As a veterinarian I’m often asked what is the best brand or best diet available for dogs. Occasionally, the question is about the best brand for a specific breed.
Obviously owners want to be able to provide the most optimal nutrition in order to promote overall good health in their dogs. Unfortunately, a thing like “best dog food for…” simply doesn’t exist, despite the abundance of (mis)information you find online.
In this article we’ll examine the reasons the ‘perfect diet’ doesn’t exist, and I’ll help you with tips on how to find the best diet for your individual dog, yourself.
We’re Still Learning
In the field of human medicine, nutrition research is a multi-billion dollar industry. The field of veterinary nutrition research, in contrast, is significantly less well funded. Still, millions of research dollars are still spent annually on canine nutrition, because there is still a lot we don’t know.
Pet food companies have made significant strides in the past half century, but diets are still changing and evolving. What was best 15 years ago is likely not the same as what is considered the gold standard in nutrition today.
For this reason, the perfect diet doesn’t exist because it is constantly evolving and changing as more research comes out showing how diets can be improved.
What is ‘Normal’?
Reputable pet food companies are good at creating diets that are adequate for the majority of normal healthy dogs, but not all dogs are normal and healthy.
Many dogs suffer from skin disorders such as seborrhea, GI problems such as Irritable Bowel Disease, or auto-immune diseases such as atopic dermatitis. While these disorders may not be entirely food related, diet will play a large part in the control of these diseases [1, 2, 3].
The perfect diet for one dog may cause another dog to have unreasonable flatulence due to the fiber content, or high nutrient content may cause weight gain for one dog, but not another. A diet that one dog loves, another dog may refuse to eat. For these reasons, there can’t be one perfect one-size-fits-all diet.
Dog breeds can vary enormously from one another. We are just starting to learn how much variation there can be between individuals in terms of essential nutrient requirements . Especially between large and small breed dogs, there is so much genetic variation that nutrition requirements vary as well.
One study showed brachycephalic dogs, those with short faces like Bull Dogs and Pugs are more at risk for hypomagnesium, or low levels of magnesium. Chronically obstructed airways due to elongated soft palate and a narrow trachea can cause depletion of body stores of magnesium .
There has also been research to suggest that Labradors may have an increased sensitivity to normal amounts of copper in commercial diets, putting them at an increased risk for certain liver diseases .
Of course we’re not advocating that every breed needs a special diet, we just merely trying to illustrate how ‘the perfect’ one-size-fits-all diet doesn’t exist. Since we don’t have the technology to determine these requirements at a genetic level at this point in time, the perfect diet for one dog will not be the same for another.
It makes sense that the nutrition requirements for a Chihuahua are different than those of a Great Dane. But there can also be variation from one dog of the same breed to another.
There can even be variation in dietary requirements as the individual ages. A diet that was perfect as a young adult may not be appropriate as that dog reaches middle age, or develops underlying diseases.
It has been well documented that protein and phosphorous levels can influence kidney disease, for example [7, 8]. A high quality grain-free high protein diet won’t be appropriate for a dog with renal compromise.
Another very common nutritional variation amongst individual dogs is the need for modified giant breed puppy food. The nutritional requirements for growing large breed puppies are very different than those for adults, or even puppies of a different, small breed [9, 10, 11].
Dog Food Mistakes
As much trust as we put into trusting the diet we are feeding our dogs is safe, pet food companies can still have problems.
Many cats in the 1980’s were being diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a heart problem, before pet food companies realized cats have special nutritional requirements for taurine [12, 13]. Since the problem was addressed the incidence of this particular heart defect has declined dramatically.
A more recent and tragic ‘mistake’ was the melamine scare in 2007. Contamination of melamine in certain ingredients imported from China was causing many dogs and cats to become ill and even die from kidney failure .
As a result there were massive pet food recalls until the problems was rectified. Many of these diets were considered to be safe and healthy dog foods.
Even reputable pet food companies will have recalls from time to time due to various inadvertent contaminations, mislabeling or other problems.
The Bottom Line
There is no perfect dog food. There is no best dog food for [insert breed]. Every dog will have individual needs based on their age, lifestyle, breed and genetic make-up. There are some things you can do to ensure the diet you pick is healthy.
Look for an AAFCO statement either on the company’s website, or on the bag of food. An AAFCO statement doesn’t guarantee it’s a perfect food, but it is a bare minimum to ensure the diet meets some quality standards.
It also does not guarantee that every pet will do well on the diet, or that every batch conforms exactly to the guaranteed analysis on the bag.
The perfect diet for your dog is one that makes the coat shiny, stools normal, and energy level good. It’s also important that your dog likes the food! If you have specific dietary questions, always ask a veterinary professional.