There’s no shortage of information (& opinions) out there about dog foods and what is believed to be the Best Dog Food. We cut through all this information to tell you more about the range of options for your beloved dog. This allows you to make a better “best dog food” choice.
Our team at fitdogster.com spent over 50 hours researching “best dog food” – internet, social media, in-store research, and speaking to pet nutritionists and vets.
In choosing the “best dog food” for your dog there are a ton of commercial dog food options out there. It’s overwhelming. The good news, most of these options meet or exceed your dog’s nutritional needs. The bad news, there are still several options that don’t meet your dog’s complete nutritional needs. Avoiding these less nutritionally-balanced options is important to your dog’s health and happiness. We also inform you about how to read a dog food label as well as some of the “trickery” associated with these labels. This information will help determine your specific “best dog food” option for your dog. So read on to learn more!
The 90/10 Dog Nutrition Rule
One thing to know before we even launch into this discussion. A dog’s food should account for 90% of a well-balanced diet, and treats can make up the last 10%. Treats are usually less nutritionally balanced than a dog’s main food. They need to taste and smell insanely good! A dog’s normal food contains the correct balance of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients for your dog to remain healthy. Given this, it’s easy to see why a dog’s primary diet is so important.
Types of Dog Food
Dry Food or Kibble
Most popular dog food. Easy to find, can be stored at room temperature, it is affordable, and can be purchased in large or smaller quantities. Moisture of kibble is only about 10%.
Usually sold in single cans or pouches. Wet food is typically more expensive than dry food or kibble. It has a lot more moisture (70% to 80%), which helps with hydration too.
Raw food diet supporters prefer this food over traditional dog food because raw food is less processed and it can be digested more easily.
However, the majority of the animal nutrition community believes raw meat-focused diets are not safe due to contamination (pathagens/bacteria) and nutritional deficiencies. A long list of organizations do not support a raw meat-focused diet:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration
- National Academy of Sciences
- American Animal Hospital Association
- American Veterinary Medical Association
- Pet Partners (PDF)
In addition, the American Kennel Club points out that although most healthy dogs won’t get sick from food containing antibiotic-resistant bacteria, they can still spread the bacteria to other pets and people.
Home Cooked/Fresh Food
Home-cooked or fresh diets are often prepared with human-grade ingredients. A variation of this is a vegan or vegetarian diet. Always consult a board-certified veterinary nutritionist or veterinarian with an understanding of nutritional health to see if your dog is a good candidate for a vegan or vegetarian diet. One of the obvious challenges with preparing these diets (Apart from the significant work involved!) is to ensure your dog is getting a nutritionally balanced diet. See our article on nutrition for dogs.
Various specialty diets are available from vets or dog nutritionists for specific health issues. Grain-free diets fall into this category. It is perceived dogs have trouble digesting complex carbs like grains. However, grains are not common allergens for dogs since they produce enzymes to break them down. Also, grains are often cooked, making them easier to digest.
According to a 2018 report from Banfield Pet Hospital, only about 0.2% of dogs have food allergies. Dogs tend to be allergic to specific ingredients, like chicken. The most common specialty diets address:
- Food allergies
- Dental/oral health
- Joint health
- Urinary tract health
How to Read Dog a Food Label
If you’re buying dog food for your beloved pal you need to familiarize yourself with AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials). AAFCO is a non-profit organization that sets standards for both animal feeds and pet foods in the United States. For dog food to be recognized as “complete and balanced”, it needs to abide by nutritional standards set by AAFCO.
Relating to this, the most important guidelines to follow are:
- Choose a dog food that meets the AAFCO guidelines for your dog’s life stage
- Make your selection with the advice of your vet
- Choose a dog food that addresses your dog’s specific health needs
Also, a food that does not feature one of the three phrases listed below should be excluded from consideration (these phrases are listed in order of attractiveness):
1. “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that [Brand Name] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [Life Stage].”
