Animal Welrate Foundation

“Bone Appétit!”
(Nutrition Goes To The Dogs)

by Mack Adams


Gail Richmond’s eyes glaze over as she pauses in front of the well-stocked pet food section of her Safeway store. Her shopping cart already holds a variety of carefully selected “people” food items. Now, she’s trying to make a prudent choice for Fletcher, her Labrador retriever.

“Decisions, decisions,” she mumbles to herself as her eyes refocus and scan the shelves. Overwhelmed with it all, she shrugs. Then incorrectly rationalizing that all dog food is just dog food, she quickly hefts a twenty-pound bag of a popular brand and plops it into her cart. Even though her retriever had never been fed this brand before, it’s on sale. Why not buy it?

Jack Roberts enters his favorite pet superstore with Max, his beagle, in tow. It’s a Saturday afternoon and the store is bustling with activity. Other owners, some with dogs, hunt along the store’s aisles intent on collaring a product that suits their fancy.

Jack tightens his hold on Max’s leash, giving wide berth to a young woman who is barely able to control her Alaskan malamute. The dog seems eager for an introduction to Max. The two dogs cautiously sniff each other. Then unexpectedly, the malamute aggressively lunges forward, almost upending its owner. Jack is about to intercede but Max acts first. With tail tucked, the beagle turns away from the foray and begins to scamper down the aisle toward the back of the store. Owner Jack follows willingly.

The rear of the store unfolds into a canine epicurean enchantment. Aisle after aisle of delectables. Cases of canned delicacies rise to the ceiling. Colorful bags of vittles create a visual mosaic with promises of gastronomic delight. Max is captivated. His wet nose samples every scent. His erect, motionless tail punctuates his passion for food.

“Bone Appétit!” his owner laughingly exclaims with a play on words. “What will it be this week, Max? Chicken and rice? Lamb and barley? Or, how about venison? Yum.”

Max is oblivious to his owner’s bantering. The beagle’s nose is now obsessed with a wet spot on the floor.

The owner smiles, continuing to eye the venison. “Yeah…venison sounds exciting,” he says talking to the bag of food. “Okay, venison it is!”

Unfortunately, that’s the way most dog owners go about choosing the food they buy for their “canine companions.” In fact, it’s pretty much the same way people go about selecting their own food. But, that doesn’t make it right for either people or dogs.

Food is all about nutrition

In almost every case, our selection of food involves little consideration to nutrition. We’re invariably swayed by something on sale, something different, something that’s packaged to jump out at us.

Most of us do know, however, that we are what we eat. Some of us even affirm that our body is our temple. But all those Twinkies…those nacho flavored Doritos…the lobster bisque…the crème broulette… It’s confounding what people feed themselves. No wonder people take so little care when it comes to feeding their dogs.

Perhaps our cavalier attitude about food exists because the human body and the canine body are so tolerant to nutritional abuse. Indeed, even when health is compromised by nutritional indiscretions, we still tend to be dismissive of nutrition fundamentals. Only when severe problems develop do people--and dog owners--suddenly become more receptive to the important role nutrition plays in healthcare. It shouldn’t be that way.

The bottom line is that every dog owner should know something about canine nutrition. And, the sooner the better. This doesn’t necessarily mean scouring through a nutritionist’s handbook to analyze the impact of every nutrient on the body. Overkill! However, we do need to know the basics of what to feed our dog. By the way, much of what will be said applies equally to our feline friends.

Dog food ain’t meat-on-the-hoof

The food of dogs remained relatively the same for thousands of years. Meat-on-the-hoof was caught on a catch-as-catch-can basis. Later, dogs’ meals gradually transitioned to table scraps and other discarded food that people had in excess or perhaps thought was unfit to eat themselves. Eventually, early breed enthusiasts prepared crude homemade diets for their dogs that were formulated by guesswork. Thoughts of balanced nutrition were still a science largely left to the future.

