, beware of those not made in the USA with American ingredients. Quality and processing of the ingredients is suspect from some overseas suppliers.

Wet (canned) Food – Most wet foods are mostly water with very little nutrition. There are some that are more canned meat but these are very expensive, require a large volume fed for a Saint, and usually too rich as the base for his diet. Also, the amount of binders, artificial flavorings, additives, preservatives is worrisome in most brands.  A couple tablespoons added to entice a picky eater or just make you feel better should not cause problems.

 Raw diet A choice to consider but one that requires dedication.  Drawbacks are expense, convenience and it is a balancing act to insure proper nutrition (especially the calcium/phosphorus ratios).  Choosing to feed a growing Saint puppy raw diet can have devastating lifelong effects if the owner is not well informed on how to feed raw.

Grain Free – This is a fairly new option that is still in the formative stage. Usually considered for dogs with allergy issues. The foods are generally low carbohydrate with vegetables taking the place of grains.  Some have low meat content (vegetables being used as a source for protein) so do not contain adequate lysine and taurine. An increased incidence in bleeding ulcers have been seen when feeding foods over 40% protein so choose one under 35%. In my opinion, a product to use with caution due to the lack of long term experience feeding the various formulas.

Susan West, Utah

January, 2014

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