Dry, Canned, or Semi-Moist: Food Choices for Dogs

By Canadian Academy of Veterinary Nutrition (CAVN), Caitlin Grant, DVM, DVSc; Krista Williams, BSc, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

There are so many food type choices: dry, canned, and semi-moist. How do I decide which is best for my dog?

While feeding dogs does not need to be overly complicated, it is easy to be overwhelmed with choices. It is logical to wonder which approach is best.

Your veterinary team is the best source for a specific recommendation on a nutrient profile that best fits your dog's needs. Beyond that, however, it is good to think about the advantages and disadvantages of the various forms and textures that are available.

Dry dog food - generally referred to as “kibble” - remains the foundation of the dog food industry, and has several advantages:

  • Kibble is the easiest and most convenient option to feed your dog.
  • It has a long shelf life in the packaging, and once the package is opened, can stay fresh for several weeks (as long as it is sealed and stored appropriately).
  • It can be easier to manage portions, as you can weigh or measure a specific amount of dry food for each meal. Alternatively, you can measure the full day’s amount into an airtight container and then portion each meal from there.
  • It is a better choice for dogs that prefer to graze throughout the day rather than eat their portion in one sitting. The total daily portion can be measured into the bowl in the morning, and then any leftover can be measured at the end of the day.
  • It comes in many sizes and shapes, so you can choose one that your dog prefers. 
  • Kibble works best in an automatic feeder.
  • Kibble works well in food toys or interactive feeders that move and dispense kibbles intermittently or that are stationary and make the dog work for its food. 
  • Some kibble diets have oral health claims and can help prevent or reduce tartar buildup.

Dry food also has some limitations to consider.

  • Kibble stays fresh for a long time in an unopened bag, but as soon as the package is opened, the food starts to oxidate, which can affect nutrient concentration and affect palatability. A common mistake dog owners make is buying a bag of kibble that is too big, thinking they are getting a bargain. It is best to purchase a package size that lasts roughly four to six weeks. 
  • Dry food has a very low moisture content. For dogs that are not good drinkers, choosing food with a higher moisture content can increase their water intake.

What are the advantages and limitations of canned dog food?

Canned dog food has some advantages as well:

  • It has a very high water content, which can help to increase your dog’s water intake. This is especially beneficial for dogs with medical conditions for which increased water intake is ideal, such as urinary disease or chronic kidney disease.
  • The high moisture in canned food reduces the energy density (calories per 100 grams), which means your dog can enjoy a larger portion per meal to provide the same number of calories as an equivalent weight of kibble.
  • Some dogs prefer the palatability of canned food over kibble.
  • Within the category of canned food, there are a variety of forms, including pâté, chunks in gravy, and stews. These options are great for dogs that are picky and prefer one texture over another.
  • Canned food can be warmed up (gently), which can increase aroma and palatability.
  • Canned food can be used to hide medication.

Canned food has a few limitations to consider. 

  • It is more expensive per calorie, compared to kibble, due to the high water content and the packaging. 
  • It must be kept in the refrigerator after opening and any unused portion should be tossed away after three days. 
  • It does not stay fresh for very long once it has been transferred from the can to a food dish. Any amount that is not eaten within about 30 minutes should be discarded. For dogs that are picky and don’t finish a meal, this can lead to a lot of food waste. 
  • Unlike some dry foods, there are no canned food options that carry any dental health benefits.

What are the advantages and limitations of semi-moist dog food?

The advantages and limitations to semi-moist food are like those listed for canned food; however, semi-moist food contains a slightly lower moisture content (typically 60-65%) and usually comes in a pouch-type format.

  • Many dogs find the semi-moist options very palatable and, as with dry and canned, there are several options to choose from. 
  • The pouches are convenient: they are typically designed so that the entire pouch contents are poured into the bowl for one serving. Remember that each dog is unique, so what is an appropriate serving size for one, may not be for the next.

A disadvantage to semi-moist food is that it can contain more sugar and more salt (sodium) compared to dry or canned foods. For an average, healthy dog who is fed an appropriate number of calories each day, this might be okay, especially if this food form is reserved as a topper or occasional treat. Concern arises when these foods are fed to pets with specific medical conditions where sugar and sodium intake needs to be more controlled, such as dogs with diabetes, or urinary, kidney, or heart disease.

Can I feed my dog a combination of foods?

Yes! In fact, exposing dogs to a variety of textures and forms of food when they are younger can make any subsequent food transitions much easier. For example, if your dog develops a medical condition and needs a specialized diet that only comes in a canned form, but your dog has never had canned food, they may not accept this change well. If you feed a combination of food types, ensure you work with your veterinary team to review the portion of each type of food you should feed.

Regardless of which option you choose, work with your veterinary team to evaluate the calorie content of the selected food(s) to determine the amount you should feed your dog each day to maintain a healthy body weight.

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