It's hard enough managing our own diets without worrying about our dog's.

But that's what we signed up for when brought those lovable furballs home!

And not to put more pressure on you, but few dog-related decisions are more important than what you pour into their bowl twice a day for the next 4,000 days.

What's worse, there are so many different types to choose from. If the dog food aisle department of your local pet store is anything like mine, you're instantly dwarfed by dozens (hundreds?!) of colorful bags stacked to the ceiling, each plastered with colorful meats, healthy vegetables, and suspicious-sounding claims of the amazing health benefits your dog will experience.

Overwhelmed? I'd be surprised if you weren't.

This guide makes things simple.

We'll cover 7 important things you should know about your dog's food:

When you're done, you'll be armed with the info to buy with confidence.

Ready?

Let's get cookin'.

yellow lab eating food from bowl
Every dog has different nutrition requirements depending on their size, activity level, age, and life stage.

1. Nutritional needs vary by size, activity level, age, and life stage

A Dachshund, a Golden Retriever, and an Irish Wolfhound walk into a bar...

What sounds like the lead-in to a terrible joke is actually a lead-in to my first (and most obvious) talking point: nutritional needs vary by dog.

An important note as we begin this conversation: For our purpose, "nutritional needs" means caloric intake requirements. Unless your dog has special dietary needs or restrictions, that bag of dog food is probably fine whether they're a Poodle, a Beagle, a Corgi, or a Mastiff (though I'll talk a little about small breed vs large breed nutritional needs below).

A good starting point for estimating your dog's nutritional needs is to use their weight. In fact, dog food bags have tables printed on the back that estimate serving sizes by weight.

So, let's explore the relationship between your dog's weight and their nutritional needs.

Size

The Waltham Center For Pet Nutrition (WCPN) published this table to estimate your dog's nutritional needs with only one input required: their weight.

CategoryDurationIntensityDaily Calories
Inactive0.5-3 hr / dayLow90 x (Wt/2.2)^0.75
Typical0.5-3 hr / dayMainly Low110 x (Wt/2.2)^0.75
Active1-3 hr / dayMainly High125 x (Wt/2.2)^0.75
Highly Active3-6 hr / dayHigh175 x (Wt/2.2)^0.75

"Wt" in the table above is your dog's weight in pounds. WCPN's formula is in kilograms (kg), so I added the "divide by 2.2" part to convert your dog's weight in Freedom Units to their weight in kg.

Is it a perfect table? No. For starters, there's a lot of variation in each of those buckets. Just look at "Typical" vs "Active." The duration is about the same, so what's the difference between "Mainly Low" intensity and "Mainly High"?

Let's use my dog as an example. Olive weighs 52 lbs and is somewhere between Typical and Active.

  • Typical: 110 x (52/2.2)^0.75 = 1,179 calories per day
  • Active: 125 x (52/2.2)^0.75 = 1,340 calories per day

That's a gap of 161 calories per day. The average dog food has about 450 calories per cup (varying by brand and formula), so we're only talking about a 1/3-cup difference between WCPN's stated energy levels. That's close enough for government work.

What does this mean? Energy level is important, but your dog's size is by far the largest factor in determining how much food they need. If your dog is looking a little chunky and needs to lose some weight, cutting out table scraps and restricting their caloric intake is 90% of the battle.

Activity Level

A 50 lb Border Collie and a 50 lb Bulldog have different nutritional needs because they have vastly different energy levels. It's the same reason a 175 lb marathoner and a 175 lb couch potato need different amounts of food.

Research shows that dogs walking at a brisk 15-minute-per-mile pace burn about 0.8 calories per pound of body weight per mile. Assuming two 30-minute walks covering 2 miles each (1 hour of moderate exercise per day), you can expect the following caloric burn:

  • 25 lbs: 80 calories
  • 50 lbs: 160 calories
  • 75 lbs: 240 calories
  • 100 lbs: 320 calories

That's in line with our "Typical" vs "Active" activity levels using WCPN's formula. A 50 lb dog getting an extra hour of mainly high-energy activity needs an extra 160 calories (1/3 cup of dry food).

