Choosing Dog Food

When you stroll down the numerous dog food aisles at your pet supply store, you may be overwhelmed by the variety available. You can find foods for puppies, large-breed puppies, old dogs, working dogs, and dogs with allergies. While it's nice to have a selection, it can be difficult to decide which food is right for your dog. Knowing the Lab's special needs will help.

Factors to consider include the dog's energy level and size. Working dogs, or active, high-energy dogs, such as Labs, are probably better off with a diet that's high in caloric density, meaning that it's high in fat and highly digestible. Couch potatoes, on the other hand, who get most of their exercise walking to and from the food bowl, need a much lower calorie diet or they'll become overweight.

With a puppy, you need to be aware of growth rate. Conventional wisdom once said that big dogs with big bones needed lots of calcium and other nutrients during puppyhood. Veterinarians now know that's not true. Because Labs are prone to musculoskeletal disorders, such as hip and elbow dysplasia, it's important that they not grow too quickly.

Large-breed puppies, such as Labs, need less calcium so their bones can develop normally as they're growing. Veterinary nutrition researchers have discovered that by reducing the calcium in diets for large-breed puppies and controlling the calories, the puppies don't grow as quickly and grow up with fewer musculoskeletal problems. Some manufacturers also add nutrients believed to help improve joint cartilage — such as glucosamine and chondroitin — to the foods for large-breed puppies, as well as to diets for large-breed adult dogs.

Keep in mind that a regular puppy food, as opposed to one that's made specifically for large-breed puppies, provides complete and balanced nutrition for any size dog. The difference is that it's not fine-tuned to meet the precise needs of a puppy that will grow up to be a big dog, such as a Labrador. Large-breed dogs are defined as those that will weigh 50 pounds or more in adulthood. Most dogs, such as Labs, that will weigh less than 90 pounds at maturity can be switched to an adult diet at about one year of age. Whatever you choose to feed your puppy, the most important thing is for it to be complete and balanced. As a puppy grows, poor nutrition can lead to all sorts of problems, from poor skeletal development to a compromised immune system.

Canned Food

Canned foods contain either blends of ingredients — muscle meats or poultry, grains, vitamins, and minerals — or one/two types of muscle meats or animal by-products with enough supplemental vitamins and minerals to ensure that the food is nutritionally complete. Depending on the ingredients used, canned foods can vary widely in nutrient content, digestibility, and availability of nutrients. They're prepared by cooking and blending all of the ingredients, canning and cooking the mixture, and pressure-sterilizing the sealed can.

Dogs love canned food. It meets their “smells good, tastes good” criteria. That's because canned food has a high fat content and is calorically dense. Canned food has a long shelf life, although it must be refrigerated after it's opened. It's easier to eat for older dogs that have difficulty chewing. And for you, it's easy enough to open a can and dump the contents into your Lab's dish.

However, canned food does have disadvantages. It's expensive, especially if you're feeding it to a large breed, such as a Lab. Its water content is high — as much as 78 percent — so you're not getting a lot of meat for your money. Canned food sticks to teeth and is a factor in the formation of plaque, which leads to periodontal disease.

Dry Food

This is the most common type of dog food purchased. Kibble contains grains; meat, poultry, or fish; some milk products; and vitamin and mineral supplements. It's made by combining all the ingredients, extruding them into the desired shapes or sizes, and baking. Once the dog food has cooled, the kibble is sprayed with fat or some other substance to make it taste good.

The big advantage to dry food is cost. It's much less expensive than canned food. This is something to consider when you have one or more large dogs to feed. Dry food has a long shelf life and can be left out without risk of going bad.

Dry food has a reputation for helping to prevent the buildup of plaque and tartar on teeth. Dry foods and biscuits can help crack off tartar (the hardened form of plaque), but they don't affect the gumline area. The exception to this is veterinary foods that are designed to have a cross-hatch effect on teeth, scrubbing them all the way to the gumline.

On the downside, kibble generally contains less fat and more carbohydrates than canned food. For this reason, it's often less palatable to dogs than canned food, especially if they're given a choice. A finicky Lab's taste buds can be tempted by mixing a little canned food in with the kibble.

Frozen and Semi-Moist Food

Frozen dog foods are made with fresh meat, vegetables, and fruit, and contain no artificial preservatives. After being mixed and formed into loaves, rolls, or cubes, the food is flash frozen to preserve freshness. Frozen nuggets are as easy to feed as kibble, and loaves or rolls are easy to slice after defrosting. Consider a commercial frozen food if you like the idea of fresh ingredients but don't have time to cook for the dog yourself.

The downside is that frozen dog food is available only in limited distribution. It must be kept frozen until you're ready to use it, and any unused portion must be refrigerated. If you're traveling with a dog, it's difficult to take the food along unless you have some means of refrigeration or of finding it in pet stores along the way. Some frozen foods also come in freeze-dried form and can be reconstituted with hot water. Some dogs will eat this, while others turn up their noses.

There's no evidence showing that dogs do better on one type of food than another. The choice you make depends on your Lab's dietary needs and preferences, as well as your preferences and budget.

The semi-moist food diet is softer than dry food but not as messy as canned food. The amount of water it contains ranges from 15 to 30 percent. Ingredients include fresh or frozen animal tissues, grains, fats, and sugars.

Other than convenience and palatability, there's not much to be said for semi-moist foods. The level of sugar they contain puts them squarely in the junk food category. In cost, they fall somewhere between canned and dry food, although single-serve packets usually compare in price to canned foods. This type of food is best given in small quantities as a treat.

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