Modern dog owners often consider pups family members and care deeply about the food they serve them. This not only includes things like the food’s flavor and the ingredients used but also the manufacturing process as a whole.
We’ll help you understand how dog food is made and explain related issues below.
Key Takeaways: How Is Dog Food Made?
- It is important for dog owners to understand the basic ways in which manufacturers make dog food. This will not only help make you a more informed owner, but it can also help you distinguish fact from fiction.
- Different types of dog food are made in different ways. For example, the method by which canned dog foods are made differs from the way kibble or fresh-frozen dog food are made.
- Most owners will probably find that fresh-frozen dog food is manufactured in the most familiar way. By contrast, the methods used to make kibble, wet food, or semi-moist dog food are quite different than the ones used to make human foods.
Different Types of Dog Food Are Made in Different Ways
Dog food comes in many forms, from dry kibble to canned meat in a sauce. You can even find contemporary takes on canine cuisine, like freeze-dried patties, fresh-frozen dog food, and semi-moist packets for convenience.
Each form is prepared differently, from unique cooking methods to added preservatives to extend shelf life.
We’ll cover the process of making the following dog food types below (you can click on any of the options below to jump down to the corresponding section):
- Dry (kibble)
- Wet (including both cuts in gravy and pate style)
- Fresh Frozen
- Freeze Dried
- Raw Dog Food
Now let’s dig in!
Pet Food Regulation: Rules of the Road in Making Dog Food
To understand making dog food entirely, you have to know the rules surrounding the practice.
Unlike many other countries, pet food is heavily regulated in the United States at a federal and state level to ensure animal safety and consumer protection.
The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has strict rules about pet food, requiring it to be:
- Safe for animals to eat
- Made in sanitary conditions
- Free of dangerous ingredients
- Labeled truthfully
In addition, 2011’s Food Safety Modernization Act requires pet food manufacturers to:
- Have and follow a food safety plan, including hazard analysis and preventative controls
- Be registered as animal food facilities
- Comply with up-to-date good manufacturing practices to ensure food safety
Many states follow the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) standards.
AACFO is a nonprofit body that crafts nutrient profiles for pets to ensure balanced, complete nutrition and also advocates for pet food transparency, requiring packages to display the:
- Food’s name: Foods must be identified with no ambiguity.
- Species the product is for: Is it for dogs, cats, both, or another animal?
- Quantity of the package: The weight or volume of the product must be noted for consumers.
- Guaranteed analysis of nutrients: The percentage of nutrients per serving must be stated.
- Ingredient list: Ingredients must be identified appropriately and ordered by their percentage of weight in the recipe from highest to lowest.
- Nutrient adequacy statement: Is the food “complete and balanced” to be used as a primary food, or is it intended to be used as a treat or supplement?
- Feeding directions: How much food is needed per animal by weight?
- Manufacturer’s information: The name and address of the manufacturer must be listed, whether the brand produces the food or outsources preparation to a second party.
- Applicable Conditional requirements: An example would be if a food is labeled as “light” or for “weight maintenance,” it must show the caloric information to back up the claim.
Recipe Creation & Ingredient Sourcing: Universal Steps in Making Any Dog Food
USA-based pet food manufacturers must follow a strict recipe for each product to ensure compliance with AAFCO nutrient profiles. Some recipes are developed by veterinarians, while animal nutritionists formulate others.
Generally, the best foods are crafted with the help of a dedicated nutritionist.
With sourcing ingredients, an ethical pet food manufacturer will only buy from trusted suppliers, often requiring them to obtain supplier approval via safety testing and site inspection. Many pet food makers stick to U.S.-based suppliers, but some source ingredients internationally, especially for vitamins and minerals that are hard to source from the U.S.
Not all internationally-sourced ingredients are harmful, but it’s best only to use products sourced from western nations to ensure safety. They also have strict quality control laws for food items that other countries lack.
What Are Meat Meals and Meat By-Products? Are They Safe?
