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FAMILY & PETS

Too Many Options! How to Choose the Right Food for Your Dog

January 25, 2024

Editor’s note: Our team (and their dogs!) love Ollie. If you’re looking to make the switch to fresh food for your dog, you can get 50% off your first box.

At Primary Goods, we have an independent selection process & only review what we fully endorse. If you buy a product via our links, we may earn a commission.
2nd Editor’s note: Consult with your veterinarian if your dog has specific health conditions or dietary needs. And always make sure the food you choose meets the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) guidelines! 

Is it just me, or did the dog food landscape used to be much less cluttered? 

I swear there was a time, not too long ago, when the conversation around dogs and food was pretty much: do you let them eat scraps from the table or not? Now, every time I go on Instagram I am flooded with opinions about which type of food you *absolutely must* be feeding your dog or you are a bad pet parent. 

Also, there are SO MANY options available now: fresh, raw, canned, kibble, air-dried, freeze-dried, pâté, home-cooked… and surely some mad scientist is concocting a whole new kind of food as I type.

If you are feeling similarly overwhelmed, don’t worry! I put together a detailed breakdown of the most popular types of dog food out there, with information, pros + cons, and takeaways. 

Before we get into it, I’ll just tell you what my dog Rita prefers: Ollie, a fresh food brand that allows you to customize your meal plans – and gives you 50% off your first box!

Now, without further ado…

Fresh Food

What is it? 

Fresh food is human-grade dog food that has been gently cooked at low temperatures to lock in the maximum amount of nutritional value. It is generally chunky in texture and has visually recognizable ingredients – unlike most other dog food types, with fresh food you’ll be able to identify things like spinach, sweet potatoes, turkey, etc., so you know exactly what your dog is eating. 

Fresh food also contains very few or zero preservatives. If purchased at a store, it’s usually in a refrigerator; if ordered via a delivery subscription, it generally arrives frozen. Because it’s fresh, it needs to be kept in the fridge between meals. 

Benefits:

Fresh food fans say it’s the best way to make sure dogs get the nutrition they need. Premium ingredients are chosen and then cooked at low temperatures (lightly steamed, for example), which preserves the nutrients at their peak. This type of food is also usually high in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which support a healthy shiny coat. Finally, if you opt for a subscription from a fresh food dog brand, you’ll be able to customize your dog’s meal plan based on factors like age, weight, activity level, sensitivities, and more. 

My dog Rita, a happy Ollie eater!

Should you feed it to your dog? 

Obviously, it’s a personal choice and you have to weigh all the factors. But I can speak from my own experience and say that fresh food is the only kind I’ve been able to get my extreeeemely picky dog to eat.

Specifically, I’m talking about Ollie – a subscription-based brand that makes healthy, easy-to-digest meals my finicky lil pup goes crazy for. The beef and chicken options are a hit in my house, but Ollie has several different meals to choose from – along with extras like tasty treats, supplements, and probiotics. I also appreciate that the good folks at Ollie will look at your dog’s poop (seriously) to help diagnose any digestive issues and point you in the right direction, food-wise. That’s love! 

I might be an obnoxious, stereotypical L.A. dog mom, but I take such comfort in the knowledge that my dog is eating high-quality, human-grade ingredients like spinach, quinoa, chicken, and blueberries – basically, all the things I like to eat! 

And I’m happy to report that my dog Rita is healthy and happy on fresh food – with the soft, shiny coat (and peppy lil attitude) to prove it!

Pros + Cons

Pros: 

  • Premium-grade ingredients that are, literally, fresh
  • Low cooking temperatures ensure optimal nutritional value 
  • Familiar ingredients you can see with your own eyes
  • Few or no preservatives
  • With a subscription plan, you can customize your dog’s diet to their tastes and needs
  • Since it’s basically human food packaged for dogs, it’s perfect for pups who crave table scraps. (They just want to be included in the fun!)
  • High in omega-3 and omega-6, for a healthy coat
  • May help reduce inflammation 
  • May be easier to digest than other types of food
  • Some evidence suggests that dogs who eat fresh food are less likely to be overweight than dogs who eat kibble

Cons: 

  • Fresh food must be frozen or refrigerated, and has a limited fridge life once opened
  • May be more expensive than other options
  • If your dog prefers hard textures, this is not the option for you
  • If you have a young puppy, consult your veterinarian to make sure they’re old enough for fresh food

Kibble 

What is it? 