Age & Life Stage

A quick look at this list of calories per cup for various dog food brands easily shows there are a lot of different formulations. Some of them are size-related (Small Breed, Large Breed, etc.) while others focus on age or life stage:

  • Puppy
  • Adult
  • Senior

Each has a different caloric density to match the typical growth and activity level of dogs in each stage. Let's look at Eukanuba's formulations for small breed dogs as an example:

  • Small Breed Puppy: 503 calories per cup
  • Small Breed Adult: 457 calories per cup
  • Small Breed Senior: 396 calories per cup

As dogs get older, they get less active, and they need fewer calories.

But caloric density isn't the only difference between these formulations. Dogs need different ratios of the three macronutrients (protein, fat, carbs) when they're puppies compared to when they're adults.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) recommends the following ratios for puppies vs adults:

  • Puppies: 22% protein, 8% fat, 70% carbs
  • Adults: 18% protein, 5% fat, 77% carbs

There are a few other things to keep in mind:

  • Puppy foods have more amino acids, calcium, phosphorus, sodium, chloride, and omega-3 fatty acids to give your puppy's growing body everything it needs.
  • Large breed dogs have an increased risk of developing bone and joint conditions as adults, such as hip dysplasia, so large breed puppy foods are formulated with less fat, calcium, and phosphorus for slower, more consistent growth.
  • When puppies reach about 80% of their estimated adult weight, you can transition them to adult formulas.

Truthfully, this is way more information than you need, but I think it's fascinating stuff.

I also think it's also important to understand nutrition, especially in today's society and doubly especially the importance of portion control. A saddening 60% of cats and 56% of dogs are obese. Nearly 40% of Americans over the age of 20 are obese.

The best way to help your furry friend (and you!) live a long, fulfilling, and happy life is to choose a food that nourishes them properly in a quantity that suits their size, activity level, age, and life stage.

What about wet dog food?

Good call. While most owners feed their dogs dry kibble, many prefer wet food (or a combination of dry and wet).

Our "Dry vs Wet Food" section below covers the features/advantages of both, so I won't talk about that here. But if you feed your dog wet food, how much should they eat?

Here are a two good rules of thumb about wet food for your dog:

  • 3 oz of wet food equals 1/4 cup of dry food (important if mixing).
  • Your dog should eat about 0.8-1.0 oz of wet food each day per pound of body weight (split across 2 or more meals) depending on energy levels.

This guide from Petfinder has calorie counts for many popular wet dog food brands. A good estimate is that wet dog food has about 25 calories per ounce.

Let's look at our 52 lb dog's wet food consumption requirements:

  • 52 lbs = 42-52 oz per day = 1,050-1,300 calories per day
  • That's in line with Olive's calculated range according to WCPN of 1,179-1,340.

And, as always, monitor your dog's weight and food intake (including treats and table scraps) to make sure they're getting the right amount.

dog food on shelves
Dog food manufacturers market to their customers, but there are requirements for what they can say on the bag. (Wikimedia Commons)

How to read a dog food label

Dog food manufacturers can't just put whatever they want on the bag. While that happy dog eating from an overflowing bowl filled with lamb chops, whole ears of corn, and massive sweet potatoes is definitely a marketing tactic, not everything is marketing. As it turns out, there are some rules they need to follow.

Naming The Food

The first set of rules pertains to how they name their food. It's no different than how the United States Department of Agriculture regulates how food companies can use the word "organic."

There are four rules dog food manufacturers have to follow regarding the phrasing they use to describe their product.

  • "Chicken For Dogs": If phrased this way, the food must be at least 95% chicken. The remaining 5% can be ingredients added to round out the nutritional profile.
  • "Chicken Dinner For Dogs": If the words "dinner" or "platter" or "entree" are used, the food must be between 25-95% chicken.
  • "Dog Food With Chicken": If the word "with" is used, the food only needs to be at least 3% that ingredient. Here, at least 3% chicken.
  • "Chicken Flavor Dog Food": If the word "flavor" is used, then "a specific percentage (of the [chicken]) is not required, but a product must contain an amount sufficient to be able to be detected." While there aren't any minimum percentages, there are style requirements. In our chicken example, the word "chicken" must be the same size, style, and color as the word "flavor."

