Dog Food Nutrients and Ingredient Quality
Your dog’s specific caloric and nutrient needs will vary widely based on age, size, breed, activity level, overall health, and other factors. While all commercially-produced dog foods have to meet or exceed benchmarks for nutrients to be labeled as “complete and balanced foods” by the AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officials), it is important to understand that more is not necessarily better.
In some cases, excess nutrients are harmlessly expelled in the dog’s waste (stool). In other cases, an overabundance of a specific nutrient can cause serious problems. A veterinary nutritionist understands how to balance nutrients in a recipe to promote good health. Increasing a specific nutrient, such as protein, may require a similar increase in some B vitamins for example.
When comparing nutrient information on a commercial package, it is also important to take into consideration moisture content or measure by serving size. A dry food label may show that it has higher protein per ounce than a wet or fresh food, for example, and that may be true. However, if you compare on a dry-measure basis (remove the moisture content from both foods) the dry food may actually have less protein per weight. Ideally, nutrients should be compared on a caloric basis, and typically these are expressed by the weight of nutrient per 1000 calories. This allows you to directly compare any two diets, whereas both the as fed (label) and dry matter basis do not.
Fresh (and Homemade)
Whether made in a home or commercial kitchen, fresh dog foods are often made from whole cuts of meat, healthful whole grains, vegetables, and are often supplemented with beneficial oils and nutrients. Fresh foods are usually lightly cooked, which can help release proteins and carbohydrates and make foods more easily digestible compared to raw.
Fresh foods tend to have little to no added fiber that adds bulk and structure to other foods. This means that your dog’s digestive system can break down and use more of the food itself, with less waste. Many fresh foods have a far shorter list of ingredients, especially when compared to more highly-processed dry and wet foods. If you like knowing exactly what you are feeding your dog, an ingredient list made primarily of fresh meats and vegetables could be preferable.
Homemade dog foods may seem appealing because you are in control of the ingredients, and it certainly feels nice to put in the effort to make something from scratch for our pets. But far too often, recipes shared by friends or found online are missing important nutrients your dog needs, or fail to have various nutrients in the right ratio to promote good overall health. A nutrient imbalance can lead to serious health issues and expensive vet bills. We recommend that you only use recipes from a reputable animal nutritionist (as noted earlier, an expensive process), and check in often with your vet to ensure your dog is getting all the nutrients he needs to stay healthy.
Many dry foods, especially more affordable options, are created to meet only the minimum nutrient content required by the AAFCO. As noted, while more of a given nutrient is not always better, some dogs may benefit from additional protein (like senior pets), calcium, or other nutrients depending on their individual health needs, life stage, and activity level.
The quality of the proteins in dry foods often varies based on cost. While expensive, specialty foods could theoretically use whole cuts of higher-quality muscle, many foods use the meat leftover from human food processing; cheaper and mid-grade foods may use meals or byproducts with lower protein digestibility. If you see “chicken” in the name of the food, that does not necessarily mean it is made with whole chicken breasts or thighs for example. The AAFCO has a great breakdown of the differences between animal ingredients, such as meat, meat by-products, meat meal, animal by-product meal, and more.
Some dry foods include high amounts of insoluble fiber (powdered cellulose or grain hulls) to add bulk to the food, and in some cases to change how quickly food moves through the dog’s digestive system. These ingredients are usually harmless but offer no direct nutritional value to your dog.
If you tend to avoid preservative-laden foods for yourself and your family, you should consider that compared to most fresh or raw foods, some dry kibble includes synthetic preservatives like ethoxyquin, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). These preservatives tend to prevent the fat in the food from becoming rancid, allowing the sale of larger bags of food that last longer in retail stores and your home. While no studies have proven that these preservatives cause problems with pet health, many pet parents want to avoid them (or at least limit them) out of caution.
Like the more affordable dry food options, cheaper commercial wet foods will meet the minimum AAFCO nutrient guidelines, but may not include higher levels of nutrients that could be beneficial to your dog. More expensive options and therapeutic diets often have nutrient content designed for specific life stages or health needs.
Do not trust your eye to gauge quality when looking at wet foods. While some foods incorporate whole cuts of meat, many are made from meat by-products, meat meal, animal byproduct meal and other ingredients that are pressed and shaped into chunks that only resemble whole cuts of meat, often with unknown digestibility based on the information on the label. This is designed to entice pet parents, not dogs themselves.
Canned dog food usually does not contain significant artificial or natural preservatives, as the canning process itself is a fairly effective preservation technique. Be sure to look at the “best by” date on canned food and do not serve any food that is past its date. In some cases, canned food can last for years if properly stored, though we do not have data to understand whether such long-term storage affects the nutrient benefit of the food itself.
Raw diets are often sold on the idea that in the wild, dogs subsisted on a diet primarily made of raw animal meats. While that is true, the typical household domesticated dog has changed significantly from its wild relatives. Protein from animals is still an important and needed ingredient, but dogs can digest and benefit from healthful vegetable ingredients as well.
Most raw foods are primarily made of raw animal meat, organs, and edible bones. Organ meats offer fairly concentrated levels of vitamins and minerals per volume. However, levels will vary from animal to animal, and some organs, such as the liver, can also include harmful substances along with the beneficial nutrients unless tested before feeding. Formulations that do not include organ meat are often supplemented with proprietary nutrient blends that create a consistent, highly-digestible nutrient source for your dog with less risk of contamination. Bacterial contamination remains a concern, and some commercial products are pasteurized to reduce the risk whereas those made at home are generally not subjected to such a process.