Choosing how to feed your dog can be tough – there’s so much opinionated, biased, and sensationist content out there that trying to make sense of what it all means for you and your dog can be really hard.
My aim with here is to try and help you to navigate the dog food world so you can find the solution that works best for your dog, and your budget, lifestyle, and preferences. But before I get any further, I want to explain a little about my background in the pet food industry as that is obviously relevant to my opinions and the advice I’m going to provide, and I want you to be aware of what I’ve done and what I’m doing now.
A vet in the pet food world
Since qualifying as a vet in 1996, and then founding my first pet food business, Pets’ Kitchen in 2006, I’ve been interested in pet nutrition and set up and run three businesses, each aiming to deliver better long-term health and wellbeing to pets through nutrition. The first, Pet’s Kitchen, was a dry food company that produces natural kibble under the Vet’s Kitchen brand (still available in UK supermarkets). This was followed by tails.com, on online only business built around the idea of personalising diets for each individual dog based on their breed, age, and health issues. I left tails after a few years, and before it was bought by Nestle and grown into the significant multinational brand that it is today. And finally, in 2020 I founded VetChef, which started out focussing on home cooking for pets and has now moved into providing gently cooked meals for dogs.
A surprising truth
So, that’s a bit about my background – I’ve worked in the UK pet food industry for nearly 20 years and have a detailed knowledge of all of the different types of feeding and most of the main brands, from economy dry foods up to gourmet fresh meals and meaty raw diets. And the main thing that I have learned during this time might sound a bit surprising, especially in the massively polarised world of pet nutrition, because my view is that nearly all of the ways we feed our dogs (and cats) can be fine and have their place. Many people in this world will try to convince you that there is only one true and proper way to feed a dog, and that deviating from this path will be terrible for your dog, but there is very little hard evidence to support any of these claims.
What are the options?
The pet food world has come along way in the last 50 years or so, with the introduction of processed dry and tinned foods initially replacing diets of table scraps and left overs, and then the rise of raw food diets, and the rapid growth of cooked brands like Butternut Box in recent years. Add in dehydrated foods, homemade recipes, powdered foods, vegan options and more and the pet parents of today are faced with an often bewildering array of choices. To summarise the options out there to consider, here’s a list of the main types of food, and some of the leading brands:
- Dry (kibble)
- Cooked & frozen
For many pet parents dry kibble makes a lot of sense – it’s super-convenient, usually affordable, and delivers complete and balanced nutrition for your dog. The main downsides of dry dog food to consider are the impact of all the processing that goes on during the production process – the food is cooked in vast vats at high temperatures and then squeezed through holes in plates to form the kibbles – and the quality of the ingredients that end up in the food which tend to be the by-products from meat and vegetable processing plants. I’ve visited many dry food plants and seen them in action, and it’s a fully industrial process, with great stainless-steel machines being fed by tanks of various meat and vegetable slurries. This doesn’t sound great, but the end result is usually a nutritionally complete food that dogs enjoy and that will keep fresh for up to 2 years, making it really convenient and affordable.
So, if you’re on a budget, or don’t have the time or space to consider a fresh food diet for your dog, then kibble is a good option to consider – and if you do feed kibble, there’s no need to feel guilty or worry that you’re doing your dog harm as a good quality dry food can support your dog’s health and wellbeing perfectly well.
Like dry foods, most tinned dog foods are made using industrial processes in large factories. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are bad or inappropriate, it is just something to be aware of as we increasingly start to understand the impact of ultra-processing on health, both for people and pets.
In recent years there have been some great quality brands appear in this space, most notably Lily’s Kitchen in the UK, and foods like these offer a good combination of convenience, relative affordability and palatability as many dogs prefer the texture and flavour of soft tinned foods over dried.
Most pet parents will combine tinned with dry to add in some different textures – and keep the costs down as tinned foods are definitely more pricey than dried – and this is a good option for fussy dogs or owners who are keen to offer something a bit more interesting and stimulating than a rather monotonous dry food only diet.
