What to feed your dog? A veterinarians perspective
What is the best diet for my dog? This is a question we hear daily and try to help owner with. While the answer is simple, basic dog food, ensuring their diet is complete and balanced can be the complicated part.
We’re here to help you navigate the waters of the dog food aisle with some simple explanations and recommendations.
And a quick disclaimer; Pawkit Vet is in no way sponsored by any pet food company and all recommendations come from research, clinical practice and veterinary experience.
What is dog food?
By definition, dog food is a diet that is complete and balanced for canines and is made of ingredients that have been deemed safe for consumption by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A “complete” diet refers to the food having all the required nutrients and a “balanced” diet means the diet has the right ratio of those nutrients for a dog.
All dogs should be fed a complete and balanced dog food.
While most dog food is alike, they are not created equal or with the same care in ingredient selection. My philosophy in selecting a diet is going with a company with a good reputation for quality ingredients, quality control, transparency, a veterinary nutritionist on staff and research.
Choose companies that practice the highest standards in ingredient selection and quality control. They should have a veterinary nutritionists on staff to ensure they are nutritious and safe for pets. They should also have a good track record of transparency so that if problems arise, they can get the information out to consumers quickly.
I feed my dogs Hill's Science Diet, Royal Canin, and Purina products.
Take a look at AAFCO (the Association of American Feed Control Officials) great FAQ page for more information on how to choose the right pet food!
You picked a brand, now what?
Once you have decided on which company you want to try out, your next step is to purchase the right life stage, flavor, and kibble size.
Life stages include growth (puppies/kittens), maintenance (adult), nursing/lactating, and all life stages. Picking the right life stage is important because the caloric and nutritional requirements of dogs vary based on their age and condition. For instance, puppy diets are packed full of calories due to their growth needs, whereas adult dogs could become obese if given the same diet long-term.
To keep things simple, I recommend feeding puppies of any breed/size puppy diets, adult dog maintenance diets, and nursing/lactating diets to said females.
When it comes to flavors, Basic is Better!
Flavor and protein source selection are based on your understanding of your pup. We highly recommend sticking to standard protein sources (i.e. chicken, beef, lamb, fish). Exotic protein sources can be used as prescription diets for pets that have medical conditions warranting a switch. Previous exposure to these protein sources without need can reduce the diets efficacy when used and limit treatment options.
When picking a diet, you may be tempted to give your pet infinite options. Try your bets not to! If given too many options, pets can become bored and continue looking for the best next thing. Stick to 1-3 options and rotate them every few days for a few weeks before moving on to the next choice.
Kibble size is based on your pet’s breed and anticipated size. This can vary from petite to large breed.
What about yummy treats?
While treats are not required for their diet, our pups sure love them and we pet parents love give them. Treats are not considered “complete” foods but rather “in addition” to the main diet. These should be fed in moderations and not as the sole source of nutrition for your pet.
Aim for treats to be at or less than 10% of your pets' daily caloric requirements. While most treats are safe, be cautious of raw treats and freeze-dried treats, as this is another form of raw (see below for more details).
Do feeding schedules matter?
They actually do in many cases! Feeding schedules are particularly important for puppies and large/giant breed dogs.
All puppies should be fed at least 3 times a day.
Puppies are very much reliant on calories from their dog food to keep them going. This is because they are growing, their calorie requirements are high, and their organ systems are also developing.
Large and giant breed dogs should be fed at least twice daily and should never be fed one large meal.
Due to their size and body conformation, these larger breeds can be predisposed to a condition called “bloat” that can occur when their stomach twists. Research has shown that one larger meal can increase their chances of bloat, as can excess exercise after meals.
Is grain-free recommended?
Grain-free and/or high legume diets are not recommended for dogs and cats.
This comes after a recent study showed a direct link between long-term feeding of grain-free diets and the development of heart disease in atypical dog breeds and cats.
While the heart disease, dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in large breed dogs is common, it was a new development in medium to smaller breed dogs and some cats. These atypical breeds all had the shared link of being fed grain-free diets for extended periods of time. The direct cause is still unknown but improvements to the affected hearts have been seen in some dogs and cats that were transition to grain-inclusive diets.
Stay out of trouble and remember to feed your pet a grain-inclusive diet!
How about raw diets?
Raw diets are not recommended for pets.
While you may want to feed your dog like you would a wolf, the simple fact is that your fluffy is no longer a wolf in the wild. These food items can contain higher amounts of bacteria as they have not been heat-treated to remove potential bacterial contaminants.
With these diets, there is a much higher chance for cross contamination to humans with the handling of raw diets. Extreme caution should be taken when handling raw diets in homes with young children, the elderly and those that may be immunocompromised.
Are byproducts and fillers bad?
To briefly touch on a controversial and sensitive topic, the simple answer is no. Byproducts can be safely used and added to pet foods to provide nutritional support to those diets.
Byproducts are what is left over after the use of a “principal product,” i.e. the main reason that product was sourced. Most principal products are excess materials from processed human food that are then used for pet foods. These products are still safe and nutritious, just not a part of the main reason it was originally sourced and selected for.
Take a look at AFFCO’s great FAQ on byproducts and filler.
How to understand your pet's weight?
Your pet's weight is not only the number on the scale, but how they hold that weight and how that number looks on their bodies. The truth of the matter is that most of our pets are a bit on the pudgier side of the scales. Most of the time our pups are just “well loved”, other times a good grasp of a normal and appropriate body condition is eschewed. Getting a handle on our pet’s weight is critical for providing them a long, happy, and healthy life.
While BMI, body mass index, is the human go to for evaluation of weight, BCS, or body condition scoring, is your veterinarians favorite tool. A nice waist and minimal fat covering your pet’s ribs indicates that their body condition score is anywhere from “normal” to “thin but normal.”
Understand the basics of body condition scoring and grade your pets today!
Want to learn more?
Below are some great resources to understand more about your pet's diet that we veterinarians reference often!
- Tufts Petfoodology
- FDA talks Pet Food & FDA Pet Food Recalls & Complaints
- Pet Nutrition Alliance
- WSAVA Global Nutrition Committee: Recommendations on Selecting Pet Foods
We did the research! Check out our references:
Creevy, K. E., Grady, J., Little, S. E., Moore, G. E., Strickler, B. G., Thompson, S., & Webb, J. A. (2019). 2019 AAHA Canine Life Stage Guidelines*. Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, 55(6). https://doi.org/10.5326/JAAHA-MS-6999
Freeman, L. M., Stern, J. A., Fries, R., Adin, D. B., & Rush, J. E. (2018). Diet-associated dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs: what do we know? Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 253(11), 1390–1394. https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.253.11.1390
Yam, P. S., Naughton, G., Butowski, C. F., & Root, A. L. (2017). Inaccurate Assessment of Canine Body Condition Score, Bodyweight, and Pet Food Labels: A Potential Cause of Inaccurate Feeding. Veterinary Sciences, 4(4), 30. https://doi.org/10.3390/vetsci4020030
Zicker, S. C. (2008). Evaluating Pet Foods: How Confident Are You When You Recommend a Commercial Pet Food? Topics in Companion Animal Medicine, 23(3), 121–126. https://doi.org/10.1053/j.tcam.2008.04.003