There is nothing more divisive among dedicated dog owners than the issue of what type of food to give their respective pets. Some argue that dry kibbles are simply the best when it comes to its nutrient value while some would go for wet canned doggie chow as it provides a more palatable, moisture-rich, and equally nutritious food. Still, there are those who say that neither dry kibbles nor wet canned food can match the nutritional value of an ancestral diet found in raw dog food. We’re pretty sure you found yourself asking the same question. Unfortunately, each school of thought has its own merits and each one also has its own set of drawbacks. Ultimately, it’s all up to the better judgment of the dog owner to decide which type of food to feed his or her dog.
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A Look at What Makes a Good Dog Food
Before we can address the issue of the best food for your pooch, it is important to start looking at what really constitutes the optimum nutrition for dogs. This is crucial as it provides the necessary foundation for understanding the kind of nutrition that canine species deserve.
- Proteins first
One of the essential requirements of a good doggie food is that its first 5 key ingredients should be proteins, with an animal protein receiving primacy over plant-based proteins. It is true that certain plants also contain proteinaceous substances. However, when compared to animal proteins, it lacks certain amino acids that the dog’s body cannot produce. For instance, the amino acids methionine, isoleucine, tryptophan, and lycine are found in very scarce amounts in certain plants whereas the same amino acids are quite abundant in animal proteins.
But what are amino acids anyway? This is the smallest unit that makes up a protein. It is similar to glucose, fructose, and lactose from carbohydrates and fatty acids from fat. When food is digested it is essentially broken down into its component molecules. The smallest possible molecule that can ever come from a protein is an amino acid.
Food is composed of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates which are then broken down into their smallest components. On the part of protein, the resulting amino acids are then used to build larger molecules which play a role in various processes including building and maintenance of tissues and the transmission of genetic information, among others. The point is that protein is broken down to produce amino acids which will then be used to build larger molecules for other purposes.
That said, all proteins contain amino acids. Unfortunately, depending on the source of the protein, it can either be complete or incomplete or even rich in amino acids or severely deficient in such nutrient molecules. Animal proteins provide a complete number of essential amino acids. They are called ‘essential’ because your dog’s body cannot produce them and thus, must be obtained from other sources; in this case, protein. On the other hand, plant proteins contain incomplete amino acids. In many cases, not only are they incomplete, they contain significantly lower concentrations of these amino acids compared to animal proteins.
As such, if you really want to give your dog the best food, then you need to look for a diet that is rich in animal proteins. You need to look at its first 5 ingredients listed on its label and make sure that the first ingredient is an animal protein. If the remaining 4 top ingredients happen to be animal sources as well, then that is definitely a great product. However, if the remaining 4 ingredients are plant sources, then you might want to dig deeper into the types of amino acids that these plant sources contain and how much of each kind they add to the doggie food.
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When it comes to animal proteins, your best bets are meats and their byproducts. Don’t be put off by the idea that you’re giving internal organs, blood, and bones in meat byproducts. They may not sound and look appetizing to you (imagine Fear Factor) but you are not the one who’s going to eat it anyway. Besides, in the wild, canids are not known for picking only the flesh and leaving the internal organs and other parts of the prey behind. If they could eat the whole animal, they would. What you would want to be wary about are the different technologies used in the processing of byproducts. If it includes the addition of artificial ingredients, then it becomes a big no-no.
- Fats are okay
One great thing about meats is that they already contain fat. If you’re worried about fat in your dog’s diet, then a vegetarian diet should be in order. However, we would like to emphasize that some amino acids may not be present. Additionally, fats are important in the production of certain hormones as well in the building and maintenance of the cell membrane. Fats also play a role in the development of the canine nervous system as well as special organs like the eyes. It is okay to include fats in your pooch’s diet. However, it is imperative that it should not be greater in proportion to your proteins. Like us, having too much fat in the diet can lead to fatty liver disease in dogs as well as other metabolic abnormalities including obesity.
As much as possible, include healthier versions of fat in your dog’s diet. One of the most acclaimed healthy fats is omega-3 fatty acid. These kinds of fats are essential for optimum nervous, integumentary, and immune system health. Unfortunately, there is an ongoing debate whether the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid, alpha linolenic acid (ALA) pose some healthful benefits or none at all. This is because dogs don’t typically use ALA in their system. They will have to convert this first into EPA for it to become useful. Sadly, dogs are not generally known for being efficient at converting this fatty acid. As such, only EPA and DHA are actually recommended by animal experts as essential to a dog’s diet. Now, both EPA and DHA can only be found in animal sources of fat, specifically algae-feeding marine species like salmon, herring, and tuna.
So, if you want healthier nervous system for your pooch, you’d better look for a product that has any of these species of fish.
- Carbs are acceptable, but not too much
Remember what we said about dogs being omnivores? While this is true, it should not give us the go-signal to give our pooches an all-vegan diet. You may think that being vegetarian is good for you as it can help you keep a healthier weight. However, that may not be the case for your pooch. Dogs require a healthy dose of proteins and fats more than they need carbs. This doesn’t automatically mean they don’t need it, of course. Carbs provide pooches with readily usable energy so they can run, jump, and play all they want without having to resort to fats and proteins for fuel.
That being said, it is critical to choose the carbs that you are going to give to your dog. What you would like to provide is a fair amount of indigestible carbs in the form of fiber as this will help facilitate healthier digestion. As for the carbs itself, it is best to go for complex carbohydrates often in the form of wholesome grains. These are packed with energy. Some may contain micronutrients while others may not. It is essential to choose those with micronutrients included.
