Although dry dog food is convenient to store, pet nutritionists such as DogAware.com's Mary Straus say that canned food can be better than dry food, mostly because it contains fewer preservatives (because the canning process itself acts as a preservative). Canned dog food generally contains less grain and more moisture, which helps keep a dog hydrated and benefits the urinary tract.
Like canned foods, the best dry dog foods have high-quality proteins (named meat and meat meals), along with high-quality carbohydrates, such as potatoes and whole grains. Lower-quality products instead may contain corn, wheat and soy, along with glutens and byproducts. Experts don't consider such ingredients to be highly desirable, and brands containing them may not be very palatable to dogs.
Pound for pound, the well-known brands sold in supermarkets and major pet-food chains are obviously a lot cheaper. However, many pet-nutrition experts say that the initial cost difference doesn't tell the whole story. They note that the higher-quality ingredients in premium food mean your dog will actually eat less compared to inexpensive dog food. An added benefit is that because more of the food is absorbed as nutrients, your dog will pass less solid waste.
Experts also point out that suggested serving sizes are just that -- suggestions. Feeding needs vary greatly depending on your dog's breed and activity level, and serving guidelines are merely a good jumping-off point. A dog that spends all day running around in the yard will obviously need more food than a sedentary dog. Observation will tell you if your dog needs more or less food.
Choosing the proper food has become even more challenging since manufacturers started labeling their foods as being suited for certain life stages, such as puppy, large adult or senior, or breeds. According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the body that governs and regulates pet-food labeling, there are only two true designations: a formula for puppies and one for adult dogs. Puppy formulas generally have more calories and protein. Products labeled "senior" or "large breed" mean the food meets requirements for regular adult food. There's nothing regulating those additional terms when they're used on dog food packaging.
A popular alternative to processed commercial foods is a raw dog food diet. Raw food is the most natural dog food a canine can eat, because in the wild a dog (or wolf) would kill and eat animals. We've all heard that it's bad to feed bones to our dogs because they'll splinter and harm the stomach, but raw dog food proponents say that this only applies to bones that have been cooked. Raw bones will not splinter.
Raw food diets are often referred to as BARF, which stands for "biologically appropriate raw food" (though some folks refer to it as "bones and raw food"). It generally focuses on bone-in chicken, bone-in beef, veggies and fruits, and there's a lot of information on it out there. In short, you can throw your dog a whole raw chicken or a whole fish and a bunch of carrots every day and he'll thrive, advocates say. One of the leading proponents of a BARF diet is an Australian veterinarian named Ian Billinghurst, who suggests that a dog eat 2 percent of its body weight per day. For example, a 50-pound dog would eat about 1 pound of food per day (this varies, of course, in terms of how active the dog is, how old, metabolism, general health, etc.).
In the U.S., Natural Pet Systems Inc. distributes Billinghurst's BARF Diet products via its website, BarfProducts.com. The products are delivered in freezer packs, with 24 pounds of food per pack (*Est. $120 plus shipping). The ingredients are certainly sterling and include beef hearts, lamb hearts, chicken, pork, finely ground beef bones, beef liver, kidneys and tripe, with fruit and vegetables among the lesser ingredients. Exotic things like bok choy and dried kelp powder make this truly unusual.
Nature's Variety is another raw-food provider. It offers a line of frozen products made up of 95 percent USDA-inspected meat and raw bone and 5 percent organic fruits, vegetables and oils, as well as a raw freeze-dried line with lower meat content. Though availability is far from universal, it can be purchased from local pet shops as well as in-store from a few major pet-food chains, including Petco.
Of course, if you have the time and inclination, you can make your own homemade dog food. Homemade dog food recipes are time consuming and messy to make at home but certainly can be done. A typical homemade dog food (raw food) meal might include chicken backs, necks or wings, a couple of beef ribs and an egg. Fish is also highly recommended; an entire raw fish is considered a real treat.
Here are some other things experts say to consider when shopping for dog food: