A pre-packaged or kibble diet has it's advantages. Owner's can feel a bit safer and more confident that the food they've chosen has been formulated to be nutritionally complete and their dog won't suffer any major deficiencies. The convenience can't be beat. Grab a bag of your favorite meat based, healthy kibble, a measuring scoop, and your dogs bowl and be ready to feed in less than a minute.
So how do you look for the best dog food you can find? There are hundreds of dog foods to choose from. The idea is to look for a kibble that is as natural as possible. But don’t just assume because it says natural, organic, or holistic on the front of the bag that it is. Lables can be misleading. Look instead at the ingredient list.
Meat should be summed up in one word descriptions such as: bison, beef, turkey, chicken, lamb, pork and so on. It should also be the first ingredient listed. Next will usually be some type of (meat based) ‘Meal.’ As long as the meal is meat specific such as: Chicken Meal, Lamb Meal, etc this is fine.
A meat meal is basically more meat, skin, bones, and fats. Expect many ingredients that we people would skip over. In commercial food production when the muscle cuts that people prefer to eat are removed from a carcass the remainder ingredients are often put into dog food. If you've ever lived or worked on a farm or hunted than this concept is not new to you! But let's not assume dog food companies are using these bits to respect the animal or be conservationists -- most do so because it is cheap. A meat specific by-product such as Chicken By-Product or Beef By-Product is considered to be safer and more acceptable than the nondescript by-products. However, that doesn't make them ideal.
The less specific the title of the "meal" or "by-product" the scarier it is. Vague meals including: meat meal, animal meal, meat and bone meal, animal meat and bone meal, meat by-product meal, etc are big No-No's. These ingredients are intentionally vague in description because they consist of meat or meat parts that have been deemed unfit for human consumption. We're not just talking the stuff you wouldn't want to eat (like chicken feet, which actually have some nutritional value for dogs) but rather meat, bones, organs, etc that have been improperly handled and stored to the point of bacterial contamination or rotting. These types of meals and by-products also often include road kill (even rotted road kill), dead or dying feed lot animals who may have been hauled or stored in a way not suitable for consumption (think dump truck on a hot day...), diseased animals from food production or zoos, and euthanized pets from animal shelters (this last one might, hopefully, just be a rumor).
Read carefully! A trick manufactures like to play is to list a meat ingredient first, but follow-up with several by-products and fillers. In this case, although meat is listed first, there are still more fillers in the food than meat. Grain’s are tricky and really up to you as the owner. Dogs have no real need for grains; grains can be a cheap source of carbohydrates. Dogs are highly opportunistic carnivores and they will process grains for energy if it's all they have available to them. However, they are designed for meat and most are best fed a diet that is mostly meat based.
Grains are most commonly added to help hold kibble together. C'mon, you know how sticky overcooked rice or oatmeal can get! Any grain you feed your dog should be used in whole form so that it supplies more fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The best grains for dogs (when used in the proper percentages) are rolled oats, barley, quinoa, millet, and brown rice. If you can't find a grain free dog food, look for ‘whole grains’. Corn, (of any type) wheat, and soy should not appear on the bag at all. Corn is not digestible to your dog and should not be fed; most dogs are allergic to wheat and soy products.
Most natural and healthy dog foods will have fruits and veggies listed in the ingredients. Even predators in the wild eat some greenery if that is all they can source. For our domesticated dogs many vegetables, fruits, and even dairy products can provide vitamins and minerals not exclusively found in meat.
Lastly watch out for preservatives! While preservatives may be necessary to keep the food stable while on the shelf, preservatives should not be artificial chemicals. Avoid pet foods that use chemical preservatives BHA, BHT and Ethoxyquin, which can cause cancer, tumors and skin irritations. Look for Vitamin E and vitamin C. They are great preservatives that are much better for your dog.