The Dog Diet and Available Food Types

By Dr. Carly I. O'Malley November 18, 2019

Our dogs have become important members of our families, and we strive to give them the best care. One of the biggest components of providing great care for our dogs revolves around what we feed them because diet is a key component of preventative medicine. There are a lot of choices when we go to the pet store and many different brands claim to provide important health benefits for our dogs. Currently, there are a lot of marketing campaigns around grain-free, natural, or raw foods for our dogs with some controversy that goes along with it. Deciding what to feed our canine companions with all this information can be difficult. In this article, we will discuss dog nutrition and the pros and cons of different types of foods to help you make the best decision for you and your dog. But before we get into talking about dog nutrition and what they should be eating, it is important to talk about the origins of our domestic dogs and how they became man’s best friend.

How Did Dogs Get Domesticated?

Dogs are members of the family Canidae and are closely related to wolves (Canis lupus). It is often believed that dogs evolved from grey wolves as we know them today, but in reality dogs and wolves share a common ancestor (VonHoldt & Driscoll, 2016). There has been an on-going debate about dog domestication for many years. It was once believed that humans would capture wolf pups and raise them, but most recent evidence suggests that humans and dogs co-evolved about 20,000-40,000 years ago (Botigué et al., 2017). Once humans began living in settlements, it was rumored that a wolf-like ancestor began living around these settlements to scavenge food waste. Humans that had dogs scavenging nearby likely obtained benefits, such as protection from predators, while the dogs benefited from the ample supply of food. Some populations of wolves preferred this close human contact and took full advantage of this beneficial relationship. It was these wolves that evolved into our domestic dogs, suggesting that dogs domesticated themselves (Clutton-Brock, 2016; VonHoldt & Driscoll, 2016).

What Is The Diet Of Wolves Like?

The wolf-like ancestor that preceded our domestic dogs was a carnivore, meaning they primarily ate animal protein and a small amount of vegetation. A study on the diet of wolves showed that wolves primarily eat ungulate species and small mammals. Occasionally, wild wolves eat fish, reptiles, or birds. Wolves are also known to eat vegetation such as grasses and fruits. This study by Bosch and colleagues (2015) estimated that the nutrient profile of a wolf diet is 54% protein, 45% fat, and 1% carbohydrates (Bosch et al., 2015).

Are Dogs Carnivores Or Omnivores?

The ancestors of our domestic dogs were carnivores, but one of the primary physiological changes that led to the domestication of dogs was an enzyme that allowed them to digest starch (Botigué et al., 2017). This makes our domestic dogs omnivores (Bosch et al., 2015). The reported nutrient profile of domestic dogs is 30% protein, 63% fat, and 7% carbohydrates (Bosch et al., 2015).

What Food Choices Are Available For My Dog?

Historically, it was common to feed our pets whatever scraps we had lying around or to let them scavenge or hunt for food. However, in recent years, the pet food industry has undergone a major change as more and more people consider their pets as members of the family. Since we have such a close relationship with our pets, we often insist on feeding them high quality, human-grade food. Many foods now have claims of grain-free, high-protein, human-grade products which can make finding the right food confusing. Moreover, there is also a wide variety of food types, such as wet food, dry food, raw food, and even home-made recipes.

Wet Food

  • Pros:
    • Higher in moisture content than dry foods. This makes it a great option for dogs with kidney issues or dogs who are prone to dehydration
    • Wet food is typically higher in animal protein
    • Highly palatable to dogs, and therefore is a great choice for dogs that are not eating well or those that need to gain weight
    • Great for dogs with missing teeth or other dental issues
  • Cons:
    • More expensive than dry food
    • Open cans cannot be stored long
    • May be higher in fat

Dry Food

  • Pros:
    • Since dry food is easy dish out and store, it is a convenient way for dog parents to provide complete nutrition
    • Dry food is more cost effective than wet food
  • Cons:
    • Lower in moisture content
    • May be high in carbohydrates
    • Some dry foods contain high amounts of fillers and artificial ingredients
    • Prone to contamination and recalls if not stored properly

Raw Food

  • Pros:
    • Low processing, meaning there is less mechanical or chemical operations performed to change or preserved the food.
    • Provides whole pieces of meat and includes bones and other items that are said to improve dental health, digestion, and overall health
  • Cons:
    • There is a risk of E. Coli. and salmonella infection for dogs and humans
    • If not formulated properly, the diet may be incomplete and lead to health complications due to deficiencies
    • Can be more expensive than commercially available dog food

Homemade Diet

  • Pros:
    • Pet parents know what is in their pet’s food and how it was made
    • Fresh and wholesome
  • Cons:
    • If not formulated properly, the diet can be incomplete and lead to health issues due to deficiencies
    • More expensive than commercial food


  • Pros:
    • Grain-free foods are typically made with more animal proteins and less filler
    • Some dogs have grain allergies and benefit from grain-free food
  • Cons:
    • Some grain-free foods are still high in carbohydrates and therefore do not provide great nutritional benefits
    • Recent reports link grain-free food to detrimental heart conditions
    • There is little evidence to support grain-free diets for dogs

What Factors Should I Consider When Buying Dog Food?

