A Canine Nutritionist Guide to Choosing the Best Dog Food

Choosing a quality dog food that will ensure your dog’s health and well-being and is actually within your budget, can easily become incredibly frustrating. “What dog food do you recommend?” was a question I was always asked by my behavioral training clients, and for as much time that I had spent researching and reading the information on dog nutrition, I was still lost.

My frustration resulted in a true commitment to learning canine nutrition and in 2016 I became a Certified Canine Nutritionist. While there is an incredible amount of factors that play into the best dog food for a specific dog, it is important to know the basics of what you want to look for in any dog food. Here we will help to navigate you through the basics of pet nutrition and how to choose a dog food.

The Nutritional Components of a Dog’s Diet

There are five main components of a dog’s diet. They include:

  • Water
  • Carbohydrates (grains, rice, fruits, and vegetables)
  • Protein (meats, fish, and poultry)
  • Fat (typically from animal fat and seed oils)
  • Vitamins and minerals

We are going to look at the 3 macronutrients; carbohydrates, protein, and fat, and the confusion and debates that surround them in regards to dog food.

The Dogs Are Wolves Debate in Nutrition

Many have the misconception that dogs in the wild, are carnivores, much like their ancestors the Wolves. Meaning that their diet would be 100% meat and that is not the case. Not only are they disregarding the fact that dogs have evolved into a domestic species over thousands of years, the natural dog diet still would include approximately 14% carbohydrates, making them actually omnivores (consuming both animals and plants).

Their diets would include carcasses of varying decay states, bones, rotten greens and fruits, fish remains including guts, discarded human foods, seeds, grains, and various feces (both animal and human). Do you still think you should feed your dog a natural ancestral diet?

Nutrition in the Average Dog Today

On the other hand, today’s kibble looks remarkably different than the ancestral diet. With a goal to make a profit, many companies in the pet food business have chosen to use more economical ingredients to dog food to keep costs low. These ingredients have caused a shift in the nutrient content of a dog’s diet.

Nutrient Content Compared

Nutrient Content Compared
NutrientAncestral DietKibble Dog Food
Protein56%18-32%
Fat25-30%8-22%
Carbohydrates14%46-74%

The reality is, today’s dog needs something more in between what their diet used to be and what the average dog today is actually getting.

A general nutrition guideline should have a dog’s nutrient breakdown look more like 40% protein, 20% fat, and 40% carbohydrates.

A general nutrition guideline should have a dog’s nutrient breakdown look more like 40% protein, 20% fat, and 40% carbohydrates.

However, different dogs will have different needs depending on their life stage, activity level, size, breed, and health condition, including illnesses. This is why consulting with your veterinarian about the best food for your dog is recommended.

best dog food

Deeper into Carbohydrates in Dog Food

Carbohydrate nutritional value and amount in dog food is one of the most debated topics in the dog food world. And for those of you who are thinking, 40%, that seems crazy? Let me explain further.

Carbohydrates can be further broken down into carbohydrates coming from grains and carbohydrates coming from other sources such as fruits and vegetables.  It is true that over time, highly processed grain-based diets can lead to illnesses such as diabetes, allergies, cancer, and obesity just to name a few, and those carbohydrates should be limited.

The idea breakdown of carbohydrates in dog food is 10% from grains, preferably whole grains, and the remaining carbohydrates are coming from vegetables and fruits.

Evaluating Your Dog Food

Do you know what the breakdown of protein, fat, and carbohydrates is in your dog food? The nutrition label on your dog’s food can make answering that question difficult, as pet food regulations do not allow the word “carbohydrate” on the label. But with a very simple formula, you can make the calculation yourself.

Read the nutrition label on dog food and use the following formula to calculate the carbs. The label will include the macronutrients as:

  • Minimum % protein
  • Minimum % fat
  • Minimum % fiber
  • Maximum % moisture

Then use this formula: 100% – Minimum % protein – Minimum % fat- Maximum % moisture= % of carbohydrate.

Note: Do not subtract fiber, it is part of the carbohydrates

Example:

  • Minimum % protien=35%
  • Minimum % fat= 15%
  • Minimum % fiber= 5%
  • Maximum % moisture= 10%

100%-35%-15%-10%= 40% carbohydrate

Now you can compare different pet foods on the market to the target nutritional breakdown of 40% protein, 20% fat, and 40% carbohydrates.

Look at the Ingredients

The next thing that you will want to consider is the ingredients that are providing those macronutrients.  The ingredients will be listed in order of weight or volume from the largest to smallest quantities. You will want to see ingredients you are familiar with such as meats, fruits, grains, and vegetables. Avoid products that contain corn, cornmeal, soy, and wheat as they are harder for dogs to digest and/or add minimal nutritional value.

You want the first ingredient listed to be a protein or protein meal. You also want to watch the wording on proteins as well. Wording can make a world of difference in the actual product you will be getting and can be quite misleading if you are unaware.

For example:

“Chicken” or “Beef For Dogs” means at least 70% of the product, with water, is made up of the actual protein.

“Salmon Platter” or “Beef Stew Dinner” means that it only contains 25% of the protein. (This rule also applies to words such as entrée, nuggets, and formula.)

“With Chicken” or “With Cheese” means just 3% is included.

“Chicken Flavor” means less than 3% is chicken.

The actual quality of those ingredients is really what makes the difference between a dog food with poor quality and one made of high quality. Good dog food will contain a combination of meats, fruits, grains, and vegetables, while great dog food will contain the highest quality versions of those items.

dog looking for health food

The Bottom Line

When looking for dog food, keep these attributes in mind:

  • High-quality meat-based proteins
  • Higher in natural fats and oils
  • Lower in carbohydrates
  • Carbohydrates come primarily from vegetables
  • Free of artificial flavoring, coloring, or pereservatives

In addition, you want to look on the label for the words “complete and balanced.” This is a term the FDA uses to regulate dog and cat food nutrient profiles established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). It is ensuring that the food contains all the vitamins and nutrients the dogs need and there is not a need for any additional vitamins or supplements.

Remember, every dog has its own individual nutritional needs based on a variety of factors listed above, and consulting with your veterinarian or a Certified Canine Nutritionist will ensure you find the best food for your pup.

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