A Special Food for Every Dog?

How to find the differences in “niche” foods – if there even are any!


When it comes to choosing a dog food, the number of choices currently found on the shelves is nearly overwhelming.

Thanks to niche marketing – a position from which an opening in a market can be exploited, or a specialized but profitable segment of a commercial market – the production of dog foods is following the trend in human products for increasing specialization. There really is something for everyone: big dogs; medium dogs; small dogs; working dogs; dogs with tender tummies, stinky breath, or itchy feet; couch potatoes and elite athletes – all dogs can get a diet specifically designed just for them. Whether or not there are predictable or well-reasoned differences between the foods in these niches is debatable, however, as you will see below.

How big a deal is this, anyway? Pretty big, if the major dog food manufacturers are any indication. Iams is fairly sedate, with only 10 dry food varieties, but it also makes Eukanuba, which weighs in with 14 different foods, giving the Iams Company a total of 24 dry dog foods. Hill’s Science Diet makes 18 different “over-the-counter” foods and 17 “prescription” diets.

A Special Food for Every Dog?

Nature’s Recipe makes 13; Nutro makes 16 in 2 lines (Max and Natural Choice); Eagle makes 17 in 3 brands (Hy-Ration, Eagle Pack, and Prism brands); and Breeder’s Choice makes 14 in 4 lines (including AvoDerm, Avo-Active Care, Pinnacle, and A.P.D.). The grand prize goes to Royal Canin, with 32 different dog food formulations among its 4 brands (Royal Canin Size Nutrition, Natural Blend, Sensible Choice, and Excel).

Even grocery store dog foods are getting in on the act – Ralston Purina boasts 26 different dry foods under 7 brand names, and was itself recently swallowed by an even bigger fish, Nestlé S.A., maker of Alpo, Mighty Dog, and Come’n Get It. Since most foods come in at least two bag sizes – and we’re just talking about dry foods here! – you can see that making such a large number of foods is a substantial commitment on the part of the manufacturers. But the specialization strategy must be working for them, or they wouldn’t continue it.

So how did the pet store shelves suddenly blossom with a food for every occasion? It all started in 1977, when one savvy manufacturer took a hint from the new (and very popular) light beers, and created “Skippy Lite” dog food. The idea caught on quickly, and today most manufacturers produce a number of different “formulas” in each of their lines of foods.

It’s in the fine print
But while the names or descriptive labeling of some foods may suggest that they have been tailor-made for this or that dog, the average consumer would be hard-pressed to distinguish the differences between a company’s specialty product and its “regular” food.

We fervently wish that dog food makers were required to spell out exactly how their niche foods are unique, and quantify those differences in comparison to their original, plain food. But they don’t and they won’t, explaining that specifying the differences would give away their trade secrets and market advantage. Instead, we’re supposed to take it on faith that they know things that we don’t know about the special needs of (fill in the blank) dogs, and they have addressed those needs to a T.

However, if you’re like us and you want to know if those differences are significant – or even appropriate for your dog – you have to examine food labels for specific clues. You can’t simply buy any “senior” food for your old dog, because there is absolutely no consensus among dog food makers as to “what’s best” for old dogs; as with “regular” foods, senior foods vary in ingredients as well as proportions of major nutrients such as protein and fat.

You see, all dog foods – regular and specialty products – that claim to be a “complete and balanced” diet for dogs by virtue of meeting the “Dog Food Nutrient Profile” (see sidebar, “Don’t Miss This Important Label Information, right) contain at least a minimum of the same nutrients, although they may differ in proportions and maximum levels.

Beyond this basic set of requirements, it’s really anybody’s guess as to how each company will choose to deal with the problem of feeding certain dogs. Given the prevalence of terms like “senior food,” “large breed food,” etc., most people imagine that there are official standards or requirements for food labeled this way. AAFCO has nutritional guidelines for two categories of dogs: adults, and dogs who are in a growth or reproduction phase of life. It does not approve or suggest nutritional guidelines for senior dogs, large dogs, little dogs, giant dogs, etc.

It seems to come as a surprise to most people to learn that there are few trends that hold true for any given category across all food manufacturers. One company’s “light” food may contain more fat and calories than another company’s regular food. One maker’s “small dog” food contains more protein than its regular food; another company thinks small dogs should have less protein. Frequently, products that are marketed as tightly and scientifically formulated to suit the needs of a specialized group of dogs are indistinguishable from the main, plain foods in the same lines.

