Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What Difference Does Food Make?

For several years now, I've been listening to dog owners duke it out about whether it truly matters what food you feed your dog. Of course, if your dog has a sensitive stomach or is allergic to something, such as wheat, then it's a no-brainer that it does matter, and you would need to feed your dog a gluten-free food. But I'm talking about the vast majority of dogs out there who aren't allergic to anything, and who don't have particular dietary requirements -- does it really matter what kind of dog food we choose to feed them?

I can't say I've done my homework about this topic because I really haven't, but as I mentioned, I've been listening to the banter for years between dog owners and on BRAT-chat. To be honest, I had always sort of dismissed the idea that a more expensive food would make a dog healthier, because it all just sort of looks like brown kibble to me. Plus, I'm on a really tight budget (as most of us are) and a $50 bag of dog food just didn't seem worth it when I could get the same-size bag in a cheap brand for $15.

But then, two years ago, I went to my first BRAT Convention up in Syracuse NY. I met lots of basenji owners and basenjis, and I noticed that some of the basenjis had the softest, most beautiful fur I'd ever felt on a dog. I commented several times to several different owners about what wonderful coats their dogs had, and every single one of them said that it was because of the food their dogs eat. I started to wonder whether there was something to this food argument, after all.

The brands the owners said they fed their dogs were all different, so in the course of conversation I asked each owner why they chose that particular brand of food over others. Every single one of them said that the key to choosing a good dog food is to flip the bag over and read the actual list of ingredients on the label. Not the advertised ingredients on the front of the bag, because that can easily be misleading (I mean really, how am I supposed to know that "made with chicken" doesn't actually mean there's chicken meat in the food??). Rather, read the actual list of ingredients that go into the dog food. The first two ingredients are the ones that matter the most, because they are what the majority of the food is made of. If it says "chicken," then your food is made with actual chicken meat. If it says "chicken meal," that means chicken meat with the skin and bones and stuff ground up in it. If it says "chicken by product," then that means it contains the bones, the feathers, the entrails, and all other stuff that you probably want to say away from, and probably very little actual meat. The rest of the stuff they put into dog food is generally just filler, most of which has no nutritional value (wheat and barley husks? That's not even actual wheat or barley grains!) and just makes your dog eat more and poop more. For more info on ingredients, check out

All that made sense to me (and the stuff about by-products made me want to hurl), but I still wondered whether it really mattered. I mean, come on -- most dogs will eat just about ANYTHING you put in front of them, and they seem to continue to grow and thrive regardless. My basenjis had been eating a regular and relatively cheap name-brand food for years, and they seemed just fine. But, I was still intrigued by the shiny, soft coats and the sparkling eyes of the basenjis I'd met at the Convention. Would they live longer than my dogs because they were healthier? Were they happier than my dogs because they felt better? Was it easier to keep them fit because they ate more quality calories than empty calories? Did they really eat and poop less, as everyone claimed? I had to find out for myself.

Being the time-crunched shopper that I am, I checked out all of the major chain stores that I frequent (WalMart, Target, Petsmart, Petco, Costco), and found that none of them carried any of the "high quality" brands that other basenji owners had been talking about. Crap. I looked up the high quality foods on their company websites, and found that the closest distributor that carried any of them was a specialty pet store a half hour away, who grossly jacked up the price. Double crap. To order the food over the internet would be to pay a lot extra for shipping, which I just couldn't justify. So, I did the next-best thing I could think of: I went to WalMart and found the "best" food they had there (NaturaLife Lamaderm, $25/big bag, made from lamb meal) and switched to that.

When you switch a dog's food you have to mix the old with the new for a while so it doesn't upset the dog's stomach, but after about a week I was feeding only the new food. About two weeks after that, I noticed my dogs' fur getting softer. Within a month, it literally began to shine. Maybe I made it up, but I swear their eyes got brighter, too. I went from feeding each dog 2 cups/day to about 1.5 cups/day, which was all that they seemed to want because I keep their bowls full so they can eat until they're satisfied. Both of my dogs have always had tons of energy so I don't know if that was affected at all, but I did notice that Reef seemed a little less pudgy on the same amount of exercise. And I have no idea if they pooped less often, but the piles did actually seem a little smaller :) All in all, I was convinced that the improvement in the quality of their food really made a difference.

That was about 2 years ago, and my dogs have been very healthy thus far. Just about two months ago, however, I noticed that Petco made a bold move to differentiate itself in the pet products market, and started to carry high-quality dog foods. These were the brands I had been looking for originally, which the other basenji owners swore by -- brands like Innova, Blue Buffalo, Canidae, Orijen, Wysong, and more. Yay, Petco! So this week I decided to stop by Petco and picked up a bag of high quality dog food. I was pleasantly overwhelmed by the choice I was presented with, and I spent nearly an hour in the store reading ingredient labels.

In the end, I chose Innova's Poultry formula, because the first ingredient was turkey, the second was chicken, the third was chicken meal, and there were very few fillers. The prices were all about the same - about $50 for the big bag, but Petco promises that if the dogs don't like it, I can bring it back for a full refund. My goal is to gradually switch over and feed the new food for a month or two, to see if it will make even more of a difference in my dogs' health and well-being. If my first experience with a better-quality dog food is any indicator, with a high-quality dog food I hope to see silky soft coats, lots of healthy energy, and a devilish little basenji eye twinkle. Not that I need my dogs to get any smarter than they already are (...yikes!), but I look forward to them living longer, healthier, happier lives. Stay tuned for an update in the next few months!


  1. I learned about high quality feed many years ago. My dogs have lovely coats, plenty of energy and are very healthy on the whole. But one of the BIG advantages for me (especially living in TX) is we rarely have fleas on my dogs.
    Now I've learned about the raw food diet. And life is even better. Even my vet is commenting on how nice my dogs coats are and their muscle tone. And I definitely have less waste to pick up in the yard. And my neurotic Basenji is much calmer. Down side is it is a lot more expensive. But I found out about this new diet at a great time, just as my husband and I became new empty nesters.

  2. I am now a firm believer in good, high quality food, too. However, It took until one of my local stores completely stopped carrying Hill's Science Diet after the 2007 pet food scare that I really started scrutinizing dog food. Now, not only do I feed my dogs better, I've learned to feed *myself* better too.

    For my first year of grad school, I was so concerned about budgeting (both time and money) that I ate a LOT of frozen food and TV dinners -- pot pies and ramen and $2 microwaveable meals and whatnot. And frankly, I felt like crud on that diet. And eating got boring. I quickly learned to make nice-looking, efficient meals using fresh ingredients, and felt a significant difference.

    If my own improved diet made a difference, why wouldn't the same principles work for my pets? It doesn't have to be about buying the most expensive bag of food (there are some very respectable brands out there that were only about $5 a bag more than the lower quality stuff we were buying before -- and the difference it makes far exceeds that cost!) It really has paid off in the long run.