What Food Should I Feed My Dog?
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Ask anywhere “What should I feed my dog?” and you are bound to get no shortage of answers. Nobody can accurately answer the question “What should I feed my dog?” without knowing the dog. Most people will reply with what works for their dog or what is best based off of research that may not include the nuances of what your dog needs. To further complicate the matter, dog food labels can be difficult to understand. Moreover, there is no shortage of marketing in the pet food industry. How can we know what food is best for our dogs?
Feed Thy Dog provides homemade balanced recipes that target the specific dog. Pet foods deliver nutrients in ranges and often times we struggle to feed within the manufacturer’s guidelines- leading to sub-optimal nutrient intake. This guide is not a guide to tell you the benefits of feeding a professionally formulated homemade diet that is able to provide optimal nutrient intake, nutrient balance, and considers the dog in all ways, including: Energy needs, antioxidant needs, nutrient needs, stress levels, working dogs, foster dogs (or “foster siblings”), weather, travel, disease state, health history, genetics and breed, food preferences, eating history, and so much more. Not everybody can or wants to feed a homemade diet or perhaps a commercial diet is needed down the road or as a temporary food. If so, this guide is for you.
In order to understand what food to feed your dog, you must understand how to evaluate your dog and evaluate a food. For this reason, this post is divided into two parts: Dog Food Analysis and Dog Analysis with different chapters therein. While this level of assessment is more work, it is much more rewarding than utilizing any recommended food where the dog or food was not analyzed.
Chapter 1 | Ingredients
Ingredients provide us information about what is in the food. They are listed in order before processing by weight from heaviest to lightest. After cooking and processing, this order may look very different. An example of where this may be an issue is in some canned foods. Texturized vegetable protein (TVP) is found often in canned foods. The meat based ingredients end up high on the ingredient list by weight. However, TVP, which is low in moisture, could end up lower on the list and may be contributing more to the protein source than the meat ingredient listed as number one. “To determine if an ingredient on the label is a protein source for the food, compare the level of protein in the ingredient with the level of the ingredient in the food. If the ingredient’s protein content is greater than its percentage in the food, it is considered to be a source of protein for that ration.
Ingredients do not provide us with information about the quality of the food or risk of contamination.
Things to watch for:
- Ingredients not tolerated by your dog. If your dog has a chicken intolerance, you need to watch for chicken ingredients or ingredients that do not specify their source- such as any ingredient that comes from animal but does not declare the source.
- Ingredient splitting. Food makers may separately list forms of similar ingredients. This causes some ingredients to appear further down the list. When you separate an ingredient like ground wheat and wheat flour, the ingredients by themselves appear further down the list. This is a legal way of intentionally confusing the consumer because as a whole, the wheat ingredients contribute much more to the food than as they appear.
- Variable formulas. Many popular and generic brands of pet foods are formulated as “variable-formula diets.” In other words, the ingredients vary from batch to batch depending on ingredient availability. Premium brands tend not to use variable formulas. Checking ingredient labels on dog foods over a long period of time will help you determine if the food is a variable or fixed formula. This is useful if you have a dog that has food sensitivities.
- Simple sugars added to low-cost dog foods and semimoist food
Ingredient labels provide:
- Ingredients in the food
- Ingredient weights relative to each other before processing.
Ingredient labels don’t provide:
- The quality of the ingredients or the quality of the food as a whole
- Digestibility of the ingredients
- Source of each ingredient
- Actual weights of ingredients relative to each other after processing
What are ingredients?
Ingredients have unique names that appear differently than they would a human nutrition label. Many fear the term by-products without understanding what it means. By products often include organ meats. These meats are incredibly nutrient dense and healthy addition to the diet. To get help deciphering what an ingredient is, this page can help you get started.
Do note that these are simply definitions of ingredients. It does not tell you whether an ingredient is good or bad. Whether an ingredient is good or bad will also highly depend on the dog. Chicken might be functional for one dog, but not another.
A Word On Preservatives
The downside of natural preservatives is that the shelf life is shorter. Processed foods already are on the shelf and in the owner’s home a long time. Owners often to do things to make the issue worse (poor storage practices).
