When I first got Latte, I had no idea what types of food were available for dogs. I thought that all dogs ate kibbles and it never crossed my mind to question the norm.
The pet shop I was at recommended a brand of kibbles and an expensive dry food option as a topper. I didn’t know that the topper was actually freeze-dried raw food. They were all the same to me, just that one was better quality than the other.
After almost seven years as a dog parent, I know a lot more now and wish I had all this knowledge about food then. I figured that some new dog parents would be as clueless as I had been, which is why I decided to do this dog food guide!
Do note that what I am about to share are the learnings I picked up as a dog parent. Please research and consult a qualified pet nutritionist for more information on creating a diet that’s as complete and balanced as possible for your pet according to their lifestyle and health status.
Dogs need a species-appropriate diet to thrive
To be able to make an informed choice on what’s best for our dogs, we first need to know whether they are carnivores or omnivores. Even this is largely debated in the pet industry.
To decide for yourself, let’s first look at a dog’s anatomy.
The canine dentition is designed to rip meat, not to grind plants.
One of the most common arguments put forth by the “Dogs are Carnivores” camp is that dogs’ teeth are made to rip and tear meat and crush bones. It’s hard to disagree with this one, especially if you have seen a dog eat fresh meat and bones.
The canine gastrointestinal (GI) tract is much shorter than those of Omnivores and Herbivores.
A longer GI tract means that the body has more time to ferment and break down at least some of the tough cellulose that makes up most of a plant’s cell walls.
If you feed a dog unblended vegetables, like cubes of carrot or corn kernels, you are likely to see them come out in their poop untouched.
While vegetables can offer health benefits, you have to first break down the plant cell walls by lightly cooking and/or blending them in order for your dog’s body to extract the nutrients.
Canines don’t produce salivary amylase, an enzyme that helps break down carbohydrates.
Dogs don’t naturally produce salivary amylase, unlike Herbivores and Omnivores, which means that they don’t start digesting starches in their mouths. But dogs don’t munch; they gulp down their food, so it may not be of much use anyway.
Dogs are still able to digest the carbohydrates that they eat though, as they excrete amylase from their pancreas.
Even with the carnivore vs. omnivore debate, almost everyone will agree that a dog’s diet should compose of mostly meat. The canine anatomy reflects one of a carnivore but dogs may still benefit from eating some plant-based foods.
There’s a word for that – Facultative carnivores. It means that dogs are carnivores by choice but will eat fruits, vegetables and carbs to survive (or maybe just because they are gluttony!).
If you agree with that, then what you should see in your dog’s bowl should contain mainly, if not wholly meat-based and not plant-based foods. Keeping this in mind will help you to narrow down food options for your dog.
Vanillapup Dog Food Guide:
Things to note when choosing food
1. Fresh is always the best
It’s my belief that if consuming fresh food makes humans healthier, it should make dogs healthier too. And data shared by Rodney Habib, a pet nutrition blogger in his Tedx Talk supports that (embedded above, please watch it!). To me, the less processed the food is, the better.
Freshness, heat, light, and oxygen all affect the bioavailability of food. The moment food leaves its nutrient source (e.g. when plants are harvested), it begins losing nutritional value.
Of all the dog food options out there, kibbles are the most processed. Ingredients are mixed together, ground down, cooked with high heat and pressure, shaped into tiny little balls, and dried to remove moisture to achieve longer shelf life.
Even a raw diet has different levels of “fresh” and some are more processed than the others. More on that later.
2. The origin of your dog’s food
With so many factors affecting the bioavailability of food, it is crucial to know who is making your dog’s food, where it’s made, how it’s made, and with what ingredients.
Here are some questions you may want to ask:
- Who are the owners of the brand and what are their values and beliefs?
- Where is the food made and do they own the facility?
- Where and how do they source their ingredients?
- Do they only use ingredients that pass a certain standard (e.g. good cuts, locally farmed, free-range, high welfare, organic)?
