What to look for in dog food
Our experts recommend using the following criteria as your guide. Your vet can also help you determine the most suitable food for your dog.
AAFCO statement on nutrient adequacy: This is the most important factor in determining whether dog food is healthy. Any food you feed your dog should say on the label that it meets the nutritional standards established by the AAFCO. This means that the food is “complete and balanced” for the dog’s life stage. You can learn more about these standards and definitions at the end of this article.
Guaranteed analysis: This is where you will find the percentages of the most important nutrients in food: protein, fat, fiber and moisture. You may find other nutrients like glucosamine, chondroitin, and omega fatty acids listed in the guaranteed analysis. It’s worth checking whether the brand regularly tests its finished product to ensure it meets standards, says Shepherd. You can usually find this information on a brand’s website. The foods in this guide are moderate to high in protein (AAFCO minimum is 22.5% for puppies and 18% for adults) and low to moderate in fat (AAFCO minimum is 8.5% for puppies and 5.5% for adults).
List of ingredients: The first thing to look for at the top is animal protein sources. You will find these in the best slot of all the foods in this guide. Whole meat is great but tends to be quite heavy due to its water content. With dry food, that water is removed, so the meat content may not be as high as it seems. There is no need to write off meat meals, which are usually made from parts of animals that are not eaten by humans. These can be excellent sources of protein if they are of good quality and may even pack more protein than whole meat. Meat by-products don’t have to be a luxury either. They are processed to remove harmful pathogens and, according to the AAFCO, are safe and nutritious.
Healthy extras: Some foods contain additional ingredients that are supposed to support healthy skin, coat and joints, says Swanson. Examples include long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA, usually from oils or marine-based meals), glucosamine, chondroitin, green-lipped mussels, and additional vitamins (vitamin A, biotin) and minerals (zinc , copper). Probiotics, prebiotics, and yeast can benefit the immature gastrointestinal tract of a puppy, and probiotics can help boost overall immunity in senior dogs.
Calorie content: Dogs may start to gain weight if they eat more calories. This can cause health problems, so look at the calorie content listed in kilocalories (kcal) on the nutrition label. If your dog is not very active, they will need fewer calories, and if your dog is super active, they will need more calorie dense meals. Helping your dog to be happy with their food is extremely important, and volume can help. Ideally, you want your dog to eat as much food as possible while staying within his ideal daily calorie range. Check out this calorie calculator from the Pet Nutrition Alliance to determine how many calories your dog needs. Foods that achieved this balance were rated higher in our selection process. As always, your vet can help you determine if you are feeding your dog the right amount of calories.
Feeding trials: If food has been nutritionally tested as well as laboratory analysis of the food’s ingredients, that is a big plus. “It’s expensive to do feeding tests, and companies that put a lot of resources into quality control of foods that are based on feeding tests,” says Shepherd. If the nutritional adequacy statement on the label says something like: [product] Provides complete and balanced nutrition for [life stage],” means that the food has been proven through feeding trials to be palatable, digestible and able to sustain a pet over time.
Expert formulations: It is important to consider who decided what went into the food. Shepherd says you want to look for companies with a doctoral-level nutritionist experienced in dog nutrition on staff. The brand should also hire food scientists who collaborate with nutrition experts. For this guide, we prioritized brands that have a dedicated nutrition expert on staff to align with WSAVA recommendations.
Next level ingredients: Despite marketing messages, human-grade, organic, wild or caged is not necessarily healthier for your pet. But if you care about the welfare of the animals you and your pets eat, these ingredients are a plus. Unlike farmed fish, wild caught fish are not given antibiotics or medication, so they may also be better for your dog. You’ll also find some foods with meat and eggs from cage-free chickens and turkeys.