Guide written by:
Pauline, Self-taught handyman, Leeds
A dog's diet is essential for supporting growth and good health. The ingredients of a dry dog food will impact your dog's daily calorie intake and help to ensure that their body is working the best it can. Need some tips for finding Rover some new kibble? Read on for our advice on decoding dry dog food labels!
- Ingredients and nutritional value
- Dog age and portion size
- Special dietary requirements
- Nutritional guidelines
- Price differences
Choosing a dry food to suit your dog's needs
The most popular food choice for most dog owners, the types of ingredients used to make dry dog food should be examined with a fine tooth comb. This is because these ingredients will have an effect on your dog's health (for example, limiting the risk of cancer, impaired kidney function or even obesity). The winning trio? Go for dog food that is high in protein with clearly marked ingredients and a low carbohydrate content.
A puppy's diet should be specially designed to support growth while an adult dog's diet should be focused on keeping energy levels high and maintaining a healthy weight. Senior dog food should allow older dogs to maintain a good metabolic rate and to help ease any little age-related issues they may have.
How to recognise a high-quality dry dog food
It's important to learn how to read the labels of dry dog food correctly, which will involve understanding both the list of ingredients and the analytical constituents of a dry food mix.
The ingredients are listed in order of highest to lowest weight. This means that the first ingredient (chicken, for example) represents the highest percentage in the recipe overall.
However, some of the same types of ingredients can add up to the extent that the total percentage of cereals can actually be very high and can even end up outweighing the protein content.
You must also pay attention to chemical additives! These products help to preserve dry dog food. High-quality dog food will generally use natural preservatives such as absorbic acid (derived from vitamin C) or tocopherols (derived from vitamin E). These ingredients can easily be confused with 'chemical' additives to the untrained eye. Logically, a more natural dry dog food will have a shorter shelf life. It's up to you to calculate how long your dog food will last depending on your dog's daily portion size.
It's also important to look at how the dog food is cooked. It's best to go for a dry dog food that is cooked at a low temperature (90°C) or one that is cold-pressed. These two techniques help to preserve the nutritional value of the ingredients and to stop the protein from breaking down too much – which, in turn, makes the food easier to digest. The cooking or blending method will be noted on the packaging.
Carbohydrates, protein and cereal: quantity and composition
Let's take a moment to review one important fact about dogs: they are not true carnivores. They are not categorised as true carnivores because they are able to eat different food groups. However, while they are able to digest small amounts of carbohydrates, dogs are still principally meat or fish eaters.
The recommended percentage of protein per meal is generally 53% onwards.Grain-free dry dog food will have a higher percentage of protein than the leading brands.
Please note that proteins derived from plants like corn or wheat are only included in recipes to increase the overall protein content: these ingredients are much less effective from a nutritional standpoint.
So what is the ideal level of carbohydrates in dry dog food? As little as possible! Manufacturers do not have to note the sugar content of dog food, which essentially makes it a silent killer.
Generally speaking, the amount of carbs in dry food would ideally be limited to around 6% as, from a metabolic point of view, only fats and proteins are useful to dogs.
Dogs that consume too many carbohydrates will be unable to break them down. This can lead to weight issues and diabetes, among other health problems. Grain-free brands offer products with a carbohydrate content of around 20 to 30% while the same value from other big name brands is usually at least 40%.
If you want a high-quality dry dog food, aim for a carbohydrate content of around 25%.
The quality of main ingredients
How do you find your way around the ingredients list? What is the protein source? Is it meat or plant-based?
You must make sure to read the type of meat according to the animal it is derived from (e.g. chicken, turkey, rabbit, duck, salmon, etc.).
The ingredients must be clearly marked. After all, you probably like to know exactly what is on your plate. If a label mentions something like animal fat, it's hard to know exactly what type of fat it is or the animal it comes from. The same goes for any mention of 'cereals': it is not clear what this refers to.
Try to select a high-quality protein source (using fresh product) and be very careful when it comes to cereal or carbohydrate content.
These days, there is an ongoing debate between grain-free dog foods (Orijen, Arcana, Sam's Field, etc.) and traditional dry food from leading brands with good reputations (Royal Canin, Hill's, etc.). Carbohydrates help to form dry dog food but if the carb content is too high, the glucose will wear out the digestive system and make the pancreas work overtime.
Remember that not all dogs require fruit and veg in their diets. As such, your choice of dog food needs to be made on a case by case basis!
Dry dog food: price differences and quality standards
The difference in price between low- and high-end dog foods is linked to the nutritional value of the food and the ingredients used.
The better the foodstuffs used, the higher the price will be. It goes without saying that a powder composed of chicken skin, beak and feathers will be less expensive for manufacturers than a fresh chicken breast!
If a dry dog food is very cheap, it will not contain high-quality ingredients for your dog.
A word of advice: forget about the cheapest ranges of dry dog food which will be made up of high levels of cereals and animal-based powders!
Here's a quick cheat sheet for choosing the right dry dog food based on value for money:
- High percentage of protein
- Percentage of crude ash around 8% (moisture around 10%)
- Vitamin and mineral supplements
- Limited cereal content: not the main ingredient in terms of percentage
- Suitable for neutered / spayed dogs if necessary (or other requirement or condition)
- Includes a detailed ingredient list (protein type, carb type, fruit and veg)
Choosing a dry food based on your dog's age
So, how do I know which food is best for my dog? Well, every dog has different needs depending on their age. That's why dog food brands offer dry foods designed for each stage in a dog's life. There are generally three main age groups catered for on the market.