Crude Fat, Protein, And Fiber

Naming aside, dog food manufacturers also are required to disclose the percentages of four key macronutrients*:

  • Crude fat
  • Crude protein
  • Crude fiber
  • Water

*Technically, fiber and water aren't macronutrients. The three macronutrients are fat, protein, and carbohydrates, but "macro" means "high-level" and they are nutrients (well, aside from water), so I went with it anyway.

The word "crude" is used to indicate how protein content was measured. It's a chemical analysis using the amount of nitrogen present to estimate the amount of protein from all sources (even grains) and not just the primary meat.

There's some interesting research about optimal fat-protein-fiber blends for your dog's health, which I'll talk about in the next section: "Should you go grain-free?"

For more information about dog food labeling requirements, check out the AKC's great article on the subject.

grains in a field
"Grain-free" is all the rage, but recent research shows it may not be good for your dog. (Needpix)

Should you go grain-free?

Grains have a bad reputation in the dog food world, because manufacturers used to stuff their formulas with rice, corn, and other low-nutrient, filler grains and pass it off as food. It's no different than you trying to live off Corn Pops for 12 years (as tempting as that sounds to 8-year-old me). It was cheaper than using real meat as the primary ingredient, but it didn't give dogs all of the nutrients they needed.

As a result, many dog food bags today proudly proclaim they're grain-free. After all, grains are bad, right?

Not so fast.

In July 2018, the FDA announced it was exploring the link between grain-free, high-protein diets and heart disease in dogs (specifically, canine dilated cardiomyopathy or DCM). Dogs with the condition developed weak heart muscles with a decreased ability to pump blood, leading to congestive heart failure. Large dogs are predisposed to the condition, but some small breed dogs like English Spaniels and American Cocker Spaniels are at risk as well.

The FDA released a comprehensive update one year later in July 2019 detailing their findings after they received 515 reports of DCM in dogs and 9 in cats.

There's a lot of really sciency stuff in that update, and a lot of the charts are misleading or only tell part of the story. For example, I wouldn't look at the chart that shows chicken being the primary protein in a plurality of cases and avoid chicken altogether. Chicken might be the most common protein, period. Its overall popularity is why it tops the charts.

I spoke to our vet about Olive's diet and he gave us some tips that keeps things simple:

  • Look for foods with crude protein around 25%.
  • Look for real meat as the first ingredient (including meat byproducts).
  • Avoid corn and rice. Instead, look for sweet potato, quinoa, buckwheat, and similar grains.
  • Look for "whole" grains and not "soy mill run" or "wheat middlings," which are incomplete grains.
  • Monitor your dog's energy levels, coat, and bowel movements to make sure the food is working for them.

Regarding that first one, our vet also shared that some behaviorists think a high-protein diet makes dogs more rambunctious. Since Olive is absolutely insane almost all day, that alone was enough to make us switch.

If you have questions about the best diet for your dog, talk to your vet.

chickens on farm
Sorry, chickens, but I always make sure you're the first ingredient on the bag.

Always make sure real meat is the first ingredient

(I just mentioned this above but it's worth calling out in a big, bold header.)

Always make sure real meat is the first ingredient.

A few important caveats:

  • Meat byproducts aren't bad. (The next section explains why.)
  • Don't stop after reading the first ingredient. Sure, "real lamb" is definitely a real meat, but what about the next 5-10 ingredients? Look for those buzzwords above like "whole wheat" versus "wheat middlings."
  • Also look for split ingredients. Many manufacturers try to deceive you when listing ingredients to put them in an order you want to see (meat first). Petnet has a good example. The first three ingredients on the label might be "Chicken Meal, Ground Whole Wheat, Wheat Flour," but the second and third items both are wheat. When combined wheat might make up more of the food than chicken, so is chicken really the first ingredient? Petnet also reports that 33% of dog food manufacturers use this tactic.

