Food Rules for Dogs

It’s generally accepted that of all the controversial people food trends out there, the paleo/raw/low carb/low fat rules of ingestion, the one thing everyone seems to agree on is Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, which at its core is this: don’t eat so much processed food, and don’t eat so much food in general.

Agreed, and you can certainly extrapolate this to pets too. However, with over 50% of US pets overweight or obese- a condition with definite and real consequences- I’m more concerned with the latter than the former when it comes to pets.  If you prepare your pet’s food, you’ll be bored with this post. If you don’t, and need a little help, read on.

I feed Brody commercial food, so I won’t judge you for doing the same.

Despite knowing home-prepared foods made from your own organic farmer’s market basket provides the most close-to-nature ingredients, it’s a struggle to do this consistently for our human kids, never mind the pets. So most of us* feed our pets out of a bag and beat ourselves up over it. And that’s where clever marketers get you in the feels: we go into the pet store with this vague and disquieting sense of guilt that oh god I’m feeding my pet processed kibble and I’m a bad dog owner therefore I will compensate by buying the absolute best processed kibble I can afford. (Which, by the way, is my own personal approach, so I’m not knocking it.)


As you all know, dissecting thorny nutritional questions could fill a whole book, so this post is limited to current marketing trends. There are plenty of buzzwords out there designed to convince you that this or that new food is the healthiest one, the most wolf-like, light years ahead of all the other ones. But do these trends really mean anything? Based on what I’ve seen hitting the shelves this past year, here are my own personal Food Rules I keep in mind when shopping.

Food Rules for Dogs**

1. The term “natural” doesn’t tell you much.

In AAFCO terms, natural pet foods only means nothing chemically synthesized (except vitamins.) The word natural does not imply better (cyanide is natural!), or even minimal processing. Natural pet food can still be processed and rendered and full of chicken feet from China. Don’t buy a food just based on that word without actually reading the label.

2. Dogs aren’t wolves, they’re dogs.

The venerable journal Nature recently published a study comparing the wolf’s ability to digest starch with a dog’s ability to do the same, which Dr. Huston sums up nicely here. To sum up the summary: dogs evolved to hang around and scrounge off of us, and in doing so changed both their anatomy and their digestive enzymes to better digest carbs like the omnivores they follow around. Which leads me to my next point:

3. Most dogs don’t need a low carb diet.

The general consensus amongst those who know a ton about these things, like DVM/PhD nutritionists who run Iditarods with performance dogs such as Dr. Arleigh Reynolds (he spoke at a great BlogPaws session), is this: performance dogs may benefit from the additional protein and/or fats in low carb foods. For the average dog, the extra calories just tend to make them fatter.


Don’t you look smart.

4. Most dogs don’t need a grain free diet either.

If you want to go grain free for your dog, it won’t hurt them. But ask yourself: why? People usually assume grain free diets are better for dogs based on one of a few ideas: grains are covered in glutens and glutens are bad; or grains are carbs and carbs are bad.

Gluten free diets are all over the place these days because of the incidence of celiac disease, a real and devastating condition in people. But with the exception of one subset of Irish setters, it doesn’t occur in dogs.

Is grain free = low carb? Not necessarily. Potatoes, a common grain free source of carbs, have a higher glycemic index than brown rice and are all over the place in grain free dog diets. Besides, dogs are fine with carbs (see 3.)

Or do you think your dog is allergic to grain?

5. Most dogs aren’t allergic to grains.

Of all cases of allergies in dogs, food allergies only comprise 10% of them. And of those food allergic dogs, the 5 most commonly diagnosed allergies are: beef, dairy, chicken, lamb, and fish. Are grain allergies possible? Yes. Likely? No. If you’re feeding a grain free beef formula because you think your dog is allergic to wheat, consider a food trial to confirm your suspicions.