So, as usual, it comes down to reading the label and understanding what you’re looking at. We’ll examine each of the most popular types of foods on the market today, and give you hints about the most common trends in each type. Then you’ll know how to compare the “niche” food you are considering to the regular food made by the same company, or to a niche product made by another company.

Regular adult foods
Protein levels in the adult maintenance foods we examined for this article spanned a huge range – from 17.5 percent to 34 percent protein as fed, or 19-38.6 percent on a dry matter basis (see sidebar, “How to Calculate the ‘Dry Matter’ or Actual Nutrient Levels,” next page). The majority fell in the 22-26 percent range as fed.

The AAFCO nutrient profile lists minimums for fat (again, this is just for those foods qualified as “complete and balanced” by their nutrient profile, rather than feeding test). “Nutrient profile” adult foods must contain at least 5 percent fat on a dry matter basis. Keep in mind that foods qualified as “complete and balanced” by feeding test are not limited to minimum or maximum nutrient levels.

The vast majority of adult foods contain significantly more fat than the nutrient profile minimum, because the higher amount of fat in a food increases palatability – very important to a food maker’s success. Also, extremely low fat diets tend to result in flaky skin and dry coats. In the regular adult foods we examined, we saw a range of 6-20 percent fat as fed (6.5-22.7 percent dry matter); 12 percent as fed was the mean.

AAFCO’s dog food nutrient profile does not include either a minimum or maximum requirement for fiber, but labeling laws require the crude fiber content to be listed on the dog food label anyway. Most regular dog foods contain 3-5 percent fiber.

Puppy foods
AAFCO’s dog food nutrient profile says that puppy (“growth/reproduction”) foods must contain a minimum of 22 percent protein on a dry matter basis. We found puppy foods to vary widely in both protein and fat. Most are in a range of about 26-28 percent protein as fed, although we saw foods as low as 25 percent and as high as 36 percent protein as fed (27 percent and 41 percent dry matter). The 36 percent (as fed) protein puppy foods we found were designated for large or giant breeds.

In the puppy foods we examined, we saw a high of 10 percent and a low of 20 percent fat as fed. Most staked out the middle of the road at 16 percent as fed. Since puppies really do need adequate fat to grow properly, nobody (at least not yet) makes a food that is labeled as “light puppy food,” although large breed puppy formulas could meet the definition. They contain the least fat of the bunch, commonly 14 percent as fed.

Puppy foods generally contain a little less than the adult food average of 3 – 5 percent fiber.

Again, note that the trend is moving toward increasingly small niches. To that end, one enterprising manufacturer came up with the name “puppy weaning formula,” but its guaranteed analysis is identical to that of the same company’s regular puppy food.

Senior foods
What exactly is a “senior” dog? One company suggests feeding senior food to dogs three years old and older; others designate 7-year-olds as senior dogs. Dogs of different sizes and breeds age differently, with small dogs having the longest average life span and giant breeds having the shortest. We’ll leave this call up to you and your vet.

We’d like to think that there is a specific dietary “prescription” that will benefit all older dogs, but it’s not really true. Most senior dog foods are comparable to (and in some cases, interchangeable with) light foods, drawing on the theory that most older dogs are overweight. Compared to adult maintenance formulas, senior diets generally contain less protein and fat, and perhaps a bit more fiber. However, there are a few senior foods that have higher levels of protein (up to 27 percent as fed), though most are still lower in fat.

Food manufacturers have taken this direction due to the prevalence of “fat old dogs,” not because it has been proven that all older dogs benefit from less fat or protein. In fact, if you have an active older dog, you would probably do him a disservice by feeding him a low-protein, low-fat “senior” food; he’d likely get too thin on such a diet.

It is interesting to witness the different approaches taken by the manufacturers with those subspecialty “bridging” foods. For example, Royal Canin’s “Senior Large Breed” food contains less protein and less fat than their regular senior food, while Nutro Natural Choice’s “Senior Large Breed” food contains more protein and less fat than their regular senior food. Just one more good reason to read the label of the food you are considering, as well as the other foods in that line, and comparable foods from other brands. (Maybe you’d better add a notebook and pencil to the list of things you bring to the store. I take a clipboard with me, and it earns me lots of strange looks from the employees!) And always watch your dog’s weight and condition.

