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When you bring home your new puppy for the very first time it is easy to get caught up in the excitement. But if you want that puppy to thrive, you need to take your job as a dog owner seriously and provide him with the things he needs to grow – that includes a healthy diet.
Unfortunately, many people assume that the only way to shop for dog food is to walk into a pet store and pick something off the shelf. Many people shop for dog food based on price or by looking at the pretty pictures on the package.
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These same dog owners do not realize that their actions could have a negative impact on their dog or that they could be setting up their new puppy for a life full of health problems.
While this may seem like an exaggeration, you should not underestimate the power of quality nutrition. Just like humans, dogs need a balance of certain nutrients in their diet in order to thrive and grow.
Because your dog can’t open up the refrigerator and prepare a meal for himself, however, it is up to you to select a high-quality dog food product that will provide for his nutritional needs. But how exactly do you determine which dog foods are good for your dog and which ones aren’t?
This challenge is made even more difficult by the fact that dog food comes in a variety of different forms and it is sold by dozens of different companies.
If you really want what is best for your dog, you will take the time to learn how to identify a quality dog food product. Your real journey starts a few steps earlier, however, with learning about your dog’s basic nutritional needs.
Unless you know what kind of nutrients your dog needs and in what proportion, you won’t have a context in which to judge different pet food products. Luckily, DogFood.Guide is here to guide you along the way.
Keep reading to learn more about what kind of dog food products are available and to learn about your dog’s nutritional needs. You will also find valuable information about reading a dog food label.
This information, combined with updated dog food recalls and objective dog food reviews, will help you find the perfect dog food recipe for your canine companion.
What Kinds of Dog Food Are Out There?
Just a few decades ago, commercial dog food products were fairly limited – most products took the form of traditional kibbles with a few high-priced options for fresh or frozen food. Today, however, when you walk into a pet store you will find more than just shelves stocked with bags of dry kibble.
The modern pet store is stocked with traditional dry foods but there are many other options available as well – raw frozen formulas stocked in freezers, fresh dog food products packed into refrigerators, and even dehydrated and freeze-dried foods that share the shelf with an assortment of canned food products. The options are endless!
With so many different options available for commercial dog food products, dog owners like you have the opportunity to select a product that suits your dog’s individual needs and preferences.
These products are also available at different price points so you can find a high-quality product that fits your budget. Keep in mind that you may also be able to save money using dog food coupons. To give you an idea what kind of dog food products are out there, here is a list of different options you might find on pet store shelves:
- Dry Dog Food (kibble)
- Fresh Raw
- Frozen Raw
- High Calorie
- High Fiber
- Limited Ingredient Diets
- Low Carb
- Low Calories
- Low Fat
- Low Phosphorus
- Low Residue
- Low Sodium
- Novel Protein
- Prescription/Veterinary Diets
- Sensitive Skin/Stomach
In addition to offering a variety of different types of dog food, many pet food manufacturers also offer recipes that are specifically formulated for dogs of different ages and sizes. Dog foods made for dogs of certain ages are usually referred to as “life stage” formulas and they can be designed for puppies, adult dogs, and senior dogs.
Size-specific formulas are usually divided into four categories – toy breed, small breed, medium breed, and large or giant breed. These recipes provide balanced nutrition catered to the unique energy and nutrient needs for dogs of different sizes.
Hypoallergenic and Novel Protein
The previous section mentions the many different types of dog food including different variations on both dry and wet foods. There is one category that merits additional explanation – hypoallergenic dog food or novel protein dog food. These two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, though they are actually quite different.
You might assume that a hypoallergenic diet is simply a product that doesn’t contain the ingredient to which your dog is allergic, but it is actually a specific type of dog food made in a special way. There are two specific things that are done to make a dog food hypoallergenic.
First, the protein used in the recipe is hydrolyzed – this simply means chopping it into pieces small enough that the dog’s immune system won’t be able to recognize it. This prevents the allergic reaction from happening.
Second, the proteins are chemically separated from the carbohydrates, making it a pure source of starch. There are only a few pet food manufacturers that offer this kind of hypoallergenic diet and they typically use chicken or soy as the protein sources.
A novel protein dog food serves the same function as a hypoallergenic dog food in that it minimizes the risk for an allergic reaction. The difference is in the way this goal is accomplished and it’s actually quite simple.
As the name would suggest, novel protein diets are made with novel sources of protein – that is, protein sources that your dog is unlikely to have been exposed to before.
In addition to featuring a novel protein, these diets are also usually made with a single source of carbohydrate, often a novel source as well. When picking out a novel protein diet for your dog, be sure to read the ingredients carefully to ensure that other sources of protein or carbohydrate that might cause a reaction are not included.
