What Should Fido Eat?: The Basics of Dog Food Selection

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Just standing in the dog food aisle of your local pet supply store can be overwhelming.  The options seem endless.  But there’s a hungry pooch waiting next to her food bowl at home, so you’ll have to choose at least one of them.  Where to start?

First Considerations

Begin by thinking about your companion animal’s specific needs.  No one knows your pet better than you and your veterinarian.  Your vet should always be consulted in important health matters, including food choice.  And you’re the only one who knows if certain products make Fido’s tummy rumble or how picky Spot is about particular ingredients.  Together, you and your vet can form a complete picture of your pooch’s dietary needs based on:

  •  Age:  Manufacturers have options for every stage of a dog’s life from puppyhood through their golden years.
  • Size:  A 7-lb chihuahua will have different nutritional needs than a 100-lb German Shepherd.
  • Activity Level: From couch potatoes to all-star athletes, there’s an option for everyone.
  • Overall Health: Food allergies, reproductive status, weight issues, and dental problems are among the many issues that may cause dietary restrictions or necessities.


Once you have a good idea of what your dog’s needs are, it’s time to start reading labels.  One of the quickest ways to identify a high quality dog food is to read the ingredient list.  Manufacturers are required to list ingredients in descending order by weight.  A specific, identifiable protein, such as chicken, beef, venison or lamb, should be among the very first ingredients.  Generally speaking, “meal” is an acceptable form so long as it specifies the animal source.  Avoid vaguely listed ingredients like “blood meal” or “chicken byproducts.”

Another ingredient that will likely be towards the top of the list is a form of carbohydrates, which supplies your pet with a ready supply of energy.  Whole grains are the preferred source.  Many of them are common staples of your own pantry like rice, barley, and rolled oats.  A source of quality fat or oil should be present as well as vitamins and minerals to balance out the remainder of the list.

Guaranteed Analysis

Think of the panel labeled “Guaranteed Analysis” as your dog’s version of the “Nutrition Facts” that’s printed on boxes of human food.  This section will give you the minimum percentage of protein and fat as well as the maximum percentage of fiber and moisture.

These numbers can be used for side-by-side comparisons of different kibbles or different wet foods but keep in mind that some mathematical tweaking is required if you want to pit a dry food against a wet one.  Guaranteed analysis percentages are based on the total contents of the food including moisture, and not just the solids, or “dry matter” that they contain.  The moisture content for kibble is under 10% while wet food is usually well over 60%.  What you want to compare is the nutritional content of just the dry matter.  To do so, you need to mathematically remove the moisture.  Here’s an example of how it’s done:




Find the moisture percentage

80% moisture

Subtract that percentage from the total in the can (always 100%) to get the percentage of dry matter

100% total – 80% moisture = 20% dry matter

Find the percentage of the nutrient you want to compare

10% protein

Divide that nutrient by the percent of dry matter.

10% protein / 20% dry matter = 0.5

Multiply that number by 100 to determine how much of that nutrient is in just the dry matter

0.5 x 100 = 50% of the dry matter is protein

Once you’ve followed those steps, you can compare the new figure to the ones listed on a bag of kibble.

Kibble vs. Wet

Though there are a myriad of alternative options available, the most popular types of dog food remain dry kibble and canned wet food.  Both have their pros and cons:





Dry Budget friendly Not always a dog’s first choice
Less volume needed per serving due to lower moisture content Can be hard to chew for aging dogs or those with missing teeth
Gives jaws a work out
Wet Often more palatable to dogs (good for picky eaters) More expensive option
High moisture content can help keep dogs hydrated Serving size will need to be larger due to high moisture content
Usually higher in protein, lower in carbs than dry

As you can see, neither is necessarily better. Use the ingredient list and the dry matter basis of comparing Guaranteed Analysis labels to evaluate different brands. In the end, your dog’s needs and your personal preferences should provide the deciding factors.

Image courtesy of BuzzFarmers on Flickr