Looking for real meat as the first ingredient is important, but understanding the rest of the ingredients is important, too.

I can't stress enough how invaluable your vet is when trying to decide what's best for your dog. But if you're looking for a shortlist of brands you can trust, here are 10 of the most reputable (in alphabetical order):

  • Blue Buffalo
  • Castor & Pollux
  • Hill's
  • Merrick
  • Natural Balance
  • Nutro
  • Orijen
  • Royal Canin
  • Taste of the Wild
  • The Honest Kitchen

And that isn't an exhaustive list.

chicken gizzards
"Chicken byproduct" isn't bad. Those organs and innards have nutritional value! (Wikimedia Commons)

Animal byproducts aren't bad

You want to do everything properly for your pup, including choose a healthy food for a long, happy life. You turn the bag over to make sure meat is the first ingredient only to read "chicken byproduct" atop the ingredients list.

That doesn't sound healthy.

Actually, there's nothing wrong with chicken byproduct, or any other byproduct for that matter. "Byproduct" is industry speak for organ meat and entrails (intestines) and is a perfectly fine food for your dog to consume. In fact, byproduct meats often have a ton of beneficial nutrients your dog wouldn't get from a thick piece of 100% all-American white chicken breast!

To get around the stigma attached to the word "byproduct," many brands actually list out the specific organ meats: liver, heart, kidney, lungs, etc.

But to quote William Shakespeare, "A spleen by any other name would taste as sweet."

And it has a ton of vitamin B.

wet dog food
Wet dog food looks (and smells) nasty, but it might be the best choice for your dog. (Pixabay)

Dry vs wet dog food

In a vacuum, neither dry nor wet have a clear edge. It's all situational. Here are some of the features/advantages of each.

Dry Dog Food

  • Sold in bulk and lasts longer.
  • Less expensive.
  • Easier to use for treats throughout the day or in puzzle toys.
  • More portable if you need to feed your dog elsewhere.
  • Tends to be lower in fat and higher in carbs (required to keep it solid).
  • Chewing helps clean your dog's teeth, reducing plaque and tartar buildup.

Wet Dog Food

  • Easier to chew for older dogs or dogs with sensitive teeth.
  • Smellier, which makes it more appealing to eat (especially for old dogs or picky eaters).
  • Wet means water and can help keep your dog hydrated if they struggle to drink enough water.
  • Wet also means it aids in feeling full and may be good for dogs on diets (like soup for humans).
  • Usually must be refrigerated after opening.
  • Doesn't clean your dog's teeth, so you'll need to brush them more often.

Some dog owners like to do a mix of the two. My parents' Irish Terrier (Murphy) is a picky eater, so they'll feed him one cup of Merrick dry food with a small scoop of canned wet food (not sure the brand). Murphy loves it. As long as you feed your dog the proper portions, there's nothing wrong with combining foods.

happy dog laying in grass
Help your dog live a long, fulfilling life by choosing foods that keep them happy and healthy.

Your dog has preferences, just like you

Jumping off that last comment, most dogs have preferences. Some have strong preferences. Olive loves chicken and she'll scarf down lamb, but she isn't the biggest fan of salmon. There's more than one way to get your dog the nutrition they need that leaves them (and your wallet) happy.

The most important factor is whether it works for your dog

Rounding things out where we started, no two dogs are exactly the same. Everything you read in this article should be used to inform your choice of which brand and formulation to feed your dog, and the best food for them will be the one that checks all the necessary boxes:

  • Gives them the nutrition they need for their age, life stage, and activity level.
  • Helps them maintain a healthy weight.
  • Keeps their eyes, skin, and coat healthy.
  • They enjoy eating it.
  • You can afford to buy it.

As mentioned several times already, no Internet guide is a substitute for your vet. If you ever have questions about what type of dog food is right for your pup, they're the ones you should ask.

But until then? Hopefully this article points you in the right direction.

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