Choosing the best food for your dog

Dr. Ellen Marcinkiewicz BVSc. MRCVS

With a wide variety of brands and formulations on the market, choosing the right dog food can be overwhelming. Like any other retail sector, the pet food industry is a business, and it can be difficult to separate quality information from clever marketing. It’s also important to remember that every dog is unique and may respond differently to particular pet foods. 

How to choose a dog food

Decide what your dog needs.

First, consider the individual nutritional needs of your dog. Your veterinarian can assist you and provide useful resources and advice. Several factors affect your dog’s dietary requirements, including:

  • Life-stage: This refers to if your dog is a puppy or adult. Senior and geriatric formulations are also available; however, these are best recommended on an individual basis by a veterinarian as the nutritional requirements are not standardized for this life stage.  
  • Activity level: Certain breeds and working dogs may require a higher calorie diet. Conversely, less active dogs may need a low-calorie diet.
  • Health conditions: Some medical conditions benefit from a specially formulated diet, which should always be prescribed and recommended by a veterinarian as inappropriate nutrition can worsen many of these conditions.

Find a brand backed by science using the AAFCO statement.

In the US, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) establishes the nutritional standards for pet food to be labeled ‘complete and balanced’ based on current scientific research. Not all pet foods will be up to this standard — when choosing a food, make sure the label contains an AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement. 

Diets that meet AAFCO standards are analyzed to check the formulation meets the calculated AAFCO nutritional standards on paper, or they may also undergo a feeding trial. Though feeding trials do not precisely replicate years of daily feeding, they are still considered the gold standard in pet food testing.

Find a brand that meets WSAVA standards.

The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) global nutrition committee also recommends obtaining the following information from the manufacturer:

  • Check to see if the company employs a qualified veterinary nutritionist – holding either a Ph.D. in Animal Nutrition or qualified as a board-certified specialist from the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN) or the European College of Veterinary Comparative Nutrition (ECVCN)
  • The name and credentials of the person formulating the food.
  • Location of food production and manufacturing
  • Quality control measures in place for consistency and food safety
  • Complete nutrient analysis including caloric value per gram, can, or a cup of food.
  • Details of any scientific research conducted.

Many larger companies will have this information available on their website, and your vet can also help you find out more.

For more info on the WSAVA guidelines, read their full recommendations on selecting a pet food and a guide to being info savvy about pet food brands in the digital era. 

Ingredients to avoid in dog foods & red flags to look out for

There is a lot of misinformation about which ingredients to avoid in pet food. You may have heard that ‘grains,’ ‘meat and animal derivatives,’ or ‘chicken meal’ are bad things; this is a marketing ploy. You can read more about ingredient lists in dog foods here.

Red flags:

  • No AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement for a complete and balanced diet
  • Very few ingredients, especially a lack of additional vitamins and minerals

Boutique grain-free formulations that contain ‘exotic’ ingredients like lentils, peas, kangaroo, and venison should be considered with care due to the reported cases of DCM. Learn more about what goes into a pet food label here

Allergies and dog food 

Pollens or grasses more commonly trigger skin allergies than food. The most associated ingredients with food allergies in dogs are beef, dairy products, and chicken. However, if you suspect your dog might have a food allergy, your vet will be able to recommend an appropriate diet for a food trial. 

Tips on how to change a pet’s food

It’s always best to change your pet’s food slowly to try to prevent an upset tummy. Some dogs are more sensitive and may take longer to adjust to their new food, so it’s worth speaking to your vet for advice beforehand. For most pets transitioning slowly over 1-2 weeks is sensible. Start by replacing 25% of the old diet with the new diet and mixing them. If your dog tolerates this well over the next 2-3 days, increase the ratio of new to old food to 50:50 for another 2-3 days. Continue to increase the proportion of new food by 25% every few days until your dog eats 100% of their new diet.

Pet food recalls: What do I need to know?

The FDA is the federal agency responsible for ensuring that pet food is safe and meets adequate labeling and manufacturing requirements. Commercial pet foods can be recalled for several reasons, including toxicities or bacterial contamination. Many larger pet food companies have high-quality control standards in place, which should be an essential factor when selecting pet food.

A current list of recalled products can be found here.

