Dog next to a food bowl

How to Pick the Best Dog Food for Your Pup

Welcoming home a new furry best friend? Be sure to learn how to select the best dog food and best dog food brand for their unique nutritional needs

April 10, 2021

We all want the very best for our loved ones (especially our furry, four-legged ones). Whether you’ve adopted a pup or brought home a furry friend from a breeder, providing them with everything they need from your doggie checklist is a big responsibility. In addition to providing them with the right bed, toys to play with and some treats, feeding your dog a nutritious diet is a way to show them how much you care.

So, what is the best dog food and the best dog food brand? The answer to that question isn’t as simple as you may think—because there’s no one-size-fits-all dog food or brand. Plus, there are a ton of dog food brands and types of dog food to choose from, which all vary in nutrient composition, ingredients, processing and testing. Before you run out and guess-timate which food is best for your pup, you should consult your veterinarian or a trained veterinary nutritionist.

Even with a recommendation from your vet, it’s ultimately up to you to select the best dog food type and best dog food brand for your pup based on their specific needs. You’ll need to consider things like the type of food, quality of the ingredients and cost to fit your budget. 

Feeling overwhelmed? To help you select the best dog food for your pooch, we have compiled everything you should consider before making that expert-informed decision.

What’s in a “Good” Dog Food

Many pet parents feed their dogs dry kibble or canned wet food. While these foods might not be appealing to us, they contain all of the nutrients dogs need to stay healthy. High-quality commercial dog foods are regulated and have undergone testing by veterinary specialists. So what exactly is in these dog foods?

Unlike cats, dogs need more than meat in their diet. Even though protein sources such as meat make up a majority of a pup’s diet, most dogs also need the essential vitamins, minerals and fiber they can get from grains, fruits and veggies.

Dog Food Misinformation

Pet nutrition is a popular topic on the internet, and while there’s a lot of helpful information available, it’s still vital to check your sources. When you do research, always check to see if the information is supported by a credible source such as a vet, canine nutritionist or scientific study.

Many people have questions about grain-inclusive or grain-free dog food, or dog foods containing animal byproducts. If your dog has been diagnosed with a food allergy caused by grains, you can opt for a grain-free diet under the guidance of your veterinarian. For most dogs, whole grains such as brown rice are actually a source of wholesome nutrients.

It may come as a surprise, but quality animal byproducts (a.k.a. organ meats and entrails) are nutritious for dogs and often contain more nutrients than the muscle meat consumed by humans. Regulated byproducts do not include hooves, hair, floor sweepings, intestinal contents or manure.

Nutritional Needs

Just like humans, not all dogs have the same nutritional needs. Before you select a dog food, you need to consider your pup’s age, size, breed and any health issues they may have before you select a formula.

It’s vital to consider your dog’s unique nutritional needs prior to buying, since the food that a pup consumes impacts their skin, weight, energy level, immune system and digestive system. Once you choose a dog food, be sure to keep an eye on your furry friend’s response to it over the next week and a half.

  • How does their coat look? It should be shiny and free of flakes.

  • Have you noticed a difference in their energy level?

  • Have they lost or gained weight?

If your dog has a negative reaction to their new diet, then it’s time consider another formula. Just remember that a sudden change in dog foods can cause illness, especially in dogs that have a sensitive stomach—so be sure to switch over your furry friend’s food gradually.

The Ingredient List

Many commercial dog food brands cram their packaging and ingredient list with wholesome-sounding ingredients that are fancier than what most humans eat for dinner. When you scan the packaging of each option in the dog food aisle, you’ll see brands boasting blends of ingredients like beef, venison, wild boar, lamb, buffalo, bison and free-range turkeys.

While factual information must be provided on pet food labels by law, brands also use it as a promotional tool to attract pet owners. This means that much of the information provided including the ingredient list and use of unregulated terms such as holistic, premium, limited-ingredient or human-grade is of little worth in assessing nutritional value.

In most cases, the most factual information (such as whether the manufacturer employs qualified nutritionists or uses rigorous quality control practices) is not on the packaging. However, you can find this information on the manufacturer’s website—or you can use this tool from the Pet Nutrition Alliance (which is updated annually) to learn about the manufacturer’s practices.

Finding the Nutrition on a Pet Food Label

To save yourself some time, you can find some helpful information on the pet food label first instead of starting with the less-than-helpful ingredient list. Be sure to look out for the Nutritional Adequacy or the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) statement, since it’s based on the nutritional profiles that they publish annually. 

Next, look for one of three statements on the package. These statements are important because they answer these questions:

  • Does this dog food contain all the necessary nutrients for a dog?

  • How was that determined?

  • What age is this formula made for?

According to the Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University, the statements may look like one or any of the below:

  • Product X is formulated to meet AAFCO nutrient profiles for Y species and Z life stage. Life stages include “maintenance,” or “growth and reproduction,” which is frequently called “all life stages.” All life stages mean it meets growth/reproduction requirements in which case it will automatically meet adult requirements because a puppy or kitten has higher calorie and nutrient requirements than do adults.

  • Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Product X provides complete and balanced nutrition for Y species and Z life stage. Life stages for feeding tests include “maintenance,” “growth,” “gestation and lactation” (pregnancy and nursing) or “all life stages.”

  • This product is intended for intermittent and supplemental feeding only.

What does this mean? If your dog’s food label includes one of the first two statements, then it means that it’s a complete and balanced formula. But if your label includes the last statement, you should assume that the food isn’t meeting all of your dog’s nutritional needs. 

