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What’s The Best Food For Your Dog?

Louise Hendon | January 21

Jeremy and I recently got a super cute shih tzu puppy called Karma. He was 9 months old when we adopted him from a rescue.

He’s a shy little fellow, but when he feels safe and comfortable (like inside our home), his true colors comes out, and he runs around chasing us in joy. You’ll typically find him gnawing on some raw hide, chasing us around the house, or enjoying a nap with his favorite stuffed friends.

shih tzu running - karma

I want Karma to live a long and healthy life, and so I’ve been researching the best diet for dogs. Is a raw dog food diet the best? What about grain-free? Does the ancestral diet matter? Is there a Paleo dog food?

I’m sure you also want the best for your dog, and as we all know diet matters a lot when it comes to health, longevity, and happiness.

So, I hope this article helps you and your best friend on the journey to better health.

Here’s what I found…

What Are Dogs Supposed To Eat? – A Review Of The Science

It’s thought that dogs are descended from wolves with domestication by humans first occurring around 14,000 years ago. Some recent research suggests that dogs and wolfs may have shared a common ancestor instead of one being descended from the other.

Regardless, it’s a good bet to look at the diet of wolves when trying to figure out what dogs before domestication would have eaten.

Wolves are carnivorous, and it’s suggested that the ancestral diet for many carnivorous hunter/scavenger typically “consisted of about 85 to 90% meat (primarily from whole prey) along with small amounts of fish and eggs, and 10 to 15% scavenged grasses, berries, nuts, and other vegetation.”

From a macronutrient standpoint, the canine ancestral diet may have looked something like this (data from www.seespotlivelonger.com):
(% by calories)
Protein – 49%
Fat – 44%
Carbohydrates – 6%

ancestral diet of dogs - percentages - pie chart - data

A paper published in the Journal of Animal Science cites another paper by W. H. Hendriks (which I wasn’t able to get access to) that analyzed 50 diets consumed by wolves – it concluded that the average nutrient intake was:

Protein – 52%
Fat – 47%
Carbohydrates – 1%

diet of wolves - percentages - pie chart - data

(Incidentally, wild cats have been found to consume similar nutrient profiles.)

shih tzu dog with bear photo image

Have Dogs Evolved to Eat More Like Humans After Domestication?

Although 14,000 years doesn’t provide that long (in evolution terms) for dogs to modify their digestive tracts, there are some suggestions that there have been small changes allowing dogs to digest a more diverse range of foods.

Can Dogs Digest More Carbohydrates Now?
In particular, a recent study published in Nature investigating at the genome of dogs and wolves found certain mutations in key genes that suggest that modern domesticated dogs are more able to digest starches than wolves.

It’s generally accepted that dogs (and cats) don’t produce amylase (which break down carbohydrates) in their saliva unlike most mammals (this 1907 study reports this and looked at possible studies to the contrary). However, dogs do have some amylase further down in their digestive tract which means that they are able to digest some carbohydrates but perhaps not as much as humans.

Studies from the 1930s (by Georgievskii and Andreev) suggest that the amount of amylase in the intestinal juice of a dog increases when the dog is fed a higher carbohydrate diet, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s ideal for dogs to eat a diet higher in carbohydrates.

Have Dogs Instinctually Adapted to Eat A Different Diet?
I found this 2012 study really fascinating – they provided 3 different types of dry food to 51 dogs (of 5 different breeds) to see which type of food the dogs would self select. The 3 types of food were: 1. high in fat, 2. high in carbohydrate, and 3. high in protein. They found that every breed of dog selected “a diet composition toward the highest possible fat intake and lowest possible carbohydrate intake.”

They repeated the experiment with wet food and found a similar result and did a third experiment with a fixed protein amount in the food to determine the exact fat and carbohydrates amounts dogs would select in their preferred food.

They concluded that an approximate target diet for dogs would perhaps be:
Protein – 30%
Fat – 63%
Carbohydrates – 7%

instinctual diet of dogs - percentages - pie chart - data

Dogs Chop Rather Than Chew
Another argument for why dogs should eat a primarily carnivorous diet is that they’ve still retained their pointy teeth making it easy for them to tear up meat, chew open bones, and they can open their jaws really wide to swallow larger chunks of meat whole.

