They are what they eat
Good health and longevity begin with good nutrition. The educated dog owner strives to feed the best and most beneficial food that their budget allows. Even the choice of canned food versus dry is a big one, thanks to a wide variety of formulations, price points and health claims with strong proponents on either side. As always, your veterinarian should be the last word on your dog’s nutritional needs.
But for how canned and dry foods compare, here’s the scoop:
Dry Dog Food
Canned Dog Food
Convenience and Affordability
When it comes to convenience and affordability, dry food beats wet food paws down. Dry food is less messy, easier to measure, and can sit out all day without going bad. It’s not only cheaper per pound but also more energy dense than canned food. This is because dry food is usually about 10% water as compared with about 75% water in canned rations. It takes a much larger volume of canned food to supply the nutrients your dog needs. So while an exclusive wet-food diet might be fine for a small dog, a large dog might have trouble meeting his or her energy needs on canned food alone. Not to mention the cost and bulk of so many cans. For larger dogs, a diet made primarily or exclusively of dry food usually makes the most sense. It’s not surprising that dry diets make up the vast majority of pet foods.1
Canned-food diets are often more palatable than comparable dry diets. While manufacturers boost the taste appeal of dry kibble by coating it with tempting fats, gravy, and other flavorings, it’s hard to compete with the delectable aroma from a freshly opened can. Texture plays a large part too. Better palatability is a distinct advantage for a picky eater. But for an overeater, extra yummy food may pack on the pounds, making portion control all the more important.
Grain: the great debate.
Commercial dry foods are formulated with higher proportions of grain and grain-based products than their canned counterparts. Grain elements such as corn, wheat and rice are necessary for binding the formula into pellets and improving the texture. Grains such as corn, wheat and soy also can partially replace meat as a protein source, thereby trimming cost.
Intense debate wages over whether the ubiquitous grains in dry food belong in a dog’s diet. Natural food advocates assert that dogs are carnivores that have no metabolic need for plant matter in their food.3 Others, including those in the pet food industry, assert that wild dogs are scavengers that regularly supplement their meat diet with grasses, berries, roots and other vegetable matter,4 not to mention the digested plant matter they inadvertently consume along with their herbivorous prey.
Deciphering the Dog Food Label
Look on the side of back of the bag or can for the list of ingredients. Ingredients are named in descending order by weight.
- A quality diet should list a meat source (such as beef, chicken, lamb meal) as one of the first two ingredients—or ideally, two of the top three.2
- If grains are used, look for whole grains (i.e. whole grain corn, whole grain barley) and not cheaper by-products (corn gluten meal, soybean meal).
- Newer ultra-premium diets avoid grains altogether in favor of carb sources like white or sweet potato.
- Avoid artificial colors (such as FD&C Red #3), preservatives (such as BHA, BHT, Ethoxyquin), and sweeteners (sucrose, high fructose corn syrup).
- Choose a diet that complies with AAFCO specifications and conducts feeding trials. The label will say: Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (name of product) provides complete and balanced nutrition.
For more useful information on what food labels do (and don’t) tell you, visit dogfoodproject.com.
While one option might be to avoid commercial dry foods altogether, another is to take a more critical look at labels. The box at right offers some tips for decoding the ingredients list and making better choices. Better ingredients mean greater cost but also more wholesome nutrition for your dog.
Dental health benefits
Conventional wisdom has it that dry food is better the teeth than wet food. Wet food, it’s thought, promotes plaque buildup whereas dry food cleanses the teeth as the animal chews. In fact it’s more complicated.
While canned food does leave a gooey residue (known as plaque), dry foods can certainly do the same. Just peek in your pooch’s mouth right after breakfast and you’ll see what gets left behind. Plaque eventually hardens, causing tartar buildup and dental disease. Several scientific studies in the mid-nineties actually showed that dogs fed conventional dry food did not have better dental health than those eating a canned food diet.5 This may not be good news to those of us wanting an easy fix for Fido’s pearly whites.
Since then, a handful of dental diets have come on the market with scientific proof behind them. These foods are specially formulated with a tough pellet that scrapes off some plaque as the dog bites down. A current list of proven dental-friendly foods can be found on the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) website.
That should give you and your dog something to chew on.
A note about Semi-moist foods:
This is a third category of commercial dog food. Semi-moist foods are just that. They're chewier than dry food, but not as mushy as canned. They're packaged in bags or pouches for easy storage and dispensing. They don't spoil once opened so can be free-fed. Disadvantages include an increased level of additives such as preservatives, sweeteners, and artificial colors. Because of this, they've fallen out of favor as a staple diet but still have some utility as snacks, treats, or to bridge the gap between canned and dry food for a dog with special dietary issues.
- MacNamara, John P. Principles of Companion Animal Nutrition. 2006. New Jersey: Pearson/Prentice Hall.
- http://www.bornfreeusa.org/facts.php?more=1&p=359 Born free.
- Purina http://www.longliveyourdog.com/careguide/carebehavior/carebehaviorcanine/TheDietofWildDogs.aspx
- Boyce, EN, Logan EI. Oral health assessment in dogs: study design and results. J. Vet. Dent. 1994; 11:64-74
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