Never in the history of pet care have there been so many options for pet parents to feed their dogs. A quick internet search of “what to feed my dog” will bring pages advocating for all sorts of different diets, from traditional kibble and canned food, to raw diets, freeze-dried, even to vegan diets. All seem to have unshakable evidence that their diet is the only diet for your dog. Where does the truth lie?
It’s true: not all dog diets are created equal. But before making the decision of what’s even the best diet for your dog, it’s important to understand what kind of nutrition your dog needs.
What Kind of Nutrition Does My Dog Need?
Unlike cats, dogs aren’t simply carnivores. Their bodies are capable of receiving nutrition from food sources other than meat, such as grains, fruits, and vegetables—and in fact, their bodies require the vitamins and minerals that occur in those sources.
If done properly, a traditional kibble, raw, or freeze-dried diet (more on vegan later) will provide your dog with proper nutrition. It’s important to know going in that while there might be benefits or drawbacks to raw or kibble, your dog can live a long and healthy life on either.
All dogs need different nutrition at different stages in their lives, so regardless of what diet you choose for your dog, it’s important to keep in mind whether they are a puppy or a senior, and adjust their food accordingly.
Kibble and Wet Food
Kibble and canned wet food are the two most common types of dog food, and have been the primary way of feeding our pups for decades. Most commercial dog food brands fall into this category.
The biggest benefit of this diet is ease. Not only is kibble or canned food easy to find and purchase, it’s also generally the cheapest option out there. This can be especially helpful for families with multiple dogs to feed, or whose dogs eat more.
Kibble and canned food can also be incredibly easy because the nutrition label makes it easy to know if the food meets your pet’s nutritional requirements. If the kibble or canned food has the phrase “complete and balanced” on the label, then it has been deemed to be nutritionally balanced and can be used as your pet’s sole food to meet all their needs. In order to receive a “complete and balanced” statement on the label, the dog or cat food has met nutrient requirements set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).
Not only does the AAFCO update what is considered to be “complete and balanced” as new information is discovered about the health requirements of dogs and cats, but the label also takes into account different nutritional needs of your pet for different stages in their life. The AAFCO created two nutrient profiles that will receive the “complete and balanced” label: one for pets that are growing or reproducing, and one for adult maintenance. This means that kibble and canned food can be made for different stages of your pet’s life, and you can still be assured that it is nutritionally sound for you pet’s needs as long as it has the “complete and balanced” statement in the nutritional label.
Canned food can also be an easy way to insure that your pet is getting extra water in their diet. Canned food often is typically 75% moisture, so choosing this food option can be a good way to make sure that your pet is staying hydrated. Canned wet food is often more flavorful and can have more scents, which can be helpful in enticing older animals to eat, and its texture can often be easier for pets with missing teeth, misaligned jaws, or smaller mouths.
Though the “complete and balanced” label does help to make sure that food is nutritionally sound, many pet parents don’t like feeding their pets kibble because they feel the ingredients are of lower quality, and the nutrition labels can include ingredients that are unfamiliar. A desire for more quality ingredients can lead many pet parents to seek different options.
What all this means is that kibble and canned food can be incredibly easy because you know that your dog is getting all its nutrients for sure, which can help pet parents be confident that their furry friend will live a long and healthy life, but there are other options that could include higher quality ingredients.
What About Raw Diets?
It seems like everyone is talking about raw pet food diets these days, but it’s hard to know exactly what a raw diet includes and if your dog would be getting the right amount of nutrients in their diet.
Raw diets often emphasize giving your dog or cat raw meat, bones, vegetables, and fruits. The Raw diet was started by an Australian veterinarian, who believed that adult dogs would be healthier if they ate what dogs ate before domestication, instead of grain-based commercially-produced pet foods that he felt could be harmful to a dog’s overall health.
There are cookbooks that can help guide pet parents on what to include in a raw diet. These ingredients are muscle meat, often still on the bone; bones, either ground or whole; organ meats, like kidneys and livers; uncooked eggs; leafy vegetables; apples and other safe fruit; and some dairy products, such as yogurt.
Proponents of raw food diets argue that not only is it a more natural diet for dogs and cats, but also can lead to shinier coats, cleaner teeth, higher energy, and smaller stools. Some pet parents have even said that they have seen an improvement in their dog’s breath on raw food diets.
However, many veterinarians don’t feel that the benefits of the raw diet outweigh the potential risks. The risks can include threats to human and animal health due to bacteria in raw meat; an unbalanced diet that may not meet nutritional needs of your pet; and potential choking or puncture hazards from whole bones. The FDA does not recommend raw diets for meeting your pet's nutritional needs, especially for puppies as getting the nutrient balance right for growing bones is difficult to do.
Aside from the potential risk of bacteria, it can be hard for pet parents to always know if the raw food diet they are feeding their pet is nutritionally balanced and meets all the needs in the different stages of their life. Some veterinarians have also argued that the benefits pet parents see from raw food diets come from a higher fat percentage, which can also be found in more luxury commercially-produced food. Raw food diets can lead to malnutrition or anemia more easily if pet parents aren’t able to figure out the right amount of each ingredients.