You know it, you love it. Kibble has been on the scene for ages and it’s here to stay. Simply put, it’s dry, pellet-sized dog food that contains ground-up ingredients including meat, grains, legumes, vegetables, and more. 

Benefits: 

The main benefit to kibble is definitely convenience. You buy a bag, store it anywhere (it doesn’t need to be refrigerated), and it lasts a long time – making it cost-effective as well! Depending on your dog’s life stage and nutritional concerns, kibble can serve as a one-stop shop with everything they need. Some also argue that because dry kibble is less likely to spoil than fresh food, it reduces risk of bacteria. Another benefit is taste and texture – some dogs love a satisfying crunch! 

Should you feed it to your dog? 

As with every type of food in this article, it depends! (I’m sorry!) Kibble is certainly the most low-maintenance dog food here. It seems to be getting a bad rap these days, as it’s not the trendy new kid on the block – and some pet owners worry about the amount of potential animal by-products in kibble. There is a lot of misinformation circulating about what “by-products” actually are and what kinds are allowed to be in dog food. A quick detour:

Animal by-products that may be in kibble include organ meat, like livers, spleens, and kidneys – which should all be perfectly safe for dogs to consume. Things that won’t be in kibble, contrary to popular opinion: feathers, feet, hooves, hair, and manure. 

However, the amount of allowable preservatives in kibble may be a legitimate concern. We know that some preservatives in human food have been linked to an increased risk of cancer; in my research I couldn’t find an established connection with dogs, but I personally like to avoid preservatives anywhere when I can.

Also, because dried food is cooked at higher temperatures compared with fresh food, it can be hard to tell whether you’re getting the most nutrients out of the ingredients. 

Pros + Cons

Pros: 

  • Easily stored; doesn’t need to be refrigerated
  • Related to the above – lasts a long time!
  • Typically more affordable than fresh food
  • Often sold in large bags, making it even more cost-effective
  • Can serve as a one-stop shop covering your dog’s needs

Cons: 

  • Cooked at higher temperatures, which may not lock in optimal nutrient content
  • No variety, compared with a fresh food plan (unless you’re feeding your dog multiple different kinds of kibble!)
  • Generally contains preservatives to ensure long shelf life
  • You can’t easily recognize ingredients
  • You can’t easily customize your dog’s diet
  • Not human-grade; has different standards from fresh food

Air-Dried 

What is it? 

How is air-dried food different from regular-dried food (aka kibble)? While kibble is made by cooking ingredients at high temperatures, air-dried food is made by slowly drawing the moisture out of raw ingredients at low temperatures. This low-and-slow dehydration process allows the food to retain most of the nutrient content, vitamins, and minerals of raw food. 

Benefits: 

As I just mentioned, nutrient retention is probably the most important benefit of air-dried food. It has many of the same benefits as kibble, in that it’s convenient, shelf-stable, and it doesn’t spoil quickly. It also tends to have a jerky-like texture, which many dogs love – and you might be able to trick your pup into thinking you’re giving them treats when it’s just dinner. Many fans of air-dried food claim it’s highly digestible, too! 

Should you feed it to your dog? 

Again, it depends on so many factors unique to your dog. Does your dog crave a chewy-toy experience with their food? Then they’ll probably appreciate air-dried. Do they have specific dietary needs? It might not be suitable; you’ll want to consult a vet before forging ahead. 

Another consideration is cost. Air-dried food tends to be on par with fresh or raw food, so it’s definitely a more upscale option. That’s the price you pay for minimally-processed, nutrient-dense, basically-raw-but-with-a-twist food. 

Finally, because this food is dehydrated (meaning it has almost no moisture), it WILL make your pup thirsty – so be sure they always have access to fresh water.

Pros + Cons

Pros: 

  • Nutrient retention is on par with fresh and raw food
  • Minimal processing
  • Doesn’t need to be refrigerated
  • Jerky-like texture is fun for dogs who love to chew
  • Very digestible

Cons: 

  • More expensive than traditional kibble
  • May not be available in stores
  • May not be suitable for dogs with specific dietary needs
  • Reduced moisture content means dogs will be thirsty! 

Raw 

What is it? 