- How is it prepared? E.g. extruded (most kibbles), baked, dehydrated, freeze-dried, frozen
- Any additional treatment to sterilise the food? Some brands, especially those in the US, use High Pressure Processing (HPP) and other controversial methods to get rid of pathogens in raw food, but some critics question its impact
3. Deciphering ingredients lists
After I brought Latte home, I knew I wanted to replace the dry food recommended by the pet shop with one better quality kibble once she was more settled in with us.
I googled “best dry dog food” and the big premium kibble brands were mentioned. And I made the decision based on what people on the Internet told me were best for my dog.
What I should have done was to scrutinise the ingredients, which would have led me to realise that I was feeding my dog low-quality food much quicker than I did.
Packaging can be sneaky
We all love beautiful packaging, which is why any clever brand will ensure that they get that right. They will throw in tempting keywords (e.g. “meaty”, “grain-free”, “with real beef”) and imagery (e.g. presenting a succulent steak) to help you along.
Don’t fall for marketing gimmicks. Read the ingredients list! That yummy steak may just be beef by-products – leftover animal parts after the meat is removed, and what’s marketed as grain-free food may be packed with carbohydrates.
Ingredients lists only tell you one part of the story
When looking at the ingredients list, know that they are sorted by weight BEFORE processing in descending order. Thus, it’s hard to know what really makes up most of the dog food when you are dealing with wet and dry ingredients.
There’s also something called “ingredients splitting”. Manufacturers are allowed to list derivatives of one ingredient separately (e.g. peas, pea fibre, pea protein, pea flour, pea starch). By doing so, the food would appear to have lower pea content and more attractive ingredients that “weigh more” are pushed up the list.
Hence, look beyond the first few ingredients. Every ingredient should be something you want to feed your dog. That’s also why I appreciate a short and simple ingredients list when I see one.
Look out for fillers
Speaking of peas, it is often labelled as a cheap filler, just like corn, wheat, and potatoes. Fillers keep the cost down for manufacturers and also make commercial food more affordable for pet parents. Some fillers offer little nutrition and may even cause obesity.
When making commercial dog food, to some extent, nutrients will inevitably be lost. To ensure that the food meets basic nutritional standards, the majority of manufacturers would add supplements, which are usually synthetic (more cost-effective).
Synthetic supplements may pose problems and I certainly wouldn’t choose a bag of food where half or more of the ingredients list is made up of synthetic supplements.
I would also avoid any heat-processed food that contains fish oil. Fish oil offers essential omega 3 to our diet but it is also very susceptible to oxidation caused by exposure to oxygen, light, and heat. If fish oil is added to dog food that is then treated with heat, it will turn rancid, affecting its efficacy and might do more harm than good.
The two types of raw diet
When reading up on raw diets, you will come across words like “BARF” and “PMR”. These are basically the two schools of thought within the raw feeder community.
PMR: Prey Model Raw
The Prey Model Raw (PMR) diet is one that closely resembles what carnivorous dogs and wolves would eat in the wild, and that is the whole prey.
Yes, that means the whole carcass; fur/hair, feathers, hide included.
While there are dog owners who would throw a whole rabbit or quail to their dogs, it is either too much effort or icky for most average people. Not to mention a whole animal is usually too much as a meal for a small dog.
So, what do they do? They try to put all the parts together.
As a guideline, a PMR diet should consist of:
- 80% muscle meat (usually in parts or chunks, not minced)
- 10% raw meaty bones (appropriate size, non-weight-bearing)
- 5% liver
- 5% other offal (secretory organs like kidney and spleen)
BARF: Biologically-appropriate Raw Food
One main difference between PMR and BARF is that the latter includes plant-based foods as a part of the diet.
Depending on the feeder’s beliefs – whether dogs are omnivores or facultative carnivores – the ratio of meat, bone, offal, fruits, and vegetables would vary. Of course, meat would still take up anywhere between 70-85% of the diet. BARF feeders also tend to use supplements more freely than PMR feeders.
In terms of the meat component, it is common to see ground meat in BARF diets. Generally, raw feeding beginners would gravitate towards the BARF approach as it’s less strict than the PMR approach.
