It can be hard to sift through the thousands of brands trying to find the best dog food. Most folks know they desire one that will:
1) Fit our pup’s needs
2) Genuinely be good
3) Meet the budget
You probably find yourself asking “how do I choose the right food for my dog?” because we all want to make sure we’re choosing the very best diet for our furry friend! Many pet owners know what not to feed Fido. Things like chocolate, avocado, and grapes are pretty well-known foods to avoid when considering your canine’s diet. But what should be in your pup’s food?
Persuasive marketing and nutritive claims by the pet food industry make it hard to make a good decision. I mean, does dog food really need to have “ancient grains,” “superfoods,” or be “grass-fed?” Does the type of food really matter? Should you be giving him wet food? Raw food? A charcuterie board so he can pick and choose what he’s in the mood for? Okay, maybe not that last one. But really, how are pet parents to know what to look for on the ingredient list? Here’s a guide to help steer you in the right direction and take some of the guesswork out of things.
Good dog food should:
- give your dog energy
- keep their coat shiny and smooth
- keep their eyes bright and clear
So, where do you start in finding that perfect match for your dog?
Here are some questions to ask:
How old is my dog?
Puppies, adults, and seniors have very different nutritional needs. Those little pups are active and growing, so they require more calories. The senior population is in a different stage of life. It needs ingredients that will support its aging body and joints.
What breed is my dog?
When it comes to dog food, size does matter. Depending on your dog’s breed, you’ll need to pay attention to how big the pieces of dog food are. For example, food made for a Boxer may be too big for your teacup Yorkie to handle. Food manufactured for larger breeds is often bigger pieces than that for toy breeds.
Does my dog have any special health conditions?
Food, sensitivities, dental problems, weight management, and other health issues could mean he needs a special diet to meet his nutritional requirements. If you’re not sure if your pup has special dietary needs, there are certain signs you can look for, as we’ve noted below. As always, you should check with your veterinarian if you have any concerns about your pooch’s health.
What NOT to do...
Don’t look for ingredients that sound good to YOU.
Dog’s nutritional needs are different from ours. Reading the labels is good, but don’t be swayed by seeing things like kale, spinach, and Swiss chard in the ingredients list if you prefer a salad every day.
Don’t be persuaded by the label.
This might seem like business class 101, but labels are primarily for marketing purposes and are rarely factual. Pet food manufacturers want you to buy their products, plain and simple. It’s also good to note that just because it has “superfoods” in it doesn’t mean that it’s good for your pet. Unfortunately, catchy phrases like that have been splashed all over human food, and it can be easy to fall victim to that marketing strategy.
Don’t look at rating websites.
They are entirely based on marketing, not on which diet has the best nutrition for your dog. Don’t ask the pet store employee. A vet can help you choose, but the store employee may be promoting the store’s private brand, the brand with the highest profit margin, rather than basing it on what’s best for your dog. If you’re going to ask for advice, be sure to stick to the professionals.
When should I change my dog's diet?
As noted above, a puppy and an adult dog have different nutritional needs. Be sure your dog’s diet matches their life stage.
This is the typical reason for searching out new cuisine. Sensitivities can present as skin issues (excessive licking of paws, scratching) or digestive distress (vomit, loose stools, constipation). But before you peg it on a sensitivity, make sure you rule out fleas, pollen, and grass allergies. Wheat, beef, dairy, eggs, and chicken are common for sensitivities.
Take it Slow!
When you want to change your dog’s food, don’t make him quit cold turkey. Instead, slowly transition from old food to new food following a schedule like the one we’ve outlined below. You mustn’t give treats or human food for 6 weeks when experimenting with a new diet because it could skew your results. Also, keep in mind it could take up to 12 weeks to see if the new diet is working.
Sample Switch Schedule
- Day 1 – 75% old food / 25% new food
- Day 2 – 70% old food / 30% new food
- Day 3 – 60% old food / 40% new food
- Day 4 50% old food / 50% new food
- Day 5 – 40% old food / 60% new food
- Day 6 – 25% old food / 75% new food
- Day 7 – 100% new food
Okay, let's talk about options.
There are many options out there when it comes to dog food in the western world. Let’s break it down a bit. The two main categories are commercial dog food and non-commercial. Within the commercial category, there are three basic types: Premium, Economy, Holistic/Natural.
The premium category contains wet or dry dog food, sometimes even dehydrated food. It is characterized by having high-quality ingredients and often fewer chemical preservatives. The food will likely exceed standards set by the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials). It may be tested during and after production. This category shouldn’t have many fillers listed in the ingredients (if any) like wheat, corn, or soy.