2. “[Brand Name] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for [Life Stage].”
3. “[Brand Name] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [Life Stage] and is comparable to a product which has been substantiated using AAFCO feeding tests.”
This criterion isn’t very difficult to meet. However, there are different AAFCO guidelines that reflect various feeding goals. This is something important for you to take into account.
Some dog foods are focused on “maintenance,” requirements, some are for “growth and reproduction,” and some are for “all life stages.”
- Adult dogs who are not pregnant or nursing. Use a dog food for maintenance or all life stages.
- Puppy. Use puppy dog food for growth and reproduction or all life stages.
- Pregnant or nursing dog. Use dog food for growth and reproduction or all life stages.
To keep it simple, you can stick to foods for all life stages. These dog foods are always acceptable.
Another important development. Back in 2016, the AAFCO guidelines required specific dog food label provisions for large breed puppies (adult weight is expected to top 70 pounds)
AAFCO required dog foods formulated for growth or all life stages to specify whether they include or exclude growth of large-breed dogs with one of the following statements:
[Brand Name] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for growth/all life stages including growth of large-size dogs (70 lbs or more as an adult).
[Brand Name] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for growth/all life stages except for growth of large-size dogs (70 lbs or more as an adult).
In addition, some brands use feeding trials to confirm claims that their products are nutritionally “complete and balanced”.
Generally, the AAFCO feeding trial is considered to be the norm when verifying the nutrient quality of any commercial dog food.
However, these trials make no effort to consider the calcium content of the food, which (if excessive) can increase a large breed puppy’s risk of developing hip dysplasia and other skeletal deformities. So feeding trials do not necessarily mean it’s suitable for large breed puppies.
Therefore, it’s recommended to analyze the calcium content of dog food that’s recommended for puppies using feeding trials.
Ingredients List – Protein, Protein, Protein!
Legally, brands must list all ingredients on dog food labels in descending order by weight. However, the weight used is before processing, which includes moisture content.
While deboned chicken is generally a good source of protein, it is unfortunately loaded with moisture. This adds “dead” weight. This moisture evaporates once the food ingredients are made into kibble.
It is well known that the very first ingredient of your dog food should be a name-identified animal protein. However, it can be difficult to tell how much of the final product that protein comprises since it is weighed before processing.
Meat meals are often used in high-protein dog foods. The same weight of meat meal will have a higher protein composition versus deboned or fresh meat.
But look for named animal meals, like chicken meal or lamb meal, compared to something simply labeled meat meal or poultry meal. These unnamed meat meals are generally of lower quality.
Dog foods that include both meat meals and actual meats at the top of the ingredients list, can indicate higher quality. They provide both a higher animal inclusion and extra nutrient-dense ingredients.
Look for dog food labels that list their protein inclusion on the packaging. This clarifies what the ingredient list can make confusing. Here’s an example:
This label tells us 90% of the protein in this food is from animal sources (in this case the ingredient list states deboned chicken, chicken meal, turkey meal). About 10% comes from ancient grains and other plant ingredients. Most of the protein in this kibble comes from meat sources.
Even though it’s well-known the first five ingredients are the most important in dog food, be sure to read the entire ingredient list. Brands can hide poor-quality ingredients among good ones. See our article on nutrition for dogs to learn more about the important components of dog food nutrition, including vitamins and minerals.
A dog food’s guaranteed analysis is usually on the back, bottom, or side of the bag. It will tell you the minimum and/or maximum percentages of protein, fat, fiber, and some key nutrients in the dog food, However, this doesn’t tell you everything that’s important to know.
The data on the guaranteed analysis can help you decide whether this food is nutritionally well-balanced.
It doesn’t help you understand the quality or digestibility of the ingredients. For instance, in the label above is that 38% protein sourced from animal or plant sources?
