With such a huge range of different diets available for dogs, how do you choose which to feed? Dr Jacqueline Boyd advises.
What did you feed your dog for his last meal? Was it a pre-prepared, commercial diet or was it carefully home-cooked? Perhaps it was out of a tin, or maybe it consisted of raw, fresh ingredients, lovingly arranged in his bowl?
If you venture into the dog food section of your local pet shop or supermarket, you will be surrounded by a huge array of dog food options, from dry to baked, tinned to frozen, and a whole range in-between. You might even be tempted by vegetarian, vegan, or even insect-based varieties of food!
But why is there such a range of options? And how do you choose what is best for you and your dog? Let’s explore different diets and help you decide what fits best for your dog’s needs and lifestyle, as well as your own.
A shared diet
Dogs and humans have lived side-by-side for tens of thousands of years. During this time, food has been shared between us. The early ancestors of our modern dogs would fend for themselves, eating leftovers, waste, and scraps from human settlements. Occasionally, dogs were fed deliberately and benefited from any excess food from successful hunts. Over the years, this has meant that there is a degree of overlap in human and dog diets, as well as dogs sharing our living spaces, homes, and sometimes even our beds! As a result, dogs have evolved an enhanced ability to digest certain nutrients such as starch, and by-products from the human food industry are now routinely used to feed our dogs.
Home-cooking may suit some dog owners, but others prefer the convenience of a prepared, complete diet.
The history of dog food
The first commercial dog foods became available around the mid-1800s, when James Spratt first started making dog biscuits containing wheat, meat, and vegetables, selling them in the UK and the USA. Previously, dogs were typically fed table scraps, leftovers, or specially prepared mixes of different ingredients, sometimes cooked, sometimes raw.
As the status of the domestic dog changed, and human lifestyles and expectations also changed, the convenience of feeding became increasingly important. This saw tinned dog food become commonplace, until the rationing of meat and metal during the Second World War limited the availability of both. Dry, baked dog food products then became the standard commercial option. In the 1950s, food production technology developed the process of extrusion, producing regularly shaped and consistent dry food from a range of ingredients. Even today, although the technology has moved on significantly, most dry dog food is made by extrusion.
Modern dog food
Dogs today have a range of diet options. Pet food companies respond to the development of new technologies, enhanced scientific information, and the availability of ingredients to change and develop what they do. Those caring for dogs have different needs and desires too, and dogs sometimes have preferences or particular requirements that mean diet choice is more complex than simply buying the food currently on offer in the supermarket!
What is important at the most basic level is that whatever we feed our dogs, it should be safe, palatable, and should provide all the nutrients they need in the correct form, and at the right levels. How you achieve this will vary from person to person, household to household, and dog to dog —one size rarely fits all! This means that just because a certain food or way of feeding works for your friend, trainer, or a random person on the internet and their dog, it might not be ideal for you and your dog.
With so many different dog foods to choose from, it can be hard deciding which is best for your dog.
When thinking about what to feed your dog, it is important to consider your own needs and wants as well as your dog’s, as this will help identify important criteria to look for when making your choice. Budget and availability are often most important. The price of dog foods varies widely and there is generally something to suit every budget. Working out your weekly or monthly dog food budget is a good starting point, as well as identifying if it is easy to get hold of the food you have chosen. While for many dogs, changing food is not a problem, in some cases different foods, ingredients, or formulations can cause dietary upset and other issues, so diet consistency might be important. This may mean you have to bulk buy or plan deliveries well in advance, so you never run out or have to make a sudden diet change.
Some say that the range of different doggy diets available is a result of fashion and fads. In some cases, this is true, but we are responsible for ensuring that whatever we feed our dogs provides them with what they need, and many of us are not immune to marketing tactics encouraging us to buy products advertised as ‘natural’, ‘species appropriate’, or as ‘superfoods’, and other terms with little robust scientific meaning. However, choice and variety are good, and providing your dog is happy and healthy and whatever he is being fed works for you, and providing you balance fashion with a healthy dose of fact, a small sprinkling of marketing magic need not be a bad thing — just be aware of it!
For many people, convenience is important. Juggling work and family life might mean there is limited time available to cook or prepare fresh doggy dinners. This is when a prepared, nutritionally complete diet is a great choice.
However, human as well as dog health conditions might necessitate specific choices. For example, intolerances or allergies to ingredients can occur in humans as well as dogs, which means that a certain food might not be suitable to have in your household for your health, let alone that of your dog. It is also possible that you don’t like the smell, consistency, or even look of a specific food, even if your dog loves it! These are all important factors to consider when deciding on your dog’s diet.
Very active dogs will need higher levels of fat and protein in their diets.
Don’t forget that dogs also have needs that their diet must meet, depending on their health, activity levels, and life stages. For example, puppies need different levels of key nutrients in their diet compared to mature, adult dogs. Highly active dogs will typically need diets higher in fat and protein than a more relaxed sofa-snoozer. Dogs watching their waistlines might need a diet lower in fat and overall calories. Some health conditions will also need dietary support, and specific foods might need to be fed in these cases to maintain health. In such cases, seeking support from your vet or nutritionist is critical to ensure that you are feeding a nutritionally balanced diet overall — there is a trend for many care-givers to avoid certain ingredients or types of food, often based on misinformation. This can lead to nutritional deficiencies and other issues, so if you are not sure, do seek professional advice.
Puppies will require a diet containing different levels of specific nutrients.
Specialised and sustainable
Awareness of environmental sustainability is becoming increasingly important, and the carbon pawprint of pets is under more and more scrutiny. This has meant that alternative ingredients are being explored and used in dog food to reduce the environmental impact of production, as well as limiting competition with ingredients otherwise used in the human food chain.
The use of insect-derived protein has recently become more common in dog treats and food. While we may baulk a little at the idea of eating insects, science suggests their use as a key ingredient does provide a range of nutritional benefits, as well as supporting environmental sustainability initiatives by reducing our reliance on animal protein sources.
The availability of vegetarian and even vegan dog foods has also increased. Sometimes these are valuable for dogs with specific dietary intolerances or to explore an exclusion diet. In other cases, the use of these diets is because of the human lifestyle desire to avoid the use of animal products. While it might seem odd to feed dogs a diet that is largely or entirely devoid of animal protein or other ingredients, providing it has been properly formulated, there is no reason why the use of alternative ingredients cannot supply all the nutrients a dog needs to be healthy. However, given the choice, we should remember that dogs will still typically choose to consume animal-based foods!
Too much choice can make decision-making difficult. However, by thinking about our dogs’ needs, our own, and balancing these with wider environmental and other concerns, we can find a diet that best fits. Whether that is home-cooking using a specially formulated recipe, fresh feeding based on nutritional guidelines, or using a commercially available food, there is an option available for every dog and their carer.