A Guide for Picking the Right Food for your Dog

Right Food for your Dog
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When bringing a new dog into your world, one of the bigger decisions you’ll want to check off your list right away is what kind of dog food to buy. The blessing and the curse of picking out dog food are that you will not be lacking in choices. We’re here to help you navigate the dog food landscape so that you are fully prepared before bringing your new dog home.

As dog owners, we want the absolute best for our pups to provide them with long, happy life, and this starts with feeding them balanced, healthy meals. Dog’s bodies, like humans, are unique. What’s best for your dog can be completely different than what’s best for someone else’s dog.

What Nutritional Requirements Exist for Dogs?

When choosing which food to buy, you’ll want to understand the nutritional needs of your dog and how they may differ from other dogs. If you have a new puppy you’ll need food specifically formulated for young, growing pups. Or if you have a dog on the small or large end of the spectrum there will be a specific formula more suited to your dog’s needs.

To ensure that you’re buying food that contains all of the vitamins and nutrients your dog needs, look on the label for the words “complete and balanced.” This is a term the FDA uses to regulate dog and cat food nutrient profiles established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). The ability to feed your dog one food that contains all the vitamins and nutrients they need is an advantage over feeding your dog a raw diet, which may then require additional vitamin supplements.

One supplement you might want to include in your dog’s daily diet regardless of the dog food you choose is omega-3 fatty acids. Just like humans, your dog needs a balance of omega-3 and omega-6. The imbalance comes from a high amount of omega-6 which is found in most manufactured dog foods. If you’re feeding your dog commercial food, you should consider adding an omega-3 supplement to correct the imbalance.

Your dog needs omega-3 for a variety of reasons including:

  • Omega-3 acts as an anti-inflammatory and helps dogs dealing with allergies and arthritis.
  • Omega-3 improves skin and energy levels, as well as coat and joint health.
  • Omega-3 helps with the cognitive development of puppies and could improve the cognitive functions of older dogs.

How Do I Pick Out Commercial Dog Food?

It’s difficult to narrow down exactly what food is best for your dog because of the abundance of choices available to you. Dog foods can be formulated for three stages of life, growth stage, adult stage, and senior stage, while other foods will simply be for “all stages of life.”

After choosing which stage of life food you want to look for, the best way to begin selecting a brand is to compare product labels. When reading a product label, the ingredients are listed in order of largest to smallest quantities. Be aware of manufacturers hiding the number of undesirable ingredients by listing them separately and disguising what percent of the food they make up.

When looking at the product label you’ll want to see a variety of nutritional ingredients. Dogs can digest and gain nutrition from fruits, grains, and vegetables in addition to meat. Good dog food will contain a combination of those ingredients, while the best dog foods will contain the highest quality versions of those ingredients. Ingredients to avoid are corn, cornmeal, soy, and wheat as they are harder for dogs to digest.

Terms to remember when picking out food:

  • “Chicken” means at least 70 percent of the product is made up of chicken.
  • “Chicken Platter,” “Chicken Dinner,” or “Chicken Entrée” means that at minimum 10-percent of the food is beef.
  • “With Chicken” means just 3-percent, while “Chicken Flavor” is less than 3-percent.

Does My Dog Need a Grain-Free Diet?

Many dog food manufacturers have started to offer grain-free options. The thought is that just as human ancestors had a grain-free diet, so did the ancestors of early dogs, and therefore dogs would benefit from a grain-free diet just as some humans do.

You’ll read varying opinions on how dogs’ digestive systems have evolved to handle grain and gluten, ranging from those that believe dogs still have somewhat primitive digestive systems, to those that believe dogs can digest grains without an issue. When you read such wide-ranging opinions, the reality is likely somewhere in-between. A general nutritional guideline that most can agree on is that the recommended daily amount of grain for a dog is 10% of their diet. The rest of the diet should almost evenly be divided between vegetables (50%) and proteins (40%).

Those in favor of a grain-free diet cite benefits that are very similar to those cited in raw diets, including healthier coats and teeth, smaller stools, and increased energy.

