tl;dr: Fresh is best. If you can’t home cook (and we don’t recommend it for most people), then a store bought cooked or raw diet is our favorite for most healthy dogs.
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Let thy food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.– Hippocrates
As a veterinarian, the #1 tool in my toolbox for radically changing the health of almost any dog is diet. What to feed a dog is the most important decision you can make to keep your dog healthy.
But there are so many dog foods on the market and so many different opinions, how do you choose the right food for your dog?
Here’s what I’d tell you if you dropped by my office.
How Can a Healthy Diet Help My Dog?
In my veterinary practice, switching diets from processed food to whole foods has worked wonders for all sorts of conditions.
Here are some of the things that I’ve seen massively improve just by fixing a dog’s diet:
- skin & coat
- anal gland problems
- ear infections
- digestive issues
- kidney disease
- urinary tract issues
But it’s not just me getting results like this, it’s every holistic vet I know—and I know a LOT of holistic vets!
Before we talk about specific foods, let’s talk about dogs in the wild.
What Do Dogs Eat Naturally?
Dogs have been domesticated for a long, long time—possibly more than 30,000 years! —so we can’t really look at wild dogs like coyotes or wolves and say that our domestic dogs should eat exactly the same thing they do.
Dry dog food, in contrast, has only been around since the 1940s . It’s not as though dogs are highly adapted to eating kibble.
Point being, we can’t say for sure what our dogs would be eating in the wild without humans around, but I think it’s safe to make some generalizations:
- it’s not processed food
- it has a lot more moisture than kibble
- it has a lot of variety, including veggies and fruits, but with a preference for meat
It doesn’t take a degree in nutrition to know that highly processed foods—foods that contain added fats, starches, and sugars, additives, artificial colors and flavors, and/or preservatives and taste enhancers—are not as healthy as fresh foods.
There are a lot of vets who still recommend kibble, but there is a growing number of vets who are giving kibble the boot.
I suspect many of our dog friends are chronically dehydrated because they eat a diet of kibble. Dry food has only about 10% moisture content, but wet food is much higher, almost 80% .
Dogs tend to be better about cats at making up the difference by drinking water from their bowls, but I suspect that eating dry food, for them, is about as exciting for us as eating cereal with no milk. It might be okay for a few meals, but yikes, that would get old pretty quickly. If given a choice, they’d rather eat meat than kibble .
A Variety, With a Preference for Meat
Just like people, most dogs like to eat a variety of foods .
And dogs are not strict carnivores. They will happily eat a wide variety of things, but they show a preference for meat . (No surprise there, really—if your dog gets to choose between a bowl of meat and a bowl of rice, what’s she gonna pick?)
Dogs are also able to digest carbohydrates like starch and fiber much better than cats, and this may have helped lead to their domestication, but carbohydrates are not an essential nutrient for dogs .
Does that mean your dog should never have carbs? No. It’s okay for your dog to have some carbs, but as a general rule, carbs shouldn’t make up the majority of a healthy dog’s diet. (Kibble contains, on average, about 30-60% carbs .)
What Should Dogs Eat?
I’ve come to think of pet food as a spectrum.
On one side is the cheapest kibble you can possibly find, in the discount bin at the dollar store.
On the other end is having your personal chef create each delicious and nutritionally balanced meal from scratch, using only locally grown, fresh, organic ingredients, all of which have been blessed personally by the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus.
For most people, the reality is somewhere in between. My goal is to get you as close to the fresh end of the spectrum as your wallet and circumstances allow.
With that in mind, here are some diets I would recommend to help push you toward the fresher end of the spectrum.
Rabbits and Squirrels
HAHAHAHAHAHA! Just kidding. Kind of.
On the one hand, a rabbit or a squirrel would be a pretty good meal for some dogs.
On the other hand: pugs. Or any tiny dog that thinks they can swallow a bison and then discovers they can’t.
Here are some good reasons we don’t dole out whole rabbits and squirrels at meal time:
- Most people wouldn’t have the stomach for it!
- Many dogs don’t have the stomach for it, either, and would have trouble digesting it
- Wildlife can carry parasites and other diseases
- Mass chaos ensues at the local park when all the dogs chase all the squirrels all the time
Even though dogs would probably eat a lot of rabbits and squirrels if left to their own devices, they’d also be eating a lot of other things, too, like roadkill, bugs, garbage…
We can keep the idea of whole prey in mind, without actually feeding a whole rabbit.
In an ideal world, everyone would cook for their dogs, and it would be easy to cook for your dogs.
The reality is, though, that most people don’t have the energy or time to do it right. While fresh food is generally healthier than kibble, you can’t feed a dog a bunch of chicken and rice and hope that it’s going to thrive. Your dog needs certain nutrients, like vitamins and minerals, in the right balance.
I will do a separate post devoted to home cooking. If you would like to start on your own right away, though, take a look at: Raw Fed and Nerdy.
If you want a super simple version of home cooking, take a look at these base mixes from The Honest Kitchen.
Fresh Food: RAW or Cooked
If you decide you’d like to do store bought, then your fresh food options come in raw or cooked options.
The controversy around feeding raw deserves its own post, but suffice it to say that I routinely recommend raw diets for some of my patients. No diet is one size fits all.