Puppy or junior dog food supports balanced growth (for bones, cartilage and muscles). These foods also play a role in preventing unbalanced or slow growth. They have a higher calcium content.
Dry dog food for adult dogs
Adult dog food is designed to help maintain a healthy weight. As the dog has stopped growing, this type of food aims to fulfil their daily calorie needs based on lifestyle (e.g. lead-only walks, practising a sport like agility, couch potato, etc.).
A dog that is kept on junior food for too long can suffer from uneven growth and musculoskeletal issues.
Senior dog food
Dog food aimed at senior dogs will often contain extra vitamins and minerals to fight joint pain and help to maintain a healthy coat. They also take into account any weight gain caused by lower activity levels.
Nutritional needs: how much dog food to serve per day
The amount of food your dog needs per day depends on their age, activity levels and body type; these factors are more important than breed. Look to the back of dog food packaging for feeding guidelines which will recommend daily portions depending on age (growing or adult) and weight (bearing in mind that male dogs are generally a bit heavier than females of the same breed). It is even sometimes recommended to go slightly below the amounts indicated to stop your dog from putting on weight – manufacturers have been known to be generous with portion sizes to make you empty the packet a bit quicker!
Now let's take a quick look at the shape and size of different dry dog foods. Supposedly designed for an easier bite for certain types of dogs (e.g. a wave shape for boxers) or to be the right size for your dog's mouth (small kibble for smaller dogs and larger kibble for big dogs), some manufacturers even go so far as to offer breed-specific dry dog food. In reality, the ingredients of these foods are generally pretty close to generic foods but the vitamin or iron content will vary slightly.
Quick tip: the daily serving size of dry dog food will vary according to ingredients. For example, you will need to feed more of a food with a high cereal content than you would a grain-free option.
That said, a highly active dog will need a higher calorie intake than a couch potato. This is why it's important to adjust portion size according to dog age and habits. Remember to bring this up at your yearly vet check-up.
How to calculate the protein content of dry dog food
Protein content can be calculated using a protein to calorie ratio. A minimum of 75 g of protein per 1,000 calories is generally recommended.
The amount of protein required by your dog must match the amount provided by the food.
This all depends on the ideal weight range of your dog and their energy requirements based on activity level, whether or not they are neutered or spayed and, sometimes, their breed (some naturally have lower metabolic rates).
If the protein content is too low, there is a risk of muscle or general weight loss. On the other hand, a very high protein content will cause a dog to put on weight. This is particularly common among labradors who have a tendency to be overweight.
For more information, consult your vet.
How to feed a dog with specific dietary requirements
Spayed or neutered dogs
After being spayed or neutered, a dog will require around 20 to 30% fewer calories than before. If food intake is not reduced, you may put your dog at risk of several health issues. An overweight dog may suffer from the following:
- Respiratory problems
- Heart disease
- Low motivation
- Joint pain
In order to reduce calorie intake and keep your dog at a healthy weight, it may be necessary to change food.
Some dogs are more prone to allergies than others. Those that suffer from skin reactions or digestive issues will usually benefit from dog food that is easy to digest and hypoallergenic.
These foods do not contain any known allergens (for example, beef).
However, you need to make sure that these foods still contain the right balance of nutrients. Otherwise, your dog will go hungry and start begging or even stealing food.
Of course, you will have to keep an eye on your dog when changing foods to see how well they suit your allergy-prone dog.
Grain-free dog food for gluten allergies
What are the symptoms of a gluten intolerance? Refusal to eat, poor digestion (vomiting or abnormal bowel movements).
The solution lies with testing grain-free dog foods with high protein contents and small amounts of fruit and veg.
Dogs with health issues
Every health problem has a dog food solution:
- Impaired kidney function: specialist dog food that limits the amount of stress put on the kidneys;
- Heart issues: dog food with a lower fat content;
- Diabetes: dog food with a reduced sugar content designed to regulate glucose levels (e.g. Royal Canin Canine Diabetic).
Choosing the best dry food for your dog
Consult the table below to find out if your current dry dog food is working for your dog.
Low-end dry dog food
Yes, there's a good chance the dietary needs of your dog are not being met.
Ingredients are noted in detail
No: be cautious! A lack of information is usually sign of a poor-quality dog food.
Low protein content
Yes: 53% per meal recommended
High percentage of animal protein
No: plant-based proteins are less nutritious.
No: change dog food
No: change dog food
No: change dog food
Guide written by:
Pauline, Self-taught handyman, Leeds, 89 guides
With a handyman-father, I grew up with the soft sound of the sander and hammer on weekends. I am both manual and cerebral (yes, it is possible.), I learned the basics of DIY and the customization of furniture because I was passionate. The salvage mentality is a true way of life that allowed me to know how to use all the tools and products needed to give something a second life, from sander to varnish. I have two favorite activities: the transformation of old furniture and decoration tips. I am always ready to lend a helping hand to revamp a table or to restore a mirror that was intended for the trash that will become a friend’s centerpiece. I’m convinced that it’s possible to reinvent an interior by small, regular modifications, I constantly research low-cost, test ideas.