 

Frequently asked questions about choosing a dog food

Why is grain-free dog food bad? 

The term ‘grain-free’ has become a buzzword, and grains are often thought to be ‘fillers,’ but the truth is most dogs tolerate grains well, and they are an excellent source of energy and nutrients.

Grain-free dog food and DCM

Several cases of canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) — a serious and deadly heart condition — have been reported in dogs fed a grain-free diet. These cases led to an FDA investigation in 2018, as many of these dogs weren’t the typical breeds known to develop the disease. Over 90% of the dogs in the investigation were fed boutique grain-free diets that contained a high percentage of peas and/or lentils. The research is still ongoing for this complex issue, and there is a debate on precisely what is causing DCM in these dogs. However, many dogs improved with a subsequent change in diet. As DCM can be deadly, it is extremely important to be aware of these case reports. 

Signs of DCM include difficulty breathing, weight loss, coughing, reduced appetite, pale gums, weakness, and fainting. 

It’s also worth keeping in mind that some smaller or ’boutique’ pet food brands may not have the capacity for rigorous quality control and extensive feeding trials compared to some of the larger companies. 

Is a raw diet safe for my dog?

Raw food diets are increasingly popular as pet parents want to replicate a ‘wild’ or more ‘natural’ diet for their dogs. The WSAVA consensus is that raw food diets should not be fed to dogs and cats as there are currently no documented benefits, but there are well-documented risks for animal and human health. 

 

Important risks and considerations for raw feeding:

 Food safety 

There is a high risk of bacterial and parasitic contamination with raw meat. Handling raw meat should be avoided by any immunocompromised individual, including pregnant women, the elderly, and people receiving chemotherapy. Dogs fed a raw food diet may shed bacteria (including Salmonella) in their feces and carry bacteria in their mouths after a meal. Families with small children should also be aware of this severe health hazard. 

Injuries from eating bones 

Dogs that eat raw bones risk tooth damage, constipation, and gut obstruction. Cooked bones should also never be fed to dogs due to the risk of them splintering, resulting in penetrating injuries to the mouth and gastrointestinal tract.

If you choose to feed a raw diet, it is essential to select a high-quality commercial diet that is complete and balanced rather than a home-prepared recipe that is likely to be deficient in essential nutrients.

Should I buy wet or dry dog food?

Wet food is not inherently better than dry food and vice versa. It is fine to feed your dog wet or dry food — or a combination of both — if the food is complete and balanced and is an age-appropriate formulation. Wet or canned food contains a lot more water, and it is easy to chew if your dog has issues with his teeth or mouth. Dry food tends to be more economical, convenient to store, and some formulations are designed to assist with dental care.

Is home-cooked food better for dogs?

Many owners feel that home cooking is healthier for their pets. Though home-cooked diets can be formulated to meet your pet’s nutritional requirements, consultation with a veterinary nutritionist is essential to ensure they are balanced correctly. 

A study of 200 recipes for home-prepared dog food revealed that 95% were deficient in at least one essential nutrient, and 83% had multiple nutrient deficiencies. The results were similar in a 2017 study published in the Journal of Nutritional Science. Balance IT, which is run by board-certified veterinary nutritionists, is an excellent resource for correctly formulating a home-cooked diet if this is your preference.

Is organic dog food better?

Many of us associate organic ingredients with increased health and wellness, so why not use them for our pets too? AAFCO defines organic as meeting the production and handling requirements of the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP). These regulations are designed to meet human requirements. Regulations for pet food are still under development. Organic foods must contain at least 95% organic ingredients to carry the USDA organic seal and are usually have a higher price.

So, are they better for your pet? The short answer is we don’t know. The USDA advises pet owners to be aware that organic pet foods on the market are not necessarily safer or healthier than other commercial pet foods. An article by board-certified veterinary nutritionist Dr. Caitlin Heinze concluded that our current information does not support any significant health benefits to feeding organic. More research is required for dogs and cats. 

Is corn-free dog food ok?

Corn is a nutritious source of carbohydrates, essential fatty acids and is not a common allergic trigger for dogs. 

How much should I feed my pet?

Any dog food can cause obesity if fed in excess. If your pet needs to lose weight, your veterinarian will create a plan with a targeted caloric intake for gradual, effective weight loss. Other important factors for successful weight loss are increasing daily exercise and reducing treats.

