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“I was unsatisfied with what kibbled type foods were available on the market that would perform to the needs of the Alaskan husky,” said Dr. Tim Hunt, DVM, when asked why he decided to produce his own line of dog food.

After all, although there are mushers who are also veterinarians, few go on to develop a line of dog food, so I was curious why Hunt took that step. Hunt’s company, known as Dr. Tim’s Pet Food Company, produces Momentum and Pursuit Athletic Dog Foods.“I wanted to build a food from the real life experience I had as a musher and vet,” he says. It was important to him to “include in that kibble the protein groups I thought were best, finding the correct ratios and amount of fats, the fiber types that were best for the hard driving husky, as well as vitamins they could assimilate easily and that would ultimately have a palatable feed.”Even the most conscientious dog owner probably has no real grasp of the process that goes into making the dog food they choose to feed, let alone the formulas involved.

Up the stakes and focus on the creation of a high-performance kibble, and the formulation and production aspects become that much more complicated. All most of us have to do is take a look at the back of one of our dog food bags, after all, to wonder, “Wait a minute! What the heck is this stuff?”And, as Eric Morris of Redpaw ( pointed out to me, each ingredient used can have different grades, or quality levels.

For instance, there might be up to a dozen plus grades of poultry meal to choose from. In addition, formulas vary from brand to brand. Despite this, there are some ingredients all manufacturers seem to agree on as being important to nutrition. While it isn’t necessarily vital to be able to identify each or know how it is added to the mixture in dog food, it does help us make educated choices when selecting dog food for our pets, whether house pet or hard working sled dog or somewhere in-between.

One of those important elements is protein. While I could give you a text-book definition, according to Hunt (, protein is “made when amino acids join together, like building blocks. All amino acids are naturally occurring, but some must be supplied by diet; amino acids supplied by diet are called essential amino acids. Whew.”“Whew” is right. Knowing what it is and how it’s formed doesn’t necessarily help, huh? What is important to know, however, again according to Hunt’s website, is that “There are many different proteins in dogs’ bodies and each have their own job, such as generating hair, cartilage and tendons, transporting oxygen in the blood, moving muscles, regulating metabolism (energy use), storing nutrients, and even producing hormones, to name a few.”

In other words, proteins are an important ingredient in dog foods. Where does that protein come from, however?There is no one answer. Just as each musher does things a little bit differently when it comes to feeding their dogs, each dog food manufacturer used different ingredients to arrive at the formulated levels desired. Some, such as Rob Downey’s Annamaet Petfoods are even developing grain-free dog foods. ( “We start with our formulation that outlines the quality ingredients that we need,” says Redpaw’s Eric Morris. “There are usually 4-5 main ingredients, plus smaller amounts of others.” “The main ingredients usually consist of some sort of meat, or meat based meal.

It could be liver, chicken, chicken meal, poultry meal, fish meal. Those are generally the main ingredients in a dry dog food. They’re all combined to bring the ultimate mixture up to the standards that a working dog needs.”“Selecting the grade of the ingredients you’re going to use is the first step,” continues Morris, who was kind enough to agree to a lengthy phone interview to at least share the basics with us.

“For each ingredient you might see on the ingredient list, there are varying grades. An example would be poultry meal. We have anywhere from about 5-14 poultry meals to choose from. They are all of varying grades, from a high grade poultry meal that has a low ash content to a low grade meal that has a higher ash content.”Later, deciding that I unclear about exactly what ash meant as an ingredient, I dropped an email to a veterinarian friend,

Dr. Al Townshend. Although Townshend is staff veterinarian for Eagle’s WellPet, he was answering as a friend, not as a representative of the company, however.“Ash is what is left if you were to incinerate the food,” he explained. “The protein, fat, carbohydrates and fiber will all burn up and disappear. What are left are the inorganic minerals. So, ash indicates the total amount of minerals in a food.”Some ash has to be there present in a dry kibble. As Morris explained, “It’s what contains all your minerals.

