As you might expect, the term ancestral diet is used to identify foods that resemble the kind of things our dogs' ancestors would have eaten and, alongside bio-appropriate, is one of the hottest marketing terms in the pet food industry right now.
The idea of eating foods that your ancestors ate and that the body is, therefore, evolved to digest and utilise, is nothing new and has long been widely accepted as the healthiest way for us humans to eat. It has, however, only recently crossed over to the pet food industry and has led to a revolution in product formulation and marketing.
But what is the ancestral diet of dogs? It is a question that can get dog owners quite fired up and the answer really depends on how far you go back...
For most manufacturers and dog owners, when they talk about the ancestral diet, the ancestors in question are grey wolves, prior to their domestication 20-30,000 years ago. This means that most foods labelled as 'ancestral' are very high in meat and very low or free from grains and should be lightly processed if not raw.
There is, however, increasing debate over how much modern dogs have evolved since their domestication and, therefore, how suitable this version of the ancestral diet is:
With an approximate generation time of 2 years, dogs have spent at least 10,000 generations living and eating with humans - primarily scavenging and picking up whatever scraps and cast offs they could get their paws on to. Naturally, this diet would have included far less meat and would have introduced the dog to grains and cooked foods. Add selective breeding into the mix which would have relentlessly favoured individuals that fared better on the new omnivorous diet and you have a strong case for the ancestral diet including more carbs and less meat and being at least partially cooked.
Although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support either interpretation of the ancestral diet, there is not yet any definitive proof of which one is truly most beneficial for dogs in general. The good news is, though, that from our experience, since both approaches revolve around feeding good, natural, whole foods and exclude all of the most problematic ingredients (wheat, added salts and sugars, chemical additives etc), they both usually work exceedingly well, even for the same dog, so it's not necessarily a case of either/or.
Unfortunately, as manufacturers cotton on to the appeal of the term, it is becoming more and more widespread and can already be found slapped on to all sorts of products that really don't resemble any definition of the ancestral diet so, as always, be sure to double check the ingredients list before taking the plunge.
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Bio-appropriate is one of the latest buzz words in the pet food industry. It is used to categorise foods or ingredients that are appropriate to the animal - that is foods that the animal is evolutionarily adapted to consume, digest and utilise. For most (but not all) canine nutritionists, this means comparing foods with the diet of the wolf since wolves are the closest wild relatives of domesticated dogs. The closer a food is to that eaten by a wolf, the more bio-appropriate and therefore the better it is.
A typical bio-appropriate food would be high in meat (usually 50-80%), would contain a variety of vegetables, fruits and herbs and would be completely grain free. Relatively modern ingredients like soya, dairy and, of course, artificial additives, are strictly avoided. Many bio-appropriate advocates also adhere strongly to raw feeding principles.
It should be noted that not all canine nutritionists would define bio-appropriate in this way. The principles above are based on the theory that dogs are physiologically unchanged from their wolf ancestors but some nutritionists believe that the 30,000 or so years of their domestication has left modern dogs much less dependent on meat, far better at digesting grains and more suited to cooked foods than their wild counterparts. The debate continues.
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EU law defines a complete pet food as "any food which, by reason of its composition, is sufficient for a daily ration" and defines a daily ration as "The average total quantity of a specific pet food that is needed daily by a pet of a given species, age category and life style or activity to satisfy all its energy and nutrient requirements".
In theory, this means you can rest assured that any food you find labelled as 'complete' has everything your dog needs to stay fit and healthy. Since most manufacturers recommend feeding only their foods, the principal of dietary 'completeness' is absolutely central to pet health and yet it is exactly this premise that is drawing increasing amounts of criticism from pet food campaigners all over the world.
The main critisism is levelled at the recommended nutrient requirements themselves. In Europe, the nutritional guidelines are set by the European Pet Food Industry Federation (FEDIAF) who's other job it is to represent the interests of European pet food manufacturers. Their recommended nutritional levels are based on "scientific studies (including NRC 2006) and unpublished data from the industry". Investigations by the Association for Truth in Pet Food reveal that the NRC (National Research Council in the US) itself has extremely strong ties with just about all of the large pet food corporations which means that, essentially, the established pet food industry is setting its own rules. With such a clear conflict of interest, many have suggested that their advice might be more about protecting their interests and the status-quo rather than pursuing nutritional excellence.