Then came a modern invention--commercial dog food. The idea for it arose in 1860 when an American electrician named James Spratt was in London to sell lightning rods. As the story goes, one day Spratt came across a group of sailors feeding some eager dogs biscuits that had been discarded from their ship’s stores. Inspired to consider dog food in the form of a biscuit, Spratt formulated a recipe that included ground wheat, vegetables, and meat. It combined nutrition into an easily stored product with lasting freshness. Soon he began selling his biscuits to the local sporting dog set. The product was an immediate success.

During the 1890s, Spratt’s dog biscuit was introduced to the United States where it was equally well received. And by the turn of the century, commercial dog food was on the rise. The Chapple brothers of Rockford, Illinois, are credited with developing and marketing the first canned dog food, which they called Ken-L-Ration. In 1928, Clarence Gaines pioneered a new form of dry food that combined a number of different ingredients into what he called a “meal” for dogs. It was intended to provide balanced and complete nutrition.

As market demand sparked competition, more and more companies began to produce and market dog food. Although some of these companies had never before made any type of animal food, many established companies already serving equine and other large animal markets merely expanded to include canines as a segment. The influx of manufacturers made dog food more economical as well as more convenient.

Commercial manufacturing of dog food became fairly widespread, but the distribution of the product was still slowly evolving during the first half of the twentieth century. Companies such as The National Biscuit Company (Milk-Bone) aided in an instrumental shift of dog food from feed stores to grocery stores, and then into supermarkets.

The next real breakthrough in dog food came from a company that was originally conceived in 1894 to manufacture horse feed. The Ralston Purina Company applied the extrusion process to dry dog food during the 1950s. Purina not only mixed various ingredients into a “meal” as had Gaines several decades before, but it also went further. The ingredients were cooked, and then formed into a bite-sized pellet. Their processing increased digestibility and enhanced palatability. By 1957, Purina Dog Chow was distributed nationwide and quickly became the market leader among dry dog foods.

Today, commercially processed foods are the primary diet of ninety-five percent of all dogs, with dry, extruded products remaining the most popular.

Competition advances canine nutrition

Perhaps surprisingly, the successful commercialization of dog food is largely responsible for advances in canine nutrition. As companies producing dog food competed for a share of the rapidly expanding pet food market, research was conducted on a scale never before undertaken. Individual companies and their trade associations, as well as independent research organizations and governmental agencies, all took part in making major contributions to canine welfare through nutritional knowledge and regulation.

But who’s really responsible for the nutrition contained in that bag or can of dog food you buy? No, it’s not the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Their role is only to assure that dog food is clearly labeled as DOG FOOD to prevent people from mistaking it for human food. And yes, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does, to some extent, get involved in the regulation of ingredients and manufacturing processes for dog food, as well as health claims made by its manufacturers. But, the most instrumental force behind dog food regulation, disclosure, and nutrition research is arguably the least well known.

The powerhouse behind the scenes of every bag and can of dog food you buy is the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). This organization is primarily responsible for the language and terms of all pet food legislation that has been enacted. Items covered by statutes suggested by AAFCO include standardized ingredient definitions, uniform labeling, and nutritional adequacy. AAFCO goes even further by setting up nutrient profiles to be used in formulating commercial dog food.

Thanks to AAFCO, owners who purchase commercial dog food now have a better idea of what each product contains, as well as an indication of its nutritional composition. However, that doesn’t make the actual selection process any easier. Owners of the fifty-five million dogs living in the United States have a lot of mouths to feed and a lot of labels to read. (Sidebar 1: Dog Food Labeling)

Dog food is big business

Today’s commercial pet food business is a booming $10 billion industry. It has essentially evolved as an extension of the human food industry for significant business reasons--manufacturing technology, marketing programs, and distribution channels are similar for both food products. But perhaps the most significant reason that many large human food companies have an interest in pet food is the mechanism it provides for them to turn slaughterhouse waste and other by-products of human food production into highly--HIGHLY--profitable products when transformed into food for animals.

By some estimates, there are over four thousand different identifiable pet food products marketed by over three hundred fifty companies. Different names, packaging, flavors, ingredients, shapes, sizes, and textures, as well as different claims by those who market the products make selecting dog food a confounding experience for even the most astute owner.

