If your wet dog food contains preservatives, that's not a good sign.

Choosing the Best Wet Food for Your Dog

In this Springtime Dog Health Spotlight, we examine each of the four major dog feeding styles: dry, wet, raw, and homemade. We’ll go over the basics for each style, the pros/cons, best practices, and things to avoid.

Wet Dog Food: How It's Made

Wet or canned dog food is made by mixing animal meat, plant matter, vitamins, and other ingredients into a processed, pre-cooked stew or loaf, which is then packed into a sanitized container (e.g., a can). Typically, the dog food mixture is then re-cooked at a high temperature and pressure while in the sealed container to destroy any contaminants.

Wet Dog Food Summary

Pros:

• Typically contains more meat protein than dry/kibble
• Fewer carbs mean reduced potential for weight gain
• Air-tight cans reduce the need for synthetic preservatives
• Helps keep dogs hydrated, especially dogs who don't get enough water
• Entices eating in dogs with teeth issues, or diminished sense of smell or appetite

Cons:

• Messy
• Spoils easily
• More expensive than kibble (you pay for water content)
• Bulky to store
• Normal varieties are high in fat for older or overweight dogs
• Potential health risk from foods in cans with BPA lining
• Processing often destroys nutrients
• Does not provide live factors for wide spectrum nutrition

Choosing a Good Wet Dog Food

As with dry food, the quality of a wet dog food depends on the type and amount of meat protein it contains (and the unhealthy additives it does NOT contain). Generally, wet dog foods contain more protein, and the canning process itself removes the need for preservatives and other undesirable additives. However, this means that wet dog food begins to spoil after it is opened, so it cannot be left out for long periods. Unlike dry dog foods, wet dog foods cannot be free-fed to your dog, but that practice is generally frowned upon anyway, as it can lead to obesity.

Hallmarks of a good wet dog food…

The more quality, digestible animal protein it contains, the better it is. The list of ingredients is going to be the dog owner’s best tool in determining the quality of a wet dog food. The contents of the food will be listed in order from the ingredient with the highest percentage of the overall weight, down to the lowest. Wet dog foods contain a lot of moisture, so it is not a deal-breaker to find water as the first ingredient. When you factor out the water, wet dog foods still have about 50% more protein per serving on average than dry offerings.


A meat ingredient with a name you recognize (e.g., beef, lamb, etc.) should be within the first three ingredients, if not the first. Also, you want that main ingredient to be a single-named meat (e.g., “turkey” rather than “turkey byproduct”). Animal byproducts and animal meals are the super-cooked bones and other low-grade tissues of the animal carcass, so their nutritional value is hard to know, and it might be best to assume zero (although an animal meal is better than a byproduct, by definition). Indigestible proteins found in these meals/byproducts inflate the protein percentage, making the Guaranteed Analysis dubious, if not worthless. Organ meat is an appropriate ingredient in dog food, as dogs need nutrients they can only get from organ meat. However, you want to see the specific animal the organ came from (e.g., “turkey liver,” rather than just “liver”). It is not recommended to consistently feed a diet of primarily organ meat without variety. It is always best to feed a mixture of proteins and organ meats, and canned food diets are no exception.


Fruits, vegetables, and grains are commonly included in wet dog food recipes, but they can be used as fillers to pad its protein content stats. Dogs’ internal organs have to work harder to absorb nutrition from plant sources, especially corn and soy. When you combine the unwanted carbohydrate content and poorly absorbed protein in vegetable sources, you create a situation where dogs need to overeat to get the nutrients they need, resulting in weight gain and obesity for many dogs. By the way, some products include vegetables in miniscule amounts just to make the products seem healthier.

Red flags of a bad wet dog food…

Because they are cooked and contained in airtight cans, dog foods generally don’t require preservatives, which can be unhealthy for dogs. If your wet dog food includes preservatives, that’s not a good sign (for a list of common preservatives, click here). It certainly calls into question the freshness of the meat before it was canned. The canning process isn’t without health concerns, however. A lot of cans are lined with BPA (Bisphenol A), which has been linked to health issues in humans and pets. Kudos go to one diligent pet owner, who published this list of pet food manufacturers and whether they use BPA in their cans.

Let’s talk about additives. Wet dog foods are typically high in muscle meat protein, so they look, smell, and taste like they should, and dogs dig that. If the canned dog food in question contains artificial sweeteners, flavors, or coloring, you have to wonder what kind of meat they are using that would require so much help. Binders, such as wheat gluten, help slices and chunks of meat retain their shape during processing, but they can also be used to help inferior ingredients form clumps that imitate real meat chunks. Natural gums (e.g., guar gum) are also used as binders in this capacity.

For a list of ingredients that you might want to avoid in your dog food, check out this handy list.

Live Factors

It should be noted that the process by which commercial wet dog food is cooked could be destroying the nutritional quality of otherwise healthy ingredients. This is why many commercial dog foods include added vitamins and minerals that are needed by dogs. The term “complete and balanced” on the dog food packaging means that the nutritional profile should meet the U.S. government’s minimum standards for a dog’s nutritional needs. Even when it meets this standard, commercial dog foods lack essential nutrients, including live factors that dogs would get from a more natural food source, but these nutrients can and should be supplemented.

To learn more about another feeding style, click one of the links below...

Dry Dog Food

Raw Dog Food

Homemade Dog Food

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