If you check a dog food’s ingredient list, you may see “beef meal” or “beef by-products” instead of a whole protein like “beef.” There’s much villainization of these proteins, but are they really that bad?
To find out, you have to understand what they are.
Meat meals are made through rendering, a process that occurs after muscle meat has been cooked. The leftover portions (aside from blood, hair, hooves, and stomach contents) are heated until they form a powder, creating the protein-dense “meal.”
Meat meal may sound stomach-churning, but it’s an acceptable form of protein in dog food as long as it’s labeled, as mystery meat is something we’d all like to avoid. An example would be “beef meal” instead of “meat meal.”
By-products are another common protein source. These are the ingredients left after an animal is processed for muscle meat, like organs, bones, and tissues, as well as blood and heads.
These aren’t the most savory menu item to humans, but by-products aren’t something to avoid entirely in your dog’s food. They shouldn’t be the only source of protein in your dog’s food, but they’re not “bad.”
Just be sure to stick to by-products that are properly labelled. They should, for example, be labeled as “chicken by-products” instead of a generic “animal by-products.”
How Dry Dog Food (Kibble) Is Made
Kibble is the most popular type of dog food in the developed world due to its low cost and convenience, but how do these crunchy little bits come to be?
Extrusion, that’s how.
The word isn’t pleasant on the ear, but it’s a common process also used to produce human foods like pasta and breakfast cereal. It allows manufacturers to create mass quantities of a food item quickly.
Extrusion involves combining a dog food’s ingredients and grinding them into a fine texture. The resulting product is then heated and fed into a machine that cuts the dough into kibble-sized pieces.
The kibblets are reheated and pressurized to remove moisture, preserving them and creating a longer shelf life.
The dry nature and high starch content of the kibblets give dry dog food its trademark crunch.
The high temperatures and pressure of the extrusion process are hard on ingredients and affect flavor and – in some cases – nutritional content.
This can sometimes leave the kibblets rather bland and lacking, so they’re often coated with tasty (and nutritious) animal fats and vitamin and mineral mixtures afterward that the warm morsels absorb.
Some manufacturers might also add artificial flavors or colors to make the food more appealing before packaging and shipping the product.
Extrusion is super efficient, letting manufacturers make mass quantities of kibble per batch.
It’s also more affordable than other cooking methods, as it’s mainly done via machinery and extends the shelf life of products for shipping, sale, and time in your pantry at home.
While convenient, the harsh nature of dry dog food’s extrusion process has led some pet parents to seek dog food made with gentler cooking methods, which we’ll dig into more below.
Like the concept of kibble but not into the high heat of standard extrusion?
Check out Spot & Tango’s Unkibble, a fresh take on kibble using low-heat drying methods for crafting the crunchy, shelf-stable food your dog craves without impacting taste or nutrients.
How Canned/Wet Dog Food Is Made
Canned food or “wet dog food” is made much differently than its crunchy counterpart, though it also starts with its ingredients being combined in a mixer.
The texture will vary by product, as some canned options are a gravy-rich chunky stew while others are a pate-style meat mash.
Once thoroughly mixed, the food is piped into its final container, whether it’s a plastic tray, aluminum can, or pouch. The container is then sealed and cooked for a designated time at a set temperature to ensure all bacteria, viruses, and mold inside are killed to prevent sickening people or animals.
After the cooking process concludes, food is appropriately labeled and shipped out for sale.
How Semi-Moist Dog Food Is Made
Semi-moist dog food is a midpoint between dry, crunchy kibble and canned wet food, containing a moisture content of between 60 and 65 percent by weight.
It has a treat-like appearance of moist nuggets or shredded fibers, which dogs usually find super palatable and easy to eat.
Semi-moist dog food is made similarly to dry kibble, but instead of being cooked at high temperatures and pressurized, it’s baked at lower temperatures to preserve moisture, flavor, and nutrients.
It’s then portioned and sealed into individual baggies for freshness, with your purchased product typically being a box full of baggies instead of a large bag of food you need to measure out.
