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To find the best commercial dog food, start by reading the label

I am not a big fan of commercial diets, but I recognize that the convenience is an important consideration for many dog owners. For those of you who choose to feed a commercial dog food, here’s some information to help you select the best possible one(s) you can afford. It starts with label reading.

Ingredients are listed by weight, with the first three being the most important. The first ingredient should always be, to quote Elaine on “Seinfeld,” “Something that had parents.” This means an animal such as chicken, beef or lamb. Corn, soy, wheat and other grains don’t have parents. These cheaper sources of protein as one of the first three ingredients is a sign of a poorer quality diet. So start by looking for an animal protein source as the first ingredient. But it’s not quite that simple — there’s meat, and there’s beef. “Meat” can be anything, including (sad but true) euthanized animals of virtually any species (consider what that might mean … or don’t).

Because ingredients are listed by weight, if the first ingredient is beef, chicken or turkey, that means it is as much as 75% water. Water content increases the weight, but isn’t used as protein, so in this case, look for a second or third ingredient that is that protein in “meal” form — chicken meal, for example. “Meal” is a dry weight formulation of the animal protein source and contains only about 10% water, so it’s a source of more animal protein.

Avoid ingredients such as meat “byproducts.” Byproducts are what’s left after the “meat” part is removed. For instance, poultry byproducts include the head, feet, legs, necks, undeveloped eggs and intestines. Meat byproducts include lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, fatty tissue, stomachs and “intestines freed of their contents.” So “poultry byproduct meal” doesn’t have a lot of nutritional value.

“Animal fat” is another no-no that refers to virtually any animal, including road kill, or recycled restaurant grease. Again, you want to look for a specific animal such as “chicken fat” or “duck fat.”

Avoid foods that contain sugar, including corn syrup and the like. Like people, dogs enjoy the taste of “sweet,” but it’s not good for them. Also stay away from foods with chemical preservatives such as BHA or BHT artificial flavor and color. Dogs don’t choose food by color — that’s strictly to appeal to humans. Flavor enhancements shouldn’t be necessary in the diet if the ingredients are high quality and fresh. As for preservatives, look for tocopherols (forms of vitamin E), vitamin C and rosemary extract, which can be used instead of chemicals.

The dog food industry is well-aware of dog owners who are searching for better quality, healthy foods. But don’t be fooled by marketing strategies of dog food bags covered in beautiful pictures of fresh, whole vegetables and glistening chunks of well-marbled meat. Go beyond the packaging to read the ingredients, which may be anything but healthful.

Here are the first ingredients on the label of a beautifully packaged, popular dog food. While the first ingredient is beef, remember, by weight it’s 75% water. The next four ingredients are grains: whole grain corn, barley, rice, whole grain wheat. Then there’s chicken byproduct meal (no nutritional value), then more grains and more byproduct meal.

While there is one source of animal protein, it is practically nonexistent from a nutritional perspective. This is not what nature intended for dogs to eat and be healthy for years to come, which is what we all want.

Become a label reader. Your dog will be the better for it.

Gail Fisher, author of “The Thinking Dog” and a dog behavior consultant, runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. To suggest a topic for this column, which appears every other Sunday, email or write c/o All Dogs Gym, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. Past columns are on her website.

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