Our pet dogs expect us to give them only the highest possible quality of food that their bodies need. Ever since we have domesticated them, part of their natural instinct to hunt and forage for food in the wild has been substantially suppressed, relying on our good judgment to provide them with the kind of nutrition that Mother Nature would want them to have. Sadly our judgment on what constitutes the best dog food is sometimes muddled with sociocultural and economic influences that dog nutrition is increasingly becoming divisive. In this article we shall attempt to look much deeper into the process of choosing the right type of dog food for our pooches so that we’ll feel more secure in our decisions later on.
The Different Types of Dog Food
Choosing high-quality dog food from an ocean full of varying options can be very intimidating. That is why it is important that we start our journey with an understanding of the different types of dog food, what they are, and what they are primarily intended for.
This type of dog food is one of the most common and technically the most practical diet for our beloved hounds. It is the perfect solution for pet parents who simply don’t have the time to prepare or cook exclusive dog food for their pets or those who do not have adequate knowledge about what the ideal nutrition is for their breed of dog. It is also the ideal solution for pet parents who may be cash-strapped but still would like to give the best for their pooches.
Dry kibbles have the added benefit of not spoiling easily so it is the choice of many pet parents who are going to leave the house for an extended period of time. They can simply fill the food bowl with dry kibbles and leave it for their dogs to eat whenever they feel hungry. Unfortunately, the same thing cannot be said of the bag of dry food. Once the bag has been opened, its nutrient value diminishes significantly within 14 days. As such, while it may be more practical to get a large bag of dry kibbles for your pet, if it will not be able to consume it within 2 weeks, then you’ll not be able to give the right nutrients from the 15th day onwards.
There is another thing going for dry kibbles. Because they have rough texture, it can serve as your pooch’s personal toothbrush. As the kibbles are broken down into smaller bits with your dog’s chewing, these scrape against the surface of the teeth as well as the gums effectively removing tartar and plaque that may have built-up in these areas. This is one way to maintain optimum dental and oral care among pooches.
Sadly, dry kibbles don’t carry that much moisture with most brands typically carrying a maximum of 10 to 12 percent moisture in their formulations. What this simply means is that if your pooch is not drinking that well or is sick that it needs adequate hydration, then dry kibbles may not be the perfect food for it.
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When it comes to nutrition, dry kibbles are known to be excellent sources of energy. A typical high-quality dry dog food will typically come in at 500+ calories per cup with a guaranteed analysis of 30% and 10% minimum crude protein and crude fat, respectively.
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One of the strengths of canned food is that they have exceptionally long shelf life. This means that they can stay edible and nutrient-rich as long as they are sealed. Once opened, however, you’d have to be fast in letting your dog consume it, otherwise it will spoil. If refrigerated, an opened can of dog food can last about a week or so. But if you’re just going to let it sit in your dog’s food bowl, it will spoil in as short as 4 to 6 hours.
Canned dog foods are very palatable. That’s why a lot of dogs love these kinds of canine pet food. The downside is that these are generally more expensive than dry kibbles on a per-weight basis. However they are perfect for young pooches because of the softer consistency. It is also ideal for sick dogs especially those that are taking medications that can substantially affect their taste buds. The naturally more flavorful formulation of canned dog foods can help improve appetite by making it more palatable.
Canned dog food is also indicated in canines that may no longer have teeth or those that are too weak to chew on dry kibbles as well as those dogs that are already in their twilight years. It is also perfect for canines that do not drink water that much or those that are too weak to drink from their water bowls or water dispensers.
A typical canned dog food contains anywhere between 70 and 80 percent moisture which proponents of canned dog food say closely mimics the moisture content of prey animals that wild dogs have been known to devour. Sadly, this same moisture content is what detractors of canned dog food are highlighting as being its downside since more moisture means fewer nutrients. We will shed light into this later on in this article.
Suffice it to say, if dry kibbles are known for being energy- or calorie- dense, canned dog food are known to be protein- and fat- dense. While this is true, it should be noted that not all manufacturers of canned dog food will use easily digestible proteins in their formulations. If there are significantly more indigestible proteins, then what is the use of putting proteins into a dog food if your dog cannot digest and absorb it? As such, it is imperative to look into the ingredients of the dog food, be it dry or canned.
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Sitting comfortably between dry and wet (or canned) dog foods is semi-moist dog food. These are called semi-moist since they have substantially greater moisture content than dry dog foods but lesser moisture than wet or canned dog food, usually rated at anywhere between 60 and 65 percent. The bad news is that many of these dog foods contain higher levels of sugar and salt compared to the other two commercially-available dog foods. These are also filled with artificial colorings and flavorings that may be detrimental to the health of your pet. As a matter of fact, veterinarians do not really recommend these dog foods except in certain instances.
