Which dog food is best for your dog? Experts help you navigate through many options, from raw and natural to organic, canned and grain-free.
The best dog food, according to experts and veterinarians
Which dog food is best for your dog? We consulted experts to help you navigate your many options, from raw and natural to organic, canned and grain-free.
Experts say that one of the most important steps in figuring out whether a certain dog food is good is to look at the ingredient list.
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The items in our list were selected because your pet might enjoy them and you might like the prices.
Coronavirus restrictions and stay-at-home orders are making it harder for many to get through the day, from the functional obstacles to everyday life to the more emotional tolls of isolation — and your dog might be proving to be a better friend than ever before. As Jenni Miller argued in NBC News THINK, “I don’t know what the future holds or how many of us are keeping it as together as we are right now — but I do know that for most of us, it requires having pets.” Despite increased hardships in visiting dog food stores (or their respective aisles within many grocery stores), your dog deserves to eat well — “appropriate food” is fourth in the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Guidelines for Responsible Pet Ownership.
Aiming for good food for dogs gives them distinct health advantages, too, says Jennifer Freeman, DVM, resident veterinarian and pet care expert at PetSmart. “Premium dog food will include meat for protein, vitamin-packed vegetables and fruit, and omega fatty acids for a shiny coat,” Freeman told NBC News, adding “it’s also likely to have fewer fillers such as corn, wheat, and soy.”
Another tangible difference: The best dog food for your best friend can help lead to better absorption and