This is a particularly contentious issue as there are many very strong opinions amongst dog owners. What does make a good dog food? And, how should dogs be fed? This article looks at the different food types available and how to best choose the type of food for your individual dog.
Many food brands claim that we should be feeding dogs like their ancestors, wolves. However, dogs were domesticated between 14,000 and 29,000 years ago and are a sub-species in their own right. There is a huge amount of variability in digestive function between dogs and wolves, as well as lifestyle, shape, size and health conditions that need to be considered. Although we can take inspiration from what wolves eat in the wild, we need to be mindful to consider all the factors that are different in domestic dogs.
What should I be looking for in my dog’s food?
You should feed your dog a ‘complete’ diet. This is a diet that contains all of the nutritional requirements needed by your dog for growth and maintenance, such as protein, vitamins and minerals. A complete diet is important in preventing nutritional deficiencies.
Science-based food brands – the pet food industry and pet food brands are highly regulated. Brands, such as Royal Canin and Purina, must undergo rigorous testing and quality control in order to meet industry requirements on nutrition and hygiene on their products
Palatability – it is important your dog likes the food and eats well. Their diet must provide all the nutrients required for growth and maintenance. Therefore, your dog needs to be eating sufficient quantities or the right diet for their life-stage
Safety – it is important that the food is safe for your dog to eat. It must be properly stored, without containing mould, sharp bones or pathogens that could make them or you unwell
Suitable for your dog’s life stage – dogs go through different stages of life. At each stage your dog’s nutritional needs will differ. For example, a growing and energetic puppy is going to require different nutrients, to a less energetic, senior dog. Therefore, the diet must be appropriate for your dog’s age
Lifestyle – working dogs and athletes, such as agility dogs, will need different formulations and different caloric requirements to sedentary dogs
Types of dog food
Kibble diets come in many flavours, sizes and brands. This type of diet is also referred to as dry dog food or dog biscuits. These are generally complete diets
This type of diet can come in trays, pouches, tins or cans that usually have a long shelf life. Some food brands will provide these diets as complete diets, others will only be supplementary tasty toppers to improve eating behaviours.
You can buy ingredients to make your own dog food at home. However, this is only advisable if formulated by a qualified veterinary nutritionist to ensure it is a complete and balanced diet. These homemade recipes can be labour intensive and expensive, but can be a lifeline for dogs with health issues, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). There are also a few brands, such as Butternut Box, now providing fresh homemade food. These recipes are formulated by vets, and are therefore complete, balanced and pre-cooked
Raw (fresh or frozen thawed)
Raw diets are made from uncooked animal and vegetable products. As with the homemade diets, it is important to use a complete formulation. For further information, see our article on raw feeding. If opting for a raw diet, the frozen-thawed option is slightly safer
Freeze-dried raw food
Freeze-drying is a process where the raw food is frozen initially and then the moisture is removed at very low temperatures. It is technically a raw diet as the food has not been cooked
This process preserves more of the nutrients in the raw ingredients when compared to dry dog food, homemade diets or dehydrated dog food
However, this process doesn’t necessarily kill all of the bacteria or pathogens that can be found in raw meat. Some food brands will also use pasteurisation methods, such as high-pressure pasteurisation, prior to the freeze-drying process, which will kill any pathogens
These are fairly new diets and there isn’t much scientific evidence behind them at the moment. However, anecdotally they are believed to be more palatable for fussy eaters as they preserve the taste of the meat ingredients, and better for dogs with a sensitive digestive system that require minimally processed food
Air-dried or dehydrated raw food
As with freeze-dried raw food, both these types of dog food also involve processes to remove the moisture content. The main difference is the temperature at which this process is carried out. Some food brands will opt for air-drying, others will dehydrate the formulation at a low heat
These processes are supposed to remove pathogens from the raw food making it safer. It also makes the packaging lighter and is more convenient to feed than the fresh raw or frozen thawed raw diets
This is another fairly new diet that hasn’t been around for long and there isn’t a huge body of evidence to show the pros and cons
Semi-moist dog foods are usually kibble-based but they contain a higher water content, generally providing a softer texture.
They can be beneficial for fussy eaters or dogs struggling to chew on harder food, but they are known to quite often contain more sugar, salt and chemical preservatives
These diets involve a process where the ingredients are ground and pressed whilst being cooked at lower temperatures than those used in making conventional kibble or dry dog food diets
This process preserves more of the vital nutrients and flavours of the original ingredients. It can therefore also be beneficial for fussy eaters
Other things to consider
Convenience – Is this dog food easy to get hold of on a regular basis? Is it easy to store, prepare and feed?
Sustainability – more dog food brands are considering where in the modern world they get their ingredients from. It is important to consider the provenance of the protein, for example if the diet is salmon-based, is this sustainably caught salmon?
Environment – it is worth taking into account the impact of your dog’s food packaging on the environment. For example, individual plastic trays of wet food are not ideal, and if you are using these it is important to recycle the plastic waste
Affordability – it is important to choose a dog food you can support on a long-term basis, while trying to provide your dog with the best you can afford, as this will likely save on certain health issues later down the line
As you can see, there really is a huge range of dog foods on the market in all sorts of flavours and formulations. Your best option is to buy the highest quality dog food you can afford for your puppy, for at least the first 12-18 months of their life, or adult dog. If this becomes financially unsustainable for you then consider a mid-range diet once they reach adulthood. Initially, you may need to try a few different diets, with different ingredients or different types of food, to find which suits your individual dog the best.