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Dog eating kibble from a metal bowl

The essentials

  • Picking dog food isn’t as complicated as it may seem — It really comes down to your dog’s age, health, and breed.
  • Look for WSAVA and AAFCO labels — These diets are complete and balanced for your dog’s life stage.
  • Some dogs may need special diets — Puppies, senior dogs, and dogs with medical conditions may need dog foods that are made just for them.

If you’ve ever taken a walk down the dog food aisle, then you know that choosing dog food can be overwhelming. As you look at all the colorful cans, bags, rolls, and boxes, you may be wondering where to start. Whether adopting a new dog, raising a puppy, or changing your dog’s food, you’ve come to the right place.

6 types of dog food

Before choosing what your dog will eat, you need to know the options. Let’s break down the six most common types of dog food from what they’re made of to what dogs they’re best suited for.

1. Dry kibble

Dry dog food is the least expensive and most common type of dog food. It comes in many flavors, needs no refrigeration, and is easy to feed your dog. Most dogs have no problem chowing down on dry kibble, but sometimes adding water to their bowl can help aid digestion of these dense bits.

The large crunchy bits can also help clean your dog’s teeth as they chew, though they aren’t as effective as dental diets.

Pros and cons of dry kibble

Pros Cons
✓ Easy to store ✕ Likely to contain preservatives
✓ Lower cost ✕ More grain heavy
✓ Promotes healthy teeth and gums ✕ Not as tasty for dogs

2. Wet food

Canned dog food has a long shelf life, yet needs refrigeration after opening or else it’ll spoil. So if your dog grazes, this may not be the option for you.

One outstanding benefit of wet food is its low-carb content. An overabundance of carbs in your dog’s diet can lead to obesity if not kept in check. Plus, wet dog food typically contains about 80% water so you know your furry friend will stay hydrated and well-fed.

Pros and cons of wet food

Pros Cons
✓ Better taste ✕ More costly
✓ Easier to eat ✕ Spoils faster
✓ Higher protein and fat ratios ✕ Can contribute to quick weight gain if overfed

3. Dehydrated food

This type of food is processed using warm air that removes moisture from food and, in turn, helps to hold onto more nutrients than the extreme heat of kibble processing does. When ready to serve, just add water to rehydrate. This makes dehydrated food extra convenient for travel and storing purposes.

Some say that dogs with sensitive stomachs can find it easier to consume and digest dehydrated food, but most vets don’t agree with this statement. Instead, opt for a sensitive stomach-specific diet.

Pros and cons of dehydrated food

Pros Cons
✓ Retain their original nutrients ✕ Can be expensive
✓ Longer shelf life ✕ Can retain bacteria

4. Freeze-dried food

Freeze-dried dog food is still dehydrated under low temperatures. It is technically raw because it hasn’t been cooked or put under heat. Due to this, the proteins, amino acids, and probiotics in the food stay, but it also means that you need to handle this food safely to avoid bacteria and illness.

Just like other food types, freeze-dried dog food isn’t immune to additives so you should always be vigilant in your research of ingredients and companies producing the food.

Pros and cons of freeze-dried food

Pros Cons
✓ Long shelf life ✕ Can be extremely expensive
✓ Nutrients aren’t damaged in the freezing process ✕ Can be a long process if freeze drying at home
✓ Less processed than kibble ✕ Can retain bacteria

5. Raw food

Raw, meat-based diets have gained some popularity in recent decades. However, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) have all developed statements discouraging feeding raw or undercooked meats to dogs.

Raw food diets, whether made commercially or at home, may not remove all bacteria. There’s also some concern that a raw food diet may not be nutritionally balanced.

There is no proven benefit to these [raw] diets and they are risky due to possible bacterial and parasitic contamination.

Dr. Liza Cahn

Pros and cons of raw food

Pros Cons
✓ May give your dog a shinier coat ✕ May expose your dog (and people in your household) to bacteria or parasites
✓ Some owners report their dog’s muscles being stronger ✕ Can contain bone fragments and shards
✕ Expensive
✕ May leave your dog with an unbalanced diet if not done properly

6. Fresh food

Most fresh dog foods are cooked at a low temperature and consist of meats, grains, fruits, and vegetables. However, despite nutritional claims and marketing that fresh food is human-grade, fresh isn’t any more or less nutritious for your dog.

If you like the idea of preparing or cooking your dog’s food, you can do so under the guidance of a vet nutritionist or with the help of websites like Balance It.

Pros and cons of fresh food

Pros Cons
✓ Can reduce allergy risk if using a limited-ingredient formula ✕ Can be time consuming to prepare at home
✓ Some owners report their dogs having shinier coats ✕ Expensive
✕ Potential for dietary imbalances

6 types of specialty dog food

Just like with humans, there are specialty diets or dietary choices designed with considerations for a dog’s age, health, or breed. Let’s explore the six types:

1. Lifestage food

This term refers to a diet in which different food is given to your dog at each stage of their life. Sometimes these stages can be as simple as puppy, adult, and senior while other brands utilize more specific stages like weaning, juniors, nursing, etc. Many kibbles on the market are “all stages” foods meaning they can be fed to your dog no matter their age.

There’s currently debate on whether specific lifestage or “all stages” food is a better option, but there is no definitive answer one way or the other. If you’re curious about this style of feeding, consult with your vet.

2. Prescription food

If your dog has been diagnosed with a health issue or is recovering from surgery, your vet may prescribe a special prescription dog food diet. These dog foods are only available with a prescription from your dog’s veterinarian.

