By: Kayla Kowalski, Certified Canine Nutritionist
Did you know the food you feed your dog is broken down, absorbed into their bloodstream, and used by their body to produce new cells? That means your dog really is what they eat! For this reason, feeding your dog the best possible diet is critical for making each new cell just as strong (or even stronger) as the one before.
Many factors determine the most suitable dog food for your pup. Appropriate nutrition is essential at every stage of your dog's life, from puppyhood to their gray-muzzle years. In fact, nutrition influences everything in the body, from digestion and energy levels to immune and endocrine function. We're here to help break down the many considerations and guide you in choosing the best food for your unique pup.
Assessing Your Dog’s Nutritional Needs
Each dog's gut microbiome is unique to them! This means their nutritional requirements will also vary greatly, depending on what nutrients they need, if weight management is recommended, and underlying conditions or specific requirements.
Age, Size, and Activity Level
Nutritional requirements will change as your pup goes through different life stages. While puppies need high energy and the correct calcium balance for growth and development, a senior dog needs food focusing on weight control, joint support, and cognitive function.
Activity levels play a significant role in energy requirements. For example, a senior Shih Tzu (or another small breed dog) who walks around the block twice weekly will need far fewer calories than a large breed dog who needs walking twice daily and lots of mental stimulation in between.
Specific Dietary Restrictions or Requirements
There are many different reasons your pup may have specific nutritional requirements. These may be preventative or actively addressing an issue. These health concerns can include:
- Allergies to a specific protein source or ingredient.
- Joint support for dogs with arthritis, joint injury, or recovering after surgery.
- Skin health: improving skin issues and reducing inflammation.
- Dental health: to keep your pup's teeth pearly white and prevent the need for dental cleaning (or even extractions) under an anesthetic.
- Weight management: aiming to decrease calories and increase satiety for slow, achievable weight loss.
Underlying Health Conditions
Underlying health conditions such as kidney disease, liver disease, bladder inflammation, or bladder stones may also require specific dietary changes to support these organs and manage nutrient levels. Always consult your veterinarian for long-term diet management and dog food for specific health conditions.
Choosing the Right Type of Dog Food
Commercial kibble diets are manufactured in a controlled environment where nutrient requirements are carefully formulated to meet the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) guidelines. There are many available brands and kibble options targeted toward almost every age group and dietary requirement or condition.
Commercially produced kibble is convenient to purchase and feed as it is designed to be shelf-stable. However, these foods often include grains and other fillers and use heat extrusion during processing, killing off many naturally occurring nutrients. These are often added back with synthetic vitamin and mineral premixes, which aren't as efficiently utilized by the body.
When looking for the proper kibble for your dog, I recommend choosing the highest quality you can afford. Ideally, whole-food toppers should also be added to boost their diet.
Homemade diets allow you to manage the quality and quantity of whole food ingredients for your dog's health and avoid unnecessary additives. Human-grade and ideally pasture-raised animal products should be used alongside (ideally organic) vegetables, fruits, seeds, and supplements. Raw meats and proteins should always be carefully prepared and stored to avoid bacterial contamination.
When feeding a raw diet, it is essential that your dog's meals are properly formulated to meet all their essential vitamins and minerals requirements. This makes raw feeding more time-consuming than traditional kibble diets. However, they can often be more beneficial, leading to a longer lifespan for many dogs.
Cooked or Homemade Dog Food
Homemade cooked diets are a great option if you're uncomfortable with raw feeding. However, the extra prep time makes them more time-consuming, and it can quickly become more expensive than feeding kibble.
Just as with raw feeding, it is essential to ensure your pup's food is completely balanced to give them everything they need. I always recommend working with a veterinary nutritionist when switching to a homemade diet and incorporating supplements, such as high-quality fish oil, as needed.
Monitoring and Adjusting Your Dog’s Diet
Once you've established a diet for your pup, observing your dog and adjusting their diet is essential to find what continues to work for them. Monitor your dog's health, coat condition, energy levels, and digestion. Keeping an eye on stool consistency, color, and frequency can give a lot of important insight into their digestion and nutritional requirements.
I recommend making diet changes slowly to avoid upsetting your dog's stomach. A high-quality probiotic supplement is great for supporting optimal gut function.
Understanding Dog Food Labels
Reading The Packaging
Apart from listing the specific ingredients in the bag, dog food packaging can help you decide whether it is the best option for your pup. The FDA requires all pet food products to list the ingredients in descending order of weight, so you can expect the ones listed first to have a higher percentage than the last few.
Also, you should see some feeding directions tailored for the average pup (although this may have to be adjusted depending on their size and age) and some product and manufacturer licensing or registration. This shows that the dog food is credible and has gone through testing or certification to ensure it's safe for your dog to consume.
Ingredient Quality and Nutritional Content
Like your diet, you want to ensure your pup has the best dog food so they can look and feel their best. Whether you choose to feed them a fully raw diet or provide dry kibble with toppers or other additives, I recommend avoiding products that include:
- Artificial colorings, flavorings, and preservatives
- High-fat content (especially rendered fat)
- Food with listed "meat derivatives" or "meat by-products."