Here is a list of some of the novel proteins you may find in a hypoallergenic dog food diet:
- Bison – A lean source of protein, bison is nutritionally dense and rich in omega-3 fatty acids. It also contains plenty of selenium, vitamin E, and beta-carotene.
- Duck – Duck is typically higher in fat that other sources of poultry, but 2/3 of it is healthy fat – it is also rich in iron, selenium, zinc, and Bi vitamins.
- Herring – This is a type of fatty fish, but most of the fat is healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Herring is also rich in protein, vitamin B-12, zinc, and vitamin D.
- Kangaroo – Another lean source of protein, kangaroo is also rich in zinc, iron, and vitamin B-12.
- Rabbit – Fresh rabbit is a more highly-concentrated source of protein than both chicken and beef. It is also rich in iron, phosphorus, potassium, and selenium.
- Salmon – This fatty fish has one of the highest food contents of omega-3 fatty acids and it is a great source of protein. Salmon is also rich in Vitamin B-12, Vitamin D, selenium, phosphorus, and Vitamin B-6.
- Venison – A lean source of red meat, venison is also rich in iron, niacin, riboflavin, and Vitamin B-6. It is also particularly rich in L-carnitine.
Remember, the proteins from the list above are considered novel for most dogs, but not all dogs. If your dog has eaten one of the proteins on this list before and he ends up developing an allergy, you’ll have to find a limited ingredient diet or hypoallergenic dog food made with a different protein from the list.
These novel proteins greatly reduce the risk for triggering a dog food allergy, but they do not eliminate it entirely – dogs can develop an allergy at any time, especially with repeated exposure.
Special Dietary Formulas
There are many different terms used to label special dietary formulas. You are probably familiar with prescription and veterinary diet dog foods, or you may know of them as therapeutic diets.
These dog foods are formulated to address specific dietary or medical needs such as diabetes mellitus, heart disease, urinary tract infections, kidney disease, and more. It is important to note that these formulas should not be viewed as a substitute for veterinary care, but they can be used as part of a holistic treatment plan to address your dog’s medical problems.
When shopping for prescription dog food, you may notice that it is very expensive. What you may also notice is that most of the brands that sell them can be found on our 1-, 2-, and 3-star dog food lists.
The fact that prescription diets are largely offered by some of the lower quality pet food manufacturers leads many to believe that they are nothing more than an attempt for these brands to prey on uneducated dog owners.
While it is true that there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the use of prescription dog foods and veterinary diets, there is evidence to suggest that these products work.
When it comes to your dog’s diet, you have a difficult choice to make. Not only do you need to ensure that your dog’s basic nutritional needs are met, but you also have to take into account any special dietary restrictions or medical requirements he may have.
Rather than turning to a prescription diet and risk feeding your dog a product made with low-quality ingredients, you might want to do some research of your own to find out exactly what kind of dietary changes could benefit your dog’s medical condition and find a product that meets those requirements.
In many cases, you can find a special dietary formula that offers the same benefits as a prescription diet, but through the use of more high-quality ingredients. To give you an idea of what this might look like, here is an overview of some of the most common types of special dietary formulas for dog food:
- Diabetic – Dogs with diabetes mellitus struggle with high blood sugar so they require a diet that is high in protein with moderate fat and restricted carbohydrate content. Any carbs used in the formula should be complex, low-glycemic carbs so they don’t cause a spike in blood sugar.
- High-Calorie – A high-calorie diet is usually reserved for active and working breeds as well as other dogs who need to gain weight. High-calorie dog foods are typically rich in both protein and fat – fat is particularly important for increasing the calorie content of a dog food.
- High-Fiber – Dietary fiber is important for supporting your dog’s healthy digestion, but most dogs need no more than 5% fiber in their diets. A high-fiber dog food may be necessary for dogs that are overweight, dogs with diabetes, and dogs struggling with constipation or diarrhea.
- Hydrolyzed – This type of dog food is designed for dogs who have allergies or sensitivities to common proteins like beef, chicken, fish, and lamb. Hydrolyzed proteins are chopped into tiny pieces, pieces small enough that the immune system won’t recognize them and launch an allergic response.
- Low-Carb – A low-carb diet is beneficial for dogs with diabetes, as long as the carbs that are used in the dog food are low-glycemic. Low-carb dog food may also benefit dogs who suffer from various digestive disorders like inflammatory bowel disease or “leaky gut” syndrome.