Conversely, herbivores and most omnivores chew their foods with a side to side motion (picture a cow chewing grass).

CONCLUSION – Dogs Should Eat A Diet Low In Carbohydrates
All in all, looking at the ancestral diet of dogs and wolves as well as the preferences of modern day dogs, it seems that their ideal diet should be high in fats and proteins, and VERY LOW in carbohydrates. Even if dogs have evolved to eat more carbohydrates, it should still be a very small part of their diet.

Why Getting The Correct Balance Of Macronutrients Is Important For Optimal Health

As explained in this 2012 study, a variety of studies from the past 2 decades have shown that macronutrient balance is highly important for a variety of animals (including for growth rates and size, obesity, fertility, longevity, disease resistance).

So, just like getting a good balance of macronutrients is essential for human health, it matters for animal health as well!

Should Dogs Be Fed a Raw Diet? The Pros and Cons

Many people feed dogs homemade raw food and many raw diet dog food brands have sprung up.

But is this optimal?

The main arguments for feeding dogs a raw diet are:

  1. Dogs are more adapted to eating raw food. I think this probably a good argument since they have sharper teeth, can tear raw meat more easily, and have a more acidic digestive system that can kill bacteria on raw meats. Moreover, while humans may have used fire to cook more than 100,000 years ago, dogs weren’t domesticated by humans (and therefore fed any cooked food) until around 14,000 years ago. So there’s a good argument that dogs (unlike humans) may not have adapted to eating cooked food yet.
  2. There are more nutrients in raw food. This is an argument often used by proponents of the raw diet for humans, and it’s also a good argument. Many nutrients degrade when heat is applied. For example, vitamin content typically decrease when food is cooked. However, there’s also the argument that nutrients are more bioavailable when the food is cooked (i.e., we can make use of the nutrients in the food more when the food is cooked as opposed to when it is raw).
  3. Anecdotal evidence suggests that dogs have better health on a raw diet. It’s been suggested that dogs have better digestion, healthier coats and skin, fresher breath, etc on a raw food diet, but there’s no definitive proof for this. It could easily also be that raw dog foods are grain-free and tend to be free of preservatives and coloring.

The main arguments against feeding dogs a raw diet are:

  1. Infected raw meat. Salmonella and E. coli risks tend to be higher when eating raw meats, but for the most part dogs have much stronger digestive systems than humans. As this article suggests, the bigger danger may be humans catching bacterial infections from handling raw dog food.
  2. It’s a huge hassle. It’s definitely time consuming to make your own dog food (raw or cooked), but there are many brands of premade raw dog foods nowadays that make it easier (see below for recommendations). For me, the hassle is defrosting the raw food (which must be frozen for safe storage) and then catching Karma to wipe his face after eating (there’s usually some residual raw food/blood smeared across his whiskers).

CONCLUSION – Raw may be slightly better, but it’s not essential.
My personal opinion is that it’s perhaps slightly better to feed your dog a raw diet, but the benefits of a raw diet are really very unclear especially when compared to feeding your dog high-quality grain-free cooked dog food (see the section below on what good dog food should look like).

If you want to make your own dog food…be careful!

I’ve decided not to make my own dog food as I wanted to make sure Karma didn’t miss out on any vitamins and minerals, and I didn’t want to take the trouble of analyzing the exact vitamin and mineral content of foods I make.

This article analyzed three popular homemade raw canine diet plans and compared them with the ancestral diet nutrient profile as well as two pet food standards (established by the National Research Council (NRC) and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO)) found that “all the diets had some mineral shortages” and some of them had too much of certain minerals.

Many brands of dog food you can purchase add in vitamins and minerals to ensure that your dog gets the vitamins and minerals he or she needs without getting too much of them.

What Dog Food Should NOT Look Like

Given that dogs should be eating a diet high in fats and proteins, and very low in carbohydrates, the ideal dog food should definitely not have a grain (like corn or wheat) as its first ingredient (since grains are very high in carbohydrates!). Additionally, since humans have not even evolved to digest grains well, it’s fairly unlikely that dogs would have either.

