As humans, we’ve been conditioned to read food labels closely (no high fructose corn syrup allowed!) But we need to train ourselves to look just as skeptically at our dog’s food label. Commercial brands often contain ingredients that aren’t healthy for pups—they could have been added because they’re inexpensive, or because they help the food stay fresh longer. Either way, you don’t want your pup consuming these potential toxins on a regular basis. Before you open another bag (or can), consult this list:
This type of plastic contains nitrogen, which has been added to dog food to make it look like it contains more protein, says Gary Richter, veterinarian and author of the Ultimate Pet Health Guide. “Ingesting melamine is definitely toxic,” he explains. “It can cause kidney failure, depending on the size of the dog and the dose, and death.” In fact, it was responsible for one of the worst dog food recalls ever in 2007. Even today, melamine testing is still not mandated so always ask questions if you’re not sure what your dog’s food contains.
BHA, BHT and Ethoxyquin
These are artificial preservatives found in some traditional dog foods and treats, used to extend their shelf life. “There are concerns that these chemicals can be harmful with long-term exposure and ingestion,” says Richter, who recommends avoiding any artificial ingredients in food or treats. For example, ethoxyquin, which is used as a fat preservative, is also utilized as a pesticide. One study found that it elevates liver enzymes in the blood and raises hemoglobin pigment in the liver. If you see these on a label, back away!
This artificial additive is used to maintain texture, keeping foods soft and moist. While PG is generally recognized as safe by the FDA, it’s still an artificial ingredient, and Richter says he wouldn’t recommend feeding it to dogs. Additionally, there’s often confusion between propylene glycol and ethylene glycol (antifreeze). The latter is extremely toxic to dogs, although the former has been used in antifreeze as a non-toxic alternative.
An ingredient extracted from red seaweed Carrageenan
is used as a thickener to maintain consistency, specifically in wet dog food. It has been determined safe by the FDA and AAFCO as a food additive, however the “degraded” variant, called poligeenan (which is not permitted in food), has been shown to be potentially harmful. Studies indicate that it can lead to GI inflammation and possibly cancer, Richter says. Our verdict: avoid it!
If you see any time of protein "meal" on a dog food label, step away! This is the product of a process called rendering, where the scraps of diseased and dead animals are heated up: “Meat producers take all of the leftover bits and scraps, and cook them down to remove the fat,” Richter explains. “After the fat is removed, meat meal remains.” While meat meal does contain protein, the quality of nutrition from it can vary wildly depending on the animal parts it contains.
Food dyes or corn syrup
There’s no reason to artificially color pet food—it's done to make it look more appealing to humans! And your pup's food doesn’t need to be sweetened, either—especially not with an ingredient like corn syrup that has a high glycemic index with no health benefits. “Dogs don’t even want sweet in their foods,” Richter says. “Both should be avoided.”