Semi-moist dog food isn’t recommended for most dogs, as it’s higher in sugar and salt than other options. It often lacks whole proteins, too, and frequently has ingredients that can be problematic to sensitive systems, including artificial colors and flavors.
But if your doggo has trouble chewing, needs quick, convenient eats on a trip, or has a mega picky palate, semi-moist dog food works fine if it meets the AAFCO standards for your dog’s life stage and doesn’t bother his belly.
How Fresh-Frozen Dog Food Is Made
Fresh-frozen dog food is relatively new on the market and more gently prepared than kibble or canned dog food. Because of this, you can usually identify the ingredients at a glance when serving the food to your pup, as it’s typically a meaty mix of protein, produce, and grain.
The texture and taste are also better than most other dog foods, making it a good choice for picky pupperinos.
Fresh-frozen dog food sometimes features human-grade ingredients and is often customizable to your canine’s needs.
However, these puptastic perks come at a cost, as fresh-frozen dog food is one of the most expensive types of canine cuisine.
Most fresh-frozen food is made in small batches, with some brands cooking ingredients individually while others prep a combination of ingredients at once.
Fresh-frozen food is not raw and is cooked in any of several ways, depending on the brand, with methods including:
- Steamed: Ingredients are cooked using steam, effectively heating them to safe temperatures without damaging taste or nutrients as much as extreme heat may.
- Sous vide: Ingredients are placed in a plastic or glass container and submerged in water for cooking at lower temperatures to achieve food safety while preserving flavor and nutrition.
Once cooked through, the food is flash-frozen, a technique using a circulation of frigid air to quickly freeze food without giving moisture inside the chance to create large ice crystals. This ensures the contents won’t be a watery mess when thawed. They’re then shipped out to a retailer or directly to your door.
The packaging of fresh-frozen food varies by manufacturer. Some sell them in loaf form for a cut-and-serve design or bagged for scooping and serving, while others are specially pre-portioned to your dog’s needs.
Fresh-food options require refrigeration and have a shorter shelf life than traditional options, making them less convenient.
Check out our head-to-head comparison of the top options, Ollie, Farmer’s Dog, and Nom Nom, detailing who formulates recipes, where the foods are made, pricing, and more.
How Freeze-Dried Dog Food Is Made
Freeze-dried dog food is a crunchy alternative to kibble that’s lighter in weight and more portable. But these things come at a cost – literally, as freeze-dried foods are typically quite pricey.
Freeze-dried foods also have a long shelf life and don’t require refrigeration, making them good choices for feeding on the go.
Some freeze-dried dog foods use raw meat as an ingredient, while others use patties or nuggets of cooked proteins combined with vegetables.
To freeze dry food, manufacturers:
- Freeze ingredients to convert a fresh food’s water content to ice
- Place frozen ingredients in vacuum machinery to turn the ice directly into vapor, resulting in the removal of about 95% of the water initially present
Freeze drying is performed at super low temperatures, preserving the taste, appearance, and nutrients of food better than other forms of processing. These low temperatures also extend shelf life more than other methods by “freezing” potential microbiological activity. However, some may survive, so always carefully handle freeze-dried food, especially if the product was processed raw.
Freeze-dried food has a strange, Styrofoam-like texture that some dogs dislike. Adding a bit of water makes it more palatable but can be messy.
How Dehydrated/Air-Dried Dog Food Is Made
Dehydrated or air-dried dog food is prepared using a technique that falls between the extreme heat of kibble processing and the extreme cold of freeze-dried dog food. It uses a steady stream of low heat for an extended period to remove the water found in ingredients via evaporation. This dramatically improves shelf life and reduces the ingredients’ weight.
To serve, just add water according to the manufacturer’s instructions (some dehydrated foods can also be served as-is, just be sure to offer them with plenty of water).
Like freeze-drying, some bacteria can survive dehydration, so always practice proper handling of dehydrated dog food to avoid contaminating surfaces of your home, including washing your hands after serving and cleaning your pup’s bowl after feedings.