Sadly, when I looked at some of the most common brands of dog food, corn or wheat appeared as its very first ingredient (which signifies that the food contains the most of that ingredient).

For example, Pedigree’s Adult Complete Nutrition For Dogs has “ground whole corn” as its first ingredient. 1 cup of corn (weighing 166g) has 123g of carbohydrates!

And Purina’s Alpo has ground yellow corn as its first ingredient. The estimated macronutrient content for that dog food is 21% protein, 11% fat, and 61% carbohydrates, which is clearly not ideal based on the above analysis.

And dog treats can be even worse! The highly popular Milk Bone brand has wheat flour as its first ingredient!

milk bone ingredients - what should dogs ideally eat?

What Should Good Dog Food Look Like?

  1. High in protein and fat, low in carbohydrates.
  2. Grain-free. Personally, I don’t think grains are good for dogs (just like they’re not good for humans), and there are tons of grain-free dog food brands these days to choose from.
  3. Low in extraneous ingredients like food coloring and thickeners. Clearly these weren’t part of a dog’s diet even 100 years ago.
  4. Contain whole foods. It’s been suggested that eating whole foods rather than extracts from foods is more beneficial since there are synergies between the different food components that we may not yet understand.
  5. Raw if you can tolerate the hassle (see section above for pros and cons of a raw diet).

Here are a few brands I found in my local Petco and Petsmart stores that I thought looked good.

RECOMMENDED – Nature’s Variety Instinct Raw – I started by feeding Karma the frozen raw variety of this brand. They were little frozen pellets that I had to defrost for a while before feeding them to Karma. I recently switched to their freeze-dried option with a raw boost in it instead (mostly because it was much cheaper and easier to manage). You can purchase it on Amazon by clicking here.

Personally, I found this brand to be a good combination of nutrition, price, and ease-of-use, but the other brands below are also pretty good.

Nature's Variety Instinct Raw Boost Dog Food Freeze-dried what it looks like photo

Nature's Variety Instinct Raw Boost Dog Food Freeze-dried what it looks like photo

Nature's Variety Instinct Raw Boost Dog Food Freeze-dried

Nature's Variety Instinct Raw Boost Dog Food Freeze-dried Chicken Meal Formula Ingredients

Steve’s Real Food (this is a very affordable frozen raw brand I found in Whole Foods – they seem to be sold in many stores in California).

Steve's Real Food Raw Dog Food

Steve's Real Food Raw Dog Food

Steve's Real Food Raw Dog Food Ingredients

Primal Formula (they have various raw frozen options as well as a really convenient freeze-dried option that’s available on Amazon here).

primal formula ingredients for freeze-dried dog food

primal formula ingredients for freeze-dried dog food

primal formula ingredients for freeze-dried dog food

ZiwiPeak Real Meat Grain Free Air Dried Dog Food (90% meat, organs, and seafood and 10% carbohydrates – air-dried so it’s easy to store and serve and available on Amazon here).

ZiwiPeak Real Meat Grain Free Air Dried Dog Food

ZiwiPeak Real Meat Grain Free Air Dried Dog Food

Vital Grain Free (which needs to be refrigerated).

Their foods contain 80% meat and 10% fruits and vegetables, which means that the majority of the calories should be from fat and protein.

vital grain free dog food with chicken, beef, salmon, and egg recipe

vital grain free dog food with chicken, beef, salmon, and egg recipe

HEALTHY DOG TREATS – and here are some dog treats I found that seem pretty good:

Chicken Breast – Karma’s favorite treat is poached chicken breast (no seasoning). We just boil whole chicken breasts in water and then cut them up into cubes. It’s cheap, easy, and dogs really love them!

Nature’s Variety Instinct Dog Biscuits – you can buy them on Amazon here. The ingredients aren’t fantastic, but it’s much better than other dog biscuits!