There is a wide variety of prescription dog foods for illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, kidney issues, and weight management, to name a few. These diets include extra nutritional support or exclude ingredients that can further exacerbate your dog’s health issue.

3. Breed-specific food

These foods are formulated with the idea that certain breeds have specific dietary needs. While many breeds can thrive on general diets, breed-specific diets may be helpful in specific contexts.

Larger dogs are prone to joint pain while dogs like Dachshunds may be prone to back problems. Certain diets can promote bone density and ligament support.

On the other hand, you may have a dog with small teeth who finds it tough to chew larger chunks of food in which case small bites may be easier. If you have a large breed puppy, like a Great Dane, you’ll want to get them a kibble that supports their growth.

All in all, breed-specific food may not be the answer so much as what is specific to your dog and their needs.

4. Grain-free food

A few years back, grain-free dog foods were trending. Then the FDA got reports that dogs who ate grain-free diets were being diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a disease of the dog’s heart muscle that results in an enlarged heart.

The FDA has since continued to investigate any connection between heart disease and grain-free foods. Veterinarians now recommend avoiding grain-free dog food unless your dog has a serious grain allergy (which is quite rare!).

5. High-protein food

Like with any food option, this one will be determined by your dog’s specific needs. Protein is an essential building block in both the human and canine body, but sometimes certain dogs may need more than others.

Puppies, for example, need more protein than dogs that have already finished growing and those that hunt, play sport, or are highly active may also need more protein.

6. Sensitive stomach or limited ingredient food

Chronic stomach sensitivity in dogs is usually caused by allergies and intolerances and food made specifically for these situations can help ensure your dog gets the nutrients they need.

Many sensitive stomach foods contain probiotics and prebiotics that help promote healthy digestion. In that same vein, these foods may stray away from protein sources that have a history of causing tummy upset like beef or chicken, and opt for fish, venison, or lamb.

Limited ingredient food follows a similar path and has a shortened ingredient list that is free of common allergens like soy, beef, and chicken. If you suspect your dog has stomach issues or allergies, chat with your veterinarian about which option is best.

What to look for in quality dog food

When it comes to finding high-quality food for your dog, you should be on the lookout for specific product names and ingredients that fall within the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and World Small Animal Veterinary Association guidelines. This is to ensure that the diet you choose is complete and balanced.

Since dogs have a wide range of nutritional needs during their lifetime, matching your dog’s age, breed, activity level, and health to their dog food is the single best way to ensure you’re selecting the right one.

Lastly, consider dog food brands that are backed by science — meaning they are formulated by a veterinary nutritionist and have undergone feeding trials.

What to look for:

  • Life stage versus all stages. The AAFCO recommends feeding a dog food formula designed for your pet’s life stage rather than one that encompasses “all life stages.”
  • Complete and balanced versus intermittent and supplement use. Be sure that the dog food you’re feeding your pup is meant for regular use and not as an irregular supplement.

What ingredients to be conscious of:

  • Melamine. A type of plastic that is added to dog food to make it appear to contain more protein.
  • BHA, BHT, and Ethoxyquin. These preservatives are controversial, and some advocate for more natural options.
  • Propylene Glycol. It’s an additive that improves moist texture but is generally safe in the small amounts found in dog foods.
  • Dyes and corn syrup. They’re used to artificially color dog food.
  • MSG. While controversial in human food, it’s generally considered safe in dog foods.
  • Carrageenan. It’s extracted from red seaweed and used as a thickener, and can cause inflammation, although research is mixed and controversial.
  • Sodium Hexametaphosphate. It’s used as a tartar controller in dental treats and is generally safe, although in some cases can cause nausea, vomiting, and constipation.

Finding quality dog food that nourishes and energizes your dog doesn’t have to be a headache. Shop for brands that use real, healthy ingredients, fit within your budget, and serve your dog’s needs.

But, ingredient lists aren’t everything. Manufacturing standards, quality control, and a company’s reputation also matter. Some dogs may tolerate controversial ingredients without issue. Talk to your vet if you have specific concerns.

Frequently asked questions

What dog food should I give my dog?

What you feed your dog should be based on your dog’s age, activity level, and needs. In general, the dog food you choose should contain water, proteins, fats, carbs, minerals, and vitamins. If your dog’s food meets AAFCO and WSAVA standards, you should be on the right track. For more information on your dog and their specific needs, speak to your veterinarian.

Can I mix different types of dog food?

Yes, you can! Many people mix wet and dry food together with success. However, when mixing dog foods it’s important to ensure that the food mix meets all of your dog’s nutritional needs and doesn’t have too much of any one ingredient.

Has my dog’s food been recalled?

The United States Food and Drug Administration has all pet food recalls and withdrawals listed on their website , but if you hear about a recall don’t hesitate to reach out to your vet for more information.

How often should I feed my dog?

When it comes time to feed your dog, most need to eat twice per day, once in the morning and once in the evening. If you’re not sure how much to feed, look for guidelines on the dog food packaging. You can also check with your dog’s veterinarian to make sure you’re feeding them the right amount.

Should I get my dog organic food?

Organic is a term applicable to human-specific requirements and pet regulations for this term are still being created. The United States Department of Agriculture says that an organic label on pet food doesn’t automatically make it healthier or better.

Dogs are carnivores, right?

Surprisingly, unlike cats, dogs aren’t really strict carnivores. They can get nutrients from grains, fruits, and vegetables.