One of the instances that semi-moist dog food can be advantageous is during dog training. Because it is softer than a kibble, your pooch can easily munch it down and a lot faster, too. And since it is firmer than a wet or canned dog food, you can easily hold it in your hand and feed it to your dog. However, its use should only be limited as a treat and not as part of your dog’s regular meals.
As the name implies, this type of dog food is meticulously prepared by pet parents. It involves choosing only the right and pet-safe ingredients to cook. It is time-consuming and will often come out as the most expensive type of dog food since you would want to use only the safest and highest quality ingredients for each meal. Additionally, spoilage is a real risk.
However, the sense of fulfillment one can have from studying canine nutrition and preparing and cooking meals for your furry friend can never be duplicated by any other type of canine nutrition. This is where your love for your dog will be put to the test as you will need to have a very clear understanding of the ins and outs of optimum canine nutrition. The key here is to spread your dog’s nutrient requirements from a variety of food sources without necessarily sacrificing its health and safety.
If you’re an avid fan of the Paleo Diet, then giving your dog raw food is simply the best option. This type of diet places emphasis on the closest possible diet to ancestral dog food where canines of yore had to forage and hunt for plants and prey animals, respectively. There is no cooking needed, although you are expected to prepare these ingredients as well.
An excellent raw dog food diet typically includes 15% bones, 10% organ meats, 50% lean meats, no more than 5% fat, a good serving of wholesome fruits and vegetables, and very minimal starchy foods if at all. If you can get your dog whole rabbit, poultry, or fish, then you can already be sure that your pooch is getting all the right nutrients that its body needs.
The fundamental logic why raw dog foods work is related to their unique digestive anatomy. It is shorter just like any other carnivore and comes with very strong stomach acids. This makes it super-easy to digest and process raw food.
However, it is important to talk to your vet if ever you decide to shift to raw dog food.
Things to Look for in a Label
Now that we have an understanding of the different types of dog food, you should already have an idea of what type of dog food is best for your pet. However, you should not stop there. Just as pet parents who prepare home-cooked dog foods for their pets have to learn about canine nutrition, you should also learn to read what the label means in commercially-available dog foods. Here are the things you have to look for and carefully understand.
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We mentioned above that dry dog foods are rich in calories and that wet or canned dog foods are rich in proteins and fats. Commercially-available dog foods will always come with a guaranteed analysis which is a rough estimate of the nutrient composition of the dog food.
At first glance it would seem that dry dog food will have more nutrients than canned dog foods. For instance, a typical dry dog food will have a minimum of 30% proteins and 10% fats. On the other hand a high-quality wet dog food will have about 10% proteins and 4% fats at the very minimum. So naturally, 30% and 10% are greater than 10% and 4%, right?
Let us try to do some math. Since guaranteed analysis takes into consideration the dry weight matter of food (excluding the moisture or water content) then only the dry weight matter of wet or canned dog food should be computed.
If the serving size of a canned dog food is 10 ounces and it contains 10% proteins and 75% moisture, then we can say that the dry weight matter of such a dog food is only 25%. Since protein is a part of this dry matter, you need to divide it by the total weight of dry matter. Hence, we divide 10 percent by 25 percent to give us 40 percent. As such, the actual protein content (40%) of the canned dog food is higher than the protein content printed on the label (10%).
Now compare this to our hypothetical example above wherein the dry dog food has 30% protein and the canned dog food has 10% printed on the label, the actual computed protein content of the wet dog food as per dry matter weight basis of 40% is actually greater than 30%.
When it comes to calories, well, there’s no denying that dry dog food has more calories than wet dog food. A typical dry dog food will have about 400 to 500 calories per serving while wet dog food will have anywhere between 250 and 350 calories per serving. Why is there so much discrepancy?
This is where carbohydrates come in. Producing wet or canned dog food is not only labor-intensive, it is also very expensive. Manufacturers of dry dog food cannot afford to fill their formulations with only premium quality meats. As such they use carbohydrates to help reduce the cost and to bind everything together. Sadly, it is this use of carbohydrates that give dry kibbles their high-calorie formulations.
Wet dog food also contains carbohydrates but in sufficiently lesser quantities. And since moisture doesn’t contain calories, wet dog foods are able to maintain their low-calorie formulation.
As such, if you have a pooch that is a working dog breed or has a very physically active lifestyle, then the best dog food will have to be dry kibbles. If you have a pooch that requires more protein and fewer calories in its diet, then wet or canned dog foods are the way to go.
