How to pick the right dog food? Let’s ask an Animal Biosciences Professor

Aug 21, 2023

You’re cruising down the dog food aisles at a pet store and chances are, you already have a plan. You’re well aware of the brand your dog likes and the bag, with its eye-catching colours and happy pup on the front (by design, so you know), makes it instantly recognizable.

But there is much more to the packaging than colours and cuteness. The savvy dog owner will take full advantage of the useful information on the outside of the bag beyond the nutritional information. With the food being so specific these days, an owner should be able to target the ideal meal for their furry loved one.

Dr. Kate Shoveller, an Animal Biosciences professor at the University of Guelph, knows a lot about what dog food companies intend to do with their packaging. She spent nine years as senior scientist in Procter & Gamble’s pet food division, where the goal was to provide quality, helpful options in a huge market loaded with choices.

“It’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all,” says Dr. Shoveller, noting that pet owners do tend to resonate with both the picture of the healthy animal and an accompanying photo of the actual ingredients that go into the food.“ While companies have generally reduced the amount of information they have on their bags because consumers frequently say is there’s too much. There are some very important things to look for that will help you select the right food for your dog – the life stage, the lifestyle, and the key intent of that particular diet.

“A consumer might not understand the application of the food solely by looking at the ingredient deck. But by following those three pieces of information, you will be able to find a good fit for your dog.”

Age before beauty
Dog food companies make it clear what age range their specific products are for and utilize various ingredients for different life stages. You can see why. A puppy obviously has different needs than an adult or senior dog – and vice versa. Dr. Shoveller says that fish oil, because it contains long-chain fatty acids and the vitamin choline, has been shown to support cognitive development. That’s hugely important for a puppy and is therefore a regular ingredient in formulas for young dogs.

An older dog could have mobility issues, which is very common as they age. You might see “n3 fatty acids” in that formula because it reduces inflammation, or ingredients like glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, known joint supplements. Nutrients are catered to where a dog is at in its life.

Living the good life
Lifestyle is another critical consideration when choosing food. Is your dog happy chilling in their bed for a good chunk of the day or do they have that wild side where three hours of intense play hasn’t remotely slowed them down?

“The more active your dog is, they either need more food or a food with more nutrients,” says Dr. Shoveller. “This is a captured in ‘active’ or ‘sporting’ formulas. Most of that research is done using working, hunting, and sled dogs, which are on the high end of the activity scale. They’re essentially high-performance athletes.

“For dogs on the other end, those that are inactive and potentially overweight, they need a low-calorie diet. You will see the term ‘weight control’ on the bags, specifically for lower energy dogs.”

Good intentions
The third important consideration is to understand the intent of a claim on a dog food bag. There are a wide variety of claims, all with the idea that your dog can be helped in specific areas of their health. For example, you might see a claim that a formula will result in good heart and eye health because of the addition of taurine. If you’re concerned about your dog’s rumbly tummy, then a formula that makes a claim about gut health, which will contain functional fibres, could be a good choice. Improved oral care, as well as skin and coat, are examples of more claims a company could make, and they have backed them all up with the appropriate research.

“A common claim is that a formula is enhanced with nutrients for animals who have a hard time maintaining a healthy body weight,” Dr. Shoveller says, building on the idea of ‘weight control’ formulas. “In those situations, we need to decrease energy in the formula, but we need to increase the nutrient content in the form of vitamins, minerals, and proteins, because the dogs will eat less.

“You just have to be aware of the difference between what we call ‘structure’ and ‘function’ claims. Any packaging that uses the word ‘support’ means these nutrients are supplied because they’re needed for a physiological outcome. Clinical claims indicate a targeted scientific study.”

More to know
Dog food packaging also provides a ton of other useful information!
Size or breed-specific formulas (Do you have a little Doxie or a huge Mastiff? There’s a bag for that.)
Feeding guidelines (A great tool but keep in mind that if your dog can’t maintain a healthy weight with the low end of the feeding recommendations, it might be time for an appointment and a veterinary diet.)
Ingredient deck (Do some research and get a better idea of all that goodness going into your doggo’s food!)

So next time you’re walking down that dog food aisle, you know there’s more to that bag than the cutie on the front!