For many of us, our dogs are our best friends in life, but we don’t always know how and what we should feed them.
With the vast variety of dog food currently available, it can be a daunting task to choose which is best suited for your canine friend.
Factors such as breed, age, activity levels, and sensitivities or allergies can and should have an impact on your choice of dog food.
If that wasn’t enough, there are now hundreds of dog food brands available, each vying for your attention with their latest innovation and appealing packaging.
There are also important decisions to make based on the safety and recall records of these brands which is critical to ensure your dog remains happy and safe.
Let’s dive into the world of dog food and break it down into manageable and understand steps so you can make more informed decisions.
Types of Dog Food
One of the great benefits of the modern dog food market is its huge variety. Whether it be at a grocery store, an independent pet store, or a large commercial pet store, there are always aisles of choices.
Dry Dog Food
Dry dog food is the most widespread and common form of dog food and can also be known by the name of kibble. The most significant advantage of dry dog food is that it can be safely stored for long periods of time and comes in a vast array of flavors and varieties.
Most dry dog food recipes can be stored for weeks or months once opened, assuming they are kept in a dry and cool location.
Most dry dog foods are balanced to provide your dog with complete nutrition without the need for any supplementary food. This means that many dog owners can simplify their dog’s diet without worrying about the need for additional nutrition.
However, the most notable disadvantage of dry dog food is that it often contains processed ingredients or lower-quality ingredients, which are not ideal or suitable for your dog’s diet.
This is why it is of vital importance to choose a high-quality dry dog food that combines high-quality ingredients with balanced nutrition.
Check out the links below to our recommendations for the best dry dog foods.
Canned/Wet Dog Food
Wet dog food is commonly stored within a can and contains a much higher percentage of moisture than dry dog food. However, you can also find wet dog food in pouches or other containers, depending on the brand.
Just like Dry Dog food, most wet dog food is designed to provide complete nutrition for your dog without the need for any additional supplementation. That being said, not all wet dog food is nutritionally complete, so we recommend you review its packaging or can, to confirm.
One benefit of wet dog food is that they tend to contain fewer lower-quality or processed ingredients, with some recipes containing none at all.
However, there are cheap and lower-quality wet dog food recipes available, so we recommend that you always check the packaging to review the recipe’s nutrition and ingredients.
Check out the links below to see our recommendations on the best wet/canned dog foods available.
Puppies need a diet with a different nutritional profile compared to adult dogs. This different balance of nutrition is critical to ensure that your puppy grows and matures into a healthy adult dog.
Examples of this differing nutrition include a careful balance of Phosphorous and Calcium for large breed puppies and a larger proportion of protein for all puppies.
However, some brands choose to produce food that is suitable for all life stages rather than being age-specific. While these foods tend to be less specialized, the advantage is that there is no transition required from puppy food to adult food.
Both dry and wet puppy food is widely available, and they share many traits of adult dog food. You may want to feed your puppy a mix of both to see if they cope well or enjoy one more than the other.
Some brands produce varieties of dry dog food for puppies that are smaller in size than traditional adult dry dog food. This is to allow for ease of consumption, given that puppies are much smaller than adult dogs.
If you are interested in learning more about puppy food or want to know our recommendations, check out the below links.
Senior Dog Food
As a dog transitions into its later years, it can benefit from a different balance of nutrition than when it was younger. Senior dog food recipes can provide dogs with this unique balance of nutrients that are more suited to elderly dogs.
Also, many senior dog food formulas can contain ingredients or nutritional balance that can help maintain aging joints, bones, and the digestive system. A common example of this could be the inclusion of nutrients such as the Omega Fatty Acids.
However, while senior dog food can provide some benefits, the majority of older dogs will still fare well on their existing adult dog food recipe. If a dog does not cope well with transitioning to other food, you may choose to make no changes to their diet.
Lastly, as was the case with puppy food, dry and wet varieties of senior dog food are commonly available from a variety of brands.
The below links go in-depth into senior dog food and showcase some of the best formulas available. Be sure to check them out.
Fresh Dog Food
Fresh dog food is an up-and-coming variety that has seen a significant rise in popularity in the last few years.
Fresh dog food can be purchased from specialty and large pet food stores and tends to be stored frozen or refrigerated. Due to its reduced storage life and the ingredients it utilizes, fresh dog food tends to be far more expensive than traditional dry or canned dog food.
However, the recent rise of fresh dog food has been focused on home-delivered dog food.
