There’s no denying there are tons of food options for dogs out there, from puppy to senior formulas, wet to dry, cooked to raw. And there’s also no doubt that those dogs will enjoy some food a lot more than they may enjoy others.
But how do you know what the healthiest dog food option is for your pet? Much like with people, what tastes the best or looks the most appetizing isn’t always the best option as far as health and nutrition — but ideally the healthiest option will also taste and look pretty appetizing. When deciding which is the best dog food for your pet, here are some important nutritional considerations to keep in mind.
While it seems pretty obvious to keep an eye on the ingredients when choosing the best dog food — and that is absolutely the case — it may not always provide the most accurate picture of what is inside. Instead: “You should look for the AAFCO/FEDIAF ‘complete and balanced’ statement to show that the diet has been correctly formulated,” says Dr. Joanna Woodnutt MRCVS. The manufacturer can also be evaluated using the WSAVA guidelines.
"The ingredients list is often used as a marketing tool, and you’d be surprised how differently the same ingredients can be described to persuade you to buy," explains Dr. Woodnutt. In addition, the ingredient list doesn’t give any indication to the quality of the ingredients used. Look for the AAFCO/FEDIAF statement to confirm the ingredients are high enough quality for your dog to eat.
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So what are some red flags to look out for in the dog food aisle? Dr. Woodnutt says dog foods with too few ingredients — “This suggests it might not be properly balanced,” and ingredients added at the end of the nutrition panel for marketing purposes — such as tiny amounts of blueberries or herbs. Other bad dog food ingredients to avoid include Ethoxyquin, BHA, and BHT.
“You might see websites advising pet parents to steer away from diets including grains, but science has shown that (apart from in rare circumstances), dogs can digest grain," says Dr. Woodnutt. “You may also see ‘meat and animal derivatives’ being vilified, but it’s worth bearing in mind that this has a strict definition in pet food, and does not contain fur, feathers, hooves, and horns,” says Dr. Woodnutt. In fact, it’s usually perfectly good organ meat that would otherwise be thrown away in countries where we prefer not to eat lungs and hearts!
Dogs aren't carnivores, but they do need enough protein for their lifestyle to be happy and healthy. While dogs can over-consume protein, most of the time (when it comes to packaged food), it's the other way around. If your dog food has a low protein percentage, it means your dog isn’t getting the nourishment they need to be able to grow and thrive. “Protein is a key part of their diet, and you don’t want less than 20% in dry and 10% in wet food. Ideally, 30% protein is what you want to aim for — just be warned they will have plenty of energy!” says Jeff Carbridge, dog trainer at DogOwner.co.uk.
People need a balanced diet, but so do dogs. “I’m not here to advocate for raw vs manufactured — both foods are fantastic options and can provide your dog with a healthy life,” says Carbridge. It’s all about balance, and that’s what makes a good dog food. You want a good amount of protein, plenty of beneficial fruit and vegetables (like blueberries), and as few processed ingredients as possible.
Don’t just go with a brand you know. Sometimes brands have built up their reputation, but the quality of ingredients don’t necessarily match the price you are paying. “There are a lot of brands and formulas on the market, and knowing what to look for in the ingredients will help you determine the brand that is best for your pup,” says Erin Askeland, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, Animal Health & Behavior Consultant at Camp Bow Wow.
Your dog’s age, activity level, and other factors will help determine the best way to feed them. “It is important to explore the pros and cons of free feeding and scheduled feedings for your dog to determine the best way to give them their meals,” says Askeland. For example, if you have a puppy, if you free feed your dog (leave food out for them all day), you are going to have a hard time with potty training because every time a puppy eats, they will have to go potty. To make potty training easier, you want to feed a puppy structured meals.
Food can affect your dog’s health in many ways. As humans, we know that eating candy bars every day is not good for us, but when it comes to our pups, we don’t always know what is the equivalent. “Feeding a dog that does not exercise a lot a high protein diet will increase their weight, cause joint issues, potential blood pressure issues and heart problems,” says Askeland.
When comparing dog foods, make sure you compare price per ounce, not the price on the sticker. Some dog food bags are 30 pounds, some are 40 pounds, and some are 35 pounds. “By comparing the price per ounce, it will give you an apples to apples comparison of the foods you are looking to purchase,” says Askeland.
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This line of dog food is made with fresh beef, turkey, chicken, and pork recipes that are delivered right to your door in pre-portioned packs. This is great for convenience and dietary restrictions, but also for portion control — all important in their own way!
This new dry food for dogs features real poultry or meat as the first ingredient. But also great is that the recipes are packed with superfoods like blueberries, cranberries, broccoli and dandelion greens. There are varieties made with the ancient grains, such as spelt and quinoa, and it’s naturally high in fiber and rich in protein, ancient grains contain a broad spectrum of vitamins and minerals and help support a dog’s digestive system, skin and coat, and blood glucose.
Price is for 12 lb. bag
This Bay Area based dog food company makes their product with insect protein powder instead of traditional proteins (ie beef/poultry). This is a prebiotic that is loaded with amino acids and nutrients and is also hypoallergenic. Jiminy's Good Grub oven baked kibble, for example, is a mix of insect protein powder with oats, sweet potato, flaxseed and other plant-based ingredients.
Price is for a 10-lb. bag
This premium pet food brand is known for their nutrient-rich food with traceable ingredients that include hormone-free fruits and vegetables and ethically sourced Certified Humane meat. For the hipster dog, there are also fun options in the line, such as Bone Broth and Kefir.
Price is for an 11-lb. bag
Interested in a raw food diet? Your pet may be as well! This raw diet meal plan is another convenient delivery service. This one arrives frozen at your door and then just has to be thawed — it’s made of 80% muscle meat, 10% organ meat, 10% edible bone, and also includes a mix of vitamins and minerals. The recipes were all created by an animal nutritionist, so you can be confident the ingredients are chosen with a dog’s total health in mind.
This premium dry dog food was crafted with your dog's whole health in mind. It's made with real meat and includes whole grains, garden vegetables, and fruit. The deboned protein-rich chicken recipe is enhanced with natural ingredients that are chock full of health benefits, like calcium, phosphorus, and Glucosamine for bone strength and mobility support.
The price is for a 15-lb. bag
Ollie is another fresh dog food, and is tailored to a pet’s needs via an easy online quiz. This use high-quality protein sourced from farms in the US, New Zealand, and Australia, paired with fruits like blueberries and cranberries, and plant-based proteins such as chickpeas, lentils, and peas, as well as leafy greens and root vegetables, like kale and sweet potatoes, for loads of dietary fiber.
Recommended by veterinarians, this Hill's Science Diet dry dog food formula features real chicken as well as prebiotic fiber so your dog is healthy, balanced, and regular. It also provides important vitamins and minerals, like vitamin E and omega-6 fatty acids to improve your dog's skin and coat.
Price is for a 15.5 lb. bag
This line of dog food contains natural ingredients and healthy grains. It’s high protein, with real meat being the first ingredient, and tons of vitamins and minerals, such as prebiotics, balanced calcium and phosphorus, Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids, and a good source of natural Glucosamine, for the pup’s joint health. There’s no corn, wheat, or soy, and no added sugars or sweeteners.
Price is for a 10.3 lb. bag
It’s important to choose a dog food for your dog’s specific needs, especially if your dog has sensitive skin and stomach. Your dog is going to need food that will make them thrive — this is a great option for them, loaded with vitamins and minerals, as well as tons of protein and antioxidants, prebiotic fiber, and so much more for healthy skin and joints.
Price is for a 16 lb. bag