Dry dog food, often called kibble, is cheaper and more convenient than wet dog food (a.k.a., canned food). However, wet foods are usually more nutritious, and canned varieties are more carefully regulated. Both wet and dry dog foods have major pros and cons, so choosing between the two will often come down to an individual dog's dietary needs.
Adult dogs benefit from a low-carb diet that is high in animal proteins and fats, such as beef liver, turkey meal, and/or chicken fat. Ingredient quality varies significantly by dog food brand, with some manufacturers using good meals or fats, and others using questionably-sourced animal byproducts.
Wet dog food is generally more nutritious, low-carb, and low-calorie, when compared to dry dog food. Canned food tends to have almost two times as much animal fat and protein, both of which are good for a dog's health. And an ounce of dry dog food contains nearly four times as many calories as an ounce of wet food — around 97 calories and 25 calories, respectively.
Canned food comes with a few other additional benefits: High moisture content — 74-82% compared to dry food's 10-12% — makes dogs feel "fuller." The canning process also preserves flavor and means wet dog food is subject to canned food regulations that set processing standards and limit the use of preservatives, artificial flavoring, and artificial coloring.
For one veterinarian's take on fresh food vs. dry food vs. wet or canned food, watch the video below.
Convenience and Freshness
Dry food is much more convenient than wet food. A resealable bag or container of kibble can be kept for months, or until the product expires; similarly, kibble remains edible in a bowl for hours on end. Significant cleanup following dry dog food feeding is rarely required. Wet food, in contrast, cannot be left in a bowl for hours on end, and it can be messier. Keeping it can be trickier, too, especially when containers do not come with a resealable top. Canned food must be refrigerated after opening and needs to be used within a few days of the first serving.
Health Effects of Wet vs. Dry Dog Food
Just as every human is slightly different, so, too, is every dog. What works for the health of one animal may not work as well or at all for another.
A common concern when it comes to wet or canned dog food is how it affects canine dental health. Dry dog food proponents argue that wet dog food gets stuck in a dog's teeth, and that the crunchy-hardness of kibble helps to clean teeth naturally. Wet dog food proponents tend to say that it may be true that kibble scrapes away plaque, but that the starchy ingredients found in dry dog food cause additional plaque buildup, negating positives.
It is difficult to determine which camp is right, as this debate exists not only among dog owners, but also among veterinarians. Generally, vets and trainers recommend regular dental cleaning at home (brushing and/or dental chews) and deep cleaning with a vet once or twice a year.
There is a third group within this debate: those who believe in raw-feeding their dogs by giving them uncooked meats and bones. Raw-food proponents, who point to dogs' evolutionary history as evidence in support for raw-feeding, often report never needing to clean their dogs' teeth, as meaty bones do the work for them. There are pros and cons to raw-feeding, however, and many pet owners prefer the convenience and cost effectiveness of dry or canned foods.
Though numerous low-calorie/low-carb weight control dry foods exist, it is hard to beat the calorie and carb counts of wet dog food, primarily due to the high moisture content of canned food. However, some veterinarians will prescribe a particular type of dry food, depending on a dog's health issues, so if weight gain (or loss) is a concern, it is best to check with a vet before putting a dog on any particular diet. Sudden weight loss or gain may indicate another underlying health problem.
Is Grain-Free Food Better?
In recent years, the presence of wheat and cereal grains in dog foods, particularly dry varieties, has received a lot of negative press. In response, the pet food industry now produces many "grain-free" foods, both wet and dry. These foods are often marketed as being more "natural" or "organic" as well, with the implication being that dog foods with grain are unhealthy. Some have also expressed concern that dogs may suffer from wheat intolerance or allergies, similar to those found in humans.
Research, however, has not found grain-free foods to be better universally. Many grain-free products replace wheat or cereal grains with other types starches (e.g., potato or tapioca) that may or may not be healthier. Food allergies in dogs are different from those found in humans, too. Grains, for instance, are rarely food allergens for dogs, while beef and dairy are some of the most common.
Some dogs will benefit from a grain-free diet, or, even more so, from an owner figuring out which ingredient is causing digestive upset or other health issues (as it may not be the grain). When it comes to wet vs. dry dog food, wet food will almost always have fewer grains and more proteins.
Dry dog foods are much cheaper than canned dog foods.
Popular Dry vs. Canned Dog Food Cost Comparisons
- A 30 lb bag of dry Taste of the Wild costs $47 on Amazon, compared to twelve 13.2 oz cans (i.e., 10 lbs) of wet Taste of the Wild for $43. Each pound of canned food is $2.73 more expensive.
- A 35 lb bag of dry Kibble 'n Bits costs $20 on Amazon, compared to $18 for twenty-four 13.2 oz cans (i.e., 20 lbs) of wet Kibble 'n Bits food. Each pound of canned food is 33 cents more expensive.
- A 26 lb bag of dry Wellness CORE costs $56 on Amazon, compared to $27 for twelve 12.5 oz cans (i.e., 9 lbs) of wet Wellness CORE food. Each pound of canned food is 85 cents more expensive.
- A 35 lb bag of dry Purina Pro Plan costs $35 on Amazon, compared to just over $14 for twelve 13 oz cans (i.e., 10 lbs) of wet Purina Pro Plan food. Each pound of canned food is 40 cents more expensive.
Note: These are simplified conversions, as dry ounces are different from fluid ounces, and different dog foods have different daily feeding recommendations.
Government Regulation and Recalls
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ensures the ingredients of pet food are "generally recognized as safe," but pet food is not as carefully regulated as human food. Some additives, food coloring, labeling, and ingredient lists are regulated, especially in wet canned foods, which are subject to additional canned food regulations. The FDA also regulates specific claims, particularly any related to health maintenance or concerns (e.g., "maintains urinary tract health" or "glucose control").
Even so, most dog foods include ingredients that require no pre-market approval, meaning the pet food industry is largely self-regulating. This lack of oversight means that hard-to-define or test terms, such as "organic," "natural," and "grain-free," may not mean much and may sometimes represent clever marketing efforts only.
Since 2007, pet food labeling has been regulated more closely, spurring a major increase in dog and cat food recalls. See also the 2007 pet food recalls that resulted after numerous animal deaths.
Choosing a Dog Food
Dogs are similar to humans, in that their dietary needs change depending on age, body type, activity level, and any existing health concerns (e.g., diabetes). Puppies that have been removed from their mother, for example, must be given wet dog food to accommodate weaker teeth, and preferably one specially formulated for early development.
Adult dogs are highly adaptable to a wide range of foods and will rarely have obvious negative reactions to a food, whether it is wet or dry. However, "no negative reaction" does not necessarily mean "healthy," and concerned pet owners will benefit from discussing their dog's diet with veterinarians and trainers.
Switching Dog Foods
Some dogs experience digestive problems when switching to a new food with very different ingredients. For this reason, veterinarians often recommend slowly introducing dogs to any new food, usually by mixing the new and old food together for a few days. If a dog has had a bad reaction to a food, though, the animal should be switched to a new food immediately, and severe reactions should be reported to a veterinarian as soon as possible.
History of Dog Food
Manufactured wet and dry dog foods are relatively new pet products, preceded only by the dog biscuit, which was created in the mid-1800s. Canned dog food was not introduced to the American market until the 1920s, and kibble in its current form has only been manufactured and sold since the 1950s. Prior to the development of these products, people usually fed their dogs table scraps, particularly meaty bones.