One downside of grain free is that those diets frequently are higher in fat and calories and could lead to weight gain in your dog. Going grain-free will also be a more expensive option, so you’ll have to decide if the potential benefits are worth the additional cost. If you already have a perfectly happy and healthy dog, then there is likely no need to drastically change their diet to grain free.

Your dog will only require a grain-free diet if they are specifically allergic to grains. If you notice itchiness or irritation on your dog’s skin there may be a food allergy at play. In this case, trying a grain-free diet could be an option to see if it helps clear up the issue.

Should My Dog Eat a Raw Diet?

A raw diet for dogs can consist of organ meats, muscle meat, whole or ground bone, raw eggs, fruits and vegetables, and yogurt. This type of raw diet can be of the homemade variety, while the other way to feed your dog a raw diet is through commercially available dog food that includes raw ingredients.

Proponents of a raw diet claim that eating raw food promotes cleaner teeth, a shinier coat, healthier skin, higher energy levels, and smaller stools. The raw diet is sometimes referred to by the acronym BARF, which stands for Bones and Raw Food, or Biologically Appropriate Raw Food. Sled dogs and racing greyhounds were some of the earliest adopters of the hilariously titled BARF diet, and these days the diet has become much more popular with food manufacturers.

Some will say that the only reason for your dog to eat a raw diet is to eliminate ingredients in commercial foods that cause allergies. If your dog seems to have a food allergy and you’ve tried grain free, but the irritation has continued, a raw diet could be an option. If you do decide to try a raw diet, do as much research as possible beforehand and consult with your vet or a nutritionist.

Detractors of BARF will argue that going raw will lead to an unbalanced diet, which could harm your dog if fed for an extended period. For those that are feeding dogs raw meaty bones, there is a potential for choking or internal punctures. For these reasons, we do not recommend feeding your dog whole raw bones. Your dog’s ancestors may have needed to resort to that type of diet, but that is not a reason for you to put your dog at risk.

If you’d like to safely feed your dog a bone, there are many quality commercial options to consider. One option is whole, natural, shed deer and elk antlers. Pick an appropriate-sized antler for your dog in order to avoid choking. Your dog will love to chew it, they do not splinter, and they promote healthy gums and teeth.

There are some that argue the benefits of a raw diet are largely due to a higher fat composition in these foods. Those detractors claim that the benefits gained from going raw could be duplicated by substituting high-fat commercial food.

It’s hard to fully recommend a raw diet for your dog considering the concerns nutritionists have about creating an unbalanced diet that could be harmful long term. To further this point, a study at Tufts University looked at five raw diets, two commercially available and three homemade, and all five “had nutritional deficiencies or excesses that could cause serious health problems if given long term.”

One study is far from conclusive to judge them entirely raw diet landscape, and there will likely be many more studies that will continue to come out both in favor and against raw diets.

Ultimately, it’s hard to know exactly what to believe. From this author’s perspective, it might be safer to just sit on the sidelines and wait for more conclusive evidence one way or the other before drastically changing your dog’s diet.

Wet or Dry?

When picking out dog food you’ll have a choice of either wet or dry dog food, in addition to dehydrated food. Dry dog food has the advantage over wet dog food of not requiring refrigeration after opening, and it can also be a little less expensive than the wet, canned food varieties. Wet and dry dog food both contain similar ingredients, but wet food may contain a higher amount of fresh protein and animal byproducts.

Dehydrated food can be more expensive, but can also be of higher quality, and is meant to be combined with water for rehydrating into a meal.

How Much Food Should I Feed My Dog?

The amount of food a dog should be fed daily will be unique for each situation, depending on size and how active your dog is. As a guideline, this table has recommended amounts to feed your dog over a 24-hour period depending on size. 

Slowly Transition Dogs from Old Food to New Food

Before feeding your dog the new food you spent so much time carefully selecting, you’ll need to slowly transition them off of their old diet. You can do this transition over a week or two, rationing in the new food little by little until you’ve completely switched over. During the transition period keep a close on your dog’s bowel movements to make sure their stomach is happy with the new diet. If not, search for a portion of different food that your dog can more easily digest and try until you find one that keeps their belly and body happy!

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