ALBERT~1Over the last decade, there have been encouraging advances in pet nutrition. I’ve been the lucky taste tester of many healthy and delicious new food options, and I’ve learned a lot about what does my body good. I’ve been the most excited about food that gets closer to its natural state – freeze-dried, dehydrated, raw, and even canned options made from whole foods.

While I really prefer those dry food alternatives, I know they are not for everyone. For some people, life is so busy that it can be difficult to put a lot of thought into what goes into our bowls. For others, keeping an eye on the bottom line is a must. For still others, convenience is key. The reality is that kibble is king and it makes up the lion’s share of pet food sales. The good news is that there are high quality dry foods available today. And it takes only a little bit of knowledge to separate the good from the bad.

The standards that have been in place for years are still true. Read labels carefully, understanding that the first ingredients are the most prevalent. Avoid formulas that include corn, soy, or wheat. Do not buy food that includes the word “by-product” in the formula. And avoid artificial colors and preservatives.

Some other aspects of food assessment are not as widely known, however. Many people, for instance, believe that “meal” is always a red flag on a package. It is not. Meal can be very nutrient dense, but it can also be very nutrient poor. It all comes down to the quality of meat that was used to make the meal. Ideally, meal should be identified as coming from a specific protein source (chicken meal, beef meal, venison meal) and should be made by a reputable manufacturer. Lower quality foods include by-product meals (chicken by-product meal, beef by-product meal) or generic meals (poultry meal, meat meal, animal meal, bone meal).

Another myth is that grains are always bad for dogs. Thanks to robust marketing efforts, carbohydrates have been demonized and the grain-free marketplace is booming. While it is true that some pets do better without grains in their diet, some amount of carbs can be beneficial for most of us. The trick is to make sure that carbs make up a far smaller percentage of the food than meat. If grain is the first ingredient, the food is not going to be the best choice for us. Additionally, we should eat whole grains rather than unrefined.

Be aware that some pet food companies employ a trick called splitting to hide the fact that a food is mostly made up of grains. You can spot this tactic by looking for the same grain named multiple times in different ways (i.e. rice bran and rice gluten or corn meal and corn flour). By splitting the grain ingredient, companies are able to make it appear that meat is the first ingredient since the grain components can be stated in smaller percentages.

As is the case with human food, pet food is a behemoth industry fraught with complexity. It pays to do a lot of research and choose your pet’s diet carefully. Just because a brand has beautiful advertising campaigns or takes up lots of shelf space in stores or even in vet’s offices does not mean it’s the right choice. Feeding your pet well can result in a longer, healthier life. We truly are what we eat!

Albert, a Jack Russell Terrier, is Chairman of the Board of Wylie Wagg, a Middleburg-founded company for dogs, cats, and their people. (

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