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Confused about what to feed your dog? Kibble and cans explained

May 17, 2019

cute dog with empty bowl looking up at parent

In the eyes and hearts of pet parents, dogs are full-fledged members of the family. For that reason, they care more than ever about what’s in that bag of dry dog food or in that tin of meat and gravy.

Without a doubt, your top priority is to provide a diet that will help your dog live their longest, happiest lives. While your holistic vet can — and should — help you determine which diet is best for your dog’s needs, this explainer to cans and kibble will give you a better understanding of some of the choices you’ll find on the shelves of your favorite local pet supply retailer.

  • We’ll start by explaining the differences between wet and dry dog food, along with some markers of quality.
  • Then, we’ll talk about the different formulas of dog food you may find and how they can help meet your dog’s unique needs.
  • Finally, we have answers to five questions on what to look for in a high-quality food for your dog.

Dry vs. wet: What's the difference?

What is dry dog food?

A high-quality dry dog food should be a nutritional powerhouse for your dog, serving their complete nutritional needs while providing the right balance of protein, fiber and fat. A high-quality dry dog food starts with:

  • High-quality animal protein sources, such as beef, chicken, turkey, lamb and fish.
  • Grain is another common ingredient (with the exception of grain-free diets). While many brands use corn, look for whole-grain ingredients on the label, like brown rice, as well as cereals like oats and barley.
  • Some include vegetables, fruits and perhaps beans and legumes.

These ingredients are mixed, cooked and shaped into bite-sized pellets known as kibble. The food also contains added vitamins, minerals and other supplements. For example, some brands include prebiotics and probiotics to enhance nutrient absorption and support gut health.

Chomp after chomp, the right crunchy kibble can meet all the dietary needs of your best friend.

Why do pet parents turn to dry dog food?

The right formulation of dry dog food offers many upsides to dogs and their pet parents.

  • For decades, pet parents have turned to dry food for the convenience and good value packed in every bag.
  • If your four-legged friend likes eating on their own schedule, kibble can stay put in the bowl for several hours without worry about bacteria growth and nutrient loss.
  • It’s an all-around simple, straightforward way to provide a safe, nutritious diet to your pet.

If the formula is right for your pet, produces the results you’re looking for, and your pet loves eating it, then you can feel good about giving your dog their daily helpings of dry dog food.

Serving and storing dry dog food

Once the bag is opened, it should hang on to its nutrients for two weeks. Store the food, bag and all, in a large container with a tightly fitted lid. This preserves freshness while keeping hungry, inquisitive dogs from chomping between meals!

What is wet dog food?

For many pet parents, a can of meaty mixture is the ideal meal for their dog. Just like kibble, it should contain a well-rounded, complete meal for your pet. Here are some of the reasons wet food is the diet of choice.

  • Some canned foods are served in a loaf, but other brands serve up cuts of real meat in a mouth-watering stew. Other common ingredients include grains and cereals like rice and barley, with added vitamins, minerals and supplements.
  • Canned dog food has a higher moisture content, which can fulfill some of your dog’s hydration needs. Still, it’s important to keep a clean bowl filled with fresh water available to your dog at all times, just as you would if your dog were served a kibble diet.
  • Wet dog foods often have higher fat content than kibble. Because of the higher moisture content, a serving size of wet food will appear larger than that of kibble; to maintain a healthy weight for your dog, keep an eye on recommended portions.
  • Wet food is softer, which can be easier for senior dogs to chew, as well as dogs with oral and dental issues.
  • For many dogs, wet food is a big treat that makes them lunge for the food bowl. Pet parents who need help coaxing their dog to eat will often find that the rich, appealing scent of wet food does the trick.

Serving wet food

When serving your dog wet food, simply open and spoon into your dog’s clean bowl. Then cover and refrigerate what’s left in the can.

A couple of hours after serving, toss any uneaten food to avoid contamination that results from bacteria growth on the food.

What are the common formulas in kibble and canned?

When it comes to picking a great diet for your dog, not all foods are created equal. Here are just a few that will be on your radar.

Grain-free diets

For most dogs, whole grains are a great source of wholesome nutrients. However, when dogs develop allergies and sensitivities to certain foods, a grain-free formula can provide a safe, nutritious option. When reading the ingredients list, look for low-starch, low-glycemic whole food ingredients, such as lentils and peas.

All life stages diet

When healthy dogs reach adulthood, an all-stages diet can serve a variety of needs. As opposed to maintenance diets, all-stages diets contain additional nutrients, so they can also support growth.

With an all-stages diet, you’ll want to help your dog maintain a healthy weight by keeping the portions right. In addition to their current weight, you’ll also want to factor in their lifestyle: Is your dog in perpetual motion, or are they content to curl up with you on the couch?

All-stages diets are not one-size-fits-all. Small breeds have different needs than large breeds. With guidance from your vet, you can find the all-stages formula that’s the right fit for your pet.

If your dog is healthy and thriving — lustrous coat, has get-up-and-go, healthy weight, not licking paws or scratching to excess — that’s a sign that you have found the right all-stages formula.

Puppy formulas

A puppy formula should contain the added nutrients that growing dogs need to become healthy adults. These should contain more protein, calcium and fat per serving compared to a standard adult diet, so they have enough fuel to grow and do their wiggly, bouncy puppy thing.