6. There is no one ideal food for your dog.

Anyone who says ‘this and only this brand/line is all that will ever be appropriate’ is lying. There are always options (even prescription diets are usually available from multiple manufacturers), and unless your dog has a specific medical condition you’re treating with diet I encourage people to try different foods and see what works best. As I’ve said before, I rotate foods all the time. If you try the most pricey food in the store and your dog gains 15 pounds, starts flaking off greasy dandruff, or starts pooping 6 times a day, who cares what the bag or the guy in the apron stocking shelves said? Do what works for you.

7. If your dog’s overweight, get that sorted out before worrying about corn and byproduct meal.

I’m not certain exactly what so many people think corn is going to do to their dog, but they are certain it’s going to do something bad so prescription weight loss food is out of the question for their 115 pound Akita who can barely walk. Then they put the dog down when both knees go out. This is a true story from my clinic, which happened after 6 months of begging the owner to put the dog on a diet, any diet, corn or no.

Don’t focus so much on what might happen that you miss the real danger happening right in front of you.


Koa lost 12 pounds (non diet food, just portion control) after we adopted her and was all the happier for it.

I talk more about how to decipher food names, ingredients, and what I tell people when they ask me to make a food recommendation in prior posts linked here.

Got your own pet rules? And should I do a cat one?

*If you’re one of those uncommon home cooking owners, awesome for you. That is not said sarcastically. I know it takes a lot of work. And if you’re a raw feeder, I accept that you have researched it and know what you’re doing and disagree with feeding kibble. Go forward and BARF and peace be with you. 
** See *. I’m talking to the rest of the crowd.
Filed: Blog, Dogs, Health, Lifestyle, Picks of the Litter Tagged: , ,
  • Tabitha

    Yes to cat please!

    • Leigh


  • CJ Anne Carter

    Great food rules! If I had a dime for every client that came in jabbering on about corn & byproduct meal with an obese pet, I’d have at least $30.00, haha.

    • That’s an idea: take a dime from every nutrition consult and put it in the charity bowl. 🙂

  • Great information. Golden Thanks for sharing. Lots of Golden Woofs, Sugar

    • Thanks Sugar! 🙂

  • Melody

    I second the “Yes to cat, please!”

    • OK, I’ll work on that next. More complicated. 🙂

  • Linda Case

    Excellent post with much needed information! Thanks for writing this!

  • Lena Jo McCoy

    Love your food rules. I have to laugh. I grew up on a farm and our dogs ate CO-OP food with scraps from the house and the cow corrals (eww I know but they did eat a lot of corn and alfalfa) My dad, the old farmer, would just shake his head at the designer food my dogs eat. His dogs were athletes with rarely a health problem (unless they got in a fight with a badger or coon or stepped on by livestock). It’s a bit like humans. My dogs don’t have to work (OK they are English Bulldogs and there aren’t many bulls around here) but we are trying to take more walks and eat right!

    • I would imagine most dogs would be in heaven nosing around a cow corral. LOL

  • Katie

    Yes, please do a food rules for cats!!

    • Deborah Mendez

      I second the request!

      • Kristine

        I third it! 😉

        • Andrea Blair

          Yes please, that would be great!

          I have a cat who our vet thinks is around 3 years old (Chipotle is a stray), but she is definitely more sedentary than we expected for that age. She doesn’t eat much at all, but is 14 pounds and sometimes acts arthritic (e.g. doesn’t jump onto high furniture, is clumsy even jumping up onto the couch). I’d love to learn a bit more about feeding rules for cats. Thank you in advance Dr. V 🙂 !

  • carolinegolon

    Thank you for your real and practical advice! The industry is so confusing! Also, BRAVO on your point about focusing on a healthy weight above all else. Just get those pounds off!

  • Leah S

    I so agree. I remember when addressing a breeder mentioning dog food, she said any good quality food that works is good. Long ago ‘we the people’ fed dogs Skippy dog food and lots of table scraps. That was just about everybody. I swear then the dogs lived till 17, 20, 23 years old then commonly.

    • Whatever works is what you should use. So funny how easy it is for us to forget that!

  • kgseymour

    Well done, Dr. V. Thanks.

