One of the most important decisions you can make for the health of your dog is what to put in their food bowl. With so many options out there, choosing the perfect one can feel overwhelming — and the first step in making that decision is understanding how each type can affect your dog's health, behavior, and overall well-being.
In this guide, we'll take a look at the most common dog food types and the science and nutrition behind each to help you make the best decision for your furry friend.
Kibble is the most popular form of dog food, mostly because it’s convenient and has a long shelf life. Kibble is produced using a process called extrusion, which involves mixing proteins, grains, and vegetables and then exposing them to pressure and high temperatures. 1
The problem with this is that the high-temperature processing can affect (destroy) the nutrients in the food. According to a study published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, extrusion affects vitamin concentration and is “destructive for vitamins from the B group, vitamin A and vitamin E.” 2
As a result, manufacturers end up having to add artificial vitamins and minerals to kibble to make sure it meets the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) guidelines for complete and balanced nutrition.
The main benefits of kibble have to do with convenience. When stored properly, it has a shelf life of up to a year, it requires no preparation or much cleaning, and it already comes balanced so you don’t have to worry about nutrition.
Kibble is also the most cost-effective option on a per-calorie basis. Because kibble is mass-produced, its costs are lower than other types of food. It’s also energy-dense, which means pet owners only need to feel a small amount to meet their dogs’ calorie needs. At the end of the day, this all means less costs for the owners, especially for those who share their home with large breeds with high caloric needs.
Not all kibble is created equal. Lower-cost options tend to be poor choices nutritionally, as they’re often made with fillers (corn and other cheap grains that add bulk but not much nutrition) and artificial preservatives. If you have a dog that’s a picky eater, you might also find that they don’t like kibble and refuse to eat, which can then lead to reduced food intake and nutritional issues.
Dogs that only eat dry food are also at a higher risk of dehydration. According to PetMD, “dogs that are fed a canned food or a homemade diet will receive some moisture through their food, as these are about 65-80% water." 3 If you feed only dry food and your dog isn’t a big drinker, it could be a problem.
Despite their claim for complete and balanced nutrition, it is very difficult to get the correct nutrition for a dog from kibble. Most kibble dog food manufacturers often use a single formulation for each life stage which means they don't take the specific needs of your dog into consideration. Specific attribution such as reproduction status, body weight, size, physical activity level and age that are unique from one dog to another, affect their required nutrition.
For a long time, kibble was also believed to be the best choice from a dental perspective, because pet owners felt chewing something hard could help remove dental plaque and prevent tartar accumulation. However, recent studies seem to indicate this isn’t necessarily true. In fact, a 2007 study showed that it isn’t the kibble itself but the size of it that seems to make a difference, pointing out that “increasing the kibble size by 50% resulted in a 42% decrease in the accumulation of dental tartar.” 4 So if you have a small dog eating tiny-sized kibble, the results might not be that obvious.
Nutritionally speaking, kibble is "designed" to be a complete diet, which means it provides a balanced mix of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, fibers, vitamins, and minerals. Although the proportion of these nutrients can differ based on the brand and formulation, you can confirm that a pet food meets your pet’s nutritional needs by looking for the phrase “complete and balanced” on the label. This means the food meets the Nutrient Profiles established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). 5
While dry dog food is one of the cheapest options to feed your dog, you should evaluate both the upfront cost and the cost per feeding when looking at kibble. For example, high-quality kibble dog food has a higher price tag but can provide better nutrient density, reducing the cost per meal. On the other hand, cheap, low-quality kibble might sound cheaper at first, but could end up costing you thousands of dollars down the line in vet bills. You should also consider the potential nutritional issues with kibble and their long term effects on your dog before deciding on this diet.
Kibble is the easiest pet food to store. You just need to keep it in a cool, dry place, ideally in an airtight container to prevent exposure to moisture and air. The FDA recommends storing pet food in the original container or bag, so you have the “best by” date easily available. 6
Wet dog food is a mix of higher protein sources, like meats and poultry, along with grains and vegetables.