Light foods
There are two factors that the food makers generally manipulate in this category: the fat and the fiber contents. In comparison to their regular foods, some makers decrease the fat, some increase the fiber, some do both. However, you can’t assume anything in this category. We noticed that some light foods contain more fat than some regular adult foods! That’s because “light” means “light in comparison to our regular foods.” How can you tell which is which? You must compare the label information!

Performance foods
“Active,” “high stress,” “competition,” or “performance” foods generally contain high levels of protein and fat. Most of the foods we saw contain around 20 percent fat as fed, but some were as high as 27 percent as fed – more than a quarter of the total weight of the food. Since a gram of fat contains more than twice as many calories (9) as a gram of protein (4), such a food may contain more than half its calories as fat. Your dog had better be pretty darn active if you choose a food like that!

However, at least one food falls in this category that doesn’t call itself by any of those terms. Nature’s Recipe’s “Special Formula” is intended for fussy eaters – a lot of small dogs fit that description. This particular food contains 30 percent protein and 20 percent fat as fed. Dogs find protein and fat more attractive, so this is one way to hook a finicky dog, but it may also be a good way to end up with a 15-pound Yorkie, or a Lhasa Apso who could mop the floor while walking! This food was formulated to meet AAFCO nutrient profiles, rather than proven in feeding tests like most of this company’s other foods. Maybe they didn’t want to know what six months of high calorie feeding would look like!

Large breed foods
Large breed adult formulas tend to be on the low end in fat, and low to moderate in protein. If you have a very active large breed dog, you’ll want to watch his weight and condition if you select one of these diets.

Generally, calcium and phosphorus are lower in large and giant breed puppy formulas, which is good, because calcium and other minerals are of concern in growing large and giant breed puppies. However, the amounts are not required by law to be listed on dog food labels, and so for the most part, you won’t see the minerals listed. Argh! However, you can often get this information from the company or its Web site.

Small breed foods
The most reasonable difference between the small breed foods and other foods has to do with the size of the kibble. It makes sense to give tiny dogs with tiny jaws and tiny teeth a smaller-sized nugget to crunch.

However, some of the small dogs foods are also higher in fat, which is not necessarily a good and healthy thing for an inactive lap dog – it may, of course, be just fine for that rare Chihuahua who runs several miles with his guardian every day. As we said above, smaller dogs tend to be fussier eaters and higher-fat foods are more tempting, so monitor your dog, and feed her less if she starts gaining too much weight.

People who feed small amounts of food tend to buy small packages. Note that the price markup (profit) is higher on the smaller packages – a great incentive for the makers to produce “special” food for small dogs.

Breed-specific foods
About 20 years ago, some breed and nutrition experts began to advocate breed-specific diets. The theory behind them generally had to do with historical and geographical connections between certain breeds of dog to certain foods – rice-based diets for Asian breeds, for example, or fish-based diets for Northern dogs – and inherited tendencies toward food allergies or intolerances thought to be triggered by “non-native” foods. So “breed-specific” diets generally differ in their major ingredients and, thus, in their protein, fat, and fiber levels.

While the likelihood is good that certain breeds may do better on certain diets, the fact remains that every dog is an individual and must be fed accordingly. Just as there are Italians who are allergic to wheat and therefore can’t have pasta, there are Akitas who can’t tolerate rice, and Northern dogs who do best on low-fat diets.

Nature’s Recipe has most extensively explored this niche, offering foods for herding, hound, sporting, terrier, toy, and working dogs. Each food has been slightly tweaked from its brothers, with major ingredients appearing in slightly different orders, differences in the herbs they contain, protein and fat levels up and down by one or two percentage points, and a varying kibble size.

“Special needs” and prescription diets
In a future article, we’ll look at “prescription” diets (foods that are available only from veterinarians) as well as the “special needs” foods: those that allege to address arthritis, joint health, sensitive stomachs, sensitive skin, oral/dental problems, and food allergies.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Buying the Best Canned Food”
Click here to view “How to Determine What’s Special About a ‘Specialized’ Dog Food”
Click here to view “Which is the Best Type of Dog Food?”

-by Jean Hofve, DVM

Dr. Jean Hofve is a holistic veterinarian with a private practice in Colorado. She is a frequent contributor to WDJ.


  1. I’m picking up my 11 week old Yorkie Sat and need to get the best food I can for him. I will be weaning him off Purina pro plan puppy. My previous pup passed at 17 yo Jan 2022, and I want to avoid the tooth issues and gastric, Altho this pup is of entirely different lineage. Please help!?!