    • I hope that is a “you go, good sir” slow clap and not a sarcastic “nice job” reddit slow clap. 😀

      • kgseymour

        Haha! Very much “you go, good sir.” I know how tricky this topic is to cover (as you’re aware) and I’m giving you a standing ovation for breaking it down like this.

  • Lisa W

    Oscar likes change. He’s the least food-motivated dog I’ve ever seen and gets bored easily. I do feed them good quality kibble, but if you switch foods from time to time how important is it that you do it gradually? Occasionally I’ve had to switch “cold turkey” because the store was out of my regular stuff, but it didn’t seem to do any harm.

    • It depends on the dog. Brody switches all the time so he doesn’t get digestive upset, but dogs who have been on the same food for eons may need a more gradual switch. It seems to be the fat levels that trigger the most gi upset when switching around (at least that is what the nutritionists have told me.)

      • Jessi

        I could switch food all the time on my “little” one and her stomach wouldn’t care.

        The Newf, if I even *think* too loudly about changing his food, I’d better go buy extra poop bags…

    • Natalie Karst

      After the Menu Foods fiasco, I started our newly adopted dog on a mixture of three kibbles by different companies plus some canned food that I also do an assortment of brands. Our dog definitely does not have a sensitive stomach but I change his food all the time with no problems. The cat with IBD… Whole other story.

      • Oh, cats. Apollo’s been on the same food for years too (food allergies.) One bite of Brody’s kibble and we’re all hating life.

        • Natalie Karst

          Had a mildly hilarious conversation with a vet a while ago over the cat’s diet, which currently is meat baby food. Her kidney function isn’t great and the vet wanted her to eat something healthier. Me too but the reality is that she refuses to eat 90% of the prepared foods out there and the other 10% blow up her IBD and I spend every day cleaning the latrine that used to be our house….

          She’s 17, she has horrible bowel function, and bad hip dysplasia that I know is painful. I have no doubt that eventually her kidney function is going to go, and when that happens we will release her from her uncooperative body. In the meantime, she adores the baby food, snarfing up every last drop, and seems reasonably happy for all that she’s dealing with. I call that success at this point.

  • Jessi

    I don’t have a cat, but I’d love to read a cat version of this.

    Additionally, I’m a crazy lady when it comes to my Newf, his weight and his food. I tried all the crazy top end stuff and it was all just waaaaay too much for his poor GI tract. It took almost 2 years for me to realize that, “Hey, XXX is a quality food too, despite the fact it doesn’t have all the fancy lingo and holy cow … he’s doing well on it!”

    He’s had two knee surgeries now (on the same leg; we chose the less appropriate surgery the first time – talk about owner shaming >.>) and I tentatively put him on a prescription joint diet, fearing the worst. To my surprise, it’s been great no only on his stomach/GI but he’s now standing on his rear legs, which he never did before!

    I considered the home cooking, and applaud the people who can do it … it’s just beyond me due to his size and my budget.

    • Wow, thanks for your experience. That’s the part that makes me so sad: we’ve been so prodded by the guilt police into thinking you have to do it THIS ONE WAY and PRESCRIPTION DIETS ARE GARBAGE that people are genuinely surprised when they work. I’m so glad the joint diet is working for you- I’ve heard really positive feedback on several of them.

      • TheDancingDonkey

        I’d really like to hear more about the joint diet. I have two ten year old border collies, both in excellent condition and not at all over weight, lean in fact. They get lots of exercise and I feed the same way you do, I buy the best I can and see what works. However they both have joint problems (they are litter mates and all of the litter has similar problems). They get joint supplements and pain meds as needed, but I have never heard of a joint diet. I am wondering if it would help?

        • Leigh

          I am assuming it is Hill’s Prescription Diet j/d.

        • Jessi

          Leigh is correct; I use J/D for him, as well as joint supplements and fish oil. I was just trying not to “name drop” brands or anything else as it really wasn’t the end goal of the post. 😉

          It is expensive, though in my case I work in an animal hospital so I get a bit of a break on the cost…

          Also on that note, my 45# mutt is the dog version of a billy goat; she can eat *anything* and would do fine on it in terms of stomach/GI. The two things I need to watch with her is that some foods cause her to form crystals in her urine or issues with her anal glands.