Arguments Against Synthetics
While synthetics last longer and generally work more efficiently, the side effects can be disastrous. It was later released by the FDA that the amounts of ethoxyquin were contributing to anemia and also severe liver issues, BHA and HT are proven cancer promoters in comparison to Vitamin E, which is considered safe. (Source)
Ingredients- the bottom line:
Watch for non-specified ingredients where the source cannot be determined. Watch out for ingredient splitting. Understand variable vs fixed formulas. Assess preservatives. Understand that ingredient labels will not tell you at face value if the food is meat based or plant based. Remember that our perception of any given ingredient and its quality may be inaccurate. Again, the example of by-products including organ may be off putting for some, but when we look at the nutrients, we learn that it becomes a valuable ingredient. Ingredients are rarely classified as “good” or “bad” because each dog is different. While some ingredients are generally bad across the board (such as simple sugars in semi-moist food), discussing ingredients one by one is beyond the scope of this post.
Chapter 2 | The Label: Guaranteed Analysis (GA)
The Guaranteed Analysis (GA) panel provides information regarding the amount of protein and fat in the pet food and is generally found on the back or sides of the bag or cans. It is often found online as well. The owner should note that the information given here is on an as fed basis and not a dry matter basis. (As fed would be if you were to feed the chicken and salmon before the cooking process). The minimums and maximums for crude protein and crude fat are included as required. The maximum moisture and fiber is also provided. There may be other information listed on the panel as well, but it is not required. It is important to know that these numbers represent only the minimums and maximums and do not reflect the actual exact amount of nutrients in the pet food. For example, if the minimum crude fat is 12%, it cannot have less than 12% fat, but it can have more.
Crude Protein, Crude Fat, and Crude Fiber
These terms refer to the procedures used to estimate nutrients in foods through
analytical procedures. The details pertaining to how these nutrients are measured is beyond the scope of this paper.
The GA panel can provide owners with only a rough estimate of what is in the food.
Chapter 3 | The Label: Determining Carbohydrates
Where are the Carbs?
Pet food GA panels do not include the carbohydrate levels. However, the owner can find this out through subtraction.
We need to subtract moisture, fiber, fat, protein, and ash from 100% to determine the carbohydrate content. Often times, ash is missing from the label. You can estimate
between 5%-8% ash
100% – moisture – protein – fat – ash- fiber = Carbohydrates
For this food above we get 43.15% carbohydrates (100-25.62-15.57-3.32-5.65=49.84)
Do note that fiber falls under the classification of a carbohydrate but does not contribute energy the same way digestible carbohydrates do.
Feel free to use the calculator provided after chapter 4.
Chapter 4 | The Label: Comparing foods using the GA label
You cannot compare foods by comparing the GA labels side by side (unless the moisture content is the same). For example, some wet foods may appear to have far less protein than dry foods according the GA. When you remove the moisture and measure them on a DMB, most wet foods have higher protein and fat. For example, 100 grams of raw pet food will appear to have less protein than dry kibble. Raw food is high in moisture and dogs will consume more of the food by weight and volume.
Therefore, the only way to compare foods is to compare them on a dry matter basis.
There are three steps to do this:
Step 1: Get carbohydrates (see step above)
Step 2: Convert the kibble to a dry matter basis
Convert to dry matter basis by dividing the macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) by the dry matter. If the bag does not directly list the dry matter, subtract the moisture from 100% (100-81.88=18.12 dry matter)
a. Divide the macronutrient (protein, fat, or carb) by the dry matter.
Dry matter =18.12%
Protein= 7.55% protein
7.55 % protein / 18.12% dry
matter = 0.416 (or 41%) Protein on a DMB
Comparing foods on a calorie weighted basis.
Human nutrition labels use calories to determine what actually makes up the food. You will notice that on some nutrition labels for humans, below the calories, it will say “calories from fat.” This is how nutritionists determine what is considered a “fatty food.” It serves us well to figure out what our dogs are eating on a caloric basis and truly paints the most accurate picture
of the macronutrients in the food.
For fresh foods and for humans, we assume that generally speaking, 1 gram of fat has 9 kcals, 1 gram of protein has 4 kcals, and one gram of carbohydrates has 4 kcals.
Commercial pet foods use modified atwater numbers due to digestibility differences: 3.5 kcal from 1 gram of protein, 3.5 kcal from 1 gram of carbohydrates, and 8.5 kcal from 1 gram of fat.
Use the following multiplications using the as fed percentages on the guaranteed analysis. Use the previous equation to get the carbohydrate amount.
