What dog food is best? Canned, fresh, small or large chunks?
FINDING the ideal, meat, cut, texture and moisture of dog food that is HEALTHY for your dog – This is the HOLY grail for dog food makers, and dog owners alike.
In our previous article on how dogs use the SIX taste senses of dogs, we found that UMAMI which is often noted as a meat taste was strong in dogs, and is likely to have evolved from their wolf carnivore ancestors.
We also noted that unlike humans dogs have a specific taste sense for water. That is, the pleasurable experience of tasting water helps dogs flush excess salt from their system after digesting meat.
But with only 1700 taste buds on the average dog tongue compared to 9000 in humans, it is speculated that it is the combination of lowered taste differentiation in dog with their highly developed sense of smell (nose sensors coupled with extra brain function creating 10,000 times stronger than human smell system) – that gives a dog its overall taste / smell influences.
But just as important in knowing what dogs can taste, is what meat preferences they actually have. This gem of a science article (we are reviewing here) is based on real world dog taste testing reveals many fascinating dog food preferences.
EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT DOG FOOD TASTE preferences
1 The strongest taste preferences of dogs are for meat and for sugar.
2 Dogs prefer beef, THEN pork and lamb to chicken, then liver and horsemeat (see graph)
3 dogs strongly prefer meat to cereal diets.
4 DOGS prefer canned meat to fresh meat (see graph)
5 DOGS PREFER , ground meat to cubed meat (see graph)
6 DOGS PREFER cooked meat to raw meat.
7 Dogs prefer Canned or semi-moist preparations are preferred to dry ones.
8 Pet dogs have much more variable preferences according to their owner’s subjective evaluation.
So these ‘rules’ seem fairly hard and fast, but of course rule 7 is the big modifier. If all of these rules worked all of the time for every breed of dog, and every specific dog on earth, a dog food manufacturers life, and owner’s life would be much simpler. BUT OF COURSE IT DOESN’T.
These ‘rules’ are found from an experiment in 1981 (see reference at bottom of this article) to understand dog taste in relation to obesity in dogs and cats. If your dog likes chicken above all else, or is allergic to chicken or wheat, then these rules might seem fairly silly to you. But as said, these came out of the result of experimentation with dogs and we will discuss most of them a little later in this article.
RESEARCH Modifier– the taste preferences of specific dogs are often modified by “the dog’s sex/reproductive status, weight and relationship to owners and the content of the dog’s meals. The complicated interaction between (a) a pet’s taste, texture and olfactory sensation, (b) its owner’s perception of the pet and its preferences and (c) its physical and social environment deserves further investigation. “ ref 1
Unravelling the specific mysteries of what dog food is best
Yes some of the studies on dog food preferences are old, but dogs inherent tastes have not changed for centuries, so what they found in the two choice preference test (two bowls of food presented to hungry dogs) is still valid.
1 The strongest taste preferences of dogs are for meat and for sugar.
The meat component was expected (ie carnivore dog origins) preferring meat food. However, a dog’s desire for sugar is less obvious. Dogs in the wild would hunt and kill prey, it gives them great pleasure eating the kill. However, in lean hunting times (small pack, health issues or lack of prey), dogs would have to supplement their nutrition with berries etc. They learned that sweet tasting berries had good energy levels (it sustained them until the next hunt), so they evolved to have a good taste bud for sweet vegetables,
The main issue in the modern world is that some unscrupulous dog food and dog treat companies have used this against dogs. They artificially sweeten bland cheap vegetable concoctions to make them artificially attractive to dog’s taste buds. Just because the guys in the lab have figured out how to fool dogs doesn’t mean that the owners should fall for it.
“ Dogs prefer meat to a high protein soybean and corn diet “ ref 1. THIS should be vital educating owners on the new tricks coming their way via some VEGAN dog meals. For the last decade billion-dollar pet food companies have been experimenting on how to use cheap concentrated soy products instead of meat, the proper natural food of dogs.
Highly refined and concentrated soy and corn diets used for livestock (herbivores) is being covered (with the addition of oil, sugar and salts) to turn non dog food, into vegan dog food. By itself MOST dogs raised on meat, would reject raw soybean or corn or wheat, in fact ALL grains. But adding a bunch of flavour enhances and taking advantage of a dog’s survival instinct to find sweet berries is the gateway to poor health outcomes for dogs (inappropriate food made palatable).