Raw dog food is essentially a diet that mimics what canines might have consumed in the wild before the advent of commercial pet food. It typically includes raw meats like beef, chicken, and fish, edible bones, organ meats, and a mix of fruits and vegetables – and rarely includes preservatives or fillers. Some variations may also involve grains, although many, if not most, leave them out. Raw food needs to be kept in the freezer until mealtime and served cold. 

Benefits: 

Because raw food is, by definition, not cooked, proponents argue that it’s the purest form of food in terms of nutrient retention. It is generally grain-free, if that’s something that appeals to you – in fact, it tends to be extremely high in protein (on average about 85%). Because it’s so dense in nutrition, fans of raw food report that their dogs have super shiny, healthy coats.

Should I feed it to my dog? 

It’s worthwhile to weigh the advantages of a raw food diet with its downsides. For instance, it needs to be handled and stored correctly to avoid bacterial contamination. Also, because raw food usually has very limited ingredients, it may leave nutrient gaps that your dog needs. There are many differing thoughts on the whole grain-free conversation – I’m personally of the opinion that grains are healthy and good in moderation, just like in human diets – but if you’re anti-grain and seeking a paleo-esque experience that might mimic a dog’s diet in olden times, this is the route for you. 

As always, you’ll need to consider cost and convenience. Raw food can be expensive! It’s also not the most easy-breezy of the food types – you can’t just toss some in your bag for a day trip. Only you can decide if feeding your dog raw food makes sense for your lifestyle. 

Pros + Cons

Pros:

  • Nutrient-dense 
  • Generally high in protein and free of grains
  • Your dog can eat like a cave…dog 
  • Minimally processed with few or no preservatives

Cons: 

  • High risk of bacterial contamination if handled or stored improperly
  • Can be pretty expensive
  • Not the most convenient or portable 
  • May not cover all of your dog’s nutritional needs
The Almond Eater (Note: Dogs are not almond eaters! Do not feed almonds to your dog.)

Home-Cooked

What is it? 

This one’s pretty intuitive! Home-cooking is for the person that wants to take their dog’s diet into – literally – their own hands. Cooking your dog’s food from scratch means gathering all the necessary ingredients and preparing them in a way that will be nutritional and palatable for your pooch. 

Benefits: 

The biggest benefit to cooking your dog’s food is that you know exactly what’s going into it. You control the ingredients, preparation, and portioning – which is a big responsibility, but if you have all the right information regarding your pup’s dietary needs, it can be incredibly rewarding. You also have the power to make new recipes on a dime if you notice their tastes changing.

Should I feed it to my dog? 

There are lots of variables with home-cooking. If you know exactly what your dog needs – for example, how much of a specific nutrient they require and what their sensitivities are – and you have the skills and time in your day to make it happen, godspeed! Personally, I barely have time to make food for myself, let alone my special bud. And I don’t trust myself to deliver exactly the right nutrient balance and portions that will be best for my dog – I prefer to outsource to the professionals! 

Depending on the quality of ingredients you buy (for example, gourmet / organic vs. not), cooking your dog’s food can be more or less cost-effective than buying something pre-made. On average, it probably ends up being more expensive for a larger dog, since they naturally require more food in a given day. If you have a puppy or small dog, do the math and see if home cooking may actually save you money. 

If you determine that home-cooking is the right avenue for you and your BFF, make sure you consult a veterinarian so you’re armed with all the necessary information before you start slicin’ and dicin’. 

Pros + Cons

Pros: 

  • Gives you complete control over your dog’s diet
  • You can customize their food based on needs and preferences
  • You can guarantee it’s fresh, with no preservatives
  • You can choose how to store it (but in the freezer is probably best)

Cons: 

  • You’ll need your dog’s exact nutritional specifications
  • There’s the potential for accidental cross-contamination 
  • Can be expensive, if you’re buying high-quality ingredients

Add to Cart? 

While the above is certainly not a complete list of every dog food type under the sun, hopefully you now have a bit more information to make your decision. Feel free to do your own research and, again, always consult with your vet before trying a new diet – in fact, switching up your dog’s food at any time should be handled with care, as it may be disruptive to their digestive system. 

And if you want to feed your dog what *my* fabulous (and incredibly snobby) pup eats, you’re going to want to check out Ollie – for the most nutritious, palatable, and convenient food delivered right to your door. And you'll get 50% off your first box if you order today! 

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