1. Multiply the percentages by the modified atwater factors for each macronutrient.
a. 29% Protein: .29 x 3.5 = 1.015 (kcal from protein in each gram of this dog food)
30% Digestible Carbs: .3 X 3.5 = 1.05 (kcal from carbs in each gram of this dog
17% Fat: .17 X 8.5 = 1.445 (kcal from fat in each gram of this dog food)
2. Take those numbers and add them:
a. 3.51 kcal (Total kcal in 1 gram of dog food)
3. Now take the individual numbers from step 1 and divide by step 2:
a. Protein: 1.015/3.51 =29% | kcal from protein /total amount of kcal in 1 gram
Carbs: 1.05/3.51=30% | kcal from carbs /total amount of kcal in 1 gram
Fat: 1.44/3.51= 41% | kcal from fat /total amount of kcal in 1 gram
Or use the calculators below.
Put it in to practice:
Your turn. Compare a canned food GA with a kibble GA. How does the picture change as far as protein and fat and carbohydrates go?
Calculators provided below to make all of this easier.
Feel free to use these labels for practice:
Step 2: Convert labels to a dry matter basis.
Bonus: Compare Foods On a Caloric Basis
Chapter 5 | The Label: Classifications of Nutritional Adequacy
Before understanding label claims, we must understand AAFCO:
Association of American Feed Control (AAFCO): AAFCO is a private organization that establishes non-binding guidelines for the production of pet foods and animal feeds in general. AAFCO is not a government organization but only government officials can be members of AAFCO. Industry and private groups can attend AAFCO meetings to contribute advice. They are not voting members. However, industry and private groups could certainly have persuasive power. AAFCO cannot enforce their guidelines and their guidelines are adopted by individual U.S. states. It is up to the states to put AAFCO guidelines into law. AAFCO is concerned with making pet foods nutritionally safe. AAFCO does not inspect or regulate anything. Therefore, when major pet food recalls are issues, AAFCO is generally not the entity you should be pointing your finger at. 1
Complete & Balanced for All Life Stages
Food has been formulated to provide
“complete and balanced” nutrition for all life stages: growth, lactation, gestation, maintenance. Food verified via spreadsheet or feeding trials
Food provides complete and balanced nutrition for a particular stage of life
The food can be verified via spreadsheet or using feeding trials.
Intermittent or Supplemental Feeding Only
Treats fall under this category. So do many PMR pre-made mixes that are only 80/10/10. These are dog foods that are typically raw and include just bone, meat, and organs.
The food cannot make up the pet’s sole nutritional intake.
Used only as directed by your veterinarian
Therapeutic formulas such as formulas needed for dogs with severe IBD or kidney disease etc.
Note: These are very general guidelines. Puppies and kittens can eat complete and balanced for all life stages, but often times growth diets are more appropriate to prevent bulk limiting issues when feeding. Bulk limiting happens if the food is not as calorie dense as needed. For example, a puppy may run out of physical space trying to consume the needed amount of food for proper growth. This can result in impaired nutrient absorption. While balanced for all life stages can be fed to a lactating bitch, she may benefit more from a calorically dense growth diet. An adult pet only food is not appropriate for a puppy or kitten. Remember that the biggest contribution to growth deformations is too many calories. Feed the correct amount of calories and consistently check your pet by feeling and weighing your pet.
Do select foods formulated to meet the lifestage of your pet.
AAFCO classifications alone are not enough to determine if the food is quality
Be weary of foods formulated that are supposedly breed specific or for seniors. Seniors generally benefit from the same high quality foods, including protein amounts, of adults so long as calories are monitored.
Chapter 6 | Calories
Very briefly, Calories are listed on the dog food as well. Growth diets are more nutrient dense in comparison to other feeds. Calories are listed as Metabolizable Energy (ME). It must be listed as kcal/kg but can also be listed as kcal per pound or cup.
The best way to determine calorie needs is to calculate how many calories are being consumed and adjusting according to goal weight.
If possible, it is best to weigh the food rather than use volume based servings. This provides more accurate control over caloric intake.
Always check the energy content when switching foods. Controlled feeding is the best way to monitor caloric intake.
Always make sure you are feeding according to the feeding guide. Do not reduce food below minimum serving amount of ideal weight as you are now reducing minimum nutrient intake. Select a food that has appropriate caloric density. Read more here.
Chapter 7 | Label Claims
Label claims are regulated by AAFCO and the FDA. There are many claims that may or may not hold weight.