The homecooked diet
You can find thousands of recipes when it comes to home cooking for dogs. But according to Dr. Brian Loon from Amber Vet, “a study revealed that out of 200 recipes for dogs taken from the web and books, only 5 (2.5%) were balanced.” Those five recipes were prepared by veterinarians with advanced training in nutrition.
“Nutrition is a complicated science. Just adding supplements to a home-cooked diet does not make it complete and balanced.”, adds Dr. Loon.
Using minced meat – is it inferior?
As mentioned earlier, oxidation destroys nutrients and it accelerates with more surface area. So, minced meat will inevitably oxidise faster than chunks of meat.
However, minced meat is easily accessible, more affordable, and much easier to prepare than buying meat parts and cutting them up.
It’s up to you to decide the pros and cons of choosing minced over chopped chunks or cuts of meat.
Cooling vs. warming foods
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), food is categorised into three main groups:
- Yin (Cooling), such as rabbit, kelp, banana, watermelon, yoghurt
- Yang (Warming), such as chicken, turkey, lamb, venison, prawn, pumpkin
- Neutral (neither cool or warm), such as beef, pork, goji berries, papaya
Eating cooling foods would have a cooling effect on your body and eating warming foods would have warming effects on your body. Do note that how you cook them (e.g. raw, steamed, fried) can also affect their characteristics.
When the yin and yang of our body are not in harmony, our health and behaviour would be affected. TCM practitioners believe that eating cooling or warming foods play a part in bringing your body back into balance – preventing and treating disease.
Yin represents cold, passive, and water and Yang represents warm, active, and fire. Hence, dogs with skin allergies (think inflammation, overactive immune system) are likely to have excess yang (heat) and should eat cooling and neutral foods while avoiding warming foods.
Of course, there’s a lot more to TCM and yin and yang than this simplified explanation. You can consult a TCM vet if you are interested in learning more.
Short-lived, less contamination
When choosing a fish oil, the advice is to choose one that is made from short-lived fish (krill vs. salmon) as they accumulate less heavy metals.
Another example is sharks. Their meat, including cartilage, is considered unsafe as sharks are apex predators (top of the marine food chain) and are susceptible to bioaccumulation of heavy metals. You can refer to a study of heavy metal accumulation in and food safety of shark meat from Jeju island, Republic of Korea.
We get our nutrients from eating different proteins, fruits and vegetables, and carbohydrates. If we eat chicken every day of our lives, we will suffer from deficiencies in the long-term.
The same applies to our dogs. Even though commercial pet food is formulated to meet minimum nutritional requirements, it only provides one nutrition profile.
There are nutrients in one meat that may not be or minimally present in the other. One recipe will have a higher or lower amount of one thing than another recipe. Feeding your dog a variety of foods will give your dogs’ bodies access to different types and amounts of proteins, vitamins, minerals, and fats.
What’s more, rotating the protein in your dog’s diet can help prevent food allergies or intolerances from developing over time.
For dogs with food allergies or intolerances, it is still important to find three to four proteins for rotation. That’s because if your dog ends up being unable to eat that one safe protein, you risk having no alternatives!
Raw or cooked: The choices you have
Here are the types of dog diets you can choose from (non-exhaustive list):
|Frozen commercial||Frozen commercial|
|Freeze-dried (drying while frozen)||Dehydrated (drying by low heat so not considered raw and also not entirely cooked)|
|Air-dried (drying by evaporation)||Canned wet food|
– Extruded or baked
– Prescription diet
– Raw coated kibble
Freeze-dried vs. Air-dried vs. Dehydrated
With the increasing popularity of raw diets, we are getting more and more commercial raw options in the market.
For the busy dog parents who prefer shelf-stable raw options for easy storage and feeding, they have two, maybe three options. I say maybe three because one of them is neither raw or fully cooked – and that’s dehydrated “raw”.
Dehydration removes moisture using low heat for many hours. Because it uses heat, critics don’t consider the end product to still be raw.
And then there’s air-drying, which slowly removes moisture through evaporation by air circulation (no heat applied) in the drying chambers.
