Of course you want the very best for your furry best friend—but are you being misled by the marketing of pet food makers? Here’s how to know.

1. Grain-free

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Gluten-free foods are experiencing a moment. For humans who suffer from celiac disease, grain-free diets are a must, but it’s important to remember that humans and dogs digest food differently and what’s good for people isn’t necessarily good for dogs, just like these common foods that could be dangerous for your pup.

“A grain-free diet is of no benefit to companion animals unless they have a specific allergy,” explains Robin Sturtz, DVM, director of Veterinary Technology Program at LIU Post. “Grains can add flavor, and help satiate the animal (make them feel full). Given the very high percentage of dogs and cats who are overweight, satiation is a desirable feature.”

2. Natural

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There’s no official definition for this claim, and any pet food maker can slap it on their product. One suggested guideline from a pet food group is that “natural” dog foods should come strictly from plants, animals, or mined sources. According to Dr. Sturtz, “Adding vitamins to a food would not be consistent with the term ‘natural’. Therefore, to say that ‘natural’ food is better for the animal is to misinterpret the term.”

3. Low-fat

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A low-fat diet may not even be the best idea for humans. Dogs really don’t have to worry about their fat consumption—they can eat much higher levels of both saturated and unsaturated fats and not suffer any ill effects. Unless your dog is obese or is suffering from pancreatitis, there is no reason to feed a low-fat diet. Consult your veterinarian if you think your dog may be overweight.

4. Organic

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This term has a strict definition: The food must be raised without chemical fertilizers and meet very stringent guidelines set by the USDA. However, says Dr. Sturtz, “there are no formal definitions for ‘organic’ pet food; the definition of the term is based on human standards, which may not apply to animals.” Remember that while organic food is potentially safer than conventional food, it isn’t necessarily healthier.

5. Raw diets

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r. Sturtz also cautions against feeding a raw diet to your dog. Despite the trend of people eating raw and unprocessed foods, raw diets for dogs have the potential to be dangerous. “Unless you’ve just killed the antelope and brought it into the kitchen, it has been processed in some manner,” he says. “If nothing else, it was kept refrigerated, or otherwise stored, at some point. This means that certain bacteria can remain in the food, leading to devastating illness and even death, in the animal or the human.” The American Veterinary Medical Association discourages the feeding of raw animal products (meat and bones) and the CDC, as well as the American College of Veterinary Nutritionists, advise against raw diets. “There is no scientific evidence of benefit from these diets,” Dr. Sturtz adds. 

6. Gourmet

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Branding a food as gourmet doesn’t mean anything—there are no standards a marketer must meet to slap the word on a bag of kibble, though it does evoke fresh, delicious food. In truth, gourmet dog food is not different from any other dog food.

7. “Made with”

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This is a dubious way of convincing consumers that there is more of something present than there actually is. To be “made with” something, there only needs to be 3 percent of the ingredient, so made with real beef, or made with organic ingredients, really doesn’t mean much of anything at all.

8. First ingredient

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The first ingredient on the label is usually assumed to be the most abundant in the food, so marketers and food manufacturers are able to trick owners into thinking they are getting food with lots of healthy protein when chicken or beef is first on the list. Don’t believe it: Ingredients are weighed wet, or prior to cooking. Meat-based proteins usually shrink in the cooking process, while starch based carbs like rice swell. A food that favored protein before cooking can feature much more starch after cooking.

9. Don’t believe everything you read

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When you feed your pet, you trust that you’re feeding them healthy food. You read the labels, check the ingredients, avoid the things that sound sketchy—but how much can you trust that label? These are the claims that should make you suspicious.

10. Holistic

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Beware of labels claiming a food is holistic. Currently, there is no legal requirement or standard dog food must meet to be labeled holistic. Manufacturers know that consumers see holistic as better or more healthy, and they frequently employ the term as a marketing ploy.

11. No poultry by-products

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When a competitor sued a premium pet food manufacturer for false advertising, the public discovered (once again) that you just can’t believe everything you read. The fancy food’s label claimed there were no poultry by-products (think bones, beaks, organs, etc); testing revealed there were plenty.

12. Glucosamine for joints

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Glucosamine is a popular joint health supplement, used by pets and owners alike. Many food companies add glucosamine to their senior formulations, but studies have shown that the amount present in one day’s recommended feeding is not enough to promote healthy joints. In other words, feeding your pet glucosamine-enriched foods can’t take the place of a supplement.

13. Omega-3 fats

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Many food manufacturers add omega-3 fatty acids to their product—which sounds great since these beneficial fats can help keep your dog healthy. However, the process most manufacturers use to prepare dog food destroys omega-3s.

14. Protein content

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Remember the issue with the first ingredient on a label? This can also alter protein: The wet weight—the weight before the cooking process—is higher for meats and other animal proteins. After cooking, the net weight is significantly lower due to loss of moisture content. As a result, the percentages you see on the bag may not accurately convey the amount of protein in the food.

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