This concept allows the food to be quickly and safely shipped straight to consumers’ homes in pre-portioned packaging. This can be done by freezing the food or transporting it with dry ice or other material.
Freeze-Dried/Air-Dried Dog Food
Freeze-Dried or Air-Dried dog food is one of the most premium dog food options, if not the most premium. Ziwi Peak is the best-known brand in this space and has been producing premium air-dried food for decades.
The freeze-drying process removes the vast majority of the moisture from meat and fish ingredients leaving behind dog food that is extremely nutritionally dense.
Another advantage of freeze-dried food is that due to the way it is created, it can usually be stored for a reasonably long period without fear of spoilage or mold. This lengthy storage capability is in stark contrast to fresh dog food, which must be refrigerated or frozen to remain edible.
However, food such as this comes at a cost as it requires enormous quantities of fresh meat and fish to produce a moderate portion of freeze-dried food.
To make the food more affordable, it is recommended by many to feed dogs a mix of freeze-dried/air-dried dog food and fresh ingredients such as vegetables, fruits, and grains.
We recommend you check out our recently released review of the best freeze-dried dog food below if you’d like to see our favorite brands and learn more about how freeze-dried dog food is made.
Dehydrated Dog Food
Dehydrated dog food is often forgotten but is an important niche. It is very similar to freeze-dried or air-dried dog food in that it has had its moisture removed without the traditional kibble cooking process.
However, the critical difference is that dehydrated dog food tends to still contain a large proportion of plant-based material such as vegetables, fruits, and grains.
This means that dehydrated food is often less costly than air-dried or freeze-dried dog food.
Also, dehydrated dog food is usually designed to be rehydrated with water before consumption. The consequence of this rehydration is that a moderate box or bag of dehydrated dog food can be rehydrated into a considerable quantity that could last weeks or months.
Dogs and humans are both omnivores, and so they share nutritional similarities. An omnivore’s diet should consist of a mix of the three core nutrients: protein, carbohydrate, and fat. A healthy balance of these three core nutrients is critical to your dog’s health. Let’s go through them one by one and find out why they are essential.
Protein for Dogs
Protein should be at the core of a dog’s nutrition and is required for all aspects of growth, repair, and maintenance. Protein also plays an important role in the maintenance of a dog’s immune system.
The quantity of protein required in a dog’s diet can vary significantly. The most significant factor in how much protein a dog requires is the activity level of a dog. The more active a dog is, the protein it will require to effectively repair, maintain, and build its muscles and cells.
However, it is important to remember that the opposite is also true. An inactive dog may require lower levels of protein, as minimal repair and maintenance is occurring.
Examples of less active dogs can include senior dogs or certain breeds that struggle to exercise for lengthy periods.
It is important to note that excess protein in a dog’s diet can be burned as calories immediately, or it can be theoretically converted into fat for storage. This contradicts what many pet owners believe which is that excess protein is always wasted.
However, extremely high proportions of protein are likely to lead to waste as some of this protein will be excreted through urine. An example of this would be if you fed a moderately active dog food that is designed for working dogs.
Carbohydrates for Dogs
Carbohydrates are not required within a dog’s diet, but that doesn’t mean they are a negative addition. They can provide a source of energy and dietary fiber, which can play a critical role in a dog’s health.
As dogs were domesticated from Wolves, they adapted to a lack of regular meat and fish in their diet by being able to consume large volumes of plant-based material. This adaption is what allows dogs to digest carbohydrates effectively.
The key to carbohydrates is choosing a high-quality ingredient to provide them. Whole vegetable and grain ingredients are an ideal choice. Examples include Sweet Potatoes, Pumpkin, Chickpeas, Brown Rice and Oatmeal.
Most grain-free dog food tends to use a mix of legumes such as Peas, Chickpeas, and Lentils. These legume ingredients are so popular as they are relatively low cost but offer favorable nutrition.
Lower-quality carbohydrate ingredients tend to be by-products, processed ingredients, or extremely dense sources. Examples could be grain or legume flours such as Pea Flour and Rye Flour or starches such as Potato Starch.
Unfortunately, low-cost dog food brands tend to use enormous proportions of carbohydrates in their dog food.
The primary driver behind this is that plant-based ingredients that are high in carbohydrates are lower cost, abundant, and can allow for the dog food to be stored for a prolonged period.
Fat for Dogs
Ideally, fat should be your dog’s primary source of energy as it is over twice as concentrated a source of energy when compared to protein or carbohydrates.
However, fats aren’t just used for energy and are also crucial for the development and maintenance of your dog’s cells, muscles, and tissues.