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The First Ingredient Should Always Be an Animal Protein
We mentioned above that dogs require easily-digestible proteins. While science has shown that the digestive systems of modern-day dogs have evolved tremendously to accommodate almost any other type of food molecule, there are some nutrients that are simply more difficult to process than others. Plant food, for instance, will take substantially longer periods of time for the gut to process it and break it down into its component macro-nutrients. Additionally, there are certain essential amino acids that are missing in plant sources that dogs need for a variety of tissue-building processes and hormone- and enzyme- synthesis.
Animal proteins come complete with the essential amino acids for cellular health as well as nucleic acids essential for genetic transmission. That being said, it is important to read the label and look at the list of ingredients. These ingredients are listed in order of weight so the first ingredient naturally has more weight than the rest. It is, therefore important that the very first ingredient be an animal protein. This is the single most important thing you need to look for in the ingredient list; unless, of course the dog food specifically says that it contains plant proteins as its principal ingredient.
Some experts say that you should always go for animal meals as they contain more nutrients than fresh animals, which typically contain more moisture. As such experts recommend going for chicken, beef, lamb, or fish meal as the first ingredient instead of real chicken, beef, lamb, or fish.
It is also important that the animal protein is specifically identified. For instance, instead of saying poultry meal, you should real chicken meal or turkey meal or pheasant meal. The point is that you should be able to clearly identify the exact kind of animal protein you are giving to your canine friend.
Wholesome Grains, Vegetables, and Fruits
You might be inclined to believe that dogs don’t need fruits and vegetables and wholesome grains, but they do, albeit in moderate amounts. The nutrients especially phytochemicals, antioxidants, and flavonoids that these food ingredients contain can also help in the promotion of overall health for your pet pooch. If you’re wary about soy, corn, or wheat, then you can skip these for rice, sweet potatoes, and peas, although these should not comprise the bulk of your pooch’s diet since starchy foods can promote insulin spikes.
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Watch for ‘Organic’ and ‘All-Natural’ Labeling
A lot of dog food manufacturers today put ‘organic’ and ‘all-natural’ in their labels. If the manufacturer puts ‘organic’ in its label, then 95% of its ingredients should be organic, excluding water or salt. If the label says that the dog food contains ‘organic ingredients’, then 70% of these must be organic. Anything less does not justify the putting of ‘organic’ in their labels.
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AAFCO Nutrient Profile
There are dog foods that come with AAFCO labels. Some read “All Life Stages” while others are labeled as “Adult Maintenance”. The former (ALS) typically contains more calories, phosphorus, and calcium and are generally indicated for lactating dogs as well as growing puppies. The Adult Maintenance formulation is basically for healthy adult dogs.
Things to Avoid
If there are things you should always look for in the best dog food, there are also things that you should avoid to come up with the highest possible quality of canine chow. These can include the following.
Some pet food manufacturers say that you should avoid byproducts at all cost. But if you’re a firm believer in the ancestral diet of dogs, then you know that wild dogs eat everything from hair to skin to bones and all. Unfortunately, there is no way we can safely say that the ingredients put into meat byproducts used in dog food are safe.
While some pet food manufacturers only include the kidneys, lungs, heart, bones, and livers of animals as byproducts, others may include fur, hide, nails, and other stuff that may be too gross to even contemplate. As such, if you think you should give your pooch meat byproducts, make sure to get only the products of reputable companies. Otherwise, it is best to avoid these altogether.
Generic Fat Source
If you see ‘animal fat’ in the label, will you not ask yourself what kind of animal the fat was sourced from? It could very well be fats derived from buffaloes or even roadkill. If you see poultry fat instead of animal fat, then at least you know that the fat comes from poultry products. However, a more definitive label is chicken fat. The point is that, like in the animal protein, it is imperative that you can clearly identify the source of the fat and not just some vague living organism.
From sweeteners to flavor-enhancers to preservatives, always say ‘no’ to anything and everything man-made. But if the label reads rosemary extract, vitamin C, and tocopherols as the product’s source of preservatives, then it should be relatively okay. Ethoxyquin, BHT, BHA, and other artificial ingredients typically used in food processing should be avoided at all cost as the detrimental effects to your pet’s health far outweighs any perceived benefits related to longer shelf life and increased palatability. After all, we are talking about high quality dog foods here.
Picking a high-quality dog food starts with an understanding of the different types of canine nutrition, the pros and cons of each, and how each type can be used on specific types of dogs. Your choice of the best dog food should also reflect an understanding of the things you have to look for in the labels as well as those things that you need to avoid. These can all help you narrow down your choices to just a few dog foods that should be the best for your pet.
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- Anna Burke, How to Choose the Best Dog Food, American Kennel Club
- Amanda MacMillan, 6 Things Your Vet Wants You to Know About Dog Food, WebMD