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How To Make Healthy Dog Food

Andrew Dickens

By

Andrew Dickens
Andrew Dickens

Andrew Dickens

Editor

Andrew Dickens is an award-winning writer, editor and broadcaster with 20 years in journalism. He’s created compelling content on film and television, travel, food and drink, physical and mental health, business, sport, technology and politics. And, of course, dog food.

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Updated: April 25, 2024

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Designing dog food is like designing anything — you start with nothing and hope to reach a perfect result.

Some dog parents do this themselves. They prepare fresh, home-cooked meals for their dogs every day, full of love, flavor and, hopefully, every nutrient their pet requires.

However, most of us, understandably, have too much going on to be our dog’s private chef or don’t trust ourselves to get meals right, so place our trust in dog food manufacturers.

A good dog food brand will take pride in its product and take care in its design, employing expert nutritionists and vets to create the formula.

Ollie’s Head of Food, Bridget Meadows, who helps create its 5-star-rated recipes, shares some insights on the process of how your dog’s food goes from the drawing board to the dining room.

Nutrients

You don’t need to be told that every dog is unique, but this is particularly true when it comes to their food. One of the big ways they differ is in their nutritional requirements, which are affected by these factors.

Life stages

A nutritionist will consider a dog’s age — and other factors such as pregnancy — when designing food.

“At the start of their lives, puppies can start to eat solid food after being weaned and need a calorific diet packed full of protein to aid their growth and development,” says Meadows.

Puppy-specific recipes will have a carefully monitored amount of calcium, as overconsumption at an early age can sometimes contribute towards hip dysplasia. This condition can often lead to painful arthritis and lameness in later life, so it’s something a nutritionist has to think about when designing food for puppies.

A dog food’s suitability for a particular life stage is guided by the nutrient profiles of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AACFO). The label will have one of the following categories:

A – All Life Stages
M – Adult Maintenance
G – Growth and Reproduction

You can read more about AAFCO nutrient profiles here.

Puppy food will be labeled either ‘Growth and Reproduction’ or ‘All Life Stages’. These foods are also suitable during pregnancy.

From about a year old or so, a dog will be ready for food labeled as ‘Adult Maintenance’ or, again, ‘All Life Stages’, which is deemed suitable for dogs of any age.

As dogs begin to get a little white around the mouth, there’s a huge range of food dedicated to the needs of senior canines.

“This normally includes a high amount of protein teamed with a lower amount of calories — that way, muscle growth and repair is encouraged without less-active pets piling on the pounds at the same time,” says Meadows.

Senior dog food is often designed to be softer and easier to chew, so those with declining teeth can still fill up without having to crunch dry kibble.

Size

Nutritionists will also alter recipes based on a dog’s size. It probably won’t be surprising to learn that a Newfoundland and a Chihuahua have different needs.

“Larger breeds are especially prone to hip dysplasia, so a maximum calcium level should be set in recipes intended for big dogs,” says Meadows. “If creating a kibble, this can sometimes be bigger in size so as to slow down eating without posing a choking hazard.

Smaller breeds tend to metabolize their food faster and some are more prone to pancreatitis — these include Miniature Schnauzers, Cocker Spaniels and Terriers. As such, their food needs to be leaner to keep them at a healthy weight.

Occasionally, your vet might note that your dog is too heavy — a serious issue, with obesity causing all manner of health issues. When pets are overweight, there are specially designed recipes to help with weight-loss.

Dog foods that come with a subscription service, including Ollie, will tailor your dogs’ portions to their needs, including their age and weight.

Ingredients

Once a nutritionist knows what nutrients and calories a specific dog needs, the next task is working out what ingredients will provide these.

The basics

Let’s begin with meat. Although dogs can survive on a vegetarian and vegan diet, meat is in nearly every dog food and has long been a trusted way to ensure pets get enough protein and fat in their diet.

“Some meats are naturally lower in fat, like turkey and chicken, and are more commonly seen in recipes for smaller dogs,” says Meadows. “Others, however, are a bit higher in fat, such as beef.”

Vegetables play a role in most modern dog food, too.

“Not only do they provide beneficial fiber but they often contain key nutrients — carrots and sweet potatoes are sources of beta-carotene, for example, which can be converted into Vitamin A. Your dog needs a decent amount of this to keep their vision, coat and bone health in top shape.”

Grain-inclusive or grain-free

There’s then a decision about whether to include grains or be grain-free. There’s been a lot of conversation, confusion and misinformation on this topic, which we won’t discuss in depth here, but in short, a food being “grain-free” does not mean it contains any harmful ingredients.

“As a general rule of thumb, grain-free foods tend to pack a little more protein, particularly using legumes, but there are few reasons to choose one over the other,” says Meadows. “Sometimes, it’s down to the individual dog and what they prefer — although it’s rare, some dogs can be allergic to grains or have sensitive stomachs unable to digest them.”

One common addition to these constituent ingredients is oil.

“These contain key fatty acids, especially Omega-3 acids found in fish oil, while also being a key tool for delivering calories. Too much oil, however, and the recipe risks being greasy and unpalatable, so a nutritionist has to keep a fine balance.”

Intolerances

A further complication when designing dog food stems from the fact that, much like humans, some dogs are allergic to certain ingredients.

“This problem can be offset in two different ways,” says Meadows. “Hypoallergenic dog food uses protein that has been blitzed — or hydrolyzed — into tiny particles, which can be digested by your dog without triggering their allergies.

“My preference is to have limited-ingredient recipes, which make it easier to identify and filter out ingredients causing the dog’s symptoms.”

Final stages

So the recipe’s sorted — what next?

Well, perhaps the most important thing from your dog’s perspective is whether or not it tastes any good.

“You could design the healthiest and most nutritionally complete recipe going, but if a dog turns their nose up at it — or it makes them feel poorly afterwards — that’s no good,” says Meadows.

That’s why there will be taste trials before the dog food reaches the shelves. Your dog isn’t a machine that simply needs fuelling — there’s a gourmand inside every animal, too. A gourmand partial to eating really foul things they find on the sidewalk, but a gourmand nevertheless.

“The recipe’s appearance once in the bowl will also be looked at. Yes, dog food rarely looks truly irresistible to the human eye, but it needs to look at least reasonably palatable.”

Once a dog’s given it the thumb’s up, there are a few final things to tick off during the approval process.

“The nutrient levels need to be tested to guarantee they meet the amounts set out by the AAFCO. Then, it’s a collaboration with the operations team to work out how to mix and package the recipe in the most efficient manner possible.”

After that, it’s ready to hit the shelf of your local pet store — or their website, of course — ready for you to buy and serve up to your hungry dog.

Final word

The Dog Food Advisor does not accept money, gifts, samples or other incentives in exchange for special consideration in preparing our reviews.

However, we do receive a referral fee from online retailers (like Chewy or Amazon) and from sellers of perishable pet food when readers click over to their websites from ours. This helps cover the cost of operation of our free blog. Thanks for your support.

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