          Like Kolchak’s mom said … feed them like individuals, not a pack. If pack feeding works, great! If not … tailor to their needs for sure!

        • While the over the counter “joint support” diets are more smoke and mirrors than anything, the prescription diets (j/d also one I use) are much higher in those supplemental ingredients and are backed by data to show improvement in dogs with joint disease. I was skeptical, but they changed my mind.

  • BFA

    I worked under a DVM that INSISTED that ALL her patients needed to be on a grain-free diet. Even when they didn’t have any food related problems (coat, skin, weight, allergies, GI issues, etc….) We had to automatically hand each client a handout with what foods they should buy. And none of our prescription diets fell under that which was a shame because there were cases that really could have benefited and others who pulled their pets off the rx diet thinking they were harming their pets. So frustrating. So thank you for this post that I can now refer my clients to.

    p.s. My grade 3 hip dysplasia dog does beautifully on the rx joint diet. And with all the added omega 3 his coat & skin are in good nick too.

    • You’re the second person in this thread who’s said how much the joint diet has helped. I saw some impressive studies on the rx versions but nice to know there’s positive feedback in real life too.

  • KolchakPuggle

    I think as a community we definitely need to get away from the idea that there is a “best” way to feed any dog. Just like people, there are no two dogs alike. I have one with a gluten intolerance, an allergy to fish meals (whole fish is inexplicably fine) and who turns into a small dog shaped whale if he has anything but low carb. When we fed kibble, I had to change it every month or he’d start reacting. I have another dog that could easily be mistaken for a trash compactor and can eat pretty much anything.

    There’s no one diet that would work perfectly for either of them. We need to feed our pets like individuals, not like a pack. Yes, ingredient quality and the overall quality of the diet are really important to me, but if the diet is inappropriate for that specific dog, it doesn’t matter how good it is – it’s still the wrong diet.

    • Yes, yes, yes! Well stated.

  • Pamela | Something Wagging

    Excellent and practical advice.

    I used to feed homemade meals based on Dr. Pitcairn’s recipes. I found them a tremendous benefit when my dogs were elderly or suffering from cancer.

    Now I have a young, healthy dog with no sensitivities. And I’m happy to feed her whatever has my vet saying at our wellness visit, “Wow, she looks great! What are you feeding her.”

    • Dr. Pitcairn has been such a great advocate for pets over the years. I’m glad those diets were a help to you with your special needs pets 🙂

  • Brook Whyte

    i do grain free and home cooked (lots of greens like broccoli and kale) for Astro because he has lymphoma and i do corn free for the other dogs because i believe the herbicides and pesticides in the GMO corn in dog foods may be related to the increased incidence of canine cancer.

    • I’m so sorry to hear you’re dealing with lymphoma. What a rotten disease. Best wishes to you and Astro- sounds like you’re a fantastic dog mama!

  • Natalie Karst

    Love this post Dr. V! This is exactly the position we take at the k9diabetes forum, where prescription diets, corn, etc. come up frequently. I have been participating in forums related to canine diabetes since 2004 and the truth of my experience is that the prescription canine diabetes diet works well for many dogs, the SD one at least.

    • I actually use that forum as an example of how the internet community can come together in a really meaningful way for animal lovers. Great group. So glad to hear the diet is working well for a lot of dogs- as you know diabetes nutrition is in a constant state of revision as we understand it better, but as I tell clients- of COURSE the companies want it to work! It’s in their best interests as well as the patients for it to help or else it won’t sell 🙂

      • Natalie Karst

        Thanks Dr. V. That means a lot to me! We work very hard to keep K9D a sane and welcoming place with sane and useful support.
        Although I don’t know the reason why, we consistently see more good results with Science Diet WD than with the other prescription diabetes diets like DCO. Their content is so similar but I’m sure processing, fiber source, etc. all play into how well it works.