Dehydrated dog food is a solid pick for owners who struggle to lug around heavy kibble bags and for picky canines or those with dental issues that can’t chew kibble. It’s expensive, however, and can be messy.
How Raw Dog Food Is Made
As the name implies, raw dog food isn’t cooked like other dog food varieties. Typically, it contains an animal’s organs, bones, and muscle meat, as well secondary ingredients like vegetables or raw eggs for some preparation styles. Common proteins used in raw dog food include chicken, turkey, and beef.
Many owners feeding the raw dog food diet prepare meals from scratch at home, but some companies sell prepackaged frozen raw food in slice-and-serve rolls, patties, or balls you thaw and serve as needed.
Raw food makers don’t warm ingredients like other manufacturers, but they usually combine and freeze them before shipping.
Since their products are unprocessed, they aren’t required to meet AAFCO standards, which is concerning.
They also require careful handling to ensure that neither you nor your dog aren’t sickened by harmful bacteria, including washing your hands and cleaning surfaces that come in contact with the food.
Some owners like the “natural” form of the raw dog food diet and claim it aids in skin issues or sensitivities. That said, it’s very expensive, and the FDA advises against it, with a two-year study finding that raw pet food is more likely to contain illness-causing bacteria like salmonella.
Dog Food Safety: Testing & Recalls
Regular onsite safety testing of products is a must for all pet food manufacturers, but the best companies also have third-party testing performed to ensure their products are free of harmful contaminants and contain appropriate nutrient levels.
Safety recalls are an essential aspect of the manufacturing process, and while they can be jarring, they’re a sign that quality control is at work.
Types of recalls include voluntary recalls by the manufacturer, FDA-requested ones, and those that are FDA-ordered.
It’s also important to note that recalls happen for a variety of reasons. Some do occur because the food has become contaminated with a harmful substance or the food was improperly nutritionally balanced. But recalls can also occur because of simple, relatively benign things like labeling mistakes.
How Do You Pick a Food for Your Dog?: Three Must-Haves
Choosing dog food can feel overwhelming as the sheer volume of options grows in stores daily. Luckily, you can sort through these quickly if you know what to look for, making finding the right one for your barker a breeze.
An ideal dog food should:
Meet the AAFCO standards for your dog’s life stage.
If you read a bag of dog food in America, you’ll see a note about meeting AAFCO standards. Many overlook this blurb, but it’s something to pay attention to, as it’s there for your and your dog’s benefit.
The AAFCO blurb mentions what profile the food meets, such as adult maintenance (feeding adult dogs) or growth and reproduction (puppies and pregnant females.)
Foods intended as snacks or accompaniment to a complete diet will say “for intermittent feeding” or “supplemental feeding,” meaning they don’t offer a complete and balanced set of nutrients to be used as your dog’s only food.
Now, no surprise here, but your dog’s nutrition needs change throughout his life, with a puppy having vastly different concerns from a senior doggo.
AAFCO standards also cover special concerns, such as the growth of large breed puppies. In these cases, you want to look for a note mentioning “the growth of large-size dogs (70 pounds or more as an adult). You also want to double-check the wording, as the statement is often preceded by “including” or “excluding.”
Address any health issues your dog may have.
Your dog’s food is an integral part of his daily health, so what goes in his bowl should help with any underlying conditions, whether it’s a kibble rich in fatty acids to support skin issues or low-protein dog food for a pup with kidney issues.
Dog food with probiotics is a good fit for certain tummy troubles, while single-protein dog foods and limited-ingredient recipes are ideal for canines with allergies.
A good rule of thumb here is to ask your vet for production recommendations, particularly if your pup has issues beyond occasional gas.
Be made in conjunction with your vet’s advice.
It’s always a good idea to consult your vet before making significant changes to your mutt’s meal plan, especially if he has any medical conditions, as mentioned above.
Your dog’s health is a big picture that can be too hard to see entirely on your own, and your vet can help make it a little clearer, helping you pick the healthiest dog food for your best bud.
If a prospective food can check all three boxes, you’re on the right track and have likely met your dog’s core nutrient needs.
