Diet Dog Food: Worth it or Worthless?

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Just as it is with humans, where almost 70 % of U.S. adults are overweight and more than a third are considered obese according to the Center for Disease Control, there is a similar problem with our pets. According to Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, more than half of all dogs and cats in the U.S. are overweight or obese. And much like in the human food industry, there is a whole suite of pet food products, in the form of low calorie, weight control, or diet foods that are marketed to owners of these overweight pets. The question is, are these diet pet food products worth using or not?

The key to keeping a pet at an optimal weight is to understand their daily energy requirements and feed at or below this requirement. Overfeeding will lead to slow and steady weight gain: one pound of excess weight is gained per 3,500 calories fed that are not burned off through activity and basal metabolism. No matter which type of dog food is used, overfeeding a dog compared to their daily requirements will lead to weight gain and an unhealthy pet.


Diet Dog Food: An Analysis

To answer the question of whether or not diet dog food is worth it or worthless, we studied our food database to determine the differences between diet (or low calorie or weight control) dog food and regular (non diet) dog food. The average calories per cup and macronutrient (protein, fat, and carbohydrate) profiles of dry and canned food are shown in the graphs below.


dry diet food



canned diet dog food


You will notice that diet dog food is lower in calories than regular dog food. On average, diet dry food is almost 100 calories per cup and diet canned food is about 50 calories per cup less than regular dry and canned food respectively.  On the surface, this is not a bad thing and is consistent with the idea of a diet food. The lower calorie food means that without adjusting your serving amounts, your pet will take in less calories each day. For perspective, serving your dog 100 less calories per day would result in a one pound weight loss every 35 days or so, which is a pace of about 10 lbs. per year.


However, digging further reveals some troubling data. On average, the diet dog food is much higher in carbohydrates and lower in protein and fat than regular food. Diet dry food contains almost 10% and canned diet food contains almost 15% more carbohydrates than regular dry and wet foods respectively. This is not good. Dog’s bodies are built for diets high in proteins and fats. Feeding them a high carb diet, even if it is lower in calorie, is not a smart strategy unless your dog has a special condition that requires such a diet.


How to Choose a Diet Dog Food

If you do decide to use a diet dog food, choose it in the same way that you would choose a regular food. Look at the ingredient list for real named meat, poultry, and fish protein sources and natural, minimally processed ingredients. Evaluate the macronutrient profile for an indication of protein, fat, and carbs and when possible, avoid those that contain higher amounts of carbs.  Once you choose a food (diet or otherwise) and assuming that you know how many calories your pet needs each day, make sure to measure accordingly and account for treats. Otherwise you run the risk of continuing to overfeed your pet.


The bottom line is that although diet dog foods can in some cases be a useful tool to help you get your pet to a healthy weight, the real secret is to understand your dog’s calorie needs and make sure you are feeding them the correct amount. No matter which type of food you choose.

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  1. Honestly, my problem tends to be the opposite. I have trouble getting Koira to put on weight sometimes. Right now I think she is a bit thin, but she is already eating what should be way more than enough calories for her. Upping her food more seems to just up the amount of poop without helping her put on any weight.
    kkoira recently posted…Wordless Wednesday: TeamsMy Profile

  2. Personally, I’ve never put much stock in processed diet food for humans — such as Weight Watcher’s frozen meals — because they always left me craving more within an hour or two. So, I just always figured that diet dog food would have the same effect on my dogs. If they were just a little overweight, I simply cut back on their treats. Now that Callie & Shadow are older and slower, I’ve cut back a little on their food too.
    Sue recently posted…Ducky’s Newest ChallengeMy Profile

  3. I noticed those high carb counts right away…great graph analysis! It seems you would do better feeding a bit less of the regular dog food, which is higher in protein, than to switch to a diet dog food while adding some additional exercise into a daily routine. Though I am sure some dogs may need to be on diet food…but that high carb count bothers me.
    Oz the Terrier recently posted…Why Eat Bravo! Duck FeetMy Profile

  4. Interesting article! It is also important to feed your dog according to their Life Stage i.e. feed Puppy food to a puppy and feed Senior food to a dog that is a senior (approximately age seven and older). My yellow lab Chelsea started to get overweight so I put her on a Low Cal diet and she gained weight on that diet! So I put her on a Senior diet (since she was a senior dog at that point) and then she lost the excess weight and got back to a healthy weight.
    Rachele Baker, DVM recently posted…“Pets Make Us Smile” Blog Hop with Linky List July 21-23, 2014My Profile

    • Puppies certainly burn more calories than seniors, so watching the food and the calories in the food, not just the volume is important.
      mkob recently posted…Diet Dog Food: Worth it or Worthless?My Profile