If there’s one feeding option that draws the strongest opinions, it’s raw feeding. Many in the pet world believe that a so called Biologically Appropriate Raw Diet, or BARF for short is the ONLY way to feed a dog properly as it is believed to be as close as possible to the diet that the ancestors of our modern dogs would have eaten in the wild many thousands of years ago. This may or may not be true (there is good evidence for some dogs in the bronze age eating a vegetarian diet alongside human populations in Spain), and raw feeding may or may not deliver better health outcomes – but like most claims in the pet nutrition space, there is little reliable evidence to support the strongest opinions around raw feeding.
That’s not to say that raw feeding is bad in any way – I am aware that many, many dogs thrive on a raw diet, and there is no doubt that the experience of chewing on real meaty bones provides benefits above and beyond just nutrition. For some dogs, and some owners, raw is fantastic, and there are many companies now making raw feeding easy and safe, including Bella & Duke (who I work also work with), Poppy’s Picnic, Natures Menu, and ProDog Raw. However raw is not for every dog or every household. Some dogs don’t get on with raw food, and it can cause digestive upsets. And the process of handling raw meat around the kitchen can be off-putting for some owners.
My advice on raw would be to give it serious consideration if you are happy to have raw meat at home and have the space to accommodate the food in your freezer – but also don’t be afraid to move away from raw if it doesn’t agree with your dog, as it is definitely not right for every single dog.
Cooked & frozen
After 20 odd years in the pet food world, I have ended up running a business producing freshly cooked meals made in a small production kitchen using locally sourced ingredients. The main reason for this is that after years working in the processed pet food world, developing kibble for Vet’s Kitchen and tails.com, I came to understand that while dry and other processed foods might offer all the complete nutrition a dog needs, they may not be the very best we can offer, and cooking fresh meals from real, wholefood ingredients provides an opportunity for us to take our pet’s nutrition to another level.
Although I do believe strongly in the value of freshly made food for our pets and have seen firsthand the benefits that this kind of diet can bring, I also realise that there is little real scientific evidence to support any real health claims associated with this kind of feeding. This evidence may come in time, but for now I am comfortable to promote these foods because I am confident in the value of using fresh, wholefoods and gentle cooking processes – and there is no doubt in my mind that from a palatability point of view, nothing comes close to fresh.
Freshly cooked diets are not for every dog however as there are some significant drawbacks to this way of feeding – it’s more expensive than feeding a dry food, or even raw diet, because of the cost of ingredients and preparation cooking processes involved. And it requires plenty of freezer and/or fridge space to accommodate the food which is much more bulky than dry food.
My personal opinion is that fresh cooked food is a great option which can deliver real health benefits, and so you should give this way of feeding serious consideration provided your budget and freezer can both accommodate it.
For many years homemade dog food has been labelled as dangerous or inappropriate because of often well-justified fears about the unbalanced nature of many homemade recipes for dogs. However, this has changed in recent years with the development of specialist supplements (such as those we sell at VetChef) designed specifically to balance homemade recipes and ensure they provide complete and balanced nutrition. Homemade recipes can also provide great options for dogs with health issues as these diets can be specifically designed to meet an individual’s specific nutritional requirements.
However, home-cooking for dogs is definitely a niche option, as it is time-consuming and requires real dedication and commitment. The rewards can be wonderful though, as there is really nothing better than watching your beloved dog wolfing down a bowl full of a meal you have handmade especially for her, and if done properly, it can deliver excellent and well-balanced nutrition.
Home-cooking is only worth considering if you have the time and commitment to put in, and if you do go down this route, make sure you do your research and feed appropriate recipes, using nutritional supplements to ensure nutritional balance.
So, what does this all mean for me and my dog?
Hopefully this article has given you a good understanding of the main options out there and how appropriate they might be for your dog – but if you’re still undecided on which way to go, here’s a very simple summary guide:
Dry food – for busy pet parents looking for convenience and affordability
Tinned food – a great addition to a dry diet to add more palatability and interest
Raw food – the ultimate carnivore diet for dedicated pet parents
Fresh cooked – for committed pet parents prioritising quality over cost
Homemade –for dedicated owners or for dogs with specialist needs
If you’d like my advice on how to feed your dog, just email me at email@example.com and I’ll do my best to help.