Choosing Dog Food: 4 Things That Trump Breed-Specific Labels

Happy smiling close up of a dog

The last time I went grocery shopping, I found myself spending at least seven minutes choosing between two different packages of corn dogs. CORN DOGS. What took me so long? Here is a breakdown of some of the considerations I was making: 

  • Overall price
  • Price per ounce
  • Meat source
  • Trying to remember which ones I got last time
  • Which was more natural/organic
  • Calorie content
  • Nutritional content differences

And that was just for a junk food that I will probably only eat once every couple weeks when I am too lazy to wait for my instant noodles to cook in the microwave. Honestly, if I have a choice between waiting 55 seconds for food or three minutes, that seems like a no-brainer. 

What if I was selecting the one food item that I would have to eat for every meal? 

What if I was doing it for another person? 

What if I was doing it for a pet? 

When it comes to selecting dog food, what do consumers consider when choosing a meal plan for their pet?

A survey of dog owners published in the Journal of Agricultural Science found that price was the most important attribute for dog owners, quality and source of ingredients came second, package size and recommendations from a breeder or vet tied for third, and having an age or size-specific formula came in last. But, what if a breed-specific formula is available? What should pet owners consider? 

What is breed-specific dog food?

Consider this statement on breed-specific dog food from Royal Canin: "Each individual recipe is formulated to deliver the exact level of natural antioxidants, vitamins, fiber, prebiotics, and minerals that are essential to your pet’s unique health needs." Thinking that choosing a dog food by recipe/formula name will automatically be the best possible option for your dog seems like a best-case scenario. Let's delve a little deeper into breed-specific dog food. 

Is breed-specific food just marketing?

So, are breed-specific diets just marketing then? Not completely. While the overall nutrient profiles and ingredients may be similar to diets recommended for all breeds or other breeds (because at this point, we don’t have good evidence that all members of a specific breed require different levels of overall nutrients than other dogs or cats), there may be differences in specific nutrients (within the allowable maintenance range), the calorie content, fiber types and amounts, and in the shape of the kibble that could be beneficial for some individuals of that breed (or even a dog or cat of a different breed with similar needs).  The key is individualizing the diet for your pet. 

How does breed-specific dog foods differ from All-Life-Stages Dog Food?

In The Dog Diet Answer Book: The Complete Nutrition Guide to Help Your Dog Live a Happier, Healthier, and Longer Life, Greg Martinez, DVM, explains that nutritional guidelines for breed-specific pet food haven't been issued by any of the national pet food organizations. Without industry guidelines, what are the basis of breed-specific formulas? Let's take a look at how the recipes often differ. 

When compared to standard all life stages dog food, breed-specific formulas may differ by several factors including macronutrient percentages, ingredients or proportion of ingredients, the amount and kind of supplements, and even the size and shape of the food itself. Due to anatomical differences, different breeds of dogs chew and swallow differently. For example, Cailin R. Heinze, VMD, MS, DACVN, shares an example in the Tufts University Petfoodology blog: "Breed-specific diets for dogs like Labradors are often lower in calories, and one brand features large, donut-shaped kibble which are designed to slow down the eating speed of this notoriously hungry breed." 

Another way that foods differ is in the supplements added. Sara Ochoa, DVM is a small animal and exotic veterinarian in Texas and a veterinary consultant for She explains, "Breed-specific food has supplements added to the food that are targeted to that breed of dog." For example, she shares, "Large breed dogs would need more glucosamine to help with joints than small dogs."  

Which breeds have special foods available?

"[B]reed-specific diets are designed to market to the most popular breeds" writes Dr. Martinez. "It would be a rare event for a customer to ask for a 'Puli diet' at the pet store. The most popular purebred dogs will get their own diets because those diets will sell more. That is a brilliant marketing strategy, but it does not mean that the purebred diet is perfect for every purebred dog."

Is breed-specific food good or bad?

If a dog food is specifically labeled for your dog's breed, many assume that it is the ultimate BEST CHOICE for Fido. If it's available, how could anything else be better for your dog?

"Breed-specific dog food is very good for that breed of dog," says Dr. Ochoa. "Dog food formulated for a lab would be able to help with their fast-growing bones as a puppy and help with their high energy demands." As an example, she explains, "A chihuahua would not need the same diet as a lab. They would need a diet to help keep them slim and one that would help with heart problems." 

"You do not necessarily have to feed breed-specific food," Ochoa advises. Additionally, she adds, "There is no one breed that I would say requires to feed a breed-specific food."

Kim Smyth, DVM agrees with this sentiment. Writing for Petplan, she explains, "While there’s certainly nothing wrong with feeding breed-specific diets, you don’t have to feed them to give your pet a great diet." 

Dog with his tongue out

What should you consider when choosing your dog's food?

