The dog food industry is a multi-million dollar industry in the United States. Decades of research in canine nutrition has allowed dog food companies to offer top notch diets to consumers (1). The result is an estimated thousands of different dog food brands for you to chose from.
Selecting an appropriate diet for your dog is the single best thing you can do to promote excellent health in the dog (2, 3, 4). This is one area that pet owners have complete control in terms of their dog’s health. Saddled with this enormous responsibility, it is no wonder many dog owners are overwhelmed by all the different options.
This article will explore why there are so many different dog food diets available and help you, the pet owner, to make sense of it all.
1. Marketing Gimmicks
We’d like to think that the shear volume of dog food diets available is a reflection of major pet food companies’ collective interest in animal health. While this is probably partially true, it is important to remember that these companies are all making money. They create diets to meet the consumer demand and make a profit.
Pet food companies are constantly trying to find a niche for themselves to get a foothold in a fairly saturated market. By advertising that they are “grain-free” or “all natural” or “ancestral” or “made with love” or any other number of advertising angles, they are appealing to a specific subset of consumers (4, 5).
For example, there has been a recent surge in public interest in grain-free dog foods. Pet food manufacturers have responded to this demand by creating diets that use alternate carbohydrate sources versus grain (4).
Research has demonstrated that grains are a healthy part of a complete canine diet, and most dogs tolerate grains very well (4). That is not to say that grain free dog food is in any way unhealthy or bad for your dog, it probably just isn’t superior to diets that contain grain.
This surge in grain free dog food is mostly a marketing gimmick and not based on any scientific evidence that grain is an inferior source of carbohydrates.
2. Specific Nutritional Needs
Another important reason for the multitude of different dog foods available to consumers is due to the vast differences in canine nutritional needs (6). Dogs can vary in size from 2 or 3 pounds to well over 200. Some dogs have very active lives and are used for working, either in agriculture or for police and rescue. Many other dogs’ main job is to keep the recliner warm for when you come home.
This tremendous variation in size and lifestyle illustrates the need for there to be a variety of different commercial dog foods to meet the specific needs of each individual canine. Dogs of different ages, lifestyles and breeds all have very different nutritional needs (9).
Dog food companies have recognized this need for tailored nutrition and have responded by creating diets that cater to very specific dietary requirements.
Growth is a great example. Puppies have different nutritional needs than adults (6, 7). For example, puppies require more calcium for bone growth than adult dogs do (8). And moreover, growing puppies of different breeds can differ in their nutritional needs as well depending on the size they will be full grown (7, 8, 9).
Reputable pet food companies have recognized this diversity in nutrient demand and have responded by creating diets aimed at meeting the needs of giant breed puppies, versus smaller breed puppies.
Senior pets also have specific dietary needs and will benefit from a diet tailored to seniors (10, 11, 12). Many of these dogs have decreased energy demands as they are more sedentary. Many suffer from arthritis and can benefit from added anti-oxidants and glucosamine which have proven benefits to overall health (13).
3. Dog Foods for Diseases
Another reason for the enormous variety in dog foods available is due to the specific needs of dogs with health issues and diseases.
Many of these diets are available only by a veterinarian’s prescription, but are designed to address the nutritional needs of many different disease types, including diabetes, kidney failure, liver failure, obesity, seizure disorders, urinary disorders, and joint disease, to name a few.
There is ample research that supports the use of prescription dog food diets in aiding the treatment of various canine diseases (3). Urinary diets, for example, will carefully modify the dog’s urine’s pH to discourage the formation of bladder stones in dogs that are prone to this (14, 15).
The restricted levels of protein in prescription diets designed for aiding patients with chronic kidney disease have been proven to have a positive impact on maintaining quality of life by decreasing the amount of urea, a byproduct of protein metabolism, the kidneys have to excrete (3, 16, 17).
Kidney disease diets also have restricted phosphorous levels which has been shown to help protect the kidneys from additional damage (16, 17). One study showed that cats with renal failure lived more than double the life expectancy than cats fed a regular maintenance diet (3).
Another reason for the myriad of options when it comes to dog food is reflected in the price. In general, you probably do get what you pay for. There is a spectrum of different levels of quality across the board for canine diets, as pet food manufacturers fill the need for less expensive options for those that need it.
There is variation in protein quality contents of dog foods, which can be reflected in the price (18, 19). These diets are still required to meet the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) guidelines for acceptable nutrition (20).
Even the same dog food brand may have a variety of different ‘levels’ of quality in terms of their nutrition, with their cheapest being a ‘chow’ type food, and their most premium option being quite a bit more expensive. This all just adds to the shear amount of variation and options available to you, the consumer.
5. Ingredient Variety
Lastly, the final reason for the dizzying array of dog food brands is the fact that there are many healthy ingredients that can be included. Most dog foods pair some protein source such as chicken, beef or lamb with some carbohydrate source, such as corn or potatoes.
Dog food companies often offer a variety of ‘flavors’ by varying these ingredients. In general, the combinations offered should all meet the AAFCO’s requirements for a balanced healthy diet, but you could chose from Lamb and Rice, or Duck and Potato, or Rabbit and Peas, to name a few.
Unless your dog has food allergies or sensitivities, it probably doesn’t matter which protein or carbohydrate source you chose.
In conclusion, the reason for the enormous variety of dog food types and brands is in part due to consumer demand for specialty foods, prescription foods, foods with specific ingredients and foods meant for certain life stages, breeds and activity levels. The variety is also in part a result of marketing to appeal to certain subsets of dog owners.
The bottom line is that you should select a food that is appropriate for your dog’s age, activity level, any health concerns present, and that fits your budget. This may take some trial and error to find the perfect food for your dog, but the best test is how your dog does on the diet.
Does she like it? Is his coat shiny and energy level good? Are bowel movements and gas levels acceptable? Is the diet maintaining a healthy weight? If the answer is yes to these questions, the diet is probably appropriate for your dog. Your veterinarian is a great resource to ask any of your diet related questions.