Nature's Variety Instinct Raw Boost Dog Food Treats Biscuits

Nature's Variety Instinct Raw Boost Dog Food Treats Biscuits ingredients

Dog Joy Turkey Bacon – I found these at both Petsmart and Petco (it’s refrigerated).

dog joy freshpet turkey bacon treats for dogs

dog joy freshpet turkey bacon treats for dogs ingredients

Stella & Chewy’s Carnivore Crunch – a healthy treat especially if your dog doesn’t get sufficient omega-3s (which are high in seafood). You can get it on Amazon here.

stella & chewy's carnivore crunch salmon and cod recipe

stella & chewy's carnivore crunch salmon and cod recipe ingredients

Stephanie Broadhurst - January 25

I’ve used Stella & Chewy’s freeze dried dog food which my dog loved! Unfortunately a raw diet is expensive especially with the larger breeds-my dog is 50lbs. I have gone back to dry food (using Instinct-not raw boost- currently) and am not happy with the results. I have tried other grain free options: Merrick & Taste of the Wild, but not as happy with the results compared to a raw diet. I’m currently searching for the “perfect” quality dry dog food but wonder if it even exists. I really enjoyed reading this article! I may consider Instinct Raw Boost in addition to freeze dried food to mix in.

    Louise Hendon - January 26

    Thanks Stephanie – I’ve considered supplementing with some raw fish and meat (food I’d buy for myself anyways). But I understand the price issue – it’s even expensive for a small 10lb dog!

    JJ - January 26

    Have you tried Darwin’s? It’s a mail order delivery of pre-made raw food. We have a small 10 lb dog and she loves it. Plus from a price perspective they offer various lines – the conventional and the organic version. I’m in no way affiliated with them, my dog just loves their food and I’m ok with their price point 🙂

Kim Smyth - January 26

We have Shorkies and have always fed them Royal Canin which is expensive but taylored for the breed. I’ll gave to check the ingredients but we do like to give mostly chicken or egg as a snack and some kind of small, fruit based treats we get at Petco.

Peggy Y - January 26

I feed my dogs Darwin’s raw dog food (http://www.darwinspet.com), but they’re both small dogs, so it’s not as expensive as it would be for a larger dog. They love it, and because it’s so full of solid nutrition, they don’t eat as much as they did in the old days of bagged food with lots of fillers. It was a commitment, though–I bought a chest freezer so I could store the bulk orders. But my poodle’s seizures diminished significantly once I switched them to raw food, so it’s been worth it to me. They’ve been on raw food for 2 years now, and I’ll never go back.

Krys - January 26

In addition to Stella and Chewy’s treats, I make my Cooper beef jerky as treats. No seasoning, just grass fed, grass finished beef. Stuff I would buy for myself anyway. For his man entrée, he gets either Primal or My Perfect Pet (lightly cooked, almost raw). He loves it!

Leslie Parish - January 26

I feed my dog Now senior dog food. I make my own treats from chicken jerry (no seasonings) to training treats with meat, vegetables and tapioca flour (they do not crumble).

Elizabeth Mallory - January 26

I raise and train Labrador Retrievers and all of my dogs are raw fed. My puppies are all weaned to raw as well. When buying in bulk, I find that feeding raw if far less expensive than feeding a good quality kibble. There IS the hassle factor but the benefits (in my eyes) outweigh the hassle: better coats, no doggie breath, smaller (low odor) poo, and overall good health.

candyce castaldo - January 27

Thanks for the info…..if we couldn’t afford the raw food type, do you have any suggestions as to the National brands you find at Petco or Petsmart? Blue Buffalo- Wellness….etc?

    Louise Hendon - January 27

    Hi Candyce – I would try to go for a grain-free brand. There are quite a lot of them at Petco and Petsmart.

    Kristeen - January 30

    We feed our Frenchies Solid Gold Bark at the Moon which is a high protein, grain/gluten free dry food. I can’t see that it contains any thickeners and the guaranteed analysis is Crude Protein 41% minimum and Crude Fat 20% minimum so according to Louise’s research this is a good choice. My pups also love Stella and Chewy’s treats. Thanks for the great research Louise. If anyone knows anything that is negative about Solid Gold please pass along the info. Thanks.

Nanci - January 27

One of our three poodles has allergies to all poultry and eggs.
We finally found a dry food that he can eat for mornings: Dogswell Nutrisca lamb and pea protein…… dinner is raw from US Wellness meats. The one who has allergies needs his cooked.
Dogs are 75, 50 and 45 pounds.

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