The good news is that more is currently revealed about the contents of dog food than ever before. The bad news is that even with the information disclosed by manufacturers, it’s very difficult for an owner to compare one food to others in any complete or meaningful manner. But, the promising news is that in the future more and more information will be available to eventually help take the mystery out of selecting dog food.

Today when owners try to compare different dog foods, the results will most likely be frustrating and inaccurate. Choosing the right dog food is an art and science to itself. The very best advice that can be given to an owner is to consider the recommendations of a competent veterinarian. But the problem here is that most veterinarians don’t have the time or take the effort to truly know as much about canine nutrition as they could. Veterinarians are likely to recommend any one from several of the premium dog foods of reputable manufacturers that would be appropriate for a canine’s life cycle and lifestyle.

This, in itself, is probably not a bad way to answer the question: “Which dog food?” It doesn’t, however, address important aspects of commercial food and selection process with which every responsible owner should be familiar.

What food to choose

Considering all the dog food products available, it’s no wonder owners are at a loss on what to select. So, let’s simplify things. Let’s make the dog food maze more understandable.
Essentially there are four basic types of dog food and four basic grades of the product. (Sidebar 2--Food Comparisons)

Dry dog food is best

Pound for pound, dry food provides the most nutritive content for amount fed of any type of pet food. Dry food is the most popular and most economical form of dog food. Its nutrient content consists of ninety percent or more of dry matter, with the primary source of energy derived from carbohydrate starches. Dry food may be likened to human breakfast cereal; only it’s better and has more complete nutrition.

Dry dog food can take three basic forms: biscuits--baked pre-shaped; kibble--baked, then broken into bits; extruded--cooked under high temperatures, forced through a die-like device while still soft, then cut to length and dried.

The baking or cooking process performs the important step of breaking complex carbohydrates down into more digestible simple starches. However, since high temperatures are damaging to fat quality, a coating of fat is typically sprayed onto the food pellets after cooking. This step also serves to increase the food’s palatability. Vitamin content of the food, which is also reduced by the cooking process, is restored in a similar fashion.

The success of dry dog food is related to its economy, convenience, shelf life, and the thought that hard food contributes somewhat to improved dental health. Today’s premium dry foods are leagues apart from the foods of yesteryear that had low palatability, low caloric density, and low nutritional value. When mixed with an appropriate amount of warm water to make its own gravy, dry food is a difficult diet to surpass in value and quality for most dogs.

Canned dog food contains 75% water

Canned food is also called “wet food” because about seventy-five percent of its weight is water. It’s usually aromatic, flavorful and expensive, since meat or meat by-products are generally the principal ingredient (aside from water). Because of the canning process, almost any ingredient may be incorporated into canned food. Some canned dog food looks like beef stew; others may look like hash.

Canned food is significantly less economical than dry food when fed as a regular diet. Even though canned food may be more than four times the cost of dry food, many owners feed it exclusively to their dogs or mix small amounts of canned meat with dry food. The attraction to canned food, for many people, is its close resemblance to human food. In other words, it is psychologically more attractive to the owner, but dogs don’t gain any nutritional advantage just because the food is more expensive or of the canned variety.

Semi-moist dog food is difficult to justify

Semi-moist food is a more recently developed type of commercial dog food. Its origin is an offshoot of human food technology innovations. Resourceful processing, shaping and coloring of this product not only create a textural cross between the dry and canned types of dog food, but it has the real marketing bonus being a very close visual approximation to human food.

The ingenuity of manufacturers has allowed semi-moist food to take on a variety of identities. These products can look like meat patties, meat chunks, or even hotdogs on buns. Because of the diversity of their formulations, semi-moist products may contain moisture content ranging from fifteen percent to fifty percent, with the average moisture content hovering in the thirty percent range.

Semi-moist foods may have certain packaging and other aesthetic appeals that are attractive to owners, but from a nutritional cost/benefit perspective, they offer less value than either dry or wet foods. Besides, remember that even though dogs have an unbelievably keen sense of smell, their color vision is poor. People are only fooling themselves with imitation meat chunks.