If you have an ash free dog food, that would mean you have absolutely no minerals in it.” When looking at different raw ingredients, ash content is then a general indication of the quality. In other words, the more ash, the lower the quality. Ash in a large quantity would indicate there was lots of bone in your meal and that the processing of it was very harsh.Common sense tells us that the quality of ingredients has a huge influence over the final quality of a bag of dog food. And, of course, the higher quality of ingredients that goes into the bag, the more the bag winds up costing. And, for every one of the ingredients you see listed on the label, we can chose different grades for each one of those. The final product is greatly influenced by the raw ingredients you choose.

Where do these ingredients come from?“The raw ingredients are traded on what’s called an open market,” says Morris, “but there are numerous suppliers. We use the same one almost exclusively because we have a long standing relationship with them, but there are many more out there. We like consistency. The majority of the ones they use are in the mid-west and all are in the United States. Due to import/export reasons it doesn’t make sense for us to buy a whole lot of ingredients from Canada.”

“You have US Human food grade, worldwide human food grade, pet food grade, you have live stock feed grade, rendered grade, 4-5 different ones. Some things in USA that we consider pet food grade would be considered human grade in other countries. Human grade isn’t always your best choice, however, as there’s a different nutritional composition.” I asked Morris his background at this point. A bio-chemist and cell-biologist by training, he spent what he calls his “pre-dog life working as a research scientist. He runs dogs and has raced in such mid-distance races as the UP, Beargrease and Race to the Sky.

He is the founder of the company Redpaw and developed all the formulation, using his own personal experience as a musher and his scientific background. In addition, he currently consults for 3-4 other companies. While his responsibilities are many, they’re mainly in product development and quality control“We order the raw ingredients according to our specifications,” he said.

“We tell them what we want. Then the raw ingredients arrive at the plant. With those raw ingredients the supplier will provide us with a quality assurance. Basically that is an analysis of the ingredients to the protein, fat, carbohydrates and all the other things that we specify. We order specifically what they’re looking for. If I’m looking for poultry meal, I might order low ash poultry meal of a specific grade.”

“When that arrives, it comes with documentation from the supplier that it meets the specifications that we laid out for them. When it arrives at our plant, we test random samples from the entire road in our own lab. We want to make sure that what they’re sending us meets the specifications.

Every order and every raw ingredient gets tested before it’s even unloaded. If passes the lab tests, only then will it be unloaded. I asked what sort of quantity he was talking about. Truckloads?They produce tons of dog food an hour. “On any given day,” notes Morris, “we’ll probably have 7-15 trucks pull in with raw ingredients. It’s a constant stream of trucks coming in and out.” What sort of by-products are used? “We do use by-products,” he says, “usually a by-product meal, a dry form of the meat.

Many high-performance dog foods use those specifically because a by-product may have a higher quality.” He notes that a by-product often has the correct amino and fatty acid ration that they’re looking for that a non-by-product won’t contain. He explains. “For example, if I order chicken meal, that includes the entire chicken, the breast meat and all the meat off the chicken, and that has a certain fatty and ammo acid profile.

In contrast, if I order the by-product chicken meal order, generally the breast meat is removed but we get the rest of bird, and that has a different amino and fatty acid profile.” Morris also points out that generally for the dog, the parts of an animal that humans don’t want to eat are often the best parts for the dog. “In our formulations, we have a target amino and fatty acid profile that we aim for. All of our raw ingredients combined together give us the preferred profile. That’s the huge difference between a regular pet food and a performance dog food.”In other words, the key is to match the ingredient needed to the formula. No matter what the ingredient, your best source is the one that rounds out your desired fatty and amino acid profile. Poultry fat, for instance, is often the primary fat used because it has what Morris called a good fatty acid profile. In addition to the good fatty acid profile, it has lots of unsaturated fats and it tends to be an oil.