I’d steer you toward cooked food in these situations:
- ill, frail, or elderly dog
- dog with a compromised immune system
- dog lives with a human with a compromised immune system
I like them because they use quality ingredients, and they ship directly to you, rather than to a distributor. Instead of sitting around in a warehouse freezer for a long time before it reaches you, it’s at your house shortly after it’s made.
I have fed Darwin’s to my own dog (and my client’s dogs) for years, and have recently started rotating in VIVA foods, too.
Fresh cooked food is a good option for pups who are more delicate, or for people who are concerned about the possibility of bacteria in raw food.
My favorite cooked food for dogs is Raised Right.
Just Food for Dogs is another fresh food option, but their website is so annoying to navigate that I’ll save you the trouble.
Dehydrated / AIR DRIED / Freeze Dried
Dehydrated, air dried, or freeze dried food can be good options for full time feeding. I only use these when I’m traveling, to provide a little variety at home, or to appeal to dogs who won’t eat other options.
Even if you don’t feed it regularly, I’d recommend keeping some in the house. It keeps a long time when sealed, and can be handy to have if for whatever reason you run out of your regular dog food.
The Honest Kitchen makes several dehydrated foods; just add water for a yummy stew.
I would definitely recommend adding warm water to the above options, letting it sit for a while to absorb the water, and then adding more water!
Ziwi Peak makes an air-dried food that’s crunchy like kibble, but doesn’t have the added starch of kibble. The drawback is that it has no liquid, so you’ll need to make sure your dog gets plenty of moisture from other sources.
There are so many varieties of canned dog food that it’ll make your head explode.
Things to avoid in canned dog food:
- Meat chunks
(These are often starch chunks made to look like meat, not actual meat. Gross.)
- Artificial colors or flavors
- Starches or grains in the first 2-3 ingredients
- Carageenan and other gums
(These are known to irritate the digestive tract in humans, but are hard to avoid.)
I like to see about 3-4 main ingredients that are meat based, then some veggies or whole grains, and the rest vitamins and minerals.
Does it need grain? There is some speculation that grain free diets are bad for dogs, because some dogs eating grain free diets developed heart disease.
I’ll do an in-depth dive on this later, but some key takeaways are 1) there is no definitive proof that the lack of grains caused the issue, and 2) the diets in question were, specifically, grain free KIBBLE.
It’s okay if canned food for dogs has a little grain, but it doesn’t need grain. One or maybe two whole grains is fine. I get suspicious when a lot of carbs show up, looking like whole wheat AND wheat flour AND corn meal AND vegetable starch AND (you get the idea).
Because I don’t feed canned food regularly, and because there are about 80 bajillion canned dog food options, I don’t bother trying to stay on top of them all. When I need a can of food, I read the ingredients.
If you need the ease of kibble feeding, or you have a dog who is a kibble fiend, you have a couple of options that are healthier than extruded kibble.
Ziwi Peak makes an air-dried food that’s crunchy like kibble, but doesn’t have the added starch of kibble.
Lotus Pet Foods has an oven-baked kibble, which, because of the lower processing temperature, also doesn’t require as much carbohydrate as a regular kibble.
Fresh Food on a Budget
It can’t be denied that kibble is definitely the easiest food for dog owners to deal with, and it’s oftn the cheapest, too. If you’re on a budget, it’s easy to feel discouraged with your options.
Here are some ideas to get fresher food into your dog’s diet without spending an arm and a leg.
Fresh food Sprinkles
You can use any of the foods on this list as a topper for other foods.
Got some a bit of canned food? Put a spoonful on their kibble.
Are you having broccoli tonight? Make a bit more for Fido.
One study showed that adding fresh veggies to a dog’s diet just a few times a week reduced their risk for bladder cancer .
(We’ll do another post about what human foods are okay to give.)
Rotate through different foods
There’s a weird belief out there that dogs should eat only one food, and that feeding a variety of foods is bad for their delicate digestive systems.
That is definitely true for a small number of dogs, just as it’s true for a small number of people. For most dogs, though, variety is great!
Variety keeps dogs interested and excited about meals. Who wants to eat the same dry food for every meal of their entire life? No one.
Variety also helps keep your dog from getting too much of one nutrient, and not enough of another. And it keeps the gut bacteria more balanced.
So if you can’t afford that in-home chef every night, maybe invite the chef over once a week.
How to Transition Your Dog to a New Food
The key to adding new foods to your dog’s diet, especially in the beginning, is to introduce them slooooowly to make sure your pup is okay with them. If you try eight new foods in two days and Fido gets the runs, you won’t know which food caused it. Stick to no more than one new food per week.
(When your dog is accustomed to eating a variety of foods all the time, you won’t have to be so cautious.)
Also, don’t go cold turkey! If your dog has been eating kibble for its whole life, the last thing you want to do is plop down a bowl of raw food and hope he’ll eat it.
Start by adding just a little bit to their regular food. Give that a few days, then add two little bits and take away some of their original food. Gradually increase the new food, and decrease the old food to help your dog get used to the change.
Pro tip: do not serve food cold from the refrigerator. Add warm water to make it fresh squirrel temperature.
So, What to Feed a Dog?
If you can’t get Emeril Lagasse to drop by, and you don’t want to butcher a squirrel for dinner, then give one of the other fresh food options a go. It’s the best thing you can do for your dog.