By Products, Fillers, Meal, From China?  What’s a Mother to Do?

by Nancy Blue 

Rather than jumping from forum to forum online, trying to decipher massive dog piles of contradictory information about the over 15,000 brands, types and varieties of dog food, let’s prepare you to go to a well-stocked pet shop or big box store and research right at the source.  You’ll learn how to navigate the isles, the terms used on dog food packaging, plus the definitions of ingredients.  It is up to YOU to know before you go.

Asking the clerk (in many cases) will give spotty if not downright wrong information:  Case in point – I recently asked a clerk at a reputable pet shop, “Do all the foods contain some type of meal?”  The clerk replied, “Yes.”  Meanwhile, I meandered into the next isle only to find it contained dozens of foods with no meal whatsoever.

Three things come into play when choosing dog food:  the food, your dog, and you.  The food alone is not the full picture—it may be perfect, but not for your dog, or not for you.

Before you set out to do dog food research

I. Consider types of food:  

Dry, semi-moist, moist, freeze-dried, BARF Diet, and mixer food.  Do you intend to combine products?  Or, do you seek one type of food to meet all your dog’s dietary needs?  Naturally, if you will feed a single food, that food must contain all the nutrients your dog needs.  “Mixer,” on the other hand, is meant to be used along with fresh or frozen beef, fish or poultry that you provide as the main source of protein.

II. Consider your dog’s:

- Age

- Current and optimal weight

- Medical conditions - kidney problems, sensitive stomach, food allergies, arthritis, other (if unsure, check with your vet)

- Activity Level

III. Consider your:

- Budget

- Time and energy - some types of food can require labor intensive storage, preparation, clean up and disposal.  If you are short on time and energy, a single top quality, balanced product may work best for you.

- Values regarding sustainability, organics, and company practices - These concerns are the same whether considering your own or your dog’s food, the car you drive, or which stores you shop at. If you have distinct concerns about the welfare of all animals, including the animals that end up as dog food ingredients, high-end food is available with labeling to indicate it is made from cage free or free-range stock.


Defining things so you don’t end up in the middle of the store feeling like a functional illiterate.

Terms used in marketing and packaging 

The Association of American Feed Control Officers (AAFCO) sets standards for complete and balanced nutrition, and pet food manufactures are responsible for following their guidelines.  The AAFCO is not an enforcer.  These guidelines are supposed to fill the role that the nutritional analysis on human food fills, but the truth is, they can be fraught with vagaries.  Much dog food labeling is full of unregulated terminology designed by sellers to reflect what’s popular now, and to move product rather than to accurately describe the product.  So, pay little credence to the bold captions—go straight to the list of ingredients.  Then, consider that usually the first five ingredients make up the bulk of the food. If it touts “fish” on the label, for instance, but fish is listed as the 7th ingredient, it has no significant amount of fish.

Guaranteed Analysis

This is the user-unfriendliest thing ever.  Upon researching this, you find you must convert everything to dry levels doing precise math equations.  Even then, it’s about as clear as mud. For instance, the percentage of protein, which you’d think indicates high quality, does not reflect from whence that protein came.  It could be from bird beaks, claws, hooves, hair.  OMG!   

Human Grade 

This term sounds nice, but there is no legal definition of what a product must consist of to be called human grade.  In contrast, the terms  “passed USDA inspection for human consumption” and "from USDA inspected facilities" signify the food is approved for human consumption.

Made in the USA 

This means assembled in the USA, so any given ingredient, including the chicken, beef, or fish, could be from anywhere in the world.    

Maintenance or Maintenance Diet   

This means it is for a fully-grown adult dog, non-reproducing, with a normal activity level.  It may not meet needs of growing, working or more active dogs.

For all life stages  

The AAFCO site specifies this “meets the more stringent nutritional needs for growth and reproduction.”

Complete and balanced   

This term is noted on the web site of the AAFCO as follows: “Substantiated for nutritional adequacy” and  “ pet food to contain ingredients formulated to provide levels of nutrients that meet an established profile.”  This means it contains proper amounts of essential nutrients needed to “meet the needs of a healthy animal.”  If a product does not meet “nutritional adequacy” established by the AAFCO, it will say “intended for intermittent or supplemental feeding only,” or it may be called a “snack,” “treat” or “supplement.”
Terms often seen but without any established guidelines - Weight control, senior, large breed, small breed (or naming a specific breed).  That’s not to say the food is bad if these words are on the package, but manufactures aren’t  following any established requirements when using these terms. So, if you feed “weight control” food and your dog gets fat, you have no recourse there buddy.  

Types of food


Often the most affordable, ounce for ounce, it contains more actual food.  Canned food is between 60 to 78 percent water—dry is 4 to 11 percent.  You use much less food when feeding dry food.  Read on to learn about ingredients to help you select an optimal brand.


