A Critical Look at Selecting a Diet for your Dog

hoosing a diet for your dog is an exercise that can feel like an obstacle course. The selection of food commercially available on the shelves can be overwhelming and confusing. Food labels and ingredient lists are hard to decode, brand claims are often misleading, and nutrition advice given online is fraught with commercial biases that result from affiliation and sponsoring programs driven aggressively by the pet food industry.

We have put together a guide to help you understand the various options you have for feeding your dog, and the benefits or downside of each option, with nutrition advice and practical tips. Because Dog Learner is not affiliated with, or sponsored by any pet food company, we refrain from mentioning any specific brand or product name.

To complement this guide, you can find in our Nutrition section a Complete Guide to Reading Dog Food Labels, a practical guide on How much to feed your dog, and an article covering the most Common Dog Food Questions and Misconceptions.

Dry pet food

Dry pet food is commonly known as "kibble". It is produced by an industrial process that uses high heat and pressure to create an "air-popped" product similar to your breakfast cereals. The most common industrial process to produce kibble is called extrusion, but you can also find oven baked varieties. Kibble was the first type of dry commercial pet food produced in 1957 by Purina.

Kibble is one of the most popular food type for pets because of its economical price and convenience. Convenience has always been the most attractive feature of dry pet foods. Not only are these foods easy to store and feed, but they can also be purchased online, or at every supermarket, grocery store or local pet store.

Although manufacturers of dry foods claim that their products constitute a "complete and balanced diet" for dogs, we must remember that kibble is highly processed. It is made from low grade byproducts of human food production, and there are huge variations in quality and nutritional value between brands. There are many dry food formulas but the final products yield similar benefits and downsides.

Extruded kibble

Extrusion is a standard type of kibble manufacturing. It is made by grinding and mixing the ingredients into a dough, cutting it into pellets that are briefly cooked by steam at extremely high temperatures and pressure. Cooked food pellets are then dried until the moisture content is low enough to make the product shelf stable. The final kibble is then coated in animal fats and preservatives to prevent spoilage.

The extrusion process requires very high heat, in the 200-250° F range and fresh ingredients end up being cooked up to three times to produce the final kibble. Heat damages the nutrients in the food, so additional vitamins and minerals must be added in the coating after extrusion to maintain a balanced nutritional value.

The water content in the ingredients is drastically reduced by heat (from 70% to 10%), and raw protein sources that are high in moisture can lose a lot of their volume in the process.

Kibble production by extrusion - Dog Learner
Fresh ingredients are cooked up to 3 times to produce kibble

Baked kibble

Some dry food manufacturers oven cook food at lower temperatures over longer periods instead of using steam extrusion. This process is supposed to better preserve food nutrients than extrusion, but any cooked product will lose some nutritional value during the process. Baked kibble is claimed to be more nutrient dense and flavorful compared to extruded foods. It can be more expensive than extruded kibble, and not as widely available. It has a slightly softer texture and is thought to be more digestible than the extruded type.

Kibble manufacturers are not required to communicate specific information regarding cooking temperatures or manufacturing processes, and marketing claims about nutritional value or digestibility are seldom substantiated by sound scientific evidence.

Coated kibble

Some brands use a freeze-dried meat coating on their kibble. This can be done to either baked or extruded formats, and it is typically added after the cooking process to provide the additional nutrients gained from the freeze-dried meat coating. Some dogs find coated kibble more palatable.


  • The main benefits of kibble are price and convenience. Price can vary greatly between brands and formulas, but kibble is usually the cheapest type of pet food you can buy.
  • The convenience factor is that kibble is sold everywhere, from supermarkets to pet stores, it can be delivered to your home, and comes in large packs that keep for extended periods without deteriorating, providing it is stored in a dry place. Kibble is simple to measure, almost odorless, and less messy than fresh or canned food.