For example, could it simply be coincidence that FEDIAF's recommended protein level for adult dogs of 18% dry matter just happens to be consistent with the low-meat, high-carb diets that their biggest members churn out?
Then there's the question of nutrient quality. It is now becoming more and more clear that the source and grade of ingredients and the nutrients they contain (proteins from fresh meats vs proteins form vegetable derivatives, for example) are absolutely paramount to assessing food quality and yet the recommended nutrient levels for complete foods do not even approach the subject. Again, this plays directly into the hands of the manufacturers of low grade pet foods.
So basically, 'complete pet food' as it is currently defined is a myth. Nevertheless, by choosing a good food and by spicing up the diet with a bit of variety, you can be sure that no areas of the nutritional spectrum are being neglected. Mixing or alternating between two or more high quality dog foods is always a good idea as is bolstering the diet with healthy extras like vegetables, fruits and meats. Take a look at our guide on feeding human foods for more info.
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The crude level of any nutrient is an estimate of the total amount present in the food. The crude level does not take into account how digestible, absorbable or bio-apropriate the nutrient is so leather or hair, for example, would have a much higher crude protein level than meat even though the protein in meat is nutritionally much better.
On pet food labels, all protein, fat, fibre and ash levels are, in fact, the 'crude' percentages but many manufacturers choose to omit the word.
Dry Matter Nutrients
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The dry matter level of a nutrient is the percentage there would be in the food if all of the water (also called moisture) was removed.
The nutrient levels given on the packaging, on the other hand, are 'as fed' meaning they represent the percentages of the nutrients in the finished product without any water being removed.
While this may seem like a trivial distinction, it is important to note that in order to compare the nutrient levels of two foods with different moisture levels, you really need to look at the dry matter nutrient levels since 'as fed' values don't tell the whole story.
To the untrained eye, the wet food looks like it's quite a lot lower in protein than the dry but, in reality, it contains almost twice as much! Here's why:
The dry food is only 8% moisture. That means, in 100g of food, 8g is water. This leaves 92g of 'dry matter', 25g of which is protein. As a percentage that is 25 / 92 x 100 which comes to 27%. This is the 'dry matter protein' value.
The wet food, on the other hand, is 70% moisture meaning that 100g of food only contains 30g of dry matter. Of that 30g, 15g is protein. 15 / 30 x 100 = a whopping 50% dry matter protein.
Doing all that maths for every ingredient in every food your interested in can be very time consuming so to make things easier we have added dry matter nutrient dials to every food we feature and when you search for foods with certain nutrient profiles, it is always done according to the dry matter values.
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Holistic is a term traditionally used to describe any approach that deals with the 'whole'. In holistic medicine, for example, the idea is that all of the aspects of health including psychological, physical and social are so intimately connected that investigating and treating any individual condition, system or organ is only possible by reference to the whole.
By its very definition, a dog food cannot be holistic since it is only one of a number of factors that contribute to a dog's health. Nevertheless, over the last couple of decades, more and more pet foods have been labeled as 'holistic'. Originally, the term was most often used to describe foods that aim for general health throughout the whole animal as opposed to foods that target specific issues like the coat, teeth, joints etc. This is a commendable approach but by this definition 90% of foods would be holistic.
Nowadays, the term has lost virtually all of its meaning and is used arbitrarily throughout the pet food industry. Often it is used as a byword for natural or hypoallergenic but since there are absolutely no criteria for describing 'holistic' foods, any pet food manufacturer can legally describe their products as holistic no matter what their ingredients or their properties.
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'Human grade' is another term that is now used all over the pet food industry. The first thing to note is that no food produced in a pet food factory, no matter how good it is, can be legally classed as human grade. For this reason most claims are restricted to the ingredients with phrases like 'made from human grade ingredients', 'with human grade meat' or 'ingredients fit for human consumption' becoming increasingly popular, but do they really mean anything?
In the UK, the regulations governing what animals can and can't be fed are relatively stringent meaning that the vast majority of pet food ingredients come from human grade sources. For example, unlike in the US where dead, dying, disabled and diseased animals can be used in pet food, here in the UK all animal materials in pet foods must come from animals passed as fit for human consumption. This is also the case for foreign foods being imported into the UK. This means that any food you find in the UK containing meat (which accounts for 99.9% of the foods out there) can put 'human grade meat' or 'human grade ingredients' on the label if they wish.