How to Pick a Dog Food: Other Things to Look For
If you’d like to narrow the field of options further when browsing the dog food aisle, look for:
- A whole protein as the first ingredient
- Helpful extras like glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health or probiotics for digestive support
- A food featuring high-quality grain (if your dog doesn’t have a vet-diagnosed grain allergy)
Good dog food doesn’t need to wallop your wallet, either, so don’t get distracted by fancy marketing. There are plenty of great budget-friendly dog foods to choose from.
How Is Dog Food Made: FAQ
The details of dog manufacturing can be confusing. Let’s sort through the most commonly asked questions about how dog food is made and their answers.
Is dog food still made from horses?
While once a common ingredient, horse meat isn’t used in pet food anymore in the U.S. The last processing plant for horse meat closed in 2007, and the protein is rarely imported anymore. However, some brands overseas still use horse meat, like Jolipet.
If you want to avoid horse meat in your dog’s food, only use American-made dog food from reputable brands. It’s also important to investigate where a brand sources ingredients from. Domestically harvested proteins or those from other western countries like New Zealand, Australia, or Canada are best.
What is most dog food made of?
Dog food usually features protein, carbohydrates, and fats. The most common protein in dog food is chicken, but beef, lamb, and fish like salmon or whitefish are also frequently used. Carbohydrates in dog food typically come from rice, barley, oats, wheat, corn, or potatoes, and fats and oils may be chicken fat, beef fat, fish oil, or flaxseed oil.
Dog-safe vegetables and fruits are also included in many foods, with carrots, blueberries, cranberries, and peas often appearing in ingredient lists. Additional vitamins and minerals are frequently added to meet the AAFCO standard of the intended canine consumer too.
Is there real meat in dog food?
Yes, quality dog food contains real meat. An ideal dog food for your dog will have whole, labeled meat as the first ingredient, like free-range chicken, grass-fed beef, or deboned turkey. Several of the best dry dog foods and canned varieties offer exotic proteins, like kangaroo, venison, and bison.
Some dog foods feature meat meal in place of (or in addition to) whole meat, which is still an excellent source of protein and other nutrients, though their preparation isn’t everyone’s favorite to envision.
Why do vets not like homemade dog food?
Most vets don’t recommend homemade dog food because the recipes aren’t balanced, leading to nutrient deficiencies. Canine nutrition involves carefully measured protein, fats, carbs, vitamins, and minerals to keep an entire system running. Factor in special dietary needs, and it’s a real headache.
Unless you’re an animal nutritionist or veterinarian, you don’t have the training to properly balance a homemade dog food recipe, especially if your dog has underlying health needs requiring a specialized diet. If you’re considering a homemade diet, speak with your vet.
What foods should dogs absolutely not have?
Sadly, many foods are toxic to dogs. Chocolate is a well-known problem item for dogs, but the list also includes human favorites like onions, macadamia nuts, avocados, apple cores, grapes, and raisins. Another sneaky ingredient to skip is xylitol, an artificial sweetener often hiding in gum and peanut butter.
While lots of pantry favorites are off-limits, there are some foods you can share with your dog, like cooked rice, popcorn, carrots, pumpkin, and eggs.
Is it cheaper or healthier to make your own dog food?
No. Sourcing ingredients is more expensive than ever. You’ll also need to consult with a professional (either an animal nutritionist or your vet) to ensure your pup’s diet is balanced, which further drives up the cost of preparing your dog’s food at home. The latter is a must, as most homemade dog diets lack core nutrients that can negatively affect your floof’s health.
If you’d like to cook for your pooch occasionally as a treat, try dog-friendly crockpot recipes. Another fun option is to prepare a homemade dog food topper to add to your dog’s diet.
Making dog food isn’t always pretty, but knowing the process is helpful when looking for the best food for your dog. It’s also just fun to know as an oddball canine fact.
What dog food form does your sniffer enjoy? Were you surprised to hear how it’s made? Curious about anything else dog food-related?
Share with us in the comments. We’d love to help!