- Low-Calorie – This type of dog food is typically designed for dogs that are overweight or obese. A high-quality, low-calorie dog food will still contain plenty of protein to support your dog’s lean muscle mass, instead reducing the fat content to limit the calories.
- Low-Fat – Though a low-fat dog food may help dogs who are overweight or obese, this type of dog food is usually reserved for dogs suffering from pancreatitis, hyperlipidemia, or inflammatory bowel disease. Some dogs also have a hard time digesting fat, in which case a low-fat diet may be called for.
- Low-Phosphorus – A low-phosphorus diet is generally recommended for dogs with kidney problems such as kidney disease or chronic renal failure. If your dog also has proteinuria, it may also help to reduce his protein intake by a little.
- Low-Residue – This type of dog food is made using highly digestible ingredients that are almost completely metabolized during the process of digestion, therefore leaving little residue that needs to be excreted in the form of stools. A low-residue diet is usually recommended for dogs with inflammatory bowel disease and for chronic diarrhea.
- Low-Sodium – All dogs need some sodium in their diet but a low-sodium diet may be necessary if your dog suffers from certain heart conditions including congestive heart failure.
Before switching your dog to a special dietary formula like the ones listed above, you should be sure to get your vet’s approval. Your veterinarian has undergone years of training in order to understand how your dog’s body works, so don’t think that you know better simply because you did an hour of online research.
You can, however, take your vet’s advice and use it to select a high-quality dog food product that will also provide for your dog’s unique dietary needs.
A Word About Organic and Holistic Pet Foods
While there are regulatory organizations that enforce certain restrictions and regulations on pet food manufacturers, dog food as a whole is much less regulated than people food. For example, the FDA has published definitions for specific words used in health claims made about food products.
When it comes to pet food, however, the rules are not so strict. In fact, many of the words used to describe the products you see on pet store shelves don’t have any official definition – this means that pet food manufacturers can use them however they like.
For example, the word “natural” doesn’t have a strict definition – it generally just means that the product doesn’t contain artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives. The ingredient carrageenan, for instance, is a natural substance derived from seaweed but it has been identified as potentially dangerous for pets.
One of the exceptions to this rule is the word “organic”. In order for a food product (both people food and pet food) to be labeled as organic, it must adhere to certain requirements. Organic foods must be free from synthetic hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, and preservatives – they also can’t be genetically engineered, irradiated, or grown in chemical fertilizers.
There are actually different levels of organic foods according to the USDA, each with its own label:
- 100% Organic – All ingredients are organic. Can display the Certified Organic seal on the front of the package.
- Organic – At least 95% of ingredients are organic. Can display the Certified Organic seal on the front of the package.
- Made with Organic Ingredients – At least 70% of ingredients are organic. Can say “made with organic ingredients” on the front, but no organic seal.
- Less than 70% Organic – Can list organic ingredients but the word “organic” can’t be used on the front of the package.
Some other terms you might see on high-quality pet foods include words like holistic or human-grade. The term human-grade simply means fit for human consumption.
What you have to remember, however, is that even if a pet food product is made with all human-grade ingredients, it can’t be called a human-grade product unless it is made in a human food facility.
This is why you might see pet food packages carrying health claims like, “Made with 100% human-grade ingredients”. They can’t just come out and say that the product is human-grade if it’s made in a pet food facility.
Though terms like “organic” and “human-grade” have specific definitions, one of the terms used quite commonly in high-quality, natural pet foods that has no official definition is “holistic.” According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of holistic is, “relating to or concerned with complete systems rather than with the dissection into parts”.
That doesn’t really tell you much about how this term can be applied to pet food, but some manufacturers use it to imply that their products are designed to nourish a dog’s whole body, not just to fill his stomach. Some other qualities a holistic pet food might have include the following:
- Made from 100% natural ingredients, no artificial additives
- Made with whole grains, no fillers or by-products
- Made with high-quality animal proteins like meat, poultry, and fish
- Made with fresh fruits and vegetables
- Made with vitamins and minerals for nutritional balance
If you think about it, there are many different words you could use to fit these requirements – natural, wholesome, biologically appropriate, complete, and more. It just goes to show you that there is more to picking out a high-quality dog food than reading the front of the package.
In order to really determine the quality of a pet food product, you need to understand your dog’s nutritional needs and examine the information on the package to see how well the product meets those needs.
Understanding Your Dog’s Nutritional Needs
Now that you have a better idea of what kind of dog food options are out there you need to learn how to determine whether a specific product will meet your dog’s nutritional needs. Before you can do that, however, you need to know what those nutritional needs are!