The problem is that many ingredients that start out as 'human grade' are no longer classed as suitable for human consumption once they have been processed. For example, although a piece of meat may come from a human-grade animal, once it has been rendered into meat meal it is no longer categorised as suitable for human consumption. Nevertheless, a food containing meat meal can still legally say that the meat comes from 'human grade sources' even though the meat ingredient itself is not human grade.
Basically, since virtually any pet food in the UK can say that it has 'human grade ingredients' and since none (that I know of) are human grade at the end of processing, any claim about a food's human-grade-ness should be disregarded.
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Hypoallergenic, a term apparently first coined by the James Wellbeloved marketing team, literally means low-allergy-causing and can be used to describe any food that doesn't contain any ingredients that are commonly linked to allergies. Unfortunately, different manufacturers have different ideas of what constitutes an allergy-causing ingredient so the definition can vary from one brand to another. Maize, for example, is regarded as a hypoallergenic ingredient by some manufacturers while others avoid it like the plague.
To be awarded our hypoallergenic logo a food must be free from wheat, maize, dairy products, soya products and artificial additives.
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A 'life-stage' diet is one designed to meet the nutritional requirements of dogs within a specific age group or during a specific physiological state such as pregnancy. For most companies this means providing a puppy food, adult food and senior food but some manufacturers take it much further with options for weaning, juniors, nursing, ageing dogs and all sorts of other life stages. Some brands, on the other hand, provide a single 'all life-stage' food to be used right from weaning through to old age. But which is the best approach?
There is a strong case for all life-stage foods since in the wild, very few animals eat different foods during youth or old age. Of course they may eat more or less of the same food but, in general, life-stage feeding is a fairly artificial concept.
Nevertheless, life-stage feeding does allow manufacturers to specialise their foods to help dogs at different points in their life. For example, most puppy foods include higher levels of protein and calcium to help with growth while senior foods often contain less calories as well as specific health supplements, particularly for the joints.
Basically, both approaches can work equally well so the decision on whether to go life-stage or not depends on your own preference and, of course, on your dog. While some dogs do benefit greatly from distinct diets at different points in their lives, others are much better off sticking to the same food throughout their lives. If in doubt, have a look at our FAQ under 'Do I need to change dog foods'.
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According to European guidelines, 'natural' pet food ingredients are defined as...
"pet food components to which nothing has been added and which have been subjected only to such physical processing as to make them suitable for pet food production and maintaining the natural composition."
This excludes almost all artificial additives (preservatives, colourings and flavourings), ingredients that have undergone chemical treatment like bleaching or chemical oxidisation and all GMO products. It does, however, allow synthetic vitamins and digest (meat hydrolysate) to be called 'natural'.
If all of a food's ingredients fit the above criteria, the food can be labelled as 'natural'.
Although seeing the word 'natural' on a pet food can offer some peace of mind, there are a number of issues which you should be aware of:
Firstly, just because an ingredient is natural, it does not necessarily mean that it is suitable for your dog, after all, arsenic and cyanide are perfectly natural products. If you are unsure of any ingredients in your dog's diet, take a look at our Ingredients Glossary to make sure it is the best thing for your pet.
Synthetic vitamins and digest are extremely widespread in pet foods and although both can legally be labelled as 'natural', neither really is. Most synthetic vitamins are not found in nature and can only be produced artificially. Digest may be an animal product but the process of chemical/enzymatic hydrolysis used to make it is far from what most people would regard as 'natural'. It is also worth noting that pet food manufacturers are able to use both of these ingredients without disclosing them on the ingredients list.
Despite the proviso that "nothing should be added" to any of the ingredients in a natural pet food, many industry experts suggest that artificial preservatives still routinely find their way into pet foods in the form of pre-prepared meat meals and animal fats. These ingredients are produced and preserved in meat rendering plants before being sold to the pet food manufacturer. Manufacturers often don't know or don't care where their meat products come from and what sort of additives they contain and as long as they don't add any more artificial additives of their own, they can still legally label their food as 'natural'.
Of course, this doesn't apply to all meat meals. Some are preserved completely naturally and more and more manufacturers are actively stating that their meat and fat sources are chemical free. Nevertheless, many still do not so if you are unsure about your dog food, your best bet would be to ask the manufacturer directly and if their reply is at all fuzzy or if they merely state that they don't add any additives to their foods, it's probably a bad sign.