Pet owners choose wet foods for many reasons — they feel canned food is better quality than dry food, they have dogs that are fussy eaters, or they believe wet food is closer to a natural diet for dogs.
One of the biggest advantages of wet dog food is its high moisture content. According to PetMd, “dry food might have around 10% moisture (max.) while a wet food might have something like 78% moisture (max.).” 7
Wet food also has a richer flavor and smell than dry food, making it a great choice for senior pets and picky eaters. For dogs with dental issues, the soft texture also makes it easier to chew and swallow, while for pet owners seeking organic food for dogs, the options might be more varied among premium canned food brands.
Wet food is generally more expensive per calorie than kibble — the best-canned dog food can even cost 2-3 times more than dry food.
It’s also a more inconvenient choice in general: it's heavier to transport, takes up more storage space, and has a significantly shorter shelf life once opened. It also requires refrigeration after opening, which makes it more inconvenient.
Just as with kibble, the nutritional profile of wet dog food can be quite variable, depending on the quality of the ingredients. The best products have meat as the first ingredient, without excessive fillers or artificial additives.
Wet dog food tends to be more expensive than kibble, both in terms of the initial price and the cost per feeding. This is partly because you're paying for the water weight in the food, and dogs may need large amounts of wet food to meet their energy needs.
Some owners choose to mix wet and dry food to balance the cost while still providing some of the benefits of both food types.
Once opened, canned dog food should be used within a few days, and it must be stored in the refrigerator at a temperature of 40F or below.8 Unopened cans have a long shelf life and should be kept in a cool, dry place.
The raw diet for dogs is inspired by what our dogs’ ancestors would have eaten in the wild and typically consists of raw meat, bones, fruits, and vegetables. Advocates of the BARF (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food or Bones and Raw Food) model argue that this diet is healthier and more in tune with a dog's natural digestive system, but the scientific community has not reached a verdict on its safety.
Raw diets can be prepared at home or purchased commercially.
Pet owners who feed raw claim the diet has many health benefits for dogs, including shinier coats, healthier skin, improved dental health, increased energy levels, and a stronger immune system.9 Some studies suggest that “raw diets are higher in antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and some flavonoids.” It’s also possible that a raw diet may improve immune function. “As 70% to 80% of each animal’s immune system is located within the intestinal tract wall, it is not surprising that food has a major influence on immunity, and therefore on disease predilection,” according to a report, which also points out this hasn’t been confirmed or proven at this time.
There are plenty of risks associated with a raw diet. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) discourages the feeding of raw animal proteins because they can contain pathogens like Salmonella and E. coli.10 There's also a risk of nutritional imbalances if the diet isn't carefully formulated — which is very likely unless pet parents seek the guidance of a veterinarian or pet nutritionist.
Another concern with raw diets is the potential for whole bones to cause choking, broken teeth, or internal punctures. 11
A raw diet can provide plenty of nutrients when prepared properly.
On the other hand, there's a significant risk of vitamin and mineral imbalances with home-prepared raw diets, especially with calcium and phosphorus (meat is high in phosphorus and low in calcium), which need to be carefully balanced to keep bones and teeth healthy. Even with sufficient amounts, though, the body may struggle to digest calcium or phosphorus if the diet's quality is poor. 12
The cost of a raw diet can vary widely depending on whether it's homemade or commercially prepared. Premium raw diets tend to be more expensive because of the high-quality ingredients used. Ideally, pet owners wanting to feed a raw diet should consult with nutrition experts, which can also be quite expensive.
Raw diets are probably the most inconvenient of all options when it comes to storage. Raw meat must be kept frozen until use and then thawed safely to prevent bacterial growth. Any uneaten food should be discarded immediately so it doesn't spoil and to prevent contamination. There’s also a high risk of cross-contamination with human foods, which means there’s a lot of cleaning to be done constantly when feeding raw.
Home-cooked meals are exactly what they sound like: meals prepared at home from fresh ingredients. Cooking for your dog allows you to have complete control over every ingredient that goes into the bowl, making it an ideal choice for dogs with specific dietary needs or food sensitivities — but also a risky one when it comes to nutritional balance.