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Choosing the right amount of carbs essentially depends on the activity levels of your pooch. If your dog is a lazy, sedentary canine, it clearly doesn’t need too much energy as anything in excess will be stored as fat, leading to obesity. If your pooch leads a very active lifestyle and yet you’re skimping in its carbohydrates, then you run the risk of losing its fats and proteins because your dog will be utilizing these macromolecules for energy.
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- Water is important
You might not think that water is a separate entity from your dog’s food. While you may be right, all foods actually contain some form of moisture. Even dry kibbles contain modest amounts of water. This is important since dogs require water for their survival, not necessarily just to quench their thirst but also to provide a safe and optimum environment in and out of their cells for important chemical reactions to take place. Life simply ceases without water.
- Essential micronutrients
These include vitamins and minerals and other nutrients that may prove beneficial for your pet. Vitamins are needed for many physiologic processes such as the more efficient metabolism of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates as well as the formation and maintenance of optimum organ structure and functioning. These are also involved in optimum coat and skin health, boosting of the immune system, and many other health benefits.
Minerals are also important in various processes. For instance calcium and phosphorus are needed for stronger teeth and bones while iron is essential for healthy red blood cells. Potassium, magnesium, manganese, zinc, selenium, and copper all provide essential functions to other body organ systems.
And then there are also other substances like probiotics for digestive and immune system health as well as prebiotics for added health benefits.
- Always NO to artificial ingredients
One of the surest signs of a good dog food is that it contains nothing artificial, only natural. This can be quite tricky since, at some point in the doggie food production process, a chemical or two will have to be added to prolong its shelf-life. While it is perfectly understandable why many companies would include chemicals in their formulations, it is beyond logic to put harmful ingredients into these formulations. With that said, you will have to research on every ingredient listed on the packaging of the food product and determine whether such an ingredient is harmful to your pet or not.
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- Dog- and condition- specific diets
We really had to include this since dogs are never created equal. Each pooch is unique. And that means its nutritional requirements differ, too, from other dogs of the same breed and other breeds. The point is that a dog food can only be considered good if it has the right amounts of macro- and micro-nutrients that are appropriate for its age, activity level, and health status.
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For example, a puppy will require high protein diets, lots of healthy fats especially DHA, and substantial amounts of micronutrients. On the other hand, adult pooches will require significantly lower amounts of protein and fat while boosting their micronutrient and water requirements. Pregnant and lactating dogs also have different nutritional requirements. Senior dogs and pooches with specific diseases require a tailor-made diet. Check out our article on what to feed pregnant dogs.
What Food Should You Feed Your Dog?
Now that you have an idea of what constitutes a good dog food, it’s time to take a look at the different types of food that you should consider giving to your pet canine.
- Dry Kibbles
Dry dog foods are dehydrated forms of doggie chow. These contain very little moisture, typically ranging from 10% to 15% of the total weight of a single serving size. What this essentially means is that the remaining percentage of food – 85% to 90% – is actually composed of nutrients, namely your proteins, fats, carbs, and the rest of the things we described above. Unfortunately, it is not as clear as it sounds since manufacturers do not put in their labels the actual percentage composition of these nutrients.
Typically, what you will read is the minimum protein and fat content expressed in percent and the maximum fiber and moisture content, also in percent. For instance you may read a minimum of 40% crude protein and 15% crude fat. Does this mean the protein is actually 50% or is it 45%? If you do the math, you now have 55% for protein and fat alone. Add the 10% maximum for moisture and another 5% for fiber give you a total of 70%. Does this mean the remaining 30% is made of carbohydrates?
This is the issue with most dog foods. You really cannot establish with absolute certainty just how much protein, fats, and carbohydrates they contain.
On the brighter side, you will know that you do get a minimum percentage of fat and protein for every serving portion of the dry kibble. The downside is that you will really have to encourage your dog to increase its water intake through other means.
- Canned or Wet Dog Food
If you think dry kibbles have way too little moisture for your dog, the opposite can be said of canned or wet dog food. These doggie chow’s moisture content can range between 70% and 80%, some even higher. And since moisture technically doesn’t contain calories or nutrients, you’re left with dog food that only contains about 20% to 30% nutrient value per serving size. That is why it becomes a lot more expensive to feed pooches with wet dog food since you need to give them more than one serving portion if you want to give them the right amount of nutrients.
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The good news is that, wet dog food are very palatable and work exceptionally well on sick dogs, nursing canines, and even elderly pooches. You will have to watch out for its shelf life though as it can spoil rather quickly.
- Biologically Appropriate Raw Food
The downside to providing dry kibbles or canned dog food is that you can never really be sure about the safety of these products or that whether they contain the nutrients the label says they contain. There are also issues about GMO ingredients included in such products alongside artificial and banned substances.
It is for this reason that there are now a growing number of dog owners who provide their pets with biologically appropriate raw food or freeze dried raw food. The idea is simple: give dogs what they would normally eat in the wild. As such, you will be giving them raw meat, organs, and even bones. The reasoning is that this type of feeding closely mimics their ancestral diet. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees to this line of thinking. Most detractors say that the risk of nutritional imbalance is simply great. For the proponents of BARF, however, the key is in providing exact measurements of raw ingredients to obtain an idea of the nutrients being given to dogs.
Choosing the right type of food to give to your dog boils down to the specific needs of your pet and getting your priorities straight. If you’re after convenience, economy, and nutrient value, then a dry kibble will suit you best. If you’re after a tasty, equally nutritious, and moisture-rich diet despite its hefty price, then wet canned food should be great. If you want to give your dog the kind of diet that its ancestors have been enjoying for many millennia, then going BARF is ideal. Ultimately, it’s your choice. Just make sure your pet gets all the right nutrients it needs.
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- Anna Burke, How to Choose the Best Dog Food, The American Kennel Club
- People Foods to Avoid Feeding Your Pets, ASPCA