Lastly, we have freeze-drying where the food is frozen, placed in a vacuum, and processed with low temperature and pressure. This approach removes frozen water by turning it from ice to vapour straightaway, skipping the liquid state. As the food remains frozen throughout the process, it remains raw.
Freeze-dried food has a much lower moisture content than air-dried food (1 – 4% vs. 10+%), which is why feeding instructions require you to rehydrate it before feeding.
Having said that, as long as you are feeding dry food, you should ensure that your dog drinks plenty of water.
The freeze-drying method is also more expensive than air-drying and that is reflected in the prices.
- Homemade (if properly balanced)
Supplementing your dog’s diet
A fresh and balanced diet should provide your dog with most of the nutrients they need. Supplements should only be used to fill in gaps that whole foods can’t. For all dogs, one supplement that comes to my mind is omega 3.
Balancing omega 3 and omega 6
Dogs need essential fatty acids, omega 3 and 6 to maintain healthy body functions, and a good balance of the two reduces inflammation. The body doesn’t produce them so it has to come from what they eat.
Due to modern farming methods, foods are generally abundant in omega 6 but lacking in omega 3. Our optimal amount of Omega 3 and omega 6 intakes should be in the ratio of around 1:4 (no more than 1:10). Yet, some foods offer as much as 1:20+ ratio of omega 3 to 6.
Feeding fatty fish can be a good source of omega 3 but when you are not, do consider a supplement. However, choosing an omega 3 supplement can be tricky. Here’s how to choose a fish oil that’s beneficial.
Shop fish oils here.
Calcium in homemade diets
Calcium is also an important mineral that helps to build healthy teeth and bones and has to be balanced with phosphorous in the ratio of 1:1.
Dogs can get calcium from eating bones (raw meaty or ground bone), green leafy vegetables, broccoli, ground eggshells, dairy products like 100% plain yoghurt and goat’s milk.
Most commercial diets are formulated to meet your dog’s calcium requirement. Homemade diets will need supplementation if they don’t consist of an adequate amount of raw meaty bones. Calcium deficiency can cause serious health problems so don’t take it lightly.
Fibre for good poop
Some dogs do better with fibre in their diet. If you are feeding PMR and your dog experiences soft stools for an extended period of time, your dog may do well with a small amount of fibre from plants like green leafy vegetables (e.g. spinach and bok choy), pumpkin, and psyllium husk.
Supplements for specific health concerns
Healthy dogs should not be eating too many supplements – feeding one to three is reasonable. Dogs with health issues may benefit from additional supplementation.
Chubby dogs can be cute but it’s not actually good for them. Many dog parents mistake a dog that’s in shape as too skinny.
How to tell whether your dog is in shape
Your dog should have a:
- defined waist
- waist that’s tucked up from the chest
- thin layer of fat between the ribs and skin. You should be able to feel the ribs but they should not be prominent/protruding
A dog that’s too heavy risks overstraining their joints and developing other obesity-related problems like diabetes, heart disease, some types of cancer, and breathing difficulty.
Weight management: Fatty meats and carbs
If your dog is overweight, besides looking at the food amount, the type of protein (fatty vs. lean) and amount of carbohydrates will also make a big difference. If you are trying to reduce your dog’s weight, cut down on carbohydrates and choose leaner meats.
Don’t forget to take treats into consideration
Most people think that treats = happy dogs. But dogs don’t actually need treats when they have their proper meals.
I know, seeing them wagging their tails when we are holding a treat is such a precious moment. And when those puppy eyes stare at you, your willpower fades.
There’s nothing wrong with giving treats occasionally or using them for training but it should be fed in moderation. If you are treating your dog too often in a day, you are putting them at risk of obesity. What’s more, their bodies have to work constantly to digest the food. We don’t want an overworked digestive system, do we?
No matter what diet you choose to put your dog on, the most important thing is that you are aware of its pros and cons. That way, you can work to reduce the cons (e.g. adding fresh food to kibbles, supplementing correctly, and getting professional advice).
Nutrition is a science that requires constant learning and finetuning. Every dog is different, so be flexible, but do your research and/or consult a qualified professional before making significant changes.