It’s not just the protein percentages that you have to think about. Protein percentages on your dog food label provide a sense of how much crude protein is in your dog’s food. However, this does not tell you how much of the food’s protein your dog is able to digest and use.
So, while your dog food may have 38% crude protein, some of this protein will not be usable by your pet. A protein’s digestibility is referred to as its bioavailability or its biological value.
Animal proteins are naturally more bioavailable to dogs, but bioavailability also changes with how food is cooked. Cooking at extreme temperatures can decrease the amount of protein your pet is able to use.
Raw, freeze-dried, dehydrated, or frozen foods retain the most bioavailability. This is followed by slow-baked foods, and then by high-temperature processing, such as the extrusion process that most dry kibble undergoes. The extrusion process decreases the ability of the tissue to use amino acids effectively. Though the same protein source, the food has less biological value or is less bioavailable.
Also, is the fat content from a lesser quality and/or un-named meat? Unfortunately, when buying pet food, you have to do some extra research beyond what is on the product packaging.
Tip-Offs to Low-Quality Dog Food
Several synthetic vitamins and minerals can indicate poor-quality dog food. If the ingredients panel shows only 2 – 5 actual foods followed by 20+ synthetic additives, the dog food more than likely lacks nutrition from real ingredients like meat, fat, and vegetables.
Keep in mind one exception. Limited ingredient dog foods are used to identify allergies or food sensitives. These dog foods have intentionally limited real ingredients and are fortified with additives. Although they are nutritionally complete and balanced, they are not intended as a long-term diet.
The goal is to get as many natural sources of nutrients as possible and then supplement the rest with vitamins and chelated minerals.
Grains Listed First
As you’d expect, ingredients in dog food are listed by weight in declining order. If a carbohydrate is listed as the first ingredient, you are feeding your pet a lower quality dog food. Protein and fat are best sourced from meat. Dog foods that list meat as the first ingredient are higher quality.
If the source of animal protein isn’t specified, the protein likely comes from rendered meats. Rendered meats don’t offer the same variety or quality of nutrients that a non-rendered meat source would. This is due to their heavy processing.
Rendered meats are usually vaguely named, and aren’t an optimal source of animal protein. Look out for these unclear protein phrases:
- Poultry meal
- Meat meal
- Animal by-products
- Porcine plasma
- Animal fat
Much like vague meat sources, unidentified fat sources also show that your dog food brand is cutting corners and offering a cheap, low-quality option. These unnamed fats are typically rendered, meaning they are cooked at extremely high temperatures. This degrades most of the nutritional value that’s left. Even some named fat sources, such as beef tallow or beef lard, are also low-quality. The fat sources appeal to dogs but are mostly devoid of nutrition due to rendering. Healthy and nutrient-rich options such as chicken or beef fat should be sought instead of these un-named fats.
By-products are cheap, rendered meat sources that are typically used in the dog food industry. There are regulations for these rendered by-products. However, there’s a huge difference in regulations between human-grade ingredients and feed-grade ingredients. Feed grade is the quality of (dog food industry quality) is not deemed fit for human consumption. Feed-grade by-products typically have some very questionable sources. These sources are also difficult to track, which allows brands to conceal them. This makes it hard to tell the quality of feed-grade by-product. Some by-products can actually be fairly nutritious. Organ meats and bone meals are very nutritious but only when processed correctly. Unfortunately, in heavily rendered by-products and meals, much of these nutrients are not retained.
Artificial Flavoring and Coloring
There are no practical reasons for artificial flavoring and coloring to be in dog food. These are both linked to cancer and diabetes and have completely zero health benefits. Artificial flavors are used in dog foods to cover up the taste of sub-standard, spoiled or rancid meats. Artificial colors are used to make the product more appealing to pet owners.