  5. None of my dogs have a weight problem (though I keep a close eye on Rosie). Even if they did, I wouldn’t be so keen on “diet food.” I’d rather feed a healthy diet and up the exercise. Found your results really interesting. Seems human “diet foods” contain more chemicals and artificial ingredients – not a good thing imho.
    Sue recently posted…Natures Recipe Dog Treats from Chewy | Product ReviewMy Profile

  6. I think if you have an obese pet a food that makes them feel full in the beginning of the diet is a good thing, but after that, they need to be on a food they can eat forever and you need to find the diet/exercise combination that works. We aren’t believers in diet foods for humans or pets at our house, if the poundage is a bit too much we have to work out more and eat less, or more low cal foods like fruits or veggies. Life is like bootcamp here, no Mr. Nice Guy when it comes to diet and fitness but we are all happy except for Bert that can never get enough to eat.
    Emma recently posted…There Is A New Delivery Dog In Town!My Profile

  7. This was very interesting. I have one husky who tends to put a bit of weight on through the winter, and one of my other huskies, I have been trying to feed more calories to, so that he bulks up a bit. Although he is only a year old, so I know he probably just has to grow into those long legs of his etc….still though.
    ღ husky hugz ღ frum our pack at Love is being owned by a husky!
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  8. We’ve never had an overweight pet. Just overweight humans. 🙁 But I don’t believe in diet food. Lately I don’t believe in much of anything when it comes to food. C’est la vie.
    Flea recently posted…Tasty Tuesday with JonesMy Profile

  9. Great post. I am not a fan of “diet food” for people or for dogs. Healthy eating and increased exercise are the way to go! I try to keep my dogs’ food as natural as possible.
    It’s Dog or Nothing recently posted…Adopted!My Profile

  10. Makes sense if we need to monitor our carbs then the dogs would too. I’m going to check my bag and see if that is the case with ours. We have found that reducing portions, exercising, and padding meals with veggies has made a huge difference for Prince. If the diet we are using is higher in carbs, we are changing back and continue everything else.
    Stacey recently posted…Dogs Bark Bakery Gourmet Dessert Treat Giveaway!My Profile

  11. Very interesting analysis. Along w/ understanding your dog’s caloric needs understanding exercise is also key. I think reducing the amount of their current food while increasing exercise is the best. Ever notice how fat people have fat kids & fat dogs? Coincidence?
    Cathy Armato
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  12. Interesting post! Since fiber is a carbohydrate, I wonder if the increased carbs in the diet foods are due to increased fiber? That might not necessarily be a bad thing…
    See Spot Run recently posted…Why Core Strength is Important for All DogsMy Profile

  13. This sounds like an excellent argument against future diets:-)
    Misaki recently posted…Dreaming of…My Profile

  14. Another interesting analysis. I think cutting back on regular food and “treats” is the best way to start. Also, it is important to stay active to avoid pet obesity. Happy Tasty Tuesday. Golden Woofs
    Golden Woofs: Sugar recently posted…Can Dogs Have Ice Cream?My Profile

  15. What a great topic!

    I’ve never been one to buy diet food for my pets, although I did win some of the Hill’s Metabolic cat food, which I fed to my cats. They both thought it was great. They both appeared a bit slimmer while on that food, which is great but it’s not something I plan to feed them long term.

    With all of my animals and foster animals, I’ve always just increased their exercise and cut back on their (regular) food if they needed to lose weight. It’s easy to lose weight when you have someone restricting your food for you! (Maybe that’s what I need someone to do for me!)

    And I typically don’t buy the “low fat” or “sugar free” type foods for myself either. I just try to eat less of the regular foods.
    Lindsay recently posted…Help a dog that doesn’t like riding in the carMy Profile

  16. I am not a big fan of diet food as I am more concerned with the healthy food.

  17. We have always tried to find a food that our dogs digested properly so that they did not gain weight if fed an appropriate amount. We do battle with Storm’s weight since she was spayed (maybe early spay neuter contributes to the over all pet obesity problem…but that is another topic). We have cut back her food and the next switch we may make is to a Senior formula since she is now 7. Our vet suggested making that change if we found our senior dogs starting to put on weight.
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  18. Just recently new Hill’s diet food has been promoted everywhere. I appreciate they added some bits that promote metabolism and all but as a whole, it’s the same thing as every other food they sell, really. Didn’t even look at the carbohydrate levels after I read the ingredients. Nice catch.

    So it happens that it is high protein food that promotes weight loss and satiety, not high carb food.

    I AM NOT a fan of the weight loss formulas available out there. I’m not really a fan of dieting in general. But we never had a dog become so obese that it would become necessary.
    Jana Rade recently posted…Rant About Breast Milk And Dog NutritionMy Profile

  19. Nellie is on a prescription diet food, mainly because she gets into so much outside she doesn’t need the extra calories from her dog food. Interesting post.
    Sand Spring Chesapeakes recently posted…Monday Mischief~Glory’s Second LitterMy Profile

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