There are a lot of fad diets out on the market now for dogs. It is easy to fall into the trap of buying a food because the company is claiming to use the highest ingredients that are meant to adhere to your dog’s natural, wild diet. It is important to feed your dog a species-appropriate diet to ensure they get all the nutrients they need in an appropriate quantity. This means dogs should not eat cat food and should not get a lot of human food. Dogs require a dog-specific diet for their age and reproductive status. Therefore, it’s important to make sure the dog food you buy is AAFCO approved for your dog and its current stage of life. Puppies, senior dogs, and pregnant or lactating female dogs require specific diets formulated for them. It is also important to consider your dog’s lifestyle when buying a dog food. It is popular to buy dogs grain-free, high protein foods, but this diet is most appropriate for working dogs that burn a lot of energy throughout the day. If you have a couch potato, this diet is not appropriate, and it is better to look into a more conventional dog food.

It is also important to consider the food company you are buying from and whether they have the ability to run quality assurance checks on their food. Many small, boutique companies, while it is nice to support them, cannot test their food items and therefore tend to have more recalls due to contamination. Before buying from a food company, do research into how many recalls they have had on their food.

To find a high-quality food, search for a food that is primarily made from animal protein sources with low amounts of filler and artificial ingredients. It is not true that all dogs are allergic to grains, such as corn, wheat, and soy. There is even recent evidence suggesting that grain-free dog food may be linked to increased incidence of dilated cardiomyopathy (FDA, 2019), although the research is on-going.  

The most important factor to consider when buying dog food is your dog! Each dog is an individual with their own needs. Just because a food worked for your past dog, does not mean it will work for your current dog. Also, a dog’s nutritional requirements and preferences can change throughout their life. It’s important to monitor your dog and be aware of the symptoms that indicate your dog may have an allergy or sensitivity to its food. Symptoms include itchy skin, poor coat and skin quality, gas, bad breath, regular loose stool or diarrhea, goopy eyes, and chronic skin or ear infection. The ingredients that are most likely to cause an allergy in your dog is beef, chicken, corn, wheat, cow’s milk, soy, eggs, and fish (Freeman et al., 2017). If you are unsure what food to feed, it is best to consult with your veterinarian.

What Kind Of Treats Should I Buy For My Dog?

Treats are an important form of currency in your relationship with your dog, especially if you are actively training them. As such, treats should be something your dog LOVES to eat and are willing to work for. This can include commercially available treats, or items such as hot dogs, cheese, carrots, or turkey. It is important to keep your dog’s food allergies in mind when deciding on a treat, but the most important thing to consider is how much your dog likes the treats. Treats should not make up a large portion of your pet’s diet. During training sessions, you should be providing your dog pea-sized pieces of treats. This allows you to use a lot of them for training without adding a lot of calories to your dog’s diets. If you are doing a lot of training with your diet, you can incorporate your dog’s kibble into the training as well.


There are a lot of food choices in pet stores today that are available for our dogs. Ultimately, the most important thing to consider when buying dog food is the lifestyle and preferences of your individual dog. There are a lot of fad dog foods out there on the market right now.  However, the nutritional profiles of those foods are not appropriate for every dog. It is important to consider your individual dog’s preferences, lifestyle, and nutritional needs when picking a dog food. More importantly, consult your veterinarian if you have any questions or concerns about your dog’s diet.

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Works Cited

Bosch, G., Hagen-Plantinga, E., and W.H. Hendriks. 2015. Dietary nutrient profiles of wild wolves: insights for optimal dog nutrition. British Journal of Nutrition 113(S1):S40-S54.

Botigué, L.R., Song, S., Scheu, A., Gopalan, S., Pendleton, A.L., Oetjens, M., Taravella, A.M., Seregély, T., Zeeb-Lanz, A., Arbogast, R.-M., Bobo, D., Daly, K., Unterländer, M., Burger, J., Kidd, J.M., and K.R. Veeramah. 2017. Ancient European dog genomes reveal continuity since the Early Neolithis. Nature Communications 8:16082.

Clutton-Brock, J. 2016. Origins of the dog: The archaeological evidence. In J. Serpell (Ed), The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions with People (p. 7-21). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

FDA. 2019. FDA investigation into potential link between certain diets and canine dilated cardiomyopathy. Retrieved November 15, 2019.

Freeman, L.M., Linder, D.E., and C.R. Heinze. 2017. What every pet owner should know about food allergies. Tufts Clinical Nutrition Service. Retrieved November 15, 2019.

VonHoldt, B.M. and C.A. Driscoll. 2016. Origins of the dog: Genetic insights into dog domestication. In J. Serpell (Ed), The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions with People (p. 22-41). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.