  • A kibble diet can in theory provide the full spectrum of nutrients that are necessary to sustain a healthy diet. However, depending on the brand, the price and the formula, the amount of protein usually makes up less than 10% of the final dried product. With kibble, you feed your dog primarily over-cooked starches, animal fats, and low grade processed protein meal, which is far from being an ideal quality source of energy.
  • Dry food quality is hard to assess from looking at the food labels, and price is not always a reliable indicator of quality. The real nutritional content of the formulas is rarely represented truthfully by marketing claims, and labels can be misleading.
  • Some dogs don't find kibble palatable and become picky eaters. Some people mix kibble with canned wet food, others experiment with different dry food brands and formulas until they find one that their dog finds more to his taste.
  • Kibble has a high calorific content due to the predominance of starches in the formulas, and calorie count varies greatly between brands. As a result, if you follow blindly the recommended feeding directions, you are at risk of overfeeding your dog.
  • Because of the high starch content that transforms into glucose, kibble can cause more dental bacteria and tooth decay than raw food—in spite of its "crunchy" aspect. A kibble diet should be paired with a regular preventative dental routine.


  1. If you choose to feed your dog dry food for convenience, premium baked formulas are preferable. Most importantly, read past the marketing claims, and learn to read the labels carefully to decrypt the ingredient list and the nutritional value of the food.
  2. Evaluate the specific calorie requirements of your dog based on his lifestyle and daily exercise levels. Monitor his weight and change formulas if your dog becomes picky.
  3. Mixing dry food with quality canned food is a good option if you want to make the food more palatable and increase water content and protein intake. Make sure to reduce kibble portions accordingly. Mixing foods can increase the cost per meal.

Wet food

Most dogs love canned wet food and find it more palatable, mainly because of the high water content, the texture and the strong meaty smell. The main thing to remember is that canned food is not formulated to be nutritiously balanced, and should only be given as a supplementary diet combined with either kibble or fresh food, or as an occasional treat.

Most wet food products come in cans, but semi-moist pouches or Tetrapaks are also found and are a more environmentally friendly and convenient packaging choice.


  • Wet canned foods are safe and palatable for dogs. Dogs tested in kennels even prefer it to fresh food.
  • Wet diets contain 70-80% moisture content compared to the average 10% in a dry kibble diet, and contribute to hydrating your dog.
  • Most wet foods have a much higher protein content that dry foods, although the quality of the protein sources varies greatly between brands.


  • Canned food is not nutritionally complete or balanced and should only be used as a diet complement. It is generally more expensive and less convenient than dry food.
  • Some people are put off by the smell of canned food, but you should remember that for your dog, smell is the first factor of attraction and appetite stimulus.


  1. Canned foods should not be the main source of food in your dog's diet and is best used to complement kibble or home prepared diets, or as an occasional treat.
  2. The quality and price varies greatly between brands. Choose premium brands with high protein content, and read carefully the ingredient list and nutrition statements.
  3. Watch out for packaging integrity. A damaged can with bumps can have micro holes that can let through bacterial contamination.

Home-prepared raw or cooked diets

Home preparing food for your dog is a great option because of the opportunity to use a variety of fresh ingredients and to fully control the quality of what you feed.

Fresh food can either be prepared raw or cooked, or a mixture of both. Raw is a good option for meat, fish and eggs, while legumes, vegetables and grains are best cooked or steamed for improved digestibility.


  • Home prepared diets have the main benefit of giving you complete control over the quality, variety, freshness, and nutritional value of the ingredients.
  • Raw foods are full of enzymes, protein, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids. A dog's stomach is perfectly adapted to break down and absorb raw meat and bones.
  • Professional breeders and trainers of working dogs have documented that home prepared diets can have significant health and longevity benefits. When all ingredients are utilized in a balanced way and the dog is receiving optimal nutrition, an increase in muscle mass and reduction of fat can be seen, with improved energy levels and stamina. Dogs on raw diets also have better digestion transit and fewer stools.
  • Enzymes in raw meat provide dental benefits compared to the abrasion from chewing kibble. These enzymes work by combating oral bacteria that cause dog breath, plaque build up, and inflammation of the gums.


  • Home preparing a nutritionally balanced home diet for your dog can be more time consuming, more expensive, and more challenging than buying dry food.
  • Food safety can be an issue when feeding raw meat, unless you strictly follow food handling and storage rules to prevent bacterial contamination. In practice though, precautions are more for our own safety than for our dog's, as canines are much more resistant than humans to microbial infections.
  • With a home prepared diet, it may be slightly more difficult to estimate calorie count and how much to feed your dog.