Other formulas go above and beyond the standards set by AAFCO, and include other beneficial ingredients that help puppies grow up to be their best. For example, some brands include omega-3 fatty acids because they’re beneficial for brain and eye development.

Keep in mind there are puppy formulas created for larger breed puppies, containing the right levels of calcium and phosphorus to support proper bone growth.

Of course, they won't be eating puppy food forever! When it's time to switch to an adult diet, you'll want to get the timing right. Get guidance from your vet. Considerations will include the dog’s size and breed and whether the dog has been spayed or neutered.

Senior diet

As a rule of thumb, when a dog reaches the halfway point to their life expectancy, they’ve reached their senior years. Here’s how a senior diet can meet their evolving needs.

  • Low calorie: As dogs age, you may notice they don’t bound and bounce around like they used to. With that mellow behavior comes a need for fewer calories; otherwise they can gain weight. Of course, obesity can be a factor in other health issues, like diabetes and heart disease.
  • High fiber: Higher fiber formulation can be more satisfying for your dog’s appetite, while being beneficial for your dog’s gastrointestinal health.
  • Mobility: Senior dog formula may include supplements to help your pet get around. Chondroitin and glucosamine promote joint repair, while selenium can reduce inflammation while also optimizing brain health.

Limited ingredient diets

One thing you might notice when shopping for food for your dog is many brands are going beyond the traditional chicken and beef as the main protein source, and offering a wide variety of meats, with things on the label like duck, quail, bison, lamb … even kangaroo.

  • Some dogs develop allergies, or more commonly, sensitivities to certain ingredients. Common signs include itchy ears and itchy feet, which lead to excess scratching and licking. Gastrointestinal symptoms can show up as well.
  • A vet may recommend an elimination diet, which is a strict diet that temporarily limits foods to those that contain only hypoallergenic ingredients. Once conditions improve, foods that commonly cause reactions are slowly reintroduced, so together, you can pinpoint the culprit.
  • Following the elimination diet process, the dog may try a diet featuring a novel protein. After making that switch, many pet parents start seeing positive results.
  • It’s important to understand that other pet parents like offering their pets the different nutrient profiles found in alternative protein sources. For that reason alone, always check the ingredients list. You’ll want to make sure it doesn’t contain something your dog needs to avoid. To simplify this, some brands offer a “single source” protein.

Weight management diets

Some 55.8% of pet dogs are classified as overweight, according to the 2018 survey results collected by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP). Turning to a high-quality weight management formula is one option for pet parents to help their dog reach a healthier weight.

  • Compare the nutritional analysis of a weight management formula to a regular adult dog formula. Weight management formulas should contain higher ratios of protein and fiber per serving. Both can help your pet feel fuller after eating (and less likely to beg for treats.)
  • Look for whole-grain ingredients on the list, rather than highly processed variants. Brown rice, for example, has higher protein and fiber content, but it’s also highly digestible, hypoallergenic and chock full of B vitamins.
  • Look for supplements that can help your pet get the results you’re looking for. L-Carnitine is one that can aid in fat metabolism.

Finally, a word about treats. As eager as they are to snap up extra goodies, our dogs are paying the price in extra pounds and the health problems that can come with being overweight. Before you offer bites of your dinner or hand out extra jerky treats, be sure to factor them in to your pet’s overall daily food allotment.

5 questions you need to ask about your dog’s food

Whether or not the above formulas apply to your four-legged friend, the answers to these questions can help you determine how your brand of dog food stacks up. Before you shop at your favorite independent pet supplier, it’s always smart to do some research on the company’s website. High-quality brands often provide a wealth of information that may not be displayed in-store or on the bag or label.

How much protein is recommended in the formula? Not all dogs need the same levels of protein, and these levels can vary drastically from formula to formula. Some brands will meet the minimum recommended protein level and then “stuff” their recipe with inexpensive, high-glycemic “filler” ingredients. To get the most value from your dog’s food, check the ratios of fat, carbs and protein on the calorie distribution table.

Which ingredients are used and how are they listed? Pay attention to how ingredients on your dog’s bag of food are listed. Meat or meat meals, for example, should show up first on the list of ingredients. Do you see recognizable whole foods that would appear on your plate? Does the brand educate consumers on their health benefits for dogs?

Do you know where it’s made? The origin of your dog’s meal shouldn't be a mystery. Is it made at the brand’s facility, or do they outsource?

Are they transparent on ingredients sourcing? It’s one thing to know where the food is prepared. If you really want to know where your dog’s food comes from, you also need to know how they source ingredients and supplements. A willingness to share this information is another sign of a company's commitment to quality.

Does it meet their unique nutritional requirements? Yes, it can be a hassle to feed your dogs more than one type of food. But it’s important to understand that different foods have different protein sources and different formulas that fit the unique needs of individual dogs. If their food is the right fit, it’s worth it, because all your dogs will live happier, healthier lives.

A healthy dog starts with a healthy diet

The signs of a happy, healthy dog will show up inside and out: healthy coat, bright eyes, wagging tails and a minimum of odors. If you have concerns that your dog’s diet isn’t fully meeting the needs of your pet, always start by speaking with your vet.

NutriSource is trusted by many vets and pet parents to help their dogs achieve optimal health. Talk to your vet and look for it on the shelves of your favorite independent pet retailer.