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Is dry dog food best?

Is dry dog food best?
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Is dry dog food best? You’ve probably heard lots of opinions about different dog foods, with some people recommending raw food, others suggesting wet dog food, and even more saying that the best dry dog food is the right option. If there’s one thing to be certain of, it’s that canine nutrition seems to divide people and cause a lot of arguments, with champions of various diets often taking entrenched positions regardless of the evidence presented to them. It’s always a good idea to look at the evidence as a whole, and remember that good marketing and vehement opinions don’t necessarily mean a food is good. Finding the best food to feed your dog can be a challenge, but first you need to decide whether to feed wet food, or whether dry dog food is best for your dog. 

Dry dog food overview

Many owners wonder "is dry dog food best?". A ‘dry’ diet, ‘biscuit’ diet or ‘kibble’ diet is a processed pet food diet. Ingredients are added, blended, cooked, and then formed into biscuits. These can be various shapes and sizes, and you may even find diets with several shapes in the mix. 

The food-making process involves removing most of the water, resulting in a diet that is 6-10% moisture - hence ‘dry’. Each stage of the dry dog food production process is highly controlled – for further explanation and a tour of a large facility, see this video from Hill’s.  

Dry dog food can be found in a huge range of brands and sizes, from boutique bags made in very small kitchens right up to supermarket brands in 25kg bags. The choice is somewhat bewildering, and they’re all vying for your purchase. For your dog’s main diet, buy foods that are ‘complete and balanced’, as there are more and more foods available that are designed as ‘toppers’ to sprinkle on your dog’s usual diet. These are labeled as ‘complementary’ foods, and do not contain all the nutrients your dog needs to thrive. 

The case for a dry diet

Is dry dog food best?

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Dry diets have lots of potential benefits for dogs, as well as for their pet parents. For dogs, eating a dry diet has been purported to increase dental health. There is surprisingly little evidence for this, unless the dry diet is a specially formulated ‘dental’ diet. Many dry diets have some dental care ingredients added, but any improvement is likely to be minimal unless you buy one of the Veterinary Oral Health Council approved foods. One advantage of dry dog foods is that they’re good for picky eaters. Because every piece of kibble is identical and contains the same nutrients, dogs can’t pick out the bits they prefer and end up unbalancing their diet. 

Another advantage for pet parents is that a dry diet is often less expensive than feeding wet food. Not only are you not paying for water in the food, but shipping is generally cheaper, too. It’s also potentially better for the environment, as there’s a lot more nutrition in a smaller, lighter product, and shipping the product produces less CO2. Logistically, feeding dry food is often easier, especially if you have a large dog - opening several cans and hoping they don’t go off in the bowl if your dog leaves his food isn’t ideal.

The case against a dry diet

Many dogs will thrive on a dry diet, but some dogs can struggle. Dry food is often not as tempting as wet food - so if you have a picky eater or a dog that has always been fed wet, they may be less likely to find a dry food that they like. Dogs that suffer with kidney problems, bladder problems, and crystals or stones in the urinary tract may do better on wet food; whilst dry food can work for these dogs, many may need wet food to increase their water intake. The same is true for dogs that seem to drink too little despite the heat - a little added water can be a good thing. 

Some dogs - especially small breeds and those with flat faces - may find eating kibble difficult; a combination of breathing problems and dental problems can mean that these dogs may prefer to eat a high-moisture diet. Many dry dog food brands have biscuits that are too large for very small dogs, which can be a problem. 

Dry diets: The verdict

They’re cheap and easy to store, transport, and feed, especially to larger dogs. Dry dog foods also come in a huge range of choices for pet parent to consider, from prescription foods for various conditions to those created in small, local kitchens. They may also help with dental disease, especially if they have the VOHC seal of approval, although nothing is as good as brushing. 

Wet dog food overview

A ‘wet’ dog food is any food that comes in a can, tin, tub, or pouch. They’re called ‘wet’ foods because they have a 75-80% moisture content. You may find wet dog foods in pate-style, chunks in gravy, or even with recognizable pieces of meat and vegetables. Make sure you’re looking at foods that are ‘complete and balanced’ though. Some wet foods are ‘complementary’ foods which means they don’t have everything your pet needs to thrive, and should only be fed as an occasional treat or topper, not as a main meal. If the food contains everything your dog needs, it’ll have the AAFCO (US) or FEDIAF (UK) label claim.

The case for a wet diet

Is dry dog food best?

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Wet diets are much more affordable for smaller dogs than they are for larger dogs, which is good, as these breeds are the ones most likely to struggle with a dry food diet. A wet diet removes the difficulty of finding the right kibble size for your dog if they’re tiny. Small dogs are often fussier too and wet diets may be more appetizing for these dogs. Wet diets are up to 80% water, which can mean your pet taking in a larger amount of water and producing more dilute urine - great if you have a pet with urinary stones or that doesn’t drink enough on hot summer days. Dogs prone to dehydration due to kidney disease, Cushing’s disease or diabetes may also benefit from a canned dog food. And, talking of diabetes, wet diets tend to have lower carbohydrates, which may help diabetic dogs not to have a large blood-sugar rise after eating.

The case against a wet diet

In my experience, dogs fed wet diets are more likely to be overweight. However, this may not be down to the wet diet itself. Because wet foods often come in cans and tubs, we rarely weigh the food but instead say ‘half a can’ – which is inaccurate and likely leads to overfeeding. And if, like me, you’re guilty of not wanting to leave a ‘silly amount’ in the fridge overnight, you probably overfeed on an almost daily basis. In addition, excepting the pate-style diets, wet food diets do tend to favour picky dogs, allowing them to take out the bits they like and leave the bits they don’t - which can result in unbalanced nutrition. Wet diets are also harder to store, taking up a lot more space than dry foods, and expensive to buy and ship, often with excessive packaging to boot.

Wet diets: The verdict

Apart from in specific disease processes such as urinary stones, wet diets rarely provide an advantage over dry food only diets. However, they do have uses, and some dogs prefer wet food. 

Dry vs wet dog food

As long as the diet you choose is ‘complete and balanced’, and your dog is doing well on it, what you feed your dog is up to you. However, if you find your dog is suffering from regular stomach upsets that may suggest a food allergy or intolerance, you may need to consider a switch. Try taking a look at our guide to the best dog food for allergies for some options that may suit dogs with dodgy guts. Dry food is usually cheaper and easier to store than wet food. It may seem boring to us humans, but dogs rarely get bored of their food, and don’t seem to need a large variety of options. Having said that, having a few cans of wet food to give on hot days or to stuff Kong-type toys with is a great idea; just don’t forget to take the calories out of your dog’s allowance so as to avoid obesity.  Finding a high-quality, well-tested food is important, though, to avoid potential problems. Pet parents might like to explore the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) guidelines to help them to find a quality dog food.  

Dr Joanna Woodnutt MRCVS

Dr Joanna Woodnutt is an experienced vet with an interest in companion animals. She recently left full-time practice to work as a relief vet and write articles about pets.