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  • Writer's pictureChristine Bauhs, CPDT-KA

What Is Your Dog Eating?

It would be nice if we could trust the companies that manufacture pet food to use only the best ingredients in their products. But unfortunately a close look at some of the most popular brands of dog food reveals a sad – and very unhealthy – truth. Find out what kind of junk is lurking in your dog’s dish!

Reading labels is just as important for your dogs health as it is for yours. And nowadays, it couldn’t be more crucial when it comes to selecting proper nutrition for your pup. Many of the most popular brands use all kinds of fillers, chemicals and preservatives that don’t belong anywhere near your dog’s dish. Let’s take a look at some of these suspicious ingredients so we can more easily identify which foods are good for Spot, and which ones are not.


Preservatives are used to preserve pet food (often times to prevent rancidity in fats), and can be natural or artificial. It has been estimated that the average 25lb dog consumes between 4-6lbs of chemical preservatives each year! . Obviously, the less preservatives a food contains (especially those of the chemical variety), the better. Here are some particularly harmful preservatives that you will want to be sure to avoid when choosing a dog food.

  • Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) – This common preservative in low-quality pet food has been shown to consistently produce tumors in lab animals in studies conducted by the National Institute of Health. Moreover, BHA is on the list of “Chemicals Known to the State to Cause Cancer or Reproductive Toxicity”, which is compiled by The Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment of the State of California.

  • Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT) – Like BHA, BHT is used to preserve fat in dog food and extend the product’s shelf life. It can also be found in embalming fluid for the preservation of dead corpses. Sound appetizing? It’s similar chemical qualities to BHA implicate this preservative in the formation of cancer and tumors as well. BHT has been banned as a food preservative in Japan, Romania, Sweden and Australia. Both BHA and BHT have been linked to canine seizures as well.

  • Ethoxyquin – This controversial chemical produced by Monsanto is also used as a pesticide and hardening agent for synthetic rubber. It has been correlated with skin irritations, infertility, stillborn puppies, birth defects, liver damage, and cancer. Ethoxyquin can be difficult to identify in pet foods, as manufacturers are only required to list it as an ingredient if they add it themselves. However, if it is added to specific ingredients by their supplier, they are not legally obligated to list it on the label. Chances are, if the brand does not boast about being Ethoxyquin -free, this chemical has made it’s way into the food at some point in the manufacturing process.

  • Propylene Glycol – This chemical is used to preserve moisture in dog food, but it is also used in antifreeze! In addition, it is used in cigarettes and to de-ice airplanes. Though the FDA includes Propylene Glycol on their GRAS list (Generally Recognized As Safe) – Ethoxyquin, by the way, is also on this list – for use in both human and dog food, this chemical has been associated with a number of deleterious effects from long-term sustained use. These include developmental/reproductive problems, stunted growth, heart arrhythmia, allergies, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity, decreased blood pressure, endocrine disruption and even death. Propylene Glycol is more commonly used in soft/chewy treats than in regular food.

  • Propyl Gallate – This preservative has been categorized as a xenoestrogen, meaning it mimics the hormone estrogen in the body and disrupts the natural balance and interplay of hormones. Because of it’s properties as a hormone disrupter, Propyl Gallate can adversely affect reproductive health, and has been linked to the development of cancer cells.


Additives are used to preserve flavor or enhance the taste and appearance of food. Be on the lookout for the following additives in your pup’s food:

  • Artificial/Added Color – Dogs can’t see the same spectrum of colors as we do, and even if they did, it is highly unlikely that they would be more attracted to brightly colored food. Remember, dogs primary sense is their smell, so that is ultimately what attracts them to food. So why are artificial colors so commonly added to dog food? Most likely, it is there to appeal to us! Not only is artificial coloring unnecessary, it’s actually detrimental to your pets health. Watch out for the following added colors in your dog’s food:

  • Blue #1(Brilliant Blue FCF) – Synthetic dye derived from coal tar, can cause allergic reactions in individuals with asthma

  • Blue #2 (Indigo, Indigotine, Carmine) – Banned in Norway. Lab studies in mice have shown a correlation between Blue #2 and brain tumors. It has also been shown to increase dogs’ sensitivities to fatal viruses.

  • Red #3 – The FDA once suggested that this artificial color be banned, however it was not and continues to be used in both human and pet food. There is evidence that Red #3 causes thyroid tumors in rats.

  • Red #40 – The most common artificial color additive, often used in junk food. Red #40 has been found to produce allergy-like reactions, and is a known carcinogen.

  • Yellow #5 (Tartrazine) – In humans, it is linked to depression, anxiety, migraines, blurred vision, itching, sleep disturbance, itching, weakness, hives, thyroid tumors, hyperactivity and OCD.

  • Carrageenan – This common additive is chemically extracted from red sea weed, but just because it comes from a natural source does not necessarily mean it’s safe. There is a lot of speculation regarding the long-term effects of it’s use, but lab studies have produced some very worrisome results. Carrageenan is known to cause intestinal inflammation, in fact, it has been used for decades to actually induce inflammation. Intestinal inflammation can lead to all kinds of health problems in your pet, ranging from mild discomfort to very serious, even fatal, complications. The jury is still out on this one, which is why you will see it commonly used in dog food.