Dry Dog Food Vs. Wet Dog Food

Not only are there a variety of dog food options to select from, but you also need to consider which type of food—dry food or wet food (canned food)—is best for your pup. According to VCA Hospital, dogs do not need variety in their diet. Consistency is key, so whichever you choose, be sure to stick with it. To decide which type to get for your pup, you can compare them in terms of quality ingredients, safety and cost.

If you’re on a budget or if your schedule requires you to be away from home often, then you should consider dry food. Additionally, if your pup has dental issues, then dry kibble is a good choice. When selecting a dry dog food, be sure to get a high-quality formula that is high in protein and healthy fats and low in carbs. If your dog has a gluten allergy or other health issues, then wet food could be a better choice for your pup. Any remaining canned dog food that your pup doesn’t eat should be stored in a refrigerator and consumed within 48–72 hours before it’s spoiled.

While each pup parent should ask their vet about the right type and brand of dog food that’ll meet the specific needs of their pup, Stack Veterinary Hospital recommends Royal Canin, Purina Pro Plan, Hill’s Science Diet, Nestlé Purina Petcare (except the grain free options), IAMS and Nutro Essentials.

They recommend these brands since they have qualified nutritionists on their staff who help formulate diets to make sure they’re complete and balanced. Additionally, each of these brands perform quality control measures to ensure the quality and consistency of ingredients and their end products.

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Home-Cooked and Raw Dog Food Diets

A home-cooked diet can be a healthy choice for your pup if it’s complete and balanced. To make sure your home-cooked dog food meets your pup’s nutritional needs, consult a veterinarian nutritionist.

Raw dog food can be homemade, store-bought, freeze-dried or dehydrated. This diet typically consists of organ and muscle meats, bone, raw eggs, dog-safe veggies and a dairy product. Some dog owners believe this diet is a healthier choice for their furry friends since it seems to include more natural ingredients compared to commercial formulas that might contain unhealthy fillers, preservatives or additives. 

However, raw food diets are a riskier choice than other common dog food diets. Why? In 2011, a study published by the Canadian Veterinary Journal suggested that evidence that raw food diets are beneficial for pets is unreliable. Additionally, a study performed by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) confirmed that a raw food diet poses a risk to pets and their family members due to harmful bacteria like Salmonella, Listeria and E. coli.

If you want to select a commercially prepared raw food item, then be sure to check that it’s been reviewed by a veterinary nutritionist.

Vitamins, Minerals and Supplements

Most humans take vitamin, mineral or probiotic supplements to make up for their deficiencies, so it’s only natural to think that your furry friend might need them too. The Pet Nutrition Alliance recommends that unless your vet specifically recommends that you add supplements to your dog’s diet, you don’t need to do so.

Most commercial pet foods are formulated to support a well-rounded diet and already have all of the essential vitamins, minerals, probiotics and antioxidants your pup needs. If you add more supplements into your dog’s commercial food without consulting your vet, it can be toxic.

The only supplement that might be an exception is essential fatty acids. Dog breeds with longer coats sometimes need a bit more of essential fatty acids to maintain a healthy skin and coat. In these situations, an essential fatty acid supplement—or changing to a different commercial diet—might help.

How Much Should I Feed My Pet?

Puppy eyes are a dog parent’s kryptonite. That adorable look can make it hard sometimes not to spoil them with food and treats. However, each dog needs a specific amount of food each day to meet their needs. To gauge how much food you should feed your furry loved one, you’ll need to consider several factors including the type of food, number of meals, dog body weight, age and activity level. The American Kennel Club recommends to start by checking the feeding guidelines on the dog food package. The guidelines on the back of a dog food package are based on the expected daily calorie requirements for the average dog at a certain weight. But remember that this is more of a suggestion rather than a requirement, since it may be too much or too little for your pup’s unique needs.

Anyone who’s had a furry best friend before knows that puppies have a ton of energy. If you’re a new puppy owner, get them a puppy food that’s designed to support their high energy and growing muscles and bones. Puppies can transition to solid food between 3–4 weeks old, and you’ll need to increase their food amount once they’re about 6 months old. As your pup starts to approach their first birthday, talk to your vet about the best adult food for their specific needs and how to properly transition them.

Figuring out the appropriate amount of food for an adult dog can be tricky. Consider your breed’s size and body composition. Medium and large breed dogs may have an easier time putting on weight than small breeds.

Once your dog enters into the senior stages of their life, be sure to adjust their diet accordingly. Since senior dogs are typically less active, they usually require less food than when they were younger. When you select food for your senior dog, be sure to get a high-quality formula that includes additional supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin to help maintain joint health.

Additional Resources

Don’t worry if you’re still figuring out how to provide the best nutrition possible for your furry friend. There’s a lot to learn! For more help, check out these resources:

  • Manufacturer Report: The Pet Nutrition Alliance developed this tool to help pet parents understand the quality of their dog food brand.

  • Food Label Graphic: Since it’s sometimes hard to understand dog food labels, the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) put together a graphic to help pet parents understand what each section means.

  • Calorie Calculator for Dogs: The Pet Nutrition Alliance put this weight management tool together to help you understand how much food your dog needs to eat to stay healthy.

  • How to Switch Dog Foods: The American Kennel Club (AKC) wrote a guide on how to gradually introduce a new dog food into your pup’s diet.

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