If a dog food that is labeled specifically for your dog's breed can't always be a perfect answer, what should pet parents be taking into consideration when selecting a food option? Which factors are more important than your pup's breed? 

"Breed-specific dog foods are not necessarily harmful," explains Ashley Gallagher, DVM, "they are just somewhat redundant if you (and your veterinarian) are already correctly assessing your puppy’s nutritional requirements based on life stage, size and specific health needs." 

Let's take a look at these and other factors that you should consider when choosing your pet's diet. 

1. Life stage

"While dogs of all breeds, ages, and sizes do have similar nutritional needs," writes Jennifer Coates, DVM, "there are some subtle but important differences that owners should be aware of. I’ve talked before about the importance of lifestage feeding. In other words, puppies should eat puppy food, adults should eat adult food, and so on." Let's take a look at the different needs in the realm of lifestage feeding. 

First, a dog's daily recommendations for proteins, fats, and calories vary based on lifestage. The educational guide Your Dog's Nutritional Needs: A Science-Based Guide for Pet Owners explains, "The growing puppy starts out needing about twice as many calories per pound of body weight as an adult dog of the same breed."

Puppies need food with higher fat, calorie and protein density for their bodies to grow big and strong, while adult dogs (ages one to six) don't need as many calories per pound. This necessitates a switch from puppy food to adult dog food. They aren't changing as drastically in size as puppies do during their first year, so weight-maintenance is the name of the game. 

Pregnant and nursing dogs' caloric needs are based on the number of puppies they are caring for and how far they are into lactation. 

Just like humans, as dogs get older, their metabolism and body composition change. Senior dogs (age five to seven+) expend less energy. Their metabolism can also slow down. Older dogs need 20 percent fewer calories than younger adult dogs. Feeding a diet with a reduced caloric density helps to avoid weight gain while keeping protein intake high enough to maintain muscle mass. 

2. Breed size

Different breeds age differently. "You do not necessarily have to feed breed-specific food," advises Dr. Ochoa. Instead, she suggests, "You can feed large breed dogs food designed for a large dog, and small breed dogs food designed for small dogs."

Think of it this way: "A small breed dog’s metabolism, for example, is much different from a large breed dog, but it is unlikely that a Yorkie’s dietary needs vary all that much from a Shih Tzu's," explains Dr. Gallagher. To help break down the different food recommendations, dog breeds are split up into general categories: 

  • Small breeds — Up to 20 pounds at maturity
  • Medium-sized breeds — 20 to 50 pounds
  • Large and giant breeds — Over 50 pounds at maturity

"Consider a large breed puppy formula for breeds such as Saint Bernard," writes Dr. Martinez. "Large breeds need fewer calories and the proper balance of calcium and phosphorus. Staying on the lean side may prevent bone or joint problems leading to lifelong painful arthritis." 

3. Health needs

While "high-quality breed-specific diets could provide some benefits," Dr. Heinze explains, "they aren’t a replacement for therapeutic diets for many common breed-related and diet-responsive health conditions." 

If your pet has a health condition, ask your vet for advice before just grabbing the breed-specific formula. Managing your pet's medical conditions trumps the possible benefits of a catch-all diet. 

4. Other factors

"All dogs have essentially the same basic dietary needs, which can vary based on activity level, not breed," advises Dr. Oscar Chavez, a professor of canine clinical nutrition and the Chief Medical Officer of JustFoodForDogs. "Certain breeds are more active, so if you have a working breed, like greyhounds, whippets, or sled dogs, then you do want a high caloric density food formulated to support their increased activity, as in human athletes, for example. Otherwise, there is no real practical advantage."

Working dogs require more nutrients because they're expending more energy. Activity level plays a big part in deciding what and how much food your dog should be eating. Depending on the size of dog, the difference between average energy needs per day are about 30 percent more for active adult dogs compared to inactive adult dogs. 

Activity level is also affected by seasons. Dog's have different energy requirements in warm and cold seasons. 

"Whatever food you choose you want to choose a food that has gone through feeding trials and has been researched for toxins and digestibility," advises Chavez, "that’s more important (nutritionally) for the dogs than anything else." He adds, "Food utilizing fresh, human-grade ingredients in recipes nutritionally formulated for pets would provide a health advantage over breed-specific kibble (which is filled with feed grade materials and preservatives)."

Often, choosing the best food for your dog will be based on some combination of these factors. For example, a formula for large breed puppies or a food for senior dogs with a grain allergy. The most important thing is that your dog is getting the nutrition it needs to be healthy and strong, and stave off preventable health conditions. It's not a matter of finding the perfectly labeled food, but a formula that benefits your dog holistically. Lastly, if you're not sure what that is, ask your veterinarian for some suggestions.

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