How To Pick The Best Dog Food – A Complete Guide

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It can be confusing to pick the right kind of dog food. With so many options available on the market, and all of them claiming to be the best dog food, you might end up picking a brand based on price instead. After all, expensive dog food must be healthier, right? Well, not always.

Here we help you understand how to pick dog food that will be the right fit for your dog, and we’ll share with you some of our recommended brands.

Best dog food

Overview of a good diet for dogs

A good rule of thumb is the 90-10 rule — 90% dog food, 10% treats. They get all the nutrients they need from dog food, while treats break the monotony of their regular diet, and also helps their mental health by keeping them alert & entertained.

The hard part is avoiding human food. Dogs who occasionally get human food may start begging & become picky eaters, while those who get it regularly will have health issues down the road. It’ll be tempting to give your dog some table scraps, but you’ll thank yourself in the future if you avoid it.

There are other ways to add variety to your dog’s diet. We’ll go into that in the sections below, but first — we dive into picking the right dog food.

Reading the dog food label

A good place to start is checking the label on a bag of dog food. It’s the simplest and quickest way to get information about the product.

It may sound intimidating, but here we break it down for you to make it easy. There are just 3 things to check.

The name of the product

Seeing plain names like “Chicken Dog Food” or “Beef Dog Food” is a good sign that chicken or beef is the main ingredient of the food – 75-90% of the total ingredients, by law. Few dog food brands manufacture food to this standard, so you won’t see it too often.

Bag of dog food

Something more common would be “Chicken Dinner” or “Beef Recipe“, which means the meat is a lower percentage of the total ingredients – about 10-30%. Other common terms to look out for here are Entrée, Supper, Platter & Formula.

If you see something like “with Chicken” or “Beef Flavor“, that means an even lower amount of meat – only 3% of the total ingredients. This rule only applies to the meat in the name, not to any ingredients of plant origin. So something like “Chicken and Rice Dog Food” would still require chicken to be 70-95% of the total ingredients. It’s an important clue, and easy to spot when you know what you’re looking for.

Dog food manufacturers are required to follow these naming rules, which are crafted by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). The rules may vary from state to state, but they generally follow the AAFCO Model and are regulated by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

The ingredient list
Bag of dog food

Other important clues can be found by checking the ingredient list. Ingredients are required to be listed in order of weight. So if you see some type of meat as one of the first 3 to 5 ingredients for instance, that’s a good indication that the food has a high percentage of this meat.

You do have to take a good look at the entire ingredient list because some manufacturers might split up one ingredient into a few types, just so it shows up lower on the list. The dog food may contain a high percentage of wheat, for example, but the manufacturer might break it down into “whole wheat”, “common wheat” and “einkorn wheat”. This would make all three of those wheats appear lower on the list.

It’s also required that ingredients be printed in their common or usual names, so skimming the ingredient list once should give you all the information you need.

“Complete & Balanced” dog food

Simply look for the phrase “Complete & Balanced” printed anywhere on the bag of food. It’s usually in the back, next to the ingredients. The manufacturer can print this on the bag only if the dog food has passed the standard quality testing required by the AAFCO.

And there you go! You now have a basic understanding of how to read a dog food label!

Dry vs wet dog food

These are the 2 basic types of dog food available. Both options have their own advantages, so it’s really about deciding what’s best for you and your dog. Our overall recommendation: dry dog food is the better choice for most dogs.

The benefits of dry dog food
Less expensiveNot as tasty
Longer shelf lifeHas more preservatives
Very convenientHas more fillers
Pros and cons of dry dog food

Dry dog food, often referred to as kibble, is made by cooking the ingredients down and then processing them into pellets.

It’s the much more popular choice because it’s so convenient and more affordable.

Measuring out the food and cleaning up afterwards is a breeze. Dry dog food also has a very long shelf life.

The downside is that they contain more preservatives, and pickier dogs may not like the taste due to the lower water content & uniform texture.

The benefits of wet dog food
Tastes betterMore expensive
Less processedShorter shelf life
Has more waterMay cause weight gain
Pros and cons of wet dog food

Wet dog food, also referred to as canned dog food, is the better choice in some cases: dogs that are pickier with food, or have suddenly lost their appetite for dry dog food.

While it’s slightly more expensive, the food tastes much better because of the richer smell, the differing textures and the ingredients being less processed.

The downside is that dogs need more volume of wet food to get the same amount of nutrients as dry ones, so you’ll have to watch out for weight gain. Once the can of food is opened, it should be stored in the refrigerator and consumed quickly.

Is raw dog food a good option?

Raw dog food generally consists of muscle meat, organ meat & bone (whole or ground), plus eggs, fruits & veggies, and a dairy product. Raw diets have gained popularity in recent years due to claims of added health benefits for dogs – shinier coats, increased energy, and cleaner teeth among some of them.

So you might be wondering, is raw dog food good for my dog? Well, dogs with cancer or diseases of the kidney, liver or pancreas shouldn’t be given raw dog food. Same goes for puppies.

Additionally, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) discourages using raw food that hasn’t undergone a process to eliminate bacteria. In simpler terms, if you do want to give raw dog food a try make sure you buy some from a trusted seller, instead of trying to make your own at home.

What brands of dog food do vets recommend?

Now that you know more about the types of dog food, let’s check out some popular brands that vets recommend! We’ve separated them below into dry & wet dog foods.

Dry dog food brands
Wet dog food brands

Best dog food for small and large dogs

Small dogs (dogs that weigh less than 25 pounds) have faster metabolism and they need more calories per pound of body weight. Because of this dog food for small breeds is denser in calories, plus the individual pellets are smaller so they’re easier to chew & swallow.

