How to choose dog food: Find the perfect type for your dog
Get a vet's advice on how to choose dog food from the many, many brands that are available in the shops and online
Sometimes, there’s just too much choice – and trying to work out how to choose dog food is best can seem like an impossible task. You’ve likely had opinions from everybody: your breeder, your groomer, your parents, your friends – even the guy in the pet store! They’ve probably all said different things, and now you’re not sure which is the best dog food to buy for your canine pal. We’re going to look at ways to check the quality of dog food to help you decide which dog food is best.
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The best dog food
The unpopular truth is that there’s no such thing as the ‘best’ dog food. There is very little that separates one food from another, and most of what you see is just marketing. The truth is, most dogs will thrive on any number of foods. But you should also remember that dogs are individuals – and what suits one dog won’t necessarily suit another. It’s more important to think about the diet that suits your dog, rather than the best food. And if your dog is healthy and happy, with good teeth, a shiny coat, and plenty of bounce – the chances are good that their diet is exactly what they need.
Be aware of marketing claims
If you walk down the pet food aisle of any supermarket you’ll be barraged with bags and tins proclaiming things like ‘vet recommended’, ‘natural’, ‘grain free’, ‘whole’, ‘fresh’, and ‘human-grade’.
The problem is that many of these words don’t have any definition in pet food, meaning manufacturers can put them where they like. Some, like ‘human-grade’ are mean nothing at all – all ‘meat and animal derivatives’ are from animals that have been passed as fit for human consumption. Which means that ‘human-grade’ has been put there just to make you think the diet is better than the one next to it.
You should also watch out for ingredients added in tiny amounts for marketing purposes. When a product says ‘with’ a minor ingredient (i.e ‘Beef with parsley’), there only needs to be enough of the minor ingredient that it ‘characterises the product’. Next time you see a dog food ‘with’ a minor ingredient like blueberries or herbs, check the ingredients label – you’ll probably notice the ingredient is last on the list, long after everything else, because it’s in such tiny amounts there’ll be no nutritional benefit from it. So why is it there? Because you’ll feel good about paying more for a product with wholesome and delicious-sounding ingredients!
Also be wary of label claims for health benefits. It’s actually illegal to make a claim that cannot be proven, but it’s easy to get around this by merely suggesting an effect – ‘supports gut health’ or ‘to aid the healthy function of joints’ are common claims. Anecdotal evidence ‘when my dog ate X, Y happened’ is also commonly used in marketing. Unfortunately, looking at individual cases like this isn’t helpful. What works for one dog may not work for another, and there’s no adjusting for the placebo effect or allowance for coincidence in this sort of evidence. This great sheet from the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) contains more information.
Whilst none of these marketing tricks means a diet is inherently bad, it’s worth being aware of how much money goes into marketing these products. Every single one of these diets is hoping you’ll think that they’re the best, and with pet food worth 37 billion US dollars in 2021, it’s not hard to see why. Make sure you look beyond the marketing when you’re choosing your dog food.
Make sure it's complete and balanced
Any food that has the FEDIAF (EU) or AAFCO (US) ‘complete and balanced’ label on it should provide everything your dog needs for their life-stage. ‘Complete and balanced’ means it has all the correct nutrients (‘complete’) in the right proportions (‘balanced’) to provide for your dog.
If companies want to go a step further, they can choose how to prove that the diet is complete and balanced. One way is to get a computer to work out the nutrients and show that they tick all the boxes, but a slightly better way is to show that the diet is complete using feeding trials. This has the advantage of looking at the diet across a number of dogs (not just the computerized ‘average’ dog) and also checking that all the nutrients can actually be absorbed- because sometimes the computer can say there’s enough of a nutrient, but if for some reason it can’t be absorbed by the dog.
Check the manufacturer
The WSAVA also recommends looking at the manufacturer, and asking them some in-depth questions about their practices. The full list of WSAVA questions can be found here, but you’ll be pleased to learn that the Pet Nutrition Alliance has asked many of the main manufacturers already, and published the results here.
Are raw, grain-free, vegetarian, or home cooked diets better than commercially prepared foods?
Pet food trends often follow human food trends, and this can be seen with the most recent trends in pet food.
Raw diets for dogs
Raw dog food (also known as biologically appropriate diets) follow the human ‘paleo’ principle- that our dog’s guts evolved to eat raw prey, and feeding them a diet similar to that of their ancestors will be better for them. Raw food doesn’t exclusively contain meat, but does have a lot of animal protein. The main concern with raw diets is that cooking food kills bacteria and parasites and reduces food-borne illness such as Salmonella and E.coli.
Grain-free dog food
Grain-free dog food follows similar principles to raw, claiming that it’s unnatural to feed grains and carbohydrates to dogs, and that they have no nutritional value to canines or are used as cheap fillers. The good news is that dogs can digest grains, and they have a good nutrient profile, so they do have nutritional value in dog food.
Vegetarian and vegan dog foods
Vegetarian and vegan food are gaining in popularity, especially with people who are humans themselves. The theory behind this diet is almost exclusively to lessen our impact on the environment. However, it can be difficult to get enough protein into a vegan diet without relying on legumes, which were implicated in the rise of cases of Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM), perhaps because their high dietary fibre restricts the absorption of other nutrients.
Home-cooked dog foods
Homemade dog food is also gaining in popularity as people look to create a closer bond with their dog. Home-cooked diets follow many of the principles of ‘clean eating’ and are similar to raw diets in composition, but they get around the food safety issues with cooking. The main issue with home-cooked diets is that they’re not necessarily complete and balanced. In fact, this study looked at 200 dog food recipes and found that 95% were missing essential nutrients. If you want to cook your dog’s food, you need to consult with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to ensure you’re getting it right.
Deciding on a dog food is difficult, and you’ve probably already been inundated with opinions about which dog food is best. Don’t be swayed by marketing, or the pet food ingredient list. Instead, try to follow the advice of the WSAVA to find a reputable brand and choose a diet that has used feeding trials to prove it is complete and balanced. Most importantly, remember that if your dog likes it and looks healthy, there’s probably no need to change!
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After graduating as a veterinarian from the University of Nottingham, Dr Joanna Woodnutt went on to practice companion animal medicine in the Midlands. She quickly developed a love of consulting and helping clients with medical problems such as dermatology, behaviour and nutrition - anything that involved helping clients understand their pets better. Jo started writing about pet health in 2017, realising that it meant she could help even more pet parents. Since then, she has written for countless online and print publications and is a regular contributor for Edition Dog Magazine. Jo now lives in the Channel Islands with her husband Ian and terrier Pixie, and they are expecting their first child very soon.