Homemade may not mean better

While as many as ninety-five percent of owners primarily feed their canines diets consisting of scientifically-based commercial dog food, there remains a small group of owners who feel that such food is unfit for their dogs. In fact, some owners believe that commercial dog food may even jeopardize a dog’s health. They contend that commercial food uses inferior ingredients, and frequently includes parts of animals deemed unfit for human consumption by the USDA.

In some respects, owners who are critical about the ingredients of commercial dog food are correct. However, the terms “inferior” and “unfit” don’t necessarily imply poor nutrition, but instead, convey generally accepted human perceptions. The USDA choice cuts of meat, to which people have grown accustomed, are rarely a part of any commercial dog food. This is mainly an economic consideration to keep the cost of daily rations for the average dog to around a dollar. It’s not only uneconomical, but also unnecessary, to incorporate people food ingredients into a dog’s diet.

Commercial dog food, in many cases, contains leftovers of the same ingredients from which a human food item was produced. But these “by-products” have been deemed to be undesirable for consumption by people. By-products contained in dog food may be parts of a plant people prefer not to eat, such as beet pulp, soybean hulls or ground corn (including cob). By-products may also be certain animal tissue (organs) that are prohibited for sale as human food in this country, yet are considered delicacies by people in other parts of the world, such as stomachs, thymus, or intestines.

Some owners, believing themselves to be highly discriminating, totally avoid commercial dog food. They flip open their naturopathy-type books, select a recipe that appeals to them, and prepare a meal for their important other family member. But here’s where good nutrition diverges from well-meaning intentions.
Recipes contained in most canine cuisine books are rarely written by canine nutrition specialists, and in no case have been authoritatively tested through broad feeding trials or laboratory analysis. Indeed, non-commercial dog food cannot be guaranteed to be complete and balanced in nutrition. Additionally, these recipes frequently list ingredients that may require substitutions due to a lack of availability, and therefore may result in an inconsistent formulation from batch to batch. Further, when homemade recipes are prepared in large quantities for convenient feeding at a later point in time, the ingredients used, and processing undertaken, typically are not suited to prepare the food for extended storage.

Yes, homemade diets can provide proper nutrition for dogs, but nutritionally acceptable formulations must be used, the diet almost always has to be supplemented with vitamins and minerals, and then strictly adhered to on a long-term basis. Nutritious homemade diets require much more effort than most owners initially might envision. If improperly formulated or processed, these diets can actually impair a dog’s health when fed for an extended period of time. There are times, however, when homemade diets are recommended by veterinarians for specific illnesses and conditions, but typically, they are interim diets and are always intended to be used under the direction of a veterinarian.

Home-formulated diets tend to focus more on satisfying the psychological and emotional requirements of an owner than on meeting the nutritional requirements of a dog. Besides, when properly formulated and prepared, the owner has only accomplished re-inventing commercial dog food!

Premium commercial food is usually the best value

By now it’s obvious that there are four basic types of dog food. And, it’s equally obvious that some are better than others. But isn’t, for example, all dry dog food pretty much the same? Absolutely not! Some of it is junk. Remember, it’s the ingredients that provide nutrition.

Of the four basic grades of commercial dog food--generic, popular, premium, super-premium--“premium” is generally considered as a hands down winner. Most premium food sold is balanced and complete in nutrition. In other words, healthy dogs thrive on it. Nonetheless, many reputable manufacturers who are dedicated to canine nutrition go even further. They tailor some of their premium offerings to specific lifecycles, lifestyles, or medical conditions.

The key factor that separates premium foods from all the rest is quality. Premium foods contain higher quality ingredients. This makes them the best nutrition value. Their ingredients are more digestible, and therefore more usable, by the body than are low quality ingredients typically found in the generic and popular food brands. Further, premium brands have greater ingredient density. This means that, by weight, they contain more usable nutrients for the body. It also means that less absolute amounts of the food are needed for proper nutrition. So even though premium foods may cost more per unit of weight, they can be more economical to feed, because less quantity needs to be fed.

Premium foods have another advantage. They use fixed rather than variable ingredient formulas. As a result, each bag of a specific premium food an owner buys will be identical in ingredient content to all other bags of that same food regardless of the date of purchase.