Common artificial ingredients in pet food are listed below:
- corn syrup
- propylene glycol (a sweet-tasting sister to anti-freeze)
- Blue 2, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6
Chemical preservatives are used in dog food to cheaply extend its shelf life. Unfortunately, chemical preservatives can also be very damaging to your dog’s health. Be cautious of un-named fish meals or oils. This often indicates poor quality. Fish not consumed by humans is pre-treated with the preservative ethoxyquin. This is a controversial additive that has probable links to several health risks. Strangely, since this fish is treated before it is purchased by the food manufacturer, it is not necessary to list it on the dog food label (ugh!).
When purchasing dog food, look for natural preservatives – mixed tocopherols, citric acid, and rosemary oil, instead of these harmful chemical preservatives commonly used:
- butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
- butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
- propyl gallate
- tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ)
Fillers are any ingredient added to dog food that has little nutritional value, but exists to bulk up food. Some fillers are also low-grade proteins, carbohydrates, and fibers, meant to meet minimum guaranteed analysis requirements for dog food. They may be a source of some essential nutrients, but not a high-quality one. Low-quality protein can be obtained from many carbohydrates too. Peas, corn, wheat, and oats are added in excess to cover up the lack of animal protein in dog food.
Common fillers in dog food include:
- corn (and various types of)
- maize (also corn)
- peanut hulls
- apple or grape pomace
- pea bran
- dried beet pulp
- oat hulls
- rice hulls
- wheat (or other) mills
- brewers rice
Ingredient splitting is probably the most common trick that dog food manufacturers use to boost the quality of their ingredient panel. This equates to the manipulation of similar ingredients. This allows them to separate their weight and move those lesser-quality ingredients down on the ingredient list. This isn’t necessarily a sign that the food is bad since unfortunately, all dog food brands do this. However, if you notice this in combination with other tip-offs, this will indicate it is a lower-quality dog food.
Other Important Factors
If the dog food packaging does not state where ingredients are sourced, or the information is not on the company website, then they are likely to be from inexpensive, cheap sources. These cheap food sources are more apt to contain tainted, spoiled, low-quality, or mislabeled ingredients. They can also contain unnecessary antibiotics, pesticides or herbicides. This is a common problem with dog foods sourcing ingredients from developing countries.
Dog food manufacturing standards in the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are higher than elsewhere. Many other European Union countries also have minimally acceptable standards too but they are significantly lower than the countries named above.
Does the Brand Have a Veterinary Nutritionist?
The top dog food manufacturers have one or more full-time, credentialed veterinary nutritionists on staff. Ideally, they should have a PhD in animal nutrition and be board-certified (American College of Veterinary Nutrition or European College of Veterinary Comparative Nutrition).
Be sure to note the important distinction between veterinarians and veterinary nutritionists. Veterinary nutritionists have additional training to properly develop nutritious dog food. So be wary of marketing statements such as “veterinarian-approved” or “formulated by vets”.
This can mean some extra research, which may require reading the packaging carefully, digging around on the company website or even emailing or calling the company to confirm this.
Are Safety Checks Regularly Performed?
Batches of dog food can get contaminated by bacteria, pathogens or other hazardous substances. The best and most reputable brands will routinely test their dog food to help prevent contaminated product from reaching the consumer. Higher frequency testing is best, ideally every batch. Also, while ‘in-house” testing is ok, objective third-party testing is optimal.
Does the Brand Own Food Preparation Kitchens?
Brands that own their kitchens have significant control over the safety and quality-control procedures relative to brands that outsource their food preparation.
It’s not always the case that kitchens owned and operated by third parties are lower quality versus those owned by dog food brands. However, typically you’ll be better off purchasing dog food made by brand-owned manufacturers or kitchens.
To Sum It All Up
In search for the “best dog food” there are several things to look for. This includes what’s on the packaging but also going beyond this basic information to fully understand the quality of dog food. It’s unfortunate, but many brands play games to deceive the consumer. This is all to position their brands as higher quality, when sometimes they are not. Some extra research and digging will be required to make sure your furry buddy is getting the “best dog food”.