  1. Always follow nutritionally balanced recipes recommended by qualified animal nutritionists. Avoid improvising or looking for random recipes on internet. Dogs don't have the same digestive system as humans, or the same nutritional requirements.
  2. It is impossible to calculate precisely the nutritional content of a home prepared diet. Feed a variety of fresh ingredients each day, rotate the ingredients over 3 weeks, and aim to balance the diet over time, exactly as you would do for your own diet.
  3. To figure out how much to feed an adult dog, the rule of thumb is 2-3% of the optimal body weight. Ask your vet for your dog's optimal weight in pounds, and multiply the weight by 16 to convert to ounces. Then multiply his weight in ounces by 0.03 (3%) to get the daily amount to feed. For example, a 62 lbs Labrador retriever should be fed approximately 30 ounces of food daily (62x16x0.03)
  4. Monitor the weight of your dog by weighing him once a week, and keep a written chart of the values. The quantity you feed daily depends on your dog's energetic needs. You can simply check your dog's body shape and monitor his weight chart for abnormal weight gain or loss, and adjust the amount of daily food rations accordingly.
  5. If you switch your dog to a raw diet from kibble, you may want to do it gradually (especially with younger dogs) to give time to the digestive system to adapt.
  6. Food supplements (such as omega-3 acids from fish oils and vitamin E) can safely be added to complement a raw diet.
  7. If you feed your dog a raw meat diet using frozen meats, make sure that you are well versed with safe food handling practices to preserve the integrity of the meat and prevent risks of bacterial contamination. Keep dog meat in a separate freezer area from human foods.
  8. The cost of home preparing food for your dog can vary depending on the ingredients you select and where you source them from. Purchase frozen meat in bulk from large discount stores. Keep a list of ingredients and quantities you use each month.
  9. Cook or steam vegetables, legumes and grains for better digestibility, and serve meat raw unless your dog appears to prefer cooked meat. If your dog shows itchy skin or allergic reactions, avoid soya-based products, remove grains from the diet (wheat, corn, rice or barley) and try switching from beef to chicken, lamb or salmon.
  10. Cooked bones are dangerous and should never be fed to a dog. If you choose to feed raw bones, use chicken legs or wings, or large fresh beef bones. Bones can be given as recreational bones that your dog will chew but not completely consume, but keep in mind that there is always a risk of internal injury if a large bone splinters. To be safe, only give bones to adult dogs (older than 9 months) under supervision, and make sure to use only fresh large bones, such as femurs or marrow bones. Dry bones are dangerous because they can become brittle and break, causing internal injuries.

Dehydrated or freeze-dried foods

Several new approaches are used to produce safe and storable raw foods, such as dehydration and freeze-drying. These foods are either completely raw or pre-cooked before dehydration, and many require rehydration. They will typically be finely ground, flaked, or a courser granola-like texture.


  • The main benefit of dehydrated or freeze dried food is convenience. The food is easy to store, and ready to serve. These foods should be formulated to be nutritionally balanced and safe, but always check the ingredient list and the nutritional values.
  • Dehydrated food is easy to store and feed, and can even be taken with you when traveling with your dog, and prepared when needed.
  • Similar to canned diets, dehydrated formulas are easier to digest than kibble and are recommended for dogs with sensitive stomachs.


  • Dehydrated or freeze dried food is not as widely available as dry food or canned food.
  • There are few serious reviews of the nutritional benefits of these products, as they are relatively new on the market.
  • The cost of dehydrated or freeze dried food is significantly higher than all the other diet options. You pay a high premium for convenience.

Final advice

Choosing the right diet for your dog depends on your budget and on the amount of time you can dedicate to the task on a daily basis. Kibble is economical and convenient, but you should consider that if your dog is fed exclusively on dry food, it may not be the healthiest option for him in the long term (even for premium quality). If your dog becomes picky with kibble or gains too much weight, you should experiment with other diets.

You should consider experimenting with a home-prepared diet before you turn to dehydrated or freeze dried food. If you find after some time that the amount of work or time involved in preparing a balanced diet for your dog is too challenging, try dehydrated or freeze dried products as an alternative.

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