The first thing to know is that dogs are primarily carnivorous animals but they are not obligate carnivores like cats – wild wolves do occasionally consume plant foods when no other alternatives exist. Still, your dog has a limited ability to digest plant foods so most of his nutrition needs to come from animal-based sources such as meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs.
Like humans, dogs require a balance of the three main nutrients – protein, fat, and carbohydrate – which are also known as macronutrients. As carnivorous animals, dogs need high levels of protein in their diet to fuel their growth and development as puppies and to maintain their lean muscle mass as adults.
Proteins are made up of 23 different amino acids and your dog’s body is capable of synthesizing all but 10 of them. These remaining 10 are called essential amino acids because they must come from your dog’s diet. The Merck Veterinary Manual recommends a minimum protein content of 18% in the diet for adult dogs and 22% for puppies.
Secondary to protein, fat is the next most important nutrient for dogs because it provides a highly concentrated source of energy as well as support for your dog’s immune system, skin, and coat. Like protein, fats should come from animal-based sources for maximum bio-availability.
The Merck Veterinary Manual recommends a minimum fat content of 5% in the diet for adult dogs and 8% for puppies. The ideal protein and fat content for dogs, however, is much higher than these minimums. The more protein your dog gets in his diet, the better, and dogs with fast metabolisms (and highly active dogs) need extra fat in their diet to meet their energy needs.
While dogs have a very limited ability to digest plant products, carbohydrates do provide your dog with energy as well as dietary fiber.
The key here is to choose highly digestible carbohydrates and to keep the total fiber content of your dog’s food fairly low – no more than 5% is best. Digestible carbohydrates for dogs include things like whole grains, starchy vegetables, beans, and legumes.
Your dog also needs certain vitamins and minerals (collectively known as micronutrients) and they can benefit from certain additives like prebiotics and probiotics.
A complete and balanced diet for dogs will meet his minimum requirements for protein and fat with low to moderate carbohydrate content and adequate nutritional balance through the addition of vitamins and minerals.
How Do You Find a High-Quality Dog Food?
So now you know the basics about your dog’s nutritional needs. That means you’re ready to head to the pet store, right? Maybe not. Knowing what your dog’s nutritional needs are doesn’t necessarily translate to being able to read a pet food label.
Unless you are able to interpret the information provided on the package, however, you won’t know whether or not the product is of high quality. It is important to realize that you cannot always believe the things you see and read on pet food packages – marketing claims are not as closely regulated in the pet food industry as they are in the human food industry by the FDA.
Companies are allowed to use terms like “premium” and “holistic” on their products with no restrictions because there is no legal definition for these terms.
Although pet food packaging and marketing is more loosely regulated than human food, pet food labels are still required to include certain things. A pet food package must list the following:
- The name of the brand and the product
- The name of the species for which the product is intended
- A statement of quantity, either net weight or net volume
- A guaranteed analysis for crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber, and moisture
- An ingredients list arranged in descending order by volume
- Statement of nutritional adequacy
- Feeding instructions, generally determined by weight
- Name and contact information for the manufacturer/distributor
These are the bare minimums that a pet food label must include but pet food manufacturers are welcome to include other information. Some companies, for example, provide the calorie content of the product as well as additional nutrients in the guaranteed analysis.
In order to identify a high-quality dog food product, you must be able to sift through the unimportant information provided on the label to find what really matters. Many pet food manufacturers fill their packaging with colorful pictures of happy dogs and glowing testimonials from satisfied customers.
You must take these things with a grain of salt, however, knowing that they are not closely regulated. What you really need to focus on is the information provided by three specific portions of the pet food label – the AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy, the guaranteed analysis and the ingredients list
AAFCO Statement of Nutritional Adequacy
The American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is the governing body that regulates the production and manufacture of pet foods – this organization serves a similar purpose for the pet food industry that the FDA does for the human food industry. When it comes to the nutritional needs of dogs, AAFCO has established nutrient profiles for three categories:
- Dogs in all life stages
- Adult maintenance
- Growth (puppies) and gestation/lactation (pregnant females)
Before a pet food product can be sold, it must be tested and compared to nutrient profiles established by AAFCO for the corresponding life stage. In some cases, AAFCO may actually conduct feeding trials using the product but many products are simply evaluated based on these nutrient profiles.
If the product is properly formulated to meet the minimum nutritional requirements for the intended life stage, the product label will carry a statement of nutritional adequacy that looks something like this:
“Brand X Dog Food is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for all life stages.”
If the pet food package you are looking at carries this statement you can rest easy knowing that it will meet your dog’s minimum nutritional requirements.
You must keep in mind, however, that this statement is not an indication of quality – it is possible to meet your dog’s minimum nutritional requirements using low-quality ingredients and added supplements.