Your vet will use the body condition scoring system to determine if your dog is a healthy weight. A dog in a healthy body condition should narrow at the waist between the ribs and the hips, and you should be able to feel but not see their ribs easily. When feeding to maintain a healthy body weight, the feeding guide supplied on the packaging is usually the best starting point. However, this should be adjusted appropriately if your pet appears to be under or overweight. 

 

What's the best dog food for sensitive stomachs?

There are many specialized diets formulated for sensitive stomachs. Since many different conditions can cause similar symptoms, it’s a good idea to talk to your vet before trying a sensitivity diet. A highly-digestible gastrointestinal diet is sufficient for most dogs, but others may have more complex needs, such as a hydrolyzed diet.  

What's the best food for puppies?

A complete and balanced diet that meets AAFCO standards for the puppy life stage is essential as puppies require more energy, protein, calcium, and phosphorus compared to adult dogs. Large breed puppies with an expected adult weight of over 50lbs (23kgs) should be fed a ‘large breed puppy food,’ which has a carefully adjusted calcium to phosphorus ratio for healthy controlled growth. 

What's the best food for small dogs?

Small dogs should be fed according to their appropriate life stage and dependent on any underlying health conditions. A small breed pet food for healthy adults usually features a smaller kibble size, which is easier to chew and is formulated to meet their calorie requirements. Be sure you are feeding the correct amount listed on the packaging to help your dog maintain a healthy body weight.  

What's the best food for senior dogs?

A discussion with your veterinarian is best to consider your dog’s individual requirements when they become senior. Some senior dogs will need diets formulated for an underlying health condition such as chronic kidney disease. In contrast, others in good health may be best on a high-quality senior diet from a reputable company. You may want to look for added joint support or brain support, depending on your dog’s health.

What's the best food for dogs with pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis refers to inflammation of the pancreas and associated illness. For dogs prone to the disease, nutritional management is vital to prevent a relapse. Fatty foods often trigger pancreatitis, and dogs that have been diagnosed are best fed a low-fat diet prescribed by their veterinarian. 

What's the best dog food for a picky eater?

Though some dogs can be picky, sometimes we inadvertently encourage picky eating behaviors. By offering different kibbles, wet foods, flavors, and options, many dogs quickly realize that all they have to do is wait, and something better will be served!

The best method is offering your chosen food and leaving it out for 15-30 minutes. If it’s not eaten, take it away and repeat this process at the next mealtime. Most dogs will cave reasonably quickly and start to eat within a day or two. Don’t worry; you’re not starving them! Healthy dogs without underlying health conditions can very safely go a day or two without eating. Fresh foods that are easily spoiled should not be used for this process. If this method is unsuccessful, consider adding some of their favorite wet food on top or finding a flavor or texture of a suitable diet that they prefer. 

My dog needs to lose weight. What should I feed him?

Foods specifically formulated for weight loss are lower in calories and fat but are still complete and balanced to avoid nutritional deficiencies. Weighing the food is the most accurate method for portion control, as it can be easy to overfill a cup. Treats should make up no more than 10% of the daily calories, and options like commercial low-calorie dog treats, carrot sticks, and vegetables can be good options.  

Conclusion: What is the healthiest dog food?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to this question. Health isn’t ‘one-size-fits-all,’ and every dog is a little bit different — just like us! However, there are some crucial factors to consider when it comes to healthy, high-quality dog food:

  • Is the dog food complete and balanced, and does it meet AAFCO standards? 
  • Is it appropriate for my dog? Consider their life stage, breed, energy levels, and any underlying health conditions.
  • What is the brand’s commitment to nutritional research and quality control? 
  • How does it affect my dog’s health? Even an expertly-formulated diet isn’t healthy for YOUR dog if it doesn’t suit them.  

A healthy and high-quality commercial dog food should be able to tick all of these boxes and is usually the most convenient and cost-effective option. Do not look solely at the ingredients list to assess how healthy a particular dog food may be. Many ingredients are emphasized for marketing purposes, such as ‘with 20% fresh chicken’ or ‘grain-free’ to attract consumers. A good pet food company should provide a detailed nutritional analysis and feeding guide, which can often be found on their website.