Raw food diets can also be much more expensive for pet parents than traditional kibble and wet food diets. An estimate of pricing that Pet WebMD put together is based off of a 30-pound dog: “a one-day supply of one variety of a frozen, commercially available raw chicken diet costs about $2.50; other may range up to $5 a day. A super-premium, commercial dry dog food costs about $1” (Pet Webmd). The higher price point can also go up the larger your pet is or how many pets are in your household.
There isn’t a consensus right now in the veterinary community on whether raw food diets are worth it or not, but it is important to know that it can be a very time consuming diet, and while the pet parent might know exactly what their pet is getting in their food, instead of it being a list of ingredients that might include things you don’t know, it takes a lot of work to make sure they’re having all their nutritional needs met.
A Freeze Dried Diet
A freeze dried raw diet can be the best of both pet food worlds for many pet parents, combining the ease of kibble and the better ingredients of the raw food diet.
Just like with kibble and canned food, freeze dried food is much less messy than raw diets, and is much easier to make than dealing with raw food--all you do is add water! Also, because freeze dried food is being sold in stores, it includes a nutrition label, and so it makes it easy to search for a brand that has the “complete and balanced” statement from AAFCO on the label. This makes freeze dried options safer for your pets, as pet parents can be sure find food that is known to be nutritionally-sound for specific stages in their pets life. That especially makes freeze dried options safer for puppies, pregnant animals, or pets with specific health problems.
The other benefit of freeze dried food is it removes the concern of bacteria that is a problem with tradition raw diets. While many of the freeze dried food still is made from raw food, the process of freezing it kills potentially harmful bacteria, making it safe to eat. Freeze dried food is also safer for pets to eat because bones are ground up completely, removing the risk of choking and punctures from whole bones while still providing the nutritional benefit.
Just like with kibble, freeze dried food also has a very long shelf life, making it more economical to buy in bulk for families with more pets or larger dogs. While not as inexpensive as kibble, it’s still a more affordable option than hand-prepared raw food. Additionally, because freeze dried food food is made by adding water, you can add extra water to the recipe to help make sure your pet is getting extra hydration with every meal. Freeze dried food is also lightweight, which can be a great option for mobile adventures with your furry friend.
It is important to note that when buying freeze dried food, pet parents should make sure to find a food that is intended to be a full meal, and not a supplement. But once the right food is found, freeze dried can be a convenient, easy option that provides all the health benefits of a traditional raw diet without any of the potential risk factors.
How Does a Vegan Diet Work?
Vegetarian and vegan diets for pets have started becoming more popular recently, usually from pet parents who are vegetarian or vegan themselves. In short, this type of diet for a pet is exactly what it sounds like: a meatless and/or dairy-free diet.
Vegetarian and vegan diets for pets can be incredibly risky, and almost all veterinarians do not recommend feeding your pet this diet. Not only is it contrary to what cats and dogs have always eaten, but dogs and cats process nutrients differently than humans and are usually unable to get the nutrients they need for a healthy life from plant-based foods. This can lead to complications such as protein deficiencies, an imbalance of vital amino acids, and vitamin deficiencies.
Vegetarian and vegan diets take even more work and careful attention to balance properly than raw diets, and almost always, pets will still need animal protein in their diet to be healthy. If you are planning to feed your pet a vegetarian or vegan diet anyway, experts recommend that pet parents 1) never feed this diet to puppies or kittens, especially if they’re going to breed later in life; 2) choose commercially-produced vegetarian or vegan foods that meet AAFCO requirements; 3) consult with a vegetarian nutritionist for your pet to evaluate the diet and suggest necessary supplemental foods; and 4) schedule wellness checks with your veterinarian, including blood work, at least twice a year.
In the end, vegetarian and vegan diets are often more much more harmful to furry members of your family than beneficial, and can potentially lead to serious and life-threatening deficiencies and illnesses.
So which diet is best?
In the end, we all think that the food we choose for our furry friend is the best, but what’s best for our dogs and cats can often come down to multiple factors.
Obviously, it is important to consider the health needs of your pet, especially if they are young and growing or are older and might have other health complications. For some dogs, a raw diet might truly be best if they have allergies to certain things, and for other dogs, a kibble diet might be the best option. A lot of times, it can also come down to what the pet parent can do--someone who works long hours and doesn’t have the time or energy to devote to portioning out raw food exactly to make sure their pet isn’t malnourished might want choose a kibble or freeze dried food in order to insure their pet lives a long and healthy life.
After all, we all want our pets to be around for as long as possible, and choosing the right food is a great way to make sure that we get many good years with our furry family members. Ultimately, if you’re interested in trying a different diet for your dog, you should talk to your veterinarian about the different options, and see what diet they recommend. Having a vet explain all the pros and cons of each different option can help you find the right food for your best friend.
“Should Your Pet Go On A Vegetarian Diet?”
“Complete and Balanced Pet Food”
“Dry Food Versus Wet Food”
“Raw Dog Food: Dietary Concerns, Benefits, and Risks”
“Freeze Dried Dog Food”
“A Guide to Freeze Dried Dog Food”