Again, this category can contain wet and dry varieties and is typically known for having lower-quality ingredients and more preservatives and fillers. As a result, it’s often sold at a lower price point than premium.
While there isn’t any universal definition of ‘holistic’ dog food in the animal community, food in this category tends to lean toward less processed and higher quality ingredients. However, because there is no standard definition of holistic, any brand could slap that word on their label if they wanted to.
Natural vs. Organic
“Natural” does have a standard definition in the pet food community. It must be free of artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. Excepting certain vitamins, all ingredients must come from only plants, animals, or naturally occurring minerals. Many (but not all) natural brands are also free of byproducts (skeletal means, connective tissue, blood, or organs).
“Organic” means that it must also have no antibiotics, synthetic hormones, or toxic pesticides and preservatives in addition to the above claims for natural dog food. They cannot be GMO, grown in chemical fertilizer, or irradiated. But did you know there are different ‘levels’ of organic?!
Be sure to watch out for these buzz words on those organic labels:
- “100% Organic” – means that all ingredients are organic
- “Organic” – means that at least 95% of ingredients are organic
- “Made with Organic” – means only 70% of the ingredients are organic
So if you’re leaning toward a holistic approach to feeding Fido, look for the words “Natural” or “Organic” rather than “Holistic.” While they’re often used interchangeably in the human world, they can mean different things in the pet food world.
Here are three things to consider if you’re going down the commercial road:
- Pay attention to recalls, fillers, quality of ingredients, potential allergens, and chemical preservatives.
- Rotate brands/formulas every 4-6 months to make sure your dog has variety. Eating the same food for years upon years can actually cause allergies to crop up. Just remember to always transition slowly when you’re changing foods.
- Be aware of the buzz words:
“Beef for Dogs” mean that the listed portion is 95% of the total product, without added water. Add water as directed, and it’s 70%.
“Dinner” means it only contains 25% of the protein listed (chicken stew dinner means it’s 25% chicken). It could also say platter, entree, nuggets, or formula.
“With _____” means it’s only required o contain 3% of that ingredient. So if it’s a “beef platter with cheese,” it would have 25% beef, 3 % cheese.
“Flavor” means there only needs to be a trace amount of the ‘flavor’ listed, just enough for a dog to taste it. For example, “Salmon flavor” means there probably isn’t any actual salmon in the food.
Non-commercial foods consist of veterinarian-prescribed prescription food, cooked whole food, and raw food.
This is what you’ll need if your pup has any health concerns, specific nutritional requirements, etc. These types of food offer specialized diets to pets that need a little more intentionality in their daily intake. They can be prescribed by your regular vet or a veterinary nutritionist.
Cooked Whole Food
One of the biggest challenges with whole food diets is making sure you meet the dietary requirements for your canine. (Always confer with your vet about your feeding plans.) The Journal of the American Vet Med Association published a study showing about 95% of homemade pet food recipes lacked an essential nutrient, and 83% lacked multiple nutrients essential for dogs. However, many people choose a whole food diet for their dog to save money, control the ingredients, or because they distrust commercial dog food companies. If you’d like to start down this road, here’s a comprehensive guide on understanding how to get a balanced diet out of your kitchen and into Fido’s bowl.
Raw food diets are on the rise for many reasons, one being it gets them back to their roots. Dogs in the wild don’t roast their chicken over the fire! It’s also been shown that the quality of protein in a raw food diet is higher quality than that of dry food. There’s also proof that this type of diet is easier to digest. There is a significant concern over bacteria in this type of diet, and you should never buy a steak from the butcher and slap it on Fido’s plate. Packaged raw dog foods are usually put through high-pressure processing to remove those bacterias. Pressurized chilled water is used to kill the bacteria in raw meat or in freeze-dried raw meat. The best part? It doesn’t affect the nutrition, color, or taste of the meat. These types of food are also formulated for your pup, so you can be sure he’s getting the nutrients he needs.
Ensuring your dog is getting the proper nutrition is one of the most important parts of being a pet owner. According to the American Pet Products Association, in 2019, pet owners spent 31.68 BILLION dollars on pet food – which shows just how much we care about our canines’ cuisines! In fact, in another study published in the Canadian Veterinary Journal, 40% of pet owners confessed to buying healthier food for their pets than they did for themselves!
Now that you know everything there is to know about dog food, hopefully, you can find the right fit for your pooch!