Not allowed: Pharmaceutical claims such as “hypoallergenic” or “prevents itchy skin” or “contains vitamin C to prevent infection”
Allowed: “Promotes healthy skin” and “promotes glossy coat”
Bottom Line: No drug claims are allowed
Descriptive claims are regulated by AAFCO.
Light or Lite, Less or Reduced Calories
Descriptive terms used for reduced calorie products.
Calorie comparisons must include the percentage of reduction from the product comparison and a caloric statement.
Less or reduced fat
Reduced fat or lean or less fat are regulated by designation of maximum percentages of fat. Example: Dry dog food labeled lean cannot contain greater than 9% lean fat. Also must show a product comparison.
Veterinary Medical Foods
These foods are meant to be fed as the sole source of nutrition to pets that have specific medical conditions. Example: “Use only as directed by your veterinarian.” Always follow the advice of a veterinarian when using medical foods. Never encrouage a pet owner to not food a medical food. This situation needs to handled by the veterinarian.
Other Label Claims
This section requires the most critical thinking. These claims will appeal to you as a person. They need no proof!
“In fact, other than the FDA’s strict prohibition against pet food label claims that might be construed to be “drug claims,” there are currently no laws that specifically cover the many nutrient and health claims that we are finding on pet food labels.“
For example, a claim stating that it promotes joint health likely would not help a dog’s joints depending on the underlying issue. This may be better addressed with a vet, adding kibble toppers, and selecting a better kibble or overall better quality food.
Chapter 8 | Price of Foods
“Price anchoring occurs when we reflexively use a price point that we are initially presented with, or that we are accustomed to, to make all subsequent decisions about products within the same category. The initial information sets an anchor to which we compare all other numbers, in this case, prices…Our current-day perspective of what is a reasonable price to pay for dog food has been strongly and arbitrarily anchored to what is actually a very low number—a number that was set many years ago when our relationships with dogs were quite different than they are today and at a time when we did not demand high quality foods for our canine best friends.” – Linda Case, MS
Generally, cheaper foods are lower quality. However, this is not always true nor will the price of food dictate whether a dog does well on the food. A botique food does not mean the food is utilizing the latest in nutrition science.
Do the best you can. Better to buy the best food you can then buy a cheap food and try to “fix it” with other foods.
Chapter 9 | Types of Food
In addition to these foods, there are also raw diets available. Raw diets provide fresh ingredients and often contain bones and organ meats. Raw diets should still be held to the same standards in this post- proper formulation, good company history, proper caloric density, formulation to guidelines.
There are also dog foods that are curated to your dog and delivered to your dog. These can be raw or cooked and include companies like The Farmer’s Dog. These again should be held to the same standards.
Dehydrated foods like Sojos or Honest Kitchen are another option. Honest Kitchen provides complete foods as well as base mixes where fresh meat can be added. Honest kitchen base mixes still require proper formulation of fresh food additions to achieve optimal nutrient intake. These can be helpful during times of travel or camping. There are many excellent brands that create dehydrated foods.
Chapter 10 | Qualifying Terms / The 95-25-3 Rule
Chapter 11 | Things Off the Label
This has been a general crash course in navigating a pet food label. If you would like to learn more Dog Food Logic is an excellent book to have on hand for dog owners.
The last final thing that you should consider is the history and reputation of the food. Have you checked the recall history? Who is formulating the food? Are they transparent in answering questions?
These things are important. Consider a food like Acana. The ingredients to many seemed okay. It had a good “street” reputation. However, dogs down the road often became sick because of a poor formulation. Dog food is not the sum of its ingredients.
Get to know the food and get to know the company.
Part 2: Assessing the Dog
Chapter 1 | Assess Calories and Dog's Weight
The best way to assess how many calories your dog needs is to assess how many calories are currently being consumed. This can be done by moving away from the practice of free feeding and using controlled feeding. Dog food provides the amount of energy on the label as metabolizable energy (ME).
You will also need to address your dog’s body condition:
If your dog is overweight and you are feeding the food according to your pet’s goal weight on the feeding guidelines, you need a lower calorie food.
If your dog is underweight and you are feeding the food according to your pet’s goal weight on the feeding guidelines, you need a higher calorie food.
Keep this in mind when selecting food. Feeding outside of feeding guidelines indicates that you need to pick a new food.
Chapter 2 | Assess the Activity Level & Type of the Dog
Different activities require different amounts of the macronutrients- fat, protein, and carbohydrate.
Endurance work requires fat as the primary energy source.