        • Wow, that is really interesting. I see that one pooh poohed a lot as old school but with diabetics, you just gotta plug away and find what works, as you know better than anyone.

  • JaneK

    That was really helpful and sensible as all your post are. If people would quit getting taken by marketing and use a little knowledge mixed with a little common sense…. Well, our world wouldn’t be going to hell in a hand basket! 🙂
    My old vet was determined my dog needed to lose weight based on whatever. He was fit and had a waist and seemed pretty good to me, but I went with it, after all, he had the degree. He sold me this food that my dog just wouldn’t eat. My dog was a picky eater and did not snarf his food down all at once like some dogs. He was a rescue and had learned how to protect his food and save it. When I went back and told him that my dog didn’t like it (I am a rule follower so really did everything he said), he told me to leave the dog with him for 2 weeks and he’d get him to eat it. And if he ate it, I paid 2 weeks board and if he didn’t he wouldn’t charge me. Did i mention my dog was about 12? WTF? How ’bout quit selling your high priced goods and help me figure out something that works for us. Needless to say, that was the beginning of the end of that overpriced relationship. Anyway, I share all that b/c I particularly appreciate your approach to this and your willingness to look at the individual pet and their family and giving people options of things that work. Rock on Dr. V, rock on!

    • I think sometimes we’re so worried about being “right” that we don’t actually think about what that means for people. We’re all guilty of it, myself included, but I’m trying. 🙂

  • Poppet von Kossmann

    If I said to my dog “sorry, you can’t have popcorn because corn is bad for you” she would totally give me the finger. On second thought, that would make a pretty neat dog trick and I wouldn’t have to share my popcorn!

    I have an English Bulldog, a breed that is commonly very overweight, but she is the fittest one in our household and loves her life playing flyball and agility and chowing down on good quality kibble. I guess I just need someone to do portion control for me and the hubby!

    • And as you know, those guys suffer more than most from being overweight for so many reasons, so awesome work! We have a surfing bulldog here in San Diego. He’s a beast. Can’t keep him out of the water.

  • Jenneth

    Thank you for this! I would love to see a post for cats….

  • Jessica Rhae

    This is a great post Jessica! I am going to bookmark it and share it with the few people who stop by my blog when I write about nutrition and claim no dog should every eat carbs or feeding less than a raw diet is abuse.

  • Catmother

    I have huge concerns about people who cook all their pet’s meals from scratch. When you buy any commercial food, they are prepared by companies that are totally aware of the nutritional ingredients that must be in their pet food, so that specific physical needs are met. The average person preparing food for their pet doesn’t have this information. I have heard horror stories about a dog who basically had his skeleton collapse because of lack of vital nutrients, and cats that go blind because they don’t get the necessary ingredients they need. I don’t think that most people understand which foods to feed, and in what proportion. And I don’t see animal experts warning about the extreme difficulty of meeting all their needs. So while owners feel that they are doing the very best for their pet, they are possibly setting up their furry family member up for a terrible crises down the road.

  • Kimberly Morris Gauthier

    I completely agree with KolchakPuggle! I just launched a new blog sharing my thoughts on the raw food diet. These are MY thoughts based on MY experience. I love it, I think it’s great – for MY dogs.

    I have been judged for so many of the choices I’ve made about our dogs that I would be a nutjob if I were to start judging others. I also want to get away from deciding what’s best for all dogs – all dogs aren’t the same, all pet families aren’t the same.

    Instead, I want to provide quality information to allow all of us to make the right decision for our families and dogs.

    I’m a raw feeder. I don’t disagree with feeding kibble, it’s just not or our family. I would never beat up on someone for making a different choice, because I don’t know their circumstances or what research they put into choosing their food. I think my job is just to share and be part of an eclectic community. When I start knowing the best way, then my place here is done, because I’m of no use to anyone when I think I know everything.

    Go forth and feed quality kibble! That’s your business, not mine.