DOGS “prefer a diet containing sugar to one that does not and they prefer sugar in water to water alone. Dogs do not like saccharin and will drink plain water rather than a saccharin solution.“
It is also believed that females dogs show a ‘slightly greater preference’ than males for sugared diets, meaning that they are an easier target for unnatural food companies.
2 Dogs prefer beef, pork and lamb to chicken, liver and horsemeat
KITCHELL (Dogs know what they like. Friskies Res. Digest 1972) did experiments with basic meat types, but not all combinations. The issue with this is that they didn’t test wild or game meat or apparently fish. That means several of our best dog treat sellers aren’t even tested in the AB test.
The reason that is important is that as dogs are scent driven, game meat can often smell much stronger, even to humans than farmed meat. Game meat means any non-farmed meat source such as kangaroo and wild fish.
And since dog’s sense of smell is much better than their taste sensitivity, they may well have a higher preference for Kangaroo than farmed animals like chicken or beef. Chicken and beef are mainly used in dog food because they are the cheapest and easiest in bulk for dog food companies to regularly get.
Be aware, that some people say that their dogs hate game meats, or even kangaroo. The reality is that some dogs on very basic diets might have an aversion to trying new things, and new things can also take a while for a dogs digestive system to work out how to extract nutrients. And to complicate this, if a dog is sick on a new food, it can form an aversion for life. This is why some dog food companies will recommend you try their specific brand and formulation of kibble for at least the first year of your dog’s life. Hook them in early, and dumb down their palate.
The first winning meat in this experiment found “dogs preferred chicken to horsemeat and to liver”
A couple of points here are that unless a dog is allergic to chicken, many dogs do indeed love it. Even though horsemeat is never mentioned as a dog food ingredient, we have heard that it secretly does exist as a filler. Again, if chicken smells much stronger than the horsemeat, a dog is likely to try it first. If a dog has never eaten horsemeat as a single ingredient, it’s a novel food to them that they might be resistant against, initially. Noting that wild horse meat was recently implicated in several dogs deaths in Melbourne when horses that ate a weed that is poisonous to dogs, found its way into some raw meat suppliers food chains.
It is likely that these tests were on raw meats, and I have seen that some dogs reject raw offal (because they are not used to it), but I know on my dog walks that just about every dog I encounter loves beef liver. Beef liver (even dried) has a very pungent smell, and dogs love the texture of it.
In dried form I have found that many dogs prefect beef liver, to chicken breast. Which seems to contradict these results somewhat.
Dogs prefer “liver to horsemeat.” As this experiment was done a while ago and dog food labelling laws were less stringent, it is possible that horsemeat was readily used in dog food. However, in 2021 onwards, its much more likely that regular animal offal, like beef liver and chicken liver would be in dog food.
And if that isn’t confusing enough how about this statement “The preferences of the same dogs were different when commercial dog food of the various meat flavours was tested. In that case they preferred horsemeat to chicken.” REF 1
Flavour enhancers such as various salts like MSG that can radically enhance meat flavours, or the addition of sugars can radically alter bland grain or vegetable based commercial dog foods into very palatable foods. The above statement saying how the tastes preferences of of single ingredient meats changed in commercial dog foods makes much more sense now.
The authors of the science paper are much more obscure with their conclusions “in preferences for pure meat flavours and commercial dog food indicate that other ingredients in the commercial foods are influencing preferences.” REF 1
OVERALL MEAT TYPE PREFERENCE ORDER of DOGS
This order seemed fairly consistent across the dogs and various trials. However, the fattiness of the meat could have a profound effect on preferences. For instance, they found that Lean beef was preferred to lean pork, but pork with higher fat content was preferred to lean beef.
Dog food preference WET over DRY foods
“Dogs greatly prefer canned or semi-moist food to dry food, but there is no preference for canned over semi-moist.” Ref 1
This makes sense from a smell perspective. If you wet dried dog treats such as kangaroo or fish, the odour is much stronger. But more than this, they say “Taste alone may not be responsible for food preference; texture and odour are also important.” Ref 1
For instance, beef and lamb cubes (lung) often don’t smell as much as jerkies, however once a dog has chomped down on the cube and it rapidly crumbles, they seem to get a lot of joy out of that action, and eating the resulting fragments.
OTHER MAIN DOG FOOD PREFERENCES
- ground meat over chunks of meat
- canned meat over fresh meat.
