Picture this: You’re preparing for your new German Shepherd puppy’s arrival, and you’re standing in the pet food store, staring at the shelves and shelves of dog food. You try to Google the different brands in front of you, but you quickly give up due to confusion, slow-loading web pages, and eyestrain from your tiny screen. Overwhelmed, you grab the bag that looks most appealing that’s right at eye level, and head to the checkout line. As you’re standing there, you wonder “did I get the right food for my new family member?”
This guide is designed to help you make sense of the different types of food out there, and to help you make the most informed decision for you and your fuzzy family member.
The most species-appropriate food to give your dog is going to be a raw diet. If you look at your dog’s teeth, you’ll see that they are designed to crunch bone and tear flesh. Raw diets come in many forms: BARF (bones and raw feeding), pre-made grinds, and freeze dried / dehydrated / air-dried.
Meals are weighed out, and are based on a percentage of the dog’s body weight. Other factors come into play, such as age (puppy, adult, senior), activity level (low / moderate / high), pregnancy and lactation (eating for herself and puppies), allergies, and the dog’s individual metabolism.
Granted, there’s more prep time involved with raw feeding than with simply adding a ration of kibble to a bowl, but you can batch prep meals ahead of time, and you’ll know 100% of what goes into your dog’s diet. You have direct control over the micro and macronutrients they get, which results in peace of mind for you, their parent.
The BARF (bones and raw feeding) diet is a mix of raw meat, bones, and organs. These meats vary widely, and can include chicken, beef, pork, lamb, kangaroo, emu, rabbit, turkey, duck, and more. It’s generally recommended to feed a ratio of 80% meat, 10% bone, 5% liver, and 5% other secreting organ (kidney, pancreas, etc) at each meal.
I currently feed my German Shepherds a BARF diet, and they’re thriving on it! I worked with Jenny Ryoo at Better Cells Nutrition to formulate recipes for each dog, as the 80/10/5/15/ ratio is meant as a guideline – not an actual diet plan.
Think about it this way: Different animals have different fat, protein, and vitamin / mineral profiles, which affects the nutritional profile your dog receives from the food they eat. Furthermore, different cuts from the same animal will have different nutritional profiles. Take a pork shoulder vs a pork tenderloin for instance. The shoulder will be much fattier than the loin, which means that your dog will be eating more fat if you feed them the shoulder. This is ok if you have a higher-energy working dog and you want that fat to give them energy, but if you have a lower-energy dog, that fat will turn into excess weight on their frame, causing a whole host of health and joint issues.
These are grinds of meat, organ, and bone that are then frozen into 1-lb, 3-lb, or 5-lb “chubs.” To feed your dog, simply thaw the appropriate amount and add to their bowl. I’ve fed pre-made raw before (specifically K9 Kraving), and I’ve forgotten to pull their food out ahead of time! Definitely set yourself a reminder alarm on your phone if you find yourself forgetting!
Here’s a few more premade raw food companies I recommend:
Freeze-Dried / Dehydrated
Freeze-dried and dehydrated raw foods are probably the most convenient types on this list. All you have to do is add water, wait, and serve! There’s a difference between freeze-drying and dehydration though. Freeze-drying is the process of placing food inside a vacuum chamber, lowering the temperature below freezing, then drawing the moisture in the food out by slowly raising the temperature. The water in the food moves from a solid (frozen) state to a gaseous state, which takes 98-99% of the moisture out of the food. Dehydration is the process of a current of passing warm air over the food, drying it and pulling 90-95% of the moisture out. (source)
Freeze-dried raw is the “just add water and wait 5 minutes” option. Brands include Stella & Chewy’s, Primal, Honest Kitchen, and others. Dehydrated raw is the “scoop and serve” option, and brands include Ziwi Peak, Sundays, and others.
For larger dogs, dehydrated and freeze-dried raw can be cost-prohibitive. For example, I would use almost a full 25-oz bag of Stella & Chewy’s patties to feed my two German Shepherds. At $50+ a bag, that’s a LOT of freeze-dried raw! Instead, I use the patties as meal toppers, or to stuff Kongs and Toppl toys.
Ah yes, kibble. Go to any pet store and you’ll see rows and rows of bags stacked on the shelves. There’s kibble for puppies, adults, seniors, specific breeds, specific conditions, mixed with raw….the list is endless, and it only keeps growing.
Kibble is made by mixing wet and dry raw ingredients together to form a dough, which is then heated under pressure and pushed through a die machine that cuts the kibble. Once the kibble dough has been cut to the desired shape, the pieces are dried, cooled, and sprayed with animal fat to make them smell and taste more appealing to the dog.
I’ve fed a LOT of kibble over the years, and I’ve learned a lot about how kibble is made. If you choose to feed kibble, look for one with dehydrated meat meal as the first ingredient. One of my favorite kibbles is Canine Caviar – it’s the only one I’ve found that lists dehydrated meat as the first ingredient.
Ingredients are classified by weight before cooking, which means that even though beef is the first ingredient on the label, the kibble may not contain the same percentage of beef as it did when the ingredients were first mixed together. This is due to the fact that the water is removed during the cooking process, which changes the ingredient profile.
Speaking of ingredients, there are a few that you want to avoid in your kibble. These include wheat, corn, soy, artificial colors, animal byproducts, and chemical preservatives.
There are two other options that I didn’t cover on this list, mainly because I haven’t fed them, and can’t comment on my experience with them. These are canned food and fresh-cooked food. I’ve never fed canned food because again, it’s more cost-prohibitive to have two large dogs on it. The same goes for fresh-cooked dog food. Large dogs eat so much more than smaller dogs that the cost per serving is, frankly, astronomical for my budget.
A Note On DCM
I’ve fed both grain-free and grain-inclusive foods over the past 15+ years of owning German Shepherds, and I’ve personally never had any issue with DCM with my dogs. For those that aren’t aware, DCM stands for degenerative cardiomyopathy, and is a disease that results in an enlarged heart in the dog. As the heart and chambers become dilated, the heart has to work harder to pump blood, and the valves may leak. This can lead to congestive heart failure, which is a buildup of pleural fluid in the dog’s chest and abdomen.
The FDA published a study in July 2018 linking certain ingredients in grain-free foods (peas, lentils, and potatoes) to non-genetic cases of DCM. Since that report, I’ve eschewed any foods containing those ingredients, including Honest Kitchen (which I previously fed). I sought out Canine Caviar, which has brown rice and millet as grain sources. I currently feed a balanced raw diet to my dogs, but keep a couple of bags of Canine Caviar on hand as “emergency rations.”
There is no one best food for your German Shepherd, and I won’t give you a generic answer on what food to feed your dog. If you ask me what food is best, I’ll come back with a number of questions of my own, including:
- What life stage are they in?
- What’s their activity level?
- Are they doing any dog sports? If so, which ones?
- Do they have any allergies? Pre-existing health conditions?
- Are there any foods that they currently like or dislike?
- What are they currently eating?
All of these questions and more will help me point you in the right direction for the best type of food for your German Shepherd. If you’d like to schedule a call to learn more, hit me up!