Sprint work depends more on carbohydrates and less fat.
Dogs that are doing work that require the use of their nose benefit from more preformed omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.
Working dogs benefit from extra antioxidant sources.
For dogs who are active, you should select a food that is formulated for this type of work with the correct distribution of fat, carbohydrates, and protein
Foods too high in fiber can interfere with working dogs when fed close to work.
In working dogs, fat, carbohydrates, protein, selenium, vitamin C, vitamin E, and energy density are important and a well formulated food accounts for this. Commercial raw diets may not provide the extra antioxidants required or they may not provide the carbohydrates needed for some types of work.
Professional couch potato dogs will require lower energy density. These dogs still benefit from high quality protein and fat.
Chapter 3 | Assess the Health of the Dog
Different health conditions may determine which food needs to be fed. Conditions such as kidney or liver disease require the professional intervention of a veterinarian and nutritionist.
Here are some things to consider when selecting a food in regards to common health conditions that do not generally require professional care:
- Disturbances to hair and skin without disturbances to the stool may indicate the need to switch to a higher digestible food. Looking for foods with good fats including essential fatty acid omega 3. These disturbance can indicate a myriad of nutrient deficiencies and excesses including vitamin A, vitamin E, zinc, copper, omega 3, omega 6. You should not try to add kibble toppers to a food that is not providing adequate nutrients in the first place. This is only masking a larger issue at hand.
- Excessive gas indicates that the food is not digestible
- Mucusy, yellow stools indicate that fat may need to be lowered- consequently increasing protein and carbohydrates.
- Stools that are too small may indicate that more fiber is needed
- Stools that are soft indicate that more fiber or a better digested food is needed
- Smaller dogs may benefit from smaller sized kibble pieces when feeding dry food
- Gas and stools that smell like rotten eggs may indicate a food with poor protein is being fed or disturbances to protein digestion
- Watery, loose stools that does not go away after switching foods indicates the need of consulting a vet and professional nutritionist.
A food that is well-tolerated and liked should result in:
- Healthy fur, nails, ears, and skin
- The coat should not be greasy or smelly
- Well formed brown feces that is not overly offensive in odor
- Breath that is not overly offensive in odor
- No excessive flatulence for any breed
- Healthy weight
- Healthy energy levels
- Is readily consumed
Chapter 4 | Lifestage Nutrition
Foods should be formulated for the lifestage of the dog according to AAFCO (or FEDIAF depending on location).
- Adult dogs can eat all life stage foods or foods that explicitly say formulated using AAFCO standards for adult dogs
- Puppies should be fed a growth or all life stage diet. It is a myth that protein causes growth deformities. Too many calories cause growth issues.
- Senior dogs benefit from high quality protein. Senior dog foods that reduce protein is not consistent with current research. Senior dogs may need less calories as they age. Do keep exercising your senior dog
- Lactating bitches should be fed a diet formulated for the lifestage. This life stage has the highest nutrient needs compared to any other lifestage.
Dog Food Checklist
Is the food formulated for the lifestage of your pet?
Are you okay with the amount of money spent on the food?
Is the caloric density appropriate for your pet? Seniors, puppies. Kittens, lactation, pregnancy, exercise, environmental temperature, whether the pet is overweight or underweight are some factors to consider
Are you able to feed the food within the feeding guidelines without unwanted weight changes? Can the dog consume enough of the food to meet feeding guidelines?
What type of preservatives are used?
Is the company reputable? Is the company responsive? Are there any major and consistent recalls? Remember that most pet food companies are owned by only a small handful of larger companies. Be aware of the illusion of choice.
Do you care about the sourcing and manufacturing practices? You may consider learning where the food comes from and is processed.
Does the manufacturer have a good safety record?
Have you overviewed the ingredients? Are there any split ingredients? Are you trying to avoid/include a particular ingredient?
Any simple sugars or unnamed meat sources?
Are you happy with the distribution of macronutrients? For example, is the food too high in carbs for your liking?
Have you monitored your pet’s health on the food? Skin, joint, gastrointestinal, cognitive function
CAUTION: Is the food grain free?
Right now, there are many issues with grain free foods causing dietary related DCM. Popular offenders include Acana, Orijen, 4Health, Fromm Grain free.
Many pets have become sick and passed away on these foods.
Use extreme caution if you need to purchase a grain free food. Remember that most adverse food reactions come from popular animal proteins such as beef.
Read here for the most up-to-date and complete discussion.