Written by Dr. Jill Cline, Ph.D.
Commercial dog foods are available in a large variety of types, flavors and textures and for different life stages and lifestyles. All of these options can make dog food selection a confusing endeavor. However, knowing what food characteristics are important to consider and understanding the information provided on pet food labels can help you to select a food that your dog enjoys and that supports health and vitality throughout his life.
Today, commercial foods for dogs are formulated to meet dogs’ specific nutrient and energy needs during different stages of life and for various activity levels. For example, diets that are intended for growing puppies contain slightly higher levels of the nutrients that are needed to support growth and development. Owners can further distinguish between foods according to their puppy’s expected adult size. Because large breed dogs tend to grow rapidly and experience a higher incidence of developmental skeletal problems, puppy foods for large breed dogs are formulated to promote moderate growth rates and healthy bone development. Once a dog is mature, activity level should be considered. Active adult dogs have higher energy needs than adult dogs who lead a more sedentary lifestyle. Finally, quality of life during your dog’s older years can be supported by selecting a food that is formulated for the specific nutrient needs of aging animals.
Types of Dog Foods
Commercial dog foods can be generally classified into three types: dry, wet and semi-moist. Understanding the primary differences between these types of dog foods can help you during selection (Box 1).
Dry Foods: Dry dog foods are palatable to most dogs and are generally the most economical and convenient type of food to feed. They have the advantage of staying fresh for a long period of time and lend themselves well to free-choice feeding and for use in automatic feeders. The chewing that is needed with dry foods can also aid in reducing plaque formation on dogs’ teeth. Dry dog foods are available in a variety of flavors, textures and shapes, allowing you to select a food that best meets your dog’s needs and preferences.
Wet Foods: Wet dog foods are generally very appealing to dogs because of their texture and because they contain a relatively high level of fat and protein. Because wet foods may dry out or spoil if left in a food bowl, wet foods should only be offered as meals rather than as free-choice feeding. Dogs may also tend to over-consume wet foods because of their high appeal. For this reason, many owners use wet dog foods as an added treat to supplement their dog’s dry food or to encourage a finicky dog to eat.
Soft-Moist Foods: Soft-moist dog foods are softer in texture than dry foods and are very appealing to many dogs. Soft-moist foods do not spoil as quickly as wet foods and so can be used in free-choice feeding or in automatic feeders, provided that the food is replaced daily. These foods come in convenient meal-sized packages and also are very suitable to use as rewards during training sessions.
Sample Nutrient Content of Dry, Semi-Moist and Wet Dog Foods
AS IS BASIS Dry Semi-Moist Wet
Moisture (%) 8 25 75
Fat (%) 16 10 7
Protein (%) 22 18 8
Carbohydrate (%) 50 42 6
Metabolizable Energy (kcal/lb) 1800 1200 500
DRY MATTER BASIS* Dry Semi-Moist Wet
Moisture (%) —– —— ——
Fat (%) 18 12 28
Protein (%) 24 26 40
Carbohydrate (%) 54 58 28
Energy (kcal/lb) 1900 1800 2100
*Converting “As Fed” to “Dry Matter” Basis:
Because the three types of foods vary significantly in water content, it is helpful to convert nutrients to dry matter basis to better compare foods. This is a simple mathematical conversion, using the formula below.
Dry Matter basis = [% Nutrient (As Fed) ÷ % Dry Matter] x 100
A dry dog food contains 21 % protein and has a moisture content of 8 % (provided on the guaranteed analysis panel of the label)
The food’s dry matter % is: 100 – 8 = 92 %
The percent protein on a dry matter basis is: [21 % ÷ 92%] x 100 = 22.8 %
Reading Pet Food Labels
Many owners rely upon the pet food label for information about a food’s quality and suitability for their dog. The pet food label includes the following helpful information: name and address of the manufacturer, list of ingredients, guaranteed analysis panel, and the statement of nutritional adequacy and purpose of the product. Foods that are formulated for all life stages must also include feeding guidelines. Here are a few tips for using the pet food label to help you to select your dog’s food:
• Name and address of manufacturer: In addition to their location, reputable manufacturers also include a toll-free phone number for customer service and website. Use these contact options to obtain additional information or to gain answers to your questions about a product.
• Guaranteed analysis panel: This section of the label can be used to provide a rough estimate of the food’s protein, fat, fiber, and moisture content. However, these numbers represent only minimum and maximum percentages and do not reflect exact levels of these nutrients in the food. The nutrient content reported on the guaranteed analysis panel can be used as a starting point for general comparisons between foods. For more detailed information, contact the product’s manufacturer directly.
• Ingredient list: Just like human foods, the list of ingredients is arranged by decreasing order in the product by weight. The ingredient list can provide information about the food’s primary sources of protein, carbohydrate and fat. While the ingredient list presents general information about the type of ingredients that are included in a food, it does not reflect the quality of the food or the digestibility of the ingredients.
• Statement of nutritional adequacy: This statement identifies the life stage for which the food is formulated and states if the food provides complete and balanced nutrition. For example, the “complete and balanced for all life stages” claim signifies that the food has been formulated to meet optimal nutrient requirements of dogs throughout life, including growth, adulthood, pregnancy and lactation. Other types of nutritional adequacy claims state that the food is formulated to provide complete and balanced nutrition for a particular stage of life, such as adult maintenance or growth. Use this statement to select a food that is formulated for your dog’s age and life stage.
Listen to Your Dog!
Above all else, every dog is a unique individual – both in terms of personality, and also with respect to his energy needs, activity level and lifestyle. In addition, just like people, dogs have specific likes and dislikes regarding the taste and texture of food. The food’s palatability and acceptability should always be considered. Remember that palatability is not an intrinsic property of dog foods, but rather is dependent upon your dog’s perceptions. Select a high quality food that is formulated for your dog’s age, breed size and activity level, and that your dog finds appealing and satisfying. When fed, the food should result in normal gastrointestinal tract functioning and produce regular, firm, and well formed stools. Most importantly, the selected food should support wellness, healthy skin and coat condition, and proper body physique and muscle tone. See Box 2 for a few feeding tips.
TIPS FOR HEALTHY FEEDING
• Select an appropriate feeding bowl – one that is suitable for your dog’s body size and head shape. Ceramic or stainless steel bowls with a broad base are durable and easy to clean. If you are feeding free-choice, discard old food and replace with fresh food every day to prevent spoilage.
• Monitor your dog’s weight and body condition. Provide enough food to maintain ideal body weight and prevent overweight conditions. Instructions on the dog food label can be used as a general guide to estimate an initial volume of food to offer. Gradually adjust this amount in response to your dog’s weight and body condition.
• Dogs can be fed with portion-controlled meals or free-choice (i.e. having food available all day). Because many dogs tend to over-consume when allowed free access to food, meal feeding is the preferred method for most adult dogs. Feeding two meals per day supports gastrointestinal health and helps to prevent hunger-related behavior problems in most dogs.
• Have water available to your dog in several areas of your home. Bowls should be cleaned and filled with fresh water daily.
• Your dog’s activity level and nutrient needs may vary during his adult years. If your dog’s weight increases or decreases (and there is not a medical cause), consider switching to a food that is higher or lower in calories to better fit your dog’s needs.
• If it is necessary to change your dog’s diet, introduce the new food over several days to prevent gastrointestinal upsets. Add a small amount of the new food to your dog’s current food currently and increase the proportion of new food each day.