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What Should I Feed My Dog?

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Factors to consider when choosing dog food.
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Golden Retriever waiting patiently as woman is feeding her dog out of a bag of dog food

If you find yourself confused or even a little intimidated browsing the dog food section of your grocery or pet store, you're not alone. We all want the best for our pets, but there are so many brands, varieties, featured ingredients and menu combinations, not to mention formulas for puppies, adults and older dogs. It doesn't matter if you're a first-time dog owner or if you have recently adopted a new pup, because all dogs differ in their nutritional requirements. Choosing doesn't have to make you feel overwhelmed though. 

This article will help you understand what you need to know about dog food — from the ingredients to dog food labeling — to make well-informed choices for the health and happiness of your pet. The following is not meant to take the place of your vet's recommendations. Rather, it will help you follow through with their advice.

How to Choose Dog Food 

Every dog differs, not only in breed, but in size, age and nutritional needs. After your veterinarian offers specific nutritional advice about the kind and quantity of food to feed your pet, you still have to decide on brands, forms, flavors and ingredients — not to mention what your dog will enjoy.

Let's look first at the general nutritional needs of dogs.

Nutritional Requirements for Dogs 

Dogs are primarily carnivores or meat eaters, but technically omnivores, like humans. Most thrive on a diet rich in protein from meat and fish, but they also benefit from vegetables or grains as a source of carbohydrates. All dogs require vitamins and minerals, as well as specific essential fatty acids.

Types of Dog Food

The first thing you may notice at the store or online is the division of kibble/dry food in bags and wet foods in cans or pouches. Either type or a combination of both is fine for most dogs — and it's perfectly all right to try both to see what your dog prefers.

In general, you'll find protein in the form of meat or fish and additional ingredients to support your dog's health and satisfy their palate. You'll see mackerel, chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, duck, pork ... a seemingly endless variety of meats and fish. And then come the combos: beef and vegetables, chicken and rice, lamb and vegetable superfood blend, sweet potato wrapped with chicken ... and so on. Food regulators have set standards that all dog food providers must follow, so you can trust all major brands to be balanced options. 

If your dog has food allergies or sensitivities, there's plenty of specialty diets to consider. See our specialty pet food guide to learn more.

How to Read the Dog Food Label and Packaging

Thanks to organizations monitoring dog food contents, you'll find plenty of information on dog food packaging and labels — more than enough to make an informed decision. On every dog food label, you'll find information about its composition. This list of nutritional ingredients spells out the percentage of protein, fat, fiber, moisture and special nutrients such as calcium.

Actual ingredients are listed in order by weight, starting with the ingredients used in the greatest amount first. Down toward the bottom of the list, you may see long names like pyridoxine hydrochloride or thiamine mononitrate. Don't be alarmed; these two chemicals are vitamins B6 and B1, respectively.

A "best before" date advises when the contents may begin to lose their freshness and nutritional value. You may also find feeding directions.

When it comes to packaging, in order to label a product "beef for dogs" or "lamb dog food," it must contain 95% of the named ingredient. Names such as "turkey and rice" or "salmon platter" must contain at least 25% of the featured ingredient (in this case, turkey or salmon). Any ingredient coming after the word "with" needs to contain only 3% of that ingredient. Watch out for the word "flavor"! Names like "beef flavor" or "chicken flavor" may not contain that particular animal protein in the product; the flavor just has to be "detectable."

Armed with what you know now, feel free to experiment with your dog's food to find what they like and enjoy watching them eat eagerly and thrive. Just be sure to swap food gradually to help avoid upsetting your pup's stomach.

References

  1. Food and Drug Administration. Pet Food Labels - General. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/animal-health-literacy/pet-food-labels-general.
  2. Food and Drug Administration. Information on Marketing a Pet Food Product. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/animal-health-literacy/information-marketing-pet-food-product.

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