  • Sugars and Sweeteners (Sucrose, cane sugar, caramel, corn syrup, cane molasses, sorbitol, etc.) – These additives have no business being in dog food, but are often added to make the food more attractive and addictive. “Dogs, like humans, have a sweet tooth, and manufacturers know this,” remarked Dr. Ward, who founded the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. “If a dog gobbles a treat quickly, an owner is more likely to give another, and another.” If your dog is overweight, it is extremely important to be aware of what’s in his food, and cutting out the sugar is key for weight reduction. Remember, just because your dog isn’t eating french fries and donuts doesn’t mean he’s not eating junk food. Many pet foods, especially treats, are just the animal version of McDonalds and can contribute to a host of health problems in your dog. Continuous intake can cause hypoglycemia, nervousness, cataracts, obesity, tooth decay, arthritis, and allergies.

  • Menadione Derivatives - Also known as Vitamin K3, you will see this synthetic additive listed under a variety of names, including menadione sodium bisulfate, menadione sodium bisulfite, menadione dimethylprimidinol sulfate, menadione dimethylprimidinol sulfite or menadione dimethylpyrimidinol bisulfite, often accompanied with the description “a source of Vitamin K” or “Vitamin K activity”. Note that some manufacturers will omit the word menadione from the label (i.e. menadione sodium bisulfate is listed as sodium bisulfate). Menadione has been associated with many adverse effects, including irritation of the skin and mucous membranes, allergic reactions, eczema, mutagenic effects, weakening of the immune system, cytotoxicity in liver cells, and carcinogenic effects. It has been banned by many European countries for use in human food.

Meat Sources

This is, perhaps, one of the most important ingredients to be aware of as dogs are carnivorous and absolutely must have proper meat sources and adequate protein in their diet to maintain their health. Recently, there has been a trend in making vegetarian dog food to appease dog owners who abstain from meat themselves. Understandably, many people avoid meat for ethical reasons, but dogs are not ethically-driven creatures and are not biologically designed to live without animal protein. With that said, all animal protein is not created equal, and as we are about to discover, there are great sources of protein for your dog, mediocre sources, and downright appalling sources of protein that are found in many common dog foods.

  • By-Products – You will see this ingredient very commonly used in dog food, whether it be meat or poultry. By-products are all the parts of the animal that have been deemed unfit for human consumption, that is to say, all other parts of the animal other than the meat. This could include organs, blood, bones, fatty tissues, hooves, beaks, feathers, tails, viscera, etc. Nutritionally speaking, these parts of the animal are less digestible than muscle meat, and do not pack the true protein punch that your dog needs. They are basically an inexpensive filler that allow manufacturers to use cheap ingredients and label them as “meat”. By-products do not fall into the category of high-quality protein and should be avoided if you want to give your dog optimal nutrition.

  • Generic Animal Protein – If you see ingredients like Meat Meal, Animal Meal, or Poultry Meal, put the food down and walk away. If a specific protein source is not identified (i.e. chicken, beef, venison, etc.), this is not food you want to give to your pet. In the pet food industry, meat can come from pretty much any kind of mammal, and generic animal proteins have some very unsavory sources. “Meat meal” can be made from roadkill, euthanized cats and dogs from animal shelters, dead zoo animals, and dying/diseased/disabled farm animals. This is an abhorrent practice, and not one that contributes to your dogs health. Avoid at all costs.

  • Species Specific – On the other hand, if you see a species-specific animal meal (i.e. beef meal, lamb meal, salmon meal) at the top of the ingredients list, this is a good sign. High-quality species specific meat meal actually contains more protein than whole meat, which is about 70% water and 15% protein. Meals are made by cooking away the fat and water, leaving a concentrated form of the whole meat that contains about 65% protein. Top quality dog foods will contain species-specific meat meals or whole meats as the majority of the first six ingredients on the label.


When we think about what an optimal canine diet is comprised of, we must consider the biological appropriateness of the diet. Dogs in the wild do not consume grains like wheat, corn, soy and gluten. They are not equipped with the proper biology to effectively break down grains. In order to be thoroughly digested, grains must be cooked or sprouted and thoroughly chewed, but you have probably noticed that your dog doesn’t chew much at all, which is typical of carnivores. Furthermore, dogs lack the necessary salivary amylase (an enzyme in saliva) to begin the breakdown of grains in the mouth, which is essential for effective digestion and absorption. Dogs also lack the proper teeth and jaw muscles to chew grains, which indicates that grains of any kind are just not a natural food source for canines. In fact, many dogs (like humans) have gluten sensitivities which can cause skin/coat issues like dermititis and eczema, gastrointestinal problems, lack of energy, allergies, epileptic seizures and chronic immune problems to name a few. Many dog owners have seen long-term health issues resolved once they switched their pet to a grain/gluten-free diet.

By now, you should have a pretty good idea of what ingredients to avoid when choosing an ideal food for your dog. For more information on selecting the optimal food for your pup, check out this excellent two-part video series (first video above) by Dr. Karen Becker. Additionally, Dog Food Advisor is a great resource for canine nutrition.

Christine Fasan is a dog trainer and canine behaviorist for K9 Holistics. She specializes in German Shepherd training and healing reactivity in dogs of all breeds. K9 Holistics offers dog training and behavior modification in St. Petersburg and throughout Pinellas County. We also offer pet care services including dog walking and pet sitting. Please contact Christine at

#dogfood #k9health #dogfoodbrands #caninenutrition #behavior

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