After checking for the AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy you need to look at the guaranteed analysis and the ingredients list to determine the quality of the product.
The guaranteed analysis for a pet food product must show the minimum values for crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber, and moisture. Many pet food manufacturers include additional values for omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, probiotic supplements, and other nutrients but they are not required.
Basically, the guaranteed analysis is another place you can look to determine if a product meets your dog’s minimum nutritional requirements. If you are looking at two different dry food products, you can use the guaranteed analysis to make a direct comparison as long as they both have the same moisture content.
Most dry kibbles have 10% moisture so that generally isn’t a problem. If you want to compare two canned foods, however, you may have two different moisture contents.
The best way to compare two canned food products is to convert the values in each guaranteed analysis to dry matter basis. To do so, just subtract the moisture content from 100% to find your total dry matter content.
Then, take each value for protein, fat, and fiber and divide the percentage by the total dry matter percentage. For example, if you have a product with 75% moisture and 10% protein you would start by subtracting 75% from 100% for a dry matter content of 25%. Then, divide the protein content of 10% by the dry matter content of 25% for a dry matter protein content of 40%.
In addition to knowing how to convert guaranteed analysis values to dry matter basis, it will also be helpful to know what the ideal ranges are for certain nutrients depending on your dog’s age. Here is a quick breakdown of recommended nutrient ratios for dogs in all life stages according to AAFCO nutrient profiles and the Nutritional Requirements of Dogs (NRC):
|Life Stage||Recommended Protein Content||Recommended Fat Content|
|Puppy (0 to 12 months)||22% – 32%||10% to 25%|
|Adult Dog||15% to 30%||10% to 20%|
|Active or Working Dog||22% to 32%||15% to 40%|
|High Performance Working Dog||28% to 34%||At least 50%|
|Pregnant/Lactating Dog||25% to 35%||At least 20%|
In addition to variations in protein and fat recommendations, different dogs have different calorie requirements. The average adult dog needs about 30 calories per pound of bodyweight to sustain his metabolism and support his lean muscle mass.
Small and toy breeds have very fast metabolisms so, while they may need a lower total daily calorie count than larger dogs, they have higher calorie needs measured per pound of body weight. A small breed dog may need as many as 40 to 50 calories per pound of bodyweight depending on activity level.
Large and giant breeds may need as few as 20 calories per pound of body weight in some cases if they are fairly inactive. Consult the feeding instructions in the pet food package to determine how much to feed your dog and keep an eye on your dog’s body weight and condition for a few weeks to see whether you need to make any adjustments.
The third and most important place you need to look on the pet food label is the ingredients list. These lists show all of the individual ingredients that go into making a specific product and it is organized in descending order by volume – this means that the ingredients used in the highest volumes are at the top of the list.
After making sure that the product meets the minimum nutrient requirements for your dog, you can check the ingredients list to see where those values come from. A high-quality dog food will always list a quality source of animal protein as the first ingredient, ideally with several supplementary sources of protein included as well.
Avoid any product that lists a carbohydrate (especially a corn, wheat, or soy ingredient) as the first ingredient.
Reading ingredients lists for dog food products can be confusing because sometimes manufacturers use different names than what you are used to – they may also add words like “by-product” or “meal”.
If you aren’t sure what an ingredient is, you can always consult the AAFCO definition for the term. As a general rule, if a product contains a lot of ingredients that you can’t easily identify, it is probably not something you want to be feeding your dog.
It is often the case that fewer ingredients are better – the longer the ingredient list, the more likely you are to find low-quality ingredients and fillers. Just take your time looking through the list, taking note of where the three key nutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrate) come from.
In addition to considering the information you learn from the AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy, the guaranteed analysis and the ingredients list, you may also have to take into account some specific dietary requirements that your dog has.
If your dog suffers from food allergies, digestive issues, or other health problems your veterinarian may make certain recommendations regarding his diet.
Do not just purchase a prescription or veterinary diet that is supposedly designed to combat specific health problems – in many cases these products are little more than overpriced mid-quality dog foods that could actually exacerbate your dog’s health problems.
Always consult your veterinarian before making changes to your dog’s diet and, if you do need to change his food, transition him slowly onto the new product to reduce the risk for digestive upset.
Reading pet food labels is something that will take time and practice to develop but, once you do, it will be an invaluable skill to have. Having a foundation of knowledge regarding the nutritional needs of dogs and understanding of how pet food labels work will help you to find the perfect dog food product for your canine companion.
To help you get started, check out some of the reviews and recommendations for top pet food brands here at DogFood.Guide!