Canned vs Dry Dog Food: What’s the Best Dog Food for your Pup

“What’s for dinner?” is an intimidating question when a dog owner is stuck in the food aisle at the grocery store, or worse yet, in the endless rows of bags and cans in the pet supply superstore. There are so many questions, made even more confusing by the cleverly worded marketing claims that promise a glossier coat, a stronger immune system, and (yes, even) a smarter dog with every product.

This article will examine how we can best feed our dogs, but the most basic question is: “Should I feed my dog canned food or dry food?”

The simple answer to this question is that foods that come in a can are generally richer, tastier, and a lot more expensive. Your dog will like it…your pocketbook, not so much. But there is a lot more to consider.

I have been a practicing veterinarian for more than 40 years, and during every one of my 100,000 patient visits I have asked: “What do you feed your dog?” Many dog people make greater efforts to satisfy their dog’s nutritional needs than their own, and most people want the best for their pet.

What is the difference between dry food that comes from a bag and moist food that comes from a can? The first is palatability. Who doesn’t want to see their dog dive into their dinner with gusto? Canned food has more wonderful odors, and it seems that dogs enjoy the feeling of the food as it is gulped and swallowed. They may not take much time to savor the flavor, but the pleasure of chomping a mouthful of food fresh out of a can is obvious. But if the dog doesn’t eat it all immediately, the food will get gross and spoiled, so it doesn’t suit the dog that is a “grazer”.

When I wander thru the pet food aisle, I like to compare the different foods. When I pick up a bag of dry or a can of the newest and best premium food, I ignore the cute picture of an adorable pooch (or the wolves have become cover models for many “evolutionary” foods) and flip the bag or can over to look at the “Guaranteed Analysis.” The most important thing to know about any food is the relative amounts of protein, fat, and carbohydrate that the product contains. Here, the important difference between dry and canned food is found. Fat provides about 25% of the calories in the average good quality dry food, but more than 40% of the calories in a typical food from a can. That can be a good thing (or a health hazard) but fat certainly tastes good (the current recommendation for humans is to limit fat to less than 30% of calories consumed, but it tastes so good). Canned foods will also have higher protein and lower carbohydrate percentages than their dry counterparts. You won’t find carbohydrates listed on the label but, if you add up protein, fat, fiber, and moisture, the remaining percentage is carbohydrates.

Considerable controversy has formed around whether dogs should get more protein (after all, aren’t they meat eaters?), fewer carbs (there may be some truth in the “carbs are evil” trend in human fad diets), and how much fat might be too much.

Sometimes household finances get the deciding vote when it comes to what goes in the dog dish. I recently surveyed a number of brands of premium dry and canned foods and found that canned foods typically cost three to four times as much per calorie as dry foods. This is a valid concern, even for the person who would do anything to please their best friend. Calculating the calorie needs for a 20-pound neutered adult dog, the cost of canned food would be $1.50 to $2.50 a day. An 80-pound dog would eat up 4 cans a day, costing $6 to $10 to keep it within their caloric needs. You might notice that the larger the dog, the less food they need per pound of body weight. Dry food can certainly be more economical, especially for the bigger pets. Most of the dogs that I see who eat only canned food are small dogs where it is more affordable.

There are a number of other things we could talk about when considering canned food: obesity, pancreatitis/fat intolerance (particularly in Schnauzers), digestive issues, kidney problems, dental disease, aggression, and allergies, but those may be best discussed with your veterinarian.

Here is my own practical advice about feeding canned food:

  • With growing puppies, I like to give some canned food along with the chosen dry food. We don’t have to worry about the puppy getting overweight and the extra protein can be helpful. In toy breeds, they simply may not be able to eat enough bites of dry food (even the tiny toy breed crunchies) to keep their blood sugar up without some easy-to-swallow moist food. Bigger puppies should get a scoop of canned food on their dry at feeding time.
  • Even in adults, I often have dog owners give a little scoop of canned food with the meals, not for its nutritional value, but as a “condiment” that induces the dog to eat better. However, since more than half of the adult dogs in this country are overweight or obese, we really don’t need to encourage those dogs to overeat any more than they already are!
  • When dogs need to take chronic medications (for arthritis, for example) it is nice to hide the pill in a little “meatball” of canned food. Again, this is more a treat and not a major source of nutrition.
  • Most dogs eat more than they need, but there are some canines that are too finicky and feeding mostly canned food can be a good way to get more calories into the body. This most often occurs with very small dogs, which deserve their picky reputation.
  • Geriatric dogs sometimes do better on canned food, as the smell wakes up the desire to eat that sometimes deteriorates with the senility of advanced age. In these dogs it is critical to consult your veterinarian about the best food: Dogs with aging kidneys may not tolerate the extra protein in canned food.
  • Many smaller breeds of dogs develop serious fat intolerance problems after 5 years of age (Schnauzers are notorious for this), and serious (sometimes fatal) pancreatitis can be the result. I recommend NO canned food — or human table food — for my Schnauzer patients, or for other dogs that seem to get an upset stomach from high-fat foods.

There you have it. Add some canned food if you want to give your dog an extra treat at mealtime, but not if they have a weight problem or fat intolerance. Some dogs do fine on strictly canned food diets, most do great on dry food only, but eating should be a pleasure.

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