- BHA, BHT, or PG
- Food that contains corn and wheat gluten (grain-free diets are recommended)
These ingredients (fillers) can help make the product look and taste better for your pup. However, they don't add any nutritional benefits. In comparison, I recommend looking out for these on the ingredient list:
- Human-grade ingredients
- Non-GMO fruits and vegetables
- No added hormones
- Natural preservatives or no preservatives
- Fresh and whole ingredients
- High in meat/protein
- Ethically and sustainably sourced (not required, but it's a bonus!)
Generally, you want to avoid selecting dog food products with many unnecessary fillers, like flavorings, additives, binders, or grains. All of these add "bulk" to the food but aren't beneficial to your pup's health. Instead, choose high-quality ingredients focusing on human-grade meat and whole ingredients like fruits and vegetables.
Understanding Regulatory Standards
Be aware of companies that market their food as "raw" or "fresh" when they use high amounts of dried ingredients like meat by-products and then rehydrate them to be placed in the product. An excellent example of this would be chicken or lamb meal, a dry powder with the water and fat removed. Keep in mind that if the company doesn't have third-party certifications when making claims around "organic," "free-range," or "humane," then the label isn't legitimate, and it may just be some marketing lingo to draw more sales.
The FDA also has strict regulations around what can and can't be sold as pet food. The product sold must meet state and federal regulations, including every ingredient and the labels attached to the product. If you're purchasing a dog food product from a legitimate company, you can be confident that its ingredients have been tested and deemed safe for consumption. Still, if you want the best dog food for your pup, it's worth doing some research.
Recognizing Essential Nutrients
Just like you and I, dogs need a balanced diet to thrive. Whether you choose to feed your pup raw food, dry dog food, or wet dog food, a mix of protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals should be included. Each of these essential compounds plays a vital role in the health and appearance of your pup.
- Protein contains essential amino acids (animal protein) that assist with muscle, skin, and hair formation.
- Fat provides energy and helps maintain skin and coat quality. Fat is also essential for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. In particular, Omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce inflammation from some conditions your dog may face, including arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.
- Carbohydrates provide energy and dietary fiber and can be converted into fat for storage. Fiber is essential for your pup's health, as it helps with regular stool production and a healthy gut.
- Vitamins help with many functions in your dog's body, including bone development, eye function, and organ health.
- Minerals are heavily involved in hormone and enzyme systems. They can help balance out electrolytes, bodily fluids, and even muscle contractions.
Ensuring that your dog's diet meets NRC or AAFCO standards for a properly balanced diet is crucial.
According to AAFCO, different quantities and ratios of nutrients, alongside different feeding rates, are ideal for dogs at different life stages. They characterize these stages as pregnancy and nursing, growth (puppies), maintenance (adult dogs), and all life stages. Ultimately, the best diet for your pup is one that provides enough energy and ensures they're a happy and healthy dog!
Pros and Cons of Commercial Dog Foods
As dog owners, choosing dog food from the dozens of available options can be overwhelming. If you decide to feed your pup commercial dog food, there are pros and cons to remember.
- Great variety - There will be a wide range of dog food options tailored to your dog's weight, size, and even activity level.
- Save money - If you purchase commercial dog food, you may buy it in bulk, saving you money in the long run. Unlike a typical raw food diet, this type of food is prepared in conditions that allow it to be kept for some time without expiring.
- Accessibility - Besides most major brands being available at the grocery store, they're easy to find and order online with quick and low-cost shipping.
- Consistent taste and ingredients - Sometimes, changing the ingredients in your dog food can lead to your pup having an upset tummy, especially if they have a sensitive stomach. Commercial dog food is usually consistent in taste and ingredients from bag to bag, so there'll be no surprises!
- Not all are the best quality - Some commercial dog food brands may prioritize quantity over quality, including lower-quality ingredients. For optimal products, choose grain-free dog food or ones containing high-quality protein sources, like meat.
- Extensive research - Because there are so many options, you'll likely want to research, read reviews, and compare the prices and ingredients — which can take time and effort.
- Food allergies - Commercial dog food like kibble often has more ingredients than a raw food diet. While it's not always the case, some companies may include unwanted or unnecessary ingredients like preservatives, dyes, or other fillers that can cause allergic reactions in your pup if they haven't been exposed to them before.
- Trial and error - It can take some trial and error to ensure your pup is happy with the commercial dog food of your choice. Sometimes, you may need to try out a few brands or products until you find a few that work well.
The Bottom Line
Many factors play into choosing the best dog food for your pup, which will likely change depending on their life stage. As a pet owner, you understand the importance of good nutrition tailored to your dog to give them a long and happy life.
It's critical to consider the time, cost, and health benefits when choosing a diet plan that will be sustainable over every stage of your dog's life. I also recommend looking at the dog food label and nutritional content and doing your own research to find out the best option for your pup.