Many popular and generic brands vary their formulas based on ingredient availability and market price. And, package labeling may not show any ingredient change for up to six months after the fact. This is a little known fact about commercial dog food. Indeed, low priced foods may not have consistent ingredient formulation and, therefore, can easily vary from batch to batch. Variable formulations found in “cheap” products can result in certain physiological side effects, such as picky eating, allergic reactions, and intestinal distress like diarrhea.

The choice is yours…

So now you know more about food for a dog than ever before. Good. But please remember that, despite all the time and effort you may take in choosing the best food for your dog, the best evaluator of the diet you select is the dog itself. (Sidebar 3: Facts About Feeding Fido)

When owners choose a new dog food, and introduce it into their dog’s diet, they should observe how the dog’s individual metabolism reacts to the food, especially during the initial two to three month period. The owner should be looking for such physical signs as a hearty appetite, healthy skin, shiny coat, normal weight, adequate energy for lifestyle, and well-formed stools. Any abnormal physical finding or behavior may be indicative that the food is improper for an individual dog’s metabolism.

Dogs depend upon their owners. Dogs deserve good nutrition. What to feed them remains an important decision. But hopefully you’re now better prepared to make a more informed choice. Be objective. Your dog is counting on you for that.

“Bone” Appétit!


(Mack Adams is a freelance writer who lives in Great Falls, Virginia, with his veterinarian wife, two horses, and a dog named Rio.)


Sidebar 1: Dog Food Labeling

Items listed
Info disclosed

Brand name

not necessarily identifying parent company, eg., Mars

Purpose statement

Intended use (dog food)


Name & address (phone # optional)

Net Weight

Metric & English


Listing in descending order by weight (ingredients may be “split” to escalate meat products to top)

Guaranteed analysis

% protein, fat, fiber, moisture (estimated based on laboratory analysis)


How much to feed (a broad generalization)

Statement of nutrition

Adequacy of food for dog & method of substantiation (feeding trials are best)

Caloric density

Optional (rarely disclosed)

Items not listed
Info not disclosed

Other nutrients

Amount of carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals

Minimum daily requirement

Nutrients provided per serving/per weight

Caloric breakdown

By serving; by nutrient

Items Listed based on AAFCO published guidelines.



Sidebar 2: Food Comparisons

Food Type



Economical; convenient; long shelf-life, value; tastes great.


Aromatic; tastes great; looks like Dinty Moore stew! But it's $$$


Resembles human food; neat packaging; But $$$


Psychologically appealing to owners; But $$$$, and short shelf -life, difficult to guage nutrition.


Food Brand



Cheap; low cost; inexpensive!!! Must feed more for same nutrition.


Moderate price; moderate value.


Value; high quality/digestibility; consistent formulation; less needs to be fed; tested in feeding trials.

Super Premium

Esoteric appeal, way overpriced; limited distribution; quality. varies



Sidebar 3: Facts About Feeding Fido

Dogs love to eat

Just like people, dogs will eat too much as well as the wrong things.

Dogs like a single diet

Unlike people, dogs appreciate the same diet. Food either tastes good to a dog and is happily eaten, or it doesn’t taste good and is spurned.

Dogs are creatures of habit

Like people, dogs want to be fed as closely to their regular mealtimes as possible. Twice a day, please!

Avoid people-biased influences

Unlike people, dogs are not influenced by advertising or what others say about food. Feed dogs dog food!

Complete and balanced food needs no supplements

If a complete and balanced food is fed, the use of dietary supplements is generally superfluous and may even impair health.

Water is critical to any diet

Regardless of diet, always provide fresh, free-choice water.

Diet changes should be gradual

A diet should not be changed without good reason. When necessary, transitions should involve a progressive mixing of new food with old over a week’s time (minimum).

All food has a shelf-life

Use and store food in accordance with labeled guidelines. Once a food container is opened, its shelf life is appreciably reduced.

You get what you pay for

Quality counts; feed premium food.

Need advice?

Seek out a competent veterinarian.