- Canned chicken is preferred to fresh beef.
- Dogs prefer cooked meat to raw meat
- Warm food is generally preferred to cold food
Though there is much more discussion lately in the value of raw meats for dogs.
Dogs might like ground meat over chunks because of the texture, because of it being easier to eat much faster, but also in supermarkets today, there is a much larger chance of additives being used in “dog mince”. Dog mince is often much cheaper than raw roast beef (human grade) making it an easier choice for owners on a budget, but with additives and sometimes higher fat content, I personally don’t typically feed my dog ‘dog’ or ‘human mince’.
“Canned meat over fresh meat” is a curious result. Again, canned meat is likely to have preservatives, salt and sugars added which tweaks the umami flavour making the often cheaper canned meat, seem more meat like.
“Canned chicken is preferred to fresh beef. “
In the straight raw meat comparisons beef rates higher than chicken. The only way that canned chicken would rate higher than raw beef, is again a bunch of artificial flavour enhancers. However, since salt and sugar don’t smell, its likely to have the addition of oil or another flavour enhancer if a dog is choosing it by smell (its greater sense).
“Dogs prefer cooked meat to raw meat“
While cooking tends to enhance the meat odour a LOT, the reason why raw feeders feed their dog raw is they believe that the enzymes in raw meat can be diminished by cooking.
And herein is where dried meat dog treats occupy the ‘goldilocks zone’ of HEALTHY dog food. There are various reasons why owners don’t feed raw meat to dogs. Some cite cost concerns or safety concerns over killing ‘bad bacteria. However most commercial dog food will have 30% meat content, well below the 80% of the dog in the wild (or wolf ancestor).
If you feed your dog raw meat, you do it because you believe it is healthier, but then you are also more likely to want to feed them single ingredient dried meat dog treats. If you feed your dog cooked meat (or commercial dog food), you might do so because you believe it is healthier (safer), but being aware of its low meat and bio-available protein content, you are also likely to want to feed your dog single ingredient dried dog treat meats.
“Warm food is generally preferred to cold food“
Just like commercial wet dog good having flavour and scent enhancers playing up to the dogs high smell ability, warm food has a much stronger smell than the same food when it is cold.
So how does odour and taste work together for dogs?
Dogs like cats can initially be “attracted to food that smells but does not taste like meat, the attraction does not last and the dogs do not discriminate between meat odoured and non-odoured food. Unless odour is paired with taste, food preferences are not maintained.” Ref 1
So, while smell can lead a dog to a dog treat, it has to taste ‘acceptable’ for them to continue to want to eat it. Unfortunately, addition of sugar, salt and oil, can make almost ANYTHING appear acceptable, if an owner is offering it excitedly like a treat. The dog wants to please, gets praised and that reinforces a substandard smell and taste and nutrition experience.
While dog’s sense of taste is limited, proof that both smell and taste need to pass a threshold is seen in dogs that cant smell. “The hierarchy of meat preferences seen in intact dogs disappears in anosmic dogs (dogs without the sense of smell).” Ref 1
“Intact dogs have an 85% preference for beef. Ansomic dogs cannot distinguish one meat from another, but still show a 90% preference for meat over a non-meat bland diet.”
So either without their major sense dogs tend to choose their main nutrition food, meat.
It is theorized that dog taste determines MAJOR food preferences and odour includes only minor or more subtle preferences such as one flavour of meat over another.
What dog taste preferences mean for you and your dog treats
PRO TIP – if your dog is struggling eating a new dried meat dog treat, consider increasing is palatably by increasing its smell. You can do this by either wetting it, or slightly warming it. But remember this is a single step option. Wet or heated treats have a significantly shorter storage life and should be used immediately.
Taste Preferences and their Relation to Obesity in Dogs and Cats. KATHERINE A. HOUPT AND SHARON L. SMITH April-1981
Department of Physiology, New York State College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853 (Houpt) and Center for Interaction ofAnimals and Society, Department of Clinical Studies, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104 (Smith)
The Test set: “Sixty dogs were studied. All of the dogs had been receiving dry food as part or all of their diet. Eighteen different American Kennel Club recognized breeds accounted for 52% (32/60) of the dogs. The rest were mixed breed dogs. Half of the population was male. Four male dogs were castrated and 26 intact. Six females were intact and 24 had undergone ovacooked Row riohysterectomy.”