Has less water than canned but more than dry dog food. May have more preservatives.  If you need a diet higher in water and don’t want to go with canned, it is an alternative.  A controversial chemical, propylene glycol, is often found in this food.  It has been banned in cat food, but is legal in dog food in the United States.  



Refers to canned dog food.


You simply add water and wait a few minutes.  This is great if your dog has problems with broken or ground down teeth, or is recovering from a tooth extraction or other oral surgery, and needs to avoid dry food for a while.  From a human standpoint, freeze-dried food is much less work for Mom and Dad:  No can to dispose of, very little offensive smell, takes up less space than large bags of kibble.

BARF Diet  

It is not a brand of dog food, and since our aim is to assist you in selecting types of dog food, we mention it only in passing.  BARF is Biologically Appropriate Raw food or Bones (with meat on them) and Raw Food.  It is prepared from meat and/or meaty bones, fruits, vegetables, eggs and dairy foods.  Some feel it is the only way to go, others claim it’s not safe due to greater risk of bacteria forming.  If you are of a mind to provide a BARF diet, it’s for sure Fido will love it.


These are listed on labels from most to least, just as they are on human food products.  The first item listed is the item with the most weight.  The most confusing ingredients are discussed below.  Here is the easiest way to select:  Base it on the VERY FIRST ingredient.  THAT is what the food mostly is.  If you want to feed your dog plenty of protein, it must say fish, beef, chicken, turkey...and not meal, corn, potatoes...


Something produced in the making of something else.  Animal by-products are the parts other than meat, derived from slaughtered animals.  This may include (but is not limited to) brains, blood, bone, fatty tissue, stomachs and intestines, lungs, spleen, livers.  Animal by-products can be any kind of mammal, including dogs and cats.  Not sounding too tasty, is it?


Animal meal is not actually meat.  Although not enticing to humans, dogs are not as discerning—some meal may be good for dogs.  The key is to decipher the different types of meals.  (See side bar).  If you opt for a meal-based food, you can save considerable cash over the foods with actual beef, chicken, fish and the like.  While meal is high in protein it’s been connected with recalls and is being shied away from by the most cautious among us.  That doesn’t mean you don’t care about your dog if you use something with meal.  But when you can afford it, real meat, fish or poultry based brands deliver a more predictable diet, with less chance of tainted ingredients.

Once you have thought about your needs, your dog’s needs and the types of food out there, and reviewed terms and ingredient buzzwords, you are ready to journey to the store.

When you are ready to do your label reading at the store:

Be sure to take high-powered reading glasses or a magnifying glass...if you are “of a certain age” or visually challenged at all, and allow oodles of time to read labels and compare.  They won’t kick you out of the store.

When reading packaging, consider this:  Anything that confuses you or sounds to good to be true probably is.  Opt for brands that sound like they are trying to make it easy for you to comprehend what’s on the label.  

Be aware of the layout in store.  Most large or big box pet food stores can be roughly broken down as follows:

Area 1 - Low-grade inexpensive foods.  

If you are reading this, you care about your dog.  This part of the store is hardly worth looking at, unless price is your only consideration.  These foods typically contain animal by-products and fillers, and may pose risks from actually sickening your dog, to providing inadequate nutrition if given routinely.

Area 2 - Mid-quality

They usually don’t contain actual meat, but have some type of animal meal as the main ingredient.  These foods can be ok for your dog, depending on how often and for how many years you use them.  A lifetime diet of this is not recommended, but if you alternate, or mix with top quality foods, or supplement with actual meat, this mid-grade food serves a good purpose.

Area 3 - Top quality.  

This is high priced, so you can decide what works with your budget.  Many are made of human grade ingredients, and don’t include animal meal or by-products.  Types of food in this section include, among others, freeze-dried, all meat, and specialty—gluten free, corn free, vegetarian and so on.  The specialty foods are only needed if your dog is ill and/or a vet has determined he or she has sensitivity to certain food types.

Avoid deciding based on guilt.  Consider your budget and if you have a better food in mind but can’t swing it now, opt for a mid-quality brand until you can move up without starving yourself.  If you die of starvation, you pet will be in the pound.

Having said that, consider the cumulative consequences on your critter of any given food—especially those with significant amounts of ash, by-products, meat and bone meal, and fillers like soy or corn meal.  Since the pet food recall in 2007, things have become more confusing.  Scares about ingredients from China and other product recalls have been real.  There have been cases that have sickened and killed pets.  (Some say to avoid all products made in China and ingredients from China.  Be your own judge as to which ingredients and brands—check online this time, because if a brand or ingredient has been under scrutiny, it will have been talked about online by consumers and major news outlets.)

A good diet can add years to your dog’s life, and life to your best friend’s years.  If you want to delve into it further, discuss food types and concerns with your vet, and use the toll free number on the food label or company website—after you’ve done your own research.