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. 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.
Dogs and humans are both omnivores, and so they share nutritional similarities. An omnivores 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 is the activity of a dog. The more active a dog is, the protein they will require to effectively repair, maintain, and build their muscles and cells.
The opposite is also true. An inactive dog requires lower levels of protein, as minimal repair and maintenance is occurring.
It is important to note that excess protein can be burned as calories immediately, or it can be theoretically converted into fat for storage. However, extremely high proportions of protein are likely to lead to waste as some of this protein will be excreted through urine.
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 within a dog’s health.
As dogs were domesticated from Wolves, they adapted to a lack of regular meat and fish 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 vegetables and some grains should are ideal. Examples include Sweet Potatoes, Pumpkin, Chickpeas, and Oatmeal.
Most grain-free dog food tends to use legumes such as Peas, Chickpeas, and Lentils.
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 they are low 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, fat’s aren’t just used for energy and are also crucial for development and the 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 an 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 is as if they overconsume a high-fat diet, they may suffer from weight gain or obesity.
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.
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) should 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 include:
- 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.
In addition, The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association has a one-page sheet on how to read a pet food label, which you can find here.
At Pet Food Reviewer, we base our nutritional analysis on these crude minimum figures as this is the only figure that we can use with certainty.
However, 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 Starch
- 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. This means that it is easier for a dog’s digestive system to process and absorb.
Meat and Fish Meals are also regular additions, and while many consumers are put off by these, they are, in fact, still high-quality.
In short, Meat Meal has had its moisture removed, which allows it to be a far denser source of protein and fat than whole meat.
Grain and Vegetable By-products are considered by most to be low-quality ingredients. Examples including those listed above are Pea Protein, Pea Flour, Potato Starch, Tapioca Starch, and Rye Flour.
The reason they are considered to be low-quality is that they are highly processed and 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.
Read 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.
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 The United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, or New Zealand. These countries have high safety and quality standards which will put your mind at ease.
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. Its 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 foods are balanced to provide your dog with complete nutrition without the need for any supplementary food.
However, the most common disadvantage of dry dog food is that it often contains processed ingredients or fillers 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.
Best Dry Dog Food Guide – Coming Soon
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.
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.
One benefit of wet dog food is that they tend to contain fewer fillers or processed ingredients with some recipes containing none at all. However, always check the packaging to ensure this as some wet foods will still contain fillers and processed ingredients.
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.
Both dry and wet puppy food is widely available, and they share many traits of adult dog food.
Some varieties of dry dog food for puppies are smaller in size than traditional dry dog food to allow for ease of consumption.
Senior Dog Food
As a dog ages, they can benefit from a different balance of nutrition. Senior dog food recipes can provide them with this unique balance of nutrients that are more suited to elderly dogs than traditional adult dog food.
Also, senior dog food formulas can contain ingredients that can maintain aging dogs, joints, bones, and the digestive system. This can include nutrients such as the Omega Fatty Acids.
However, the majority of older dogs will still fare well on their existing adult recipe.
Dry and wet varieties of senior dog food are commonly available from a variety of brands.
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.
We recommend you check out the article below for some of the best Fresh Home-Delivered dog foods currently available.
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.
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 issue. This lengthy storage capability is in stark contrast to fresh dog food, which must be refrigerated or frozen to remain edible.
However, 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 to feed dogs a mix of freeze-dried/air-dried dog food and fresh ingredients such as vegetables, fruits, and grains.
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.
Also, dehydrated dog food is usually designed to be rehydrated with water before consumption. The consequence of this is that a moderate box or bag of dehydrated dog food can be rehydrated into a considerable quantity that could last weeks or months.