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Contrary to popular belief, 'prescription diets' don't need to be prescribed at all. In fact, the laws governing the distribution of prescription diets are the same as for any other foods but as with so many things in the pet food industry, it's all about the marketing.
The manufacturers of prescription diets have done a fantastic job in taking over the veterinary industry. At veterinary college, the module or two spent on nutrition is almost always 'sponsored' by a pet food manufacturer so even before graduating, vets are already inclined to recommend a particular pet food brand. The clinical white packaging and the convenient "if your dog has x, recommend food y" approach of prescription diets are all designed to resonate with vets while blinding consumers with science. Add to that the fact that the customer can only get the 'prescribed' food from the vet and that a large proportion of the extraordinary price goes directly into the practice's coffers, it's easy to see why vets are so keen to recommend their particular prescription diets.
The fact is that most * (see below) prescription diets are simply dog foods, and in general not very good dog foods. Their manufacturers choose to only sell them through vets but if they wanted to they could just as well sell them in pet shops or anywhere else they pleased. You also don't need to be a nutritionist to see that the ingredients of most prescription diets are thoroughly average and certainly don't warrant the often exorbitant price tag.
Nutritionally speaking too, prescription diets aren't all they're cracked up to be. Certainly, they all have certain traits to help with specific conditions but they are in no way medicines and, in general, aren't that different from 'normal' pet foods: Dogs with heart problems, for example, should certainly be fed less salt and less fat but there are plenty of non-prescription diets out there that fulfil these criteria just as effectively as expensive prescription heart diets. Chronic kidney problems too require a low phosphorous, low salt diet, but again, the prescription diets are by no means the only low phosphorus, low salt foods on the market. And as for the prescription diets that are marketed for digestive upsets, joint support and even things like weight loss and 'brain ageing', the right amount of any good quality food is likely to have just as good, if not better, results.
* It should be noted that not all prescription diets can be written off. Some, despite their largely average ingredients, do have certain properties that you will not find elsewhere. Some diets for urinary or kidney stones, for example, have the effect of changing the pH of the urine in order to dissolves the stones.
So, our advice is to treat prescription diets with a degree of skepticism. If your vet can provide a good reason for trying a particular prescription food, then by all means give it a go but if it's simply a matter of finding a food that is low in this or high in that, it may well be worth looking elsewhere.
Private label / White label
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If you've ever thought the ingredients lists of two different brands of dog food look virtually identical, they might just be exactly that. Private label (or white label) pet foods are pre-formulated recipes that companies can order from certain factories (like GA, Cambrian and Pero) rather than formulating their own diets. They then put on their own label or packaging and retail to the public as their own brand.
Private label (sometimes also called white label) pet foods are extremely widespread, providing 'own brand' ranges for pet shops and online retailers up and down the country as well as making up at least part of some better known ranges like Europa, Lovejoys, Pawtions, Pooch & Co, CSJ and many more.
It is important to note that private label foods are in no way inferior to 'normal' bespoke foods. Just like companies that formulate their own recipes, there are both good and bad examples but the top end private label foods are certainly a match for many of the best brands in the country in terms of their quality.
In general, no recommended retail prices are provided by the factory so it is up to the individual companies to decide on their own pricing. For this reason, prices can vary enormously from company to company for exactly the same food but due to the very large volumes produced, the relatively small minimum orders, and the exclusion of the 'middle men', private label foods can present some of the best value foods on the market.
Working dog food
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As confusing as it is, dog foods labelled as 'for working dogs' are not always just for working dogs. Many manufacturers add the phrase simply because, by doing so, the food is automatically exempt from VAT which knocks a whopping 20% off of the retail price without effecting their profits at all. 'Breeder bags', 'assistance dog foods' and foods for 'resting working dogs' are also VAT free.
There are also no strict rules over what makes a 'working dog food' so any manufacturer can say that virtually any of their foods are for working dogs. In fact, while you might expect the protein and fat levels of working dog foods to be higher to allow for their increased activity, you will find that many 'working dog foods' actually have fairly low protein levels and aren't significantly higher in calories than standard dog foods.
So why don't all manufacturers just label all of their foods as working dog formulas and save their customers the VAT? Simply because many owners won't feed a 'working dog food' to a non-working dog. As a compromise, some companies produce two almost identical versions of the same food, one for the mainstream market and one VAT-free 'working dog' variety for more savvy customers.