This is not a simple question, but one we often get, and struggle with just as our clients do. As veterinarians, we should know more than the average person about how to feed your new puppy, or your mature dog, but that also makes it difficult because there is a lot of information to process in this question!
While ingredient lists are often the first place a consumer will look to assess a diet, it is not the last place one should look. Ingredient lists can be misleading when we try to oversimplify what they are telling us. Here is a “glossary” of terms used in the pet food industry:
There are several factors that must go in to deciding which diet is best to feed. And the choices are plentiful. Like us, the same diet is rarely the best diet for ALL dogs, but at the same time, there are guidelines that will help you figure out where to start, and it is highly possible that your dog will do well on a diet that the majority of dogs will do well on, statistically speaking.
Factors that I consider critical to the decision are nutritional support [e.g. does the diet meet minimum standards for nutrition established by AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials)] which is an association of local, state and federal agencies that regulate animal feed sales and content. It is a minimum standard that all diets should satisfy and ”AAFCO Approved” should be part of the label somewhere. In the past, when generic dog food was first introduced on the market, these standards were not met and deficiencies surfaced causing serious health problems. This should be the minimum you should ask of your diet.
Beyond the minimum nutritional value, the considerations become more subjective, assuming your pet does not have a specific medical condition dictating a “low fat” or "limited ingredient” diet for example. For most of us, we are looking for a diet that is humanely produced, has some evidence based research that it will keep our dogs healthy, help them to have normal stools and a nice healthy coat, keep their teeth and bones strong and healthy, one that they will enjoy eating, and we will find convenient to buy and feed, at a reasonable price. No small order!
For some it is also important to avoid a lot of additives and preservatives, but there are trade offs to having commercially produced foods without adequate preservation. With this comes a higher risk of spoilage which can drive up expense associated with how it is handled in manufacturing and delivery, storage, etc. Raw diets in particular have the added risk of bacterial contamination that can be harmful not only for your dog, but for sensitive family members as well.
A lot of diets now include supplements like glucosamine for joint health, or increased protein which we often associate as higher quality calories, or “natural” sourced ingredients, or more omega 3’s. Many of these sound beneficial, and I won’t say they aren’t, but sometimes the marketing is more powerful than the evidence. In the case of glucosamine, for instance, there is typically not sufficient concentrations to be helpful. Evidence based efficacy, such as actual feeding trials for dogs to prove any benefit, may be lacking altogether. Often the value of an ingredient is inferred because people have heard that it could be helpful for themselves, or there was one study that showed possible benefit in another species (like mice or humans) but not dogs. One has to be a little cautious of this type of data. “Grain free” is another popular marketing label that has recently been shown to potentially lead to heart disease in some dogs.
Often larger, more established companies have the advantage of having the resources to do feeding trials and nutrition research. They utilize sophisticated scientific analysis as well as expertise from PhD nutritionists, food science experts, microbiologists and animal science research to help formulate diets that are designed to be nutritionally appropriate, palatable to most animals who are fed it, and convenient for consumers to use. While there are a host of smaller, boutique companies that also make pet food, many of them do not have the resources to perform feeding trials over many years, or have laboratories that can help with quality control and nutritional analysis. They will often rely on research performed by or funded by other companies in order to meet the AAFCO minimum standards and have a starting place from which to make other adjustments. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but just important to recognize.
Finally there are many who feed home cooked meals to their pets. While this may feel healthier to some than feeding processed kibble, it is not easy to meet all requirements in today’s world from grocery store ingredients. UC Davis has a wonderful nutrition department that will help you formulate a balanced diet for your pet, but recipes can be expensive (on the order of $225/recipe) to have formulated. Beyond that, it is difficult to create a balanced diet, despite the fact that there are published recipes online… As we all know, putting it out there is easy. Taking responsibility for your pet’s well being is not as easy.
So, at the end of the day, what should you feed your dog?? There is no one answer! How food is sourced in todays society will definitely affect your choice. I try to look for a middle ground. I like the convenience of feeding kibble and I think my dog’s stool is more formed and consistent on kibble. I like that a trusted company has done feeding trials and has some scientific based evidence that I will be meeting her nutritional needs as a canine. But I confess, I also prepare organic bone broth and sometimes add a little extra organically humanely raised meat topper to her prepared food to increase her appetite, and complement her prepared diet. When I cook for her I add a little black pepper to aid with digestion, celery to help her appetite, turmeric for her arthritis, and lots of love. All in small amounts., except for the love of course. I don’t worry about whether the bag says chicken meal or pork by products because as the glossary explains, that just means there is liver and intestines and not just “meat” which is actually more nutritious. As one nutritionist pointed out, in many countries these are actually what humans also value and consume. While theoretically it could include feathers or other “by-products”, these aren’t intended ingredients because there isn’t nutritional value in them, and if you read the glossary, they are intentionally and mandated to be excluded. If bone meal is her source of calcium that is no worse nor better than ground calcium carbonate from sea shells to me. If there are preservatives to help her kibble remain fresh and prevent spoilage, I accept that as I often do in my own diet in order to avoid gastrointestinal upset. Do I want her to live forever, you bet!!
I do encourage you to look at what you are feeding, read the labels and understand their limitations as well, evaluate your dog’s response to your choice and if necessary, change and re-evaluate again. But do so gradually, with consideration, and with the help of your veterinarian. We may not know everything, but we have studied this issue at length, and will try to bring perspective and guidance to our answers. Because we want your dog to live forever too! :)