For large dogs (dogs that weigh more than 50 pounds), it’s all about joint health & preventing arthritis. Also the pellets are usually larger to prevent choking.

Small dog food
Large dog food

Best dog food for puppies

Puppy cartoon

Puppies need specially-formulated food because they’re growing, and they need the right nutrients to support this rapid growth during the first 6 months of their life.

An easy way to check if dog food is formulated for puppies is to look at the dog food label. Just look for terms such as “For puppies” or “Growth phase”. This will usually be printed in the back, next to the ingredients. If you haven’t read our guide to reading food labels, you can read it above.

Puppy food brands

For large-breed puppies, consider using puppy food made especially for large breeds. These formulations support proper bone & joint growth, since joint problems is a common issue in large dogs.

These are a few handy tips & recommendations, but it’s always best to consult with your veterinarian.

Best dog food for senior dogs

Dogs are considered senior once they reach 7 years old. Along with age, they become less active and so they’ll need less overall calories. Switching them over to senior dog food is a good idea at around this age.

Old dog cartoon

Some senior dogs also become pickier with food, which is completely normal. If you notice your dog losing interest in food, you can try switching to wet dog food. We have a few other tips & tricks below.

Dry food for senior dogs

Just a little reminder: not all senior dogs should be switched over to senior dog food. Those that have prescription diets for a liver or kidney disease, for example, may need to stick to their prescription food. It’s best to consult your vet first in such cases.

Dogs with special needs

Dogs that have specific diseases (of the kidney or liver, for example), dogs that have known allergies, pregnant or lactating dogs, and dogs that undergo vigorous exercise all fall under special categories that aren’t covered above.

For all these dogs, diet plays an important role in their overall health. We recommend working with a veterinarian to ensure your dog is getting the optimal diet.

How much should I feed my dog?

The feeding instructions at the back of the bag of dog food is a good place to start. Feeding portions will be listed there, usually based on weight. You can start feeding your dog the amount recommended for his/her weight, and then monitor your dog’s weight every 2-4 weeks to check that it isn’t going up or down too much.

This recommended amount will work well for most dogs, just be mindful of your dog’s activity level. Dogs that get more exercise may need to be fed more than this recommended amount. Conversely, a dog that likes to lounge on the couch all day may need to be fed less. If you’re not sure about your dog, keep an eye on their weight. It’s such a helpful tool & eliminates all the guesswork.

The main goal here is not to overfeed. Dog obesity is an increasingly common problem — one that significantly impacts a dog’s quality of life & lifespan.

How to store dog food

Dog food should be stored properly to maintain its freshness. Dogs have a keen sense of smell, so they’ll quickly notice if their food has gone off.

Dry dog food should be kept in an airtight container & stored in a cool, dark space. A lot of manufacturers put their dog food in easily resealable bags, so that’s something you can look out for. It’ll be much easier to store.

Dog food container

If you buy bigger bags of dog food, we recommend transferring food enough for a week or 2 into a smaller, airtight container. That’s so you don’t have to keep opening the bigger bag and risk the food losing its freshness. Pro-tip: dog food is cheaper per pound if you buy bigger bags!

Canned dog food

Wet dog food generally comes in small cans only. You can keeps these cans in the cupboard for months, but once you open them they should be stored in the refrigerator and consumed within days.

What else can I feed my dog?

Dry dog food delivers a balanced diet, but since the kibble is uniform in taste & texture, it can get boring for dogs. Adding some variety to their diet can be mentally stimulating for your dogs. Anything new added to their routine, even a small change, keeps them engaged with their food. Below are some ideas for what you can add to their food.

Fruits & veggies

Fruits & veggies are an excellent addition to your dog’s diet. They’re not only healthy, but also add new flavors & textures to your dog’s diet. Below is a list of fruits & veggies that are safe for dogs to consume.

Fruits & veggies that are safe for dogs

Milk is another excellent addition, to dry dog food in particular. It has a lot of nutrients and makes kibble so much more palatable for dogs. Just keep in mind that milk has a lot of fat and packs a lot of calories. Just a little bit goes a long way!

Other tips & tricks

If your dog eats mainly dry dog food, you can try mixing in some wet dog food, in equal amounts or even just as “toppings” for their kibble. Same goes for vice-versa.

Sometimes simply heating their food up in the microwave brings out added smells that get them excited. Even the act of microwaving their food plus the sound the microwave makes when it’s done will add to your dog’s psychological satisfaction. Just make sure the food is not too hot to eat!

How can I tell if I’m feeding my dog the wrong food?

Your dog’s stool is the best indicator of how well he or she is doing on his current food. If your dog produces medium- to dark brown stools that are well-formed and have a beautiful sheen, then you know the food agrees with the stomach.

Dog with food 3

Other clues can be found in your dog’s behavior: if he is active and energetic, or she is enthusiastic about her food and finishes it to the last bite — that food is probably the right choice.

What you don’t want to see is light brown stool that is partially or fully wet, or a dog that needs to be prodded to eat and doesn’t finish his/her food.

Changing your dog’s diet

It takes 6-8 weeks for the effects of a new diet to be seen – this is the amount of time it takes before you can reliably see a change in your dog’s stool and behavior.

Before you make any changes to your dog’s diet, talking to your vet about it is always a good first step. When you do decide to make the change, add the new food in in increments. You can start with 80% old food, 20% new food for the first week, then 50%-50% the next week, then 20%-80% the week after that before finally doing 100% the new food. This avoids shocking your dog’s digestive system, especially for dogs with sensitive stomachs.

Our Pick
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Orijen Original Recipe

Orijen’s Original Recipe is our overall pick, and with good reason. It’s a high-protein, grain-free dry dog food that’s packed with all the good stuff. We recommend the 13-lb bag listed here to start off.

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