This is beneficial for dogs. There’s also a large supply. When it comes to putting all these raw ingredients together to get the kibble, most companies use a process called extruding. The pelletizing method is rarely used nowadays. I asked Tim Hunt why.“The extrusion processing method has a less destructive heating process with regards to proteins and vitamins,” he explained. Taking it one step further, I went back to Al Townshend again. I understood that the heating levels mattered. I just didn’t know why.“Extrusion is preferred because it allows the food to be cooked at a lower temperature than some other processes. Lower temperatures help preserve the nutrient value of the food,” Townshend explained. Once the raw ingredients have been tested and approved for use, they are mixed in batches. “We take about 70% of the raw, dry ingredients and mix them together,” said Morris. “Those then go through a hammer meal and are ground into sort of a flour consistency.” At that point, they add more dry ingredients, ones that they don’t want to go through the hammer mill. Why?“

There is heat generated at the hammer mill and other things will clog the hammer mill up. From there they go into another mixer where they mix in more ingredients. The standard size of a mixture is 4-6 tons.” From the dry mix, ingredients are then transported into what is called a pre-conditioner. At that point, they start to mix the dry ingredients with liquid, such as water or a meat slurry, adding some fat at that point. A small amount of heat begins to be added and that is the beginning of cooking process. At that point in the pre-conditioner, they’re basically making a dough. Next, the dough gets fed into the extruder. In the extruding process, “we are basically cooking the food under temperature and pressure. At that time, more liquid is added if needed and, eventually, out the other end of the extruder comes the expanded kibble,” said Morris.

Vats are not used with this method. It’s all done in the extruder.It comes out of the extruder at about 30% moisture, so it’s put it into a dryer. There, it’s dried down to around 6-10% moisture. The next stop is a cooler where the temperature of the dry kibble is further reduced. From there it goes into a sizing shaker to remove any clumps, small particles, broken kibble, etc. Morris compared the sizing shaker process to going through a bunch of sieves.From there it travels into a fat applicator.

“There we add fat, external fat on the outside of the kibble, plus probiotics and any heat sensitive vitamins or minerals,” continues Morris. It then goes into a resting bin where it does exactly what it sounds like, it rests. “This allows the external fat to distribute itself evenly through the kibble and allows the kibble to lose a bit more moisture and cool.” From there it’s put into a bag. The bags go on a pallet and it is ready for the truck. And that, in layman’s language, is how dog kibble is produced. Morris noted that production speed is one determinant of cost. Non-performance kibble production methods produce about 10-15 tons per hour, perhaps as much as 20 tons.

In contrast, the high performance kibble production rate is only about 6-10 tons per hour. Why? Because of fat content, more cooking time is needed, thus increasing the cost to run the machines. One other tidbit that I found interesting is that whereas many of us perhaps simply assume the shape of the kibble we use is designed to appeal to our visual sense, it’s actually shaped that way for a reason. The shapes used allow the optimum cooking for that particular formula. Did you know that there’s even a science to the material used in the dog food bags selected? Without going into the science of it, the lower the moisture level in the kibble, the longer it’ll last. As a result, manufacturers strive to package it in materials that will, to simply the goal, control which gases enter and escape the bags. As an example of the importance of packaging, Morris used lettuce.

When we buy fresh produce, it’s wrapped in a material designed to allow the ethylene involved to exit but not enter. Thus, by using different materials for its bags, dog food manufacturers can further preserve their product.Finally, don’t assume all this means that there is a gigantic move afoot by mushers to move away from feeding raw food. Tim Huntperhaps summed that sentiment up best.“My goal has been and still is to produce the very best kibbled diet possible for the athletic dog. This doesn’t mean that raw food is to be eliminated, just reduced. Raw foods convey much that a processed food cannot and still has a place. But the kibble fed today is not just a carbohydrate type supplement in that it bring so much more to the ‘plate’ that people overlook.

The kibble that the sled dog consumes these days has moved forward a considerable amount over where it was just 10-15 years ago.”By the way, Hunt’s perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek advice for any other mushers out there thinking of developing and producing their own brand of dog food? “Be patient, hire wisely, and take your antacids.”

June Price, a former Florida teacher, fell in love with Alaska while attending the Iditarod’s very first teacher conference. She now lives in Wasilla, AK, and has written two books about the Iditarod, including “Backstage Iditarod.”

This article appeared in Mushing Magazine #135. Subscribe to Mushing Magazine’s print and digital editions here, or browse the digital archives here.
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