Introduction

You may know you want to try a different diet for your dog, but where should you start when trying to find the right diet or brand? This article will give you some things to look out for—and some things to avoid—as you look at what’s in the fresh dog food market. 

What is Fresh Dog Food?

While there is no official definition, generally speaking, “fresh dog food” is made with fresh ingredients, cooked, and then packed—often without preservatives (or only with natural preservatives). As a result, most fresh dog food needs to be refrigerated, but there are some that you can keep in your pantry. 

Fresh dog food has recently re-emerged onto the dog food market. Although 10 years ago, fresh food was rarely fed, it has since exploded in popularity. It’s also set to rise further, with several companies receiving massive investments since 2016. It’s thought that people are switching for several reasons. One is that they feel that as we reduce processed food in our own diets, so we should for our dogs. Another common reason given is that owners have become suspicious of ingredient lists they don’t understand. Lastly, reviews from early adopters are often good. However, it’s important to note that these are only testimonials, and research comparing fresh dog food to others is yet to emerge.

How to Choose a Healthy Fresh Dog Food

The information you need to assess a dog food can generally be found on the food label itself. Most manufacturers also have websites where you can get more information or contact them directly. Be aware, though, that a lot of what is on the website is marketing, and not all that the claims that manufacturers make are backed up by science. 

A Balanced Formula

The most important thing with any kind of dog food—fresh, dry, raw, or canned—is to make sure that it is nutritionally balanced. This means that it will supply your dog with all the nutrients they need to live a happy, healthy life. 

In the U.S. and Canada, the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) regulates the sale of animal food. There are currently three ways that manufacturers can show that a dog food is healthy:

  • Formulate it to meet the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles
  • Put it through an animal feeding test
  • Formulate it to be the same as another diet that has been through a feeding test

You should be able to see on the label (or the manufacturer’s website) which of these was conducted for that particular food. 

On the other hand, if the label says that the food is “intended for intermittent or supplemental feeding only,” then it will not provide your dog with everything they need. Food like this should make up no more than 10% of your dog’s diet, with the other 90% being a nutritionally balanced diet. 

Tailored to Life Stage

The label should also say for what stage of a dog’s life the food is designed. The options are the following: 

  • All Life Stages
  • Growth (that is, puppies)
  • Maintenance (that is, adult dogs)
  • Gestation/Lactation (that is, pregnant or nursing dogs)

If diets are suitable for Growth or All Life Stages, they should then specify whether they are suitable for puppies expected to be over 70 pounds as adults. 

You should not choose a food that is not suitable for your dog’s life stage, as it may be unbalanced. 

Many fresh food dog diets are suitable for All Life Stages. However, there are some points in a dog’s life (for example, when very young or very old) when they may benefit from a more tailored diet. Consult your veterinarian for personalized recommendations for your dog. 

Expert Involvement

Formulating a pet diet is complicated. The AAFCO guidelines give a basis for this, but you also need someone with expertise to oversee this process. The World Small Animal Veterinary Association recommends that pet food should be formulated by either veterinarians who are board-certified in nutrition or scientists with a doctorate in Animal Nutrition. 

Regular veterinarians are not taught to formulate diets as part of their training, and “pet nutritionist” is not a protected title, so unfortunately it does not guarantee that the person has the expertise that is needed for this task. 

Choose a manufacturer who employs someone with these qualifications, or at least that has hired a consultant who has these qualifications. You can usually find this information on their website. 

Nothing Too Exotic

Try to avoid diets with exotic-sounding ingredients, be they meats, starches, or vegetables. Scientists have much more nutritional information about common ingredients than they do about ones that are rarely used. There have been cases where diets with exotic ingredients have been linked to diet-related diseases, even though “on paper” the diets were complete and balanced. 

The only exception to this is if your dog has a food allergy. In that case, speak to your veterinarian for personalized advice. 

Care with Legumes

There have been some concerns in the last few years about a link between grain-free foods and a type of heart disease called Dilated Cardiomyopathy. 

It is still not clear what is causing this link, but currently, it is thought to be related to high levels of certain ingredients like peas, beans, and potatoes. These ingredients may be found in fresh dog foods, though some brands will now also supplement their diets directly with taurine. 

Should I Go Grain-Free?

Many premium diets these days are grain-free, but there is no evidence that this makes them healthier. Dogs can happily digest grains, and they contain useful protein and vitamins, as well as being a good source of energy and fiber. 

It is possible for dogs to be intolerant or allergic to grains, but this is unusual. Allergies to meat proteins (such as beef, chicken, or dairy) are more common. If you think your dog may have a food allergy, a specialized diet may be needed, so speak to your veterinarian for advice.

Should I Choose Organic?

Many people will choose to eat organic food, both for themselves and their pets, and there are some companies that offer fresh foods where some or all of the ingredients are organic. However, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that eating organic food is healthier for our pets, so it remains a personal choice. 

Should I Choose Human-Grade?

Many fresh foods will advertise that their ingredients are “human-grade.” There is not yet scientific evidence to show that human-grade food is safer for your pet, but the term at least shows that care is being taken when choosing ingredients.

Conclusion

Most commercial fresh foods will provide a healthy diet for your dog. Be sure to choose one that is balanced according to AAFCO guidance, which has an expert overseeing its production, and that is right for your dog at their stage of life. Avoid exotic-looking ingredients, and do not be fooled by trends like “grain-free.” If your dog is very young or very old or has any health conditions, then you should always speak to your veterinarian for personalized advice before changing your dog’s food.