Choosing the best food for your dog

A lab sitting waiting for food bowl from owner wearing a brown collar

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 an 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 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.

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

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.