When you cook for your dog, you can be sure that your dog is getting quality ingredients without fillers or additives and can easily make adjustments for weight management or health conditions.
Many owners find peace of mind in knowing exactly what their dog is eating, and cooking for your pet can also strengthen the bond between you and your furry friend.
Home-cooked meals require a considerable time investment in planning, shopping, preparing, and cooking. Nutrition is a complicated issue with home cooked meals and most home-cooked meals are likely to be nutritionally poor unless they are formulated by a veterinary nutritionist. According to the American Kennel Club, “Some of these may cause deficiencies in your dog’s diet, while others may lead to an excess of certain nutrients.” To avoid health issues down the line, they recommend avoiding generic recipes from books or online sources. 13
If properly formulated by a veterinarian nutritionist, the nutritional profile of gently cooked fresh dog food meals can be excellent. However, most home-cooked diets lack certain nutrients, mostly because many recipes are inadequate and sometimes dangerous.
Imbalances can lead to serious health issues over time. For example, too little calcium can lead to bone problems, while too much can lead to skeletal issues, especially in large-breed puppies. 14
The price of home-cooked meals can be high (if you choose organic or specialty ingredients) or low (but this often means compromising on quality). While it is possible to save some money by buying in bulk, you still need to consider the cost of supplements needed to ensure a balanced diet.
Gently cooked dog food requires safe refrigeration and often freezing in batch-cooked quantities. This means having enough space to keep the food plus careful planning (when to cook again, when to defrost) to always have a meal ready for your dog.
Freshly prepared meals are one of the newest options to enter the pet food market. They’re usually prepared with human-grade ingredients and are cooked in a way that preserves nutrients and ensures food safety. Unlike kibble or canned food, fresh diets come either as ready-to-serve meals or as pre-portioned packs that require minimal preparation.
The biggest advantages of fresh dog food diets are the quality of the ingredients used and the lack the artificial preservatives found in many commercial pet foods. The best fresh dog food can also be tailored to a dog’s specific nutritional needs, preferences, or allergies.
Fresh diets are also easier to digest and absorb. And a small study published in the Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition found that dogs fed a freshly prepared, lightly cooked, whole-food diet showed an improvement in blood test results after just a few weeks.
Fresh diets are also very convenient: they’re delivered to your home ready to serve, saving you time and work. 15
The main drawback of fresh food is the need for refrigeration, which can be inconvenient if you’re traveling or don’t have enough space for it. These diets also tend to be more expensive due to the quality and type of ingredients used.
Nutritionally speaking, fresh diets can offer plenty of vitamins and minerals from fresh meats, vegetables, and fruits. But while fresh food diets are often marketed as being "more natural" or "closer to what dogs would eat in the wild," not all companies out there are the same. At Cola’s Kitchen, we make sure every meal offers balanced nutrition to meet all of a dog's nutritional needs. In fact, this has always been our main goal — to offer your dog great-tasting food that’s also great for them.
Fresh food diets usually cost more than kibble or canned food because of the higher cost of ingredients and the process of preparation and packaging. This cost can add up, especially for larger dogs or multi-dog households. But it's worth considering the long term benefits of tailor-made fresh dog foods like Cola's Kitchen. In the long run, you can save thousands of dollars in less veterinarian visits since the complications arising from fresh dog food is significantly less than other types of dog food.
Storing fresh dog food usually requires refrigeration or freezing, which can take up considerable space in your kitchen. Once opened, meals should be consumed within a few days to prevent spoilage.
While choosing the best natural dog food, take some time to consider your dog’s specific needs, lifestyle, and health. At Cola's Kitchen, we champion fresh dog food diets because we believe they provide the most nutritional value for your dog's unique needs. While each diet type has its place, we feel that fresh food's minimal processing and tailorable ingredients offer superior benefits for your dog's health and well-being.
After all, the most important thing is to always aim for the highest quality in your dog's diet to support a long and healthy life.