The volume of fat in a dog’s diet should vary depending on their lifestyle in a similar fashion to protein. Active dogs should have a higher proportion of fat as they will require a dense energy source and will be able to expend the energy easily.
However, less active dogs may want a lower proportion of fat in their diet. This reduced need for fat is as if they overconsume as part of a high-fat diet, they may suffer from weight gain or obesity which are serious health concerns.
The best type of dietary fat for dogs is animal or fish fat. Animal fat is a dog’s natural source of fat for which their digestive system is designed to digest.
Fat from fish ingredients is especially beneficial as it contains high levels of the Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. These fatty acids are known to provide a range of health benefits, including improved cognitive function, healthier skin and coat, and a reduced risk of heart disease.
While fish ingredients like Salmon, Mackerel, and Trout may be excellent sources of these Omega Fatty Acids, most other meat ingredients also contain them, just at lower levels.
To supplement our breakdown of nutrition for dogs, we suggest you check out this article by the ASPCA on dog nutrition tips.
Dog food has come along way over the last few decades, and all dog food brands (in North America and Europe) are mandated to have a Guaranteed Analysis displayed on their packaging.
You can use this analysis to see the nutritional breakdown of the dog food in question. The nutritional values that must be displayed on dog food include the following.
- Protein (Min) %
- Fat (Min) %
- Fiber (Max) %
- Moisture (Max) %
Some dog foods may also show additional information, such as the content of certain vitamins and minerals. Examples of this that are often included:
- Phosphorus (Min) %
- Calcium (Min) %
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids (Min) %
- Omega 6 Fatty Acids (Min) %
It is very important to note that these values are a mixture of Minimum and Maximum percentages. For the case of protein and fat, it is to say that the dog food formula will contain at least this proportion. However, it is likely to contain more as manufacturers have to list a figure that is always correct, no matter the variance.
For the values that are labeled as Maximum, such as fiber and moisture, the actual values are likely to be lower. Despite this, these minimum figures are likely very close to reality as it would not be financially wise to heavily reduce either of these.
WSAVA has a nice graphic that helps consumers understand pet food labels. You can find this graphic here.
For a more detailed explanation of pet food labels, we’d recommend reading this page from AKC where they go in-depth.
At Pet Food Reviewer, we base our nutritional analysis on these crude minimum and maximum figures as these are the only values that we can use with certainty.
However, it is worth noting that some dog food brands have chosen to provide additional and more detailed nutritional information. This may include the average nutrition provided or the nutrition provided on a dry matter basis.
Dog Food Ingredients
Commercial dog food should contain an exact breakdown of its ingredients in descending order. This means that the most abundant ingredients will be towards the top of the list and the least abundant towards the bottom.
This ingredient list should allow you to quickly analyze what is present in dog food and better understand its quality. You should take the opportunity to attempt to spot or highlight any questionable or harmful ingredients that could have a detrimental effect on your dog’s health.
Categorizing dog food ingredients into high-quality or low-quality is no easy feat. There will always be a fierce debate, especially from manufacturers, about what is suitable for a dog’s diet.
At Pet Food Reviewer, we are building a comprehensive group of posts that analyze specific ingredients, breaking down their positive and negatives features.
A few examples of these posts to date include;
- Peas, Pea Protein, Pea Flour, and Pea Fiber in Dog Food
- Tomato Pomace as a Pet Food Ingredient?
- Chickpeas In Dog Food
- Menhaden Fish Meal in Dog Food
- Flaxseed In Dog Food
- Dried Beet Pulp In Dog Food
- Millet In Dog Food
- Canola Oil In Dog Food
- Barley In Dog Food
In addition to these articles, we have listed a selection of example ingredients that are considered by many to be high-quality, low-quality, and potentially dangerous or harmful by many in the industry. However, as always, some will dispute this.
- Sweet Potatoes
- Meat By-Products
- Pea Protein
- Potato Protein
- Artificial Flavours
Dangerous / Harmful Ingredients
- Artificial Dyes
Almost all whole meat and fish ingredients would be considered to be high-quality additions to dog food. This is as they are excellent sources of protein and fat, both of which should be at the core of every dog’s diet.
Also, animal or fish-based protein tends to be more bioavailable than plant-based alternatives. This means that it is easier for a dog’s digestive system to process and absorb the nutrients, meaning less is wasted.
Meat and Fish Meals are also regular additions, and while many consumers are put off by these ingredients, they are, in fact, still high-quality.
In short, Meat Meals like Chicken Meal or Salmon Meal have had their moisture removed, which allows them to be a far denser source of protein and fat than whole meat ingredients.
Some dog food recipes include organ meat ingredients such as the Liver, the Heart, or the Kidneys. These organ meat ingredients are excellent additions to a dog’s diet and can enhance the flavor of dog food as well as boost the overall level of several beneficial vitamins and minerals.
Some Grain ingredients and Vegetable By-products are considered by most to be lower-quality ingredients.
Examples, including those listed above, are Pea Protein, Pea Flour, Potato Protein, Wheat Flour, and Rye Flour.
The reason these ingredients are considered to be low-quality is that they are highly processed and are often used in a sinister technique known as Ingredient Splitting.
This technique involves splitting a less appealing ingredient into a number of sub-ingredients, so it appears further down the ingredient list. However, the total portion of this ingredient is still significant, and if not for the splitting would be near the top of the ingredient list.
You can read more about Ingredient Splitting in our article Ingredient Splitting in Pet Food – Exposed.
Allergies or Sensitivities
Dietary allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances are becoming increasingly common in pets such as dogs. However, the dog food market is adapting to help combat this by providing dog food designed for dogs with allergies.
We have a range of articles that explain in detail how to approach feeding a hypoallergenic dog and what foods are available that do not contain common allergens.
A few examples include:
- Best Hypoallergenic Dog Food Guide
- Best Dog Foods Without Peas
- Best Dog Foods Without Potatoes
- Best Dog Foods Without Chicken
Novel Meats are uncommon or unique meat ingredients that are often used in Hypoallergenic Dog Food. The logic behind this is that because a dog may not have been exposed to them before, they are less likely to be allergic.
We’ve written a number of articles discussing common Novel Meats.
- Best Dog Food With Rabbit
- Best Dog Food With Venison
- Best Dog Food With Kangaroo
- Best Dog Food With Bison
One of the biggest questions asked by dog owners is the source of the ingredients used in dog food recipes.
Many dog owners want to ensure that the ingredients weren’t sourced from overseas, in particular, China or other similar countries. This is as consumers do not trust ingredients from these regions of the world and think that they could be harmful or dangerous.
Many dog food brands use this to their advantage and proudly state that their meat ingredients or all their ingredients are sourced from the United States or their home country.
For North American dog food products, we would recommend ensuring that the bulk of the ingredients used in the recipe are from countries such as The United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, or New Zealand. These countries have detailed regulations in place and high safety and quality standards, which will put your mind at ease.
Testing dog food on dogs can be a controversial and complicated topic. Many pet owners are strongly against invasive animal testing or large-scale testing on animals in a laboratory setting.
However, on the flip side, it is important that dog food is tested to ensure that it is safe to consume and does not have any adverse effects.
Because of this, some brands choose to do small-scale trials and testing on the dogs of existing customers, employees, or friends. However, critics will argue that this small-scale testing is not sufficient to ensure food is safe.
A large number of pet food brands do not produce any detail on the type of testing they take part in, which is likely a deliberate move.
Dog Food Recalls
Recalls are a critical discussion when discussing dog food. Given the huge number of brands and raw volume of food that is produced and sold every day, there are regularly lapses in safety and quality.
Examples of reasons why dog food recipes are recalls include the presence of mold, Salmonella contamination, an inappropriate balance of certain nutrients, or the presence of contaminants or foreign objects.
Major recalls of pet food regularly feature in mainstream news sites and television news. You can see a recent example of this below where the BBC widely reported a recall from Midwestern Pet Foods.
Many brands put significant effort into keeping a recall-free record. This is as dog owners look very positively at a flawless record and believe that the safety and quality processes in place are expansive and detailed.
Other brands have had multiple recalls in their recent past. Some will argue that this is proof of poor standards in place at these manufacturing facilities, but others will debate that these brands produce huge volumes of food when compared to smaller brands.
It is also worth noting that sometimes brands do voluntary recalls. These are different from mandatory recalls that are issued by regulators. Many pet owners are supportive of brands that do these voluntary recalls as it shows that they want to be cautious and avoid any risks.
Dog Food Brand Expertise
Another important topic in relation to dog food is the use of experts and qualified individuals during the dog food formulation process.
One of the biggest critics of smaller “boutique” dog food brands is that they often do not employ a full-time nutritionist.
With the recent controversy around the high use of legumes in dog food and an increased rate of Canine Heart Disease, this topic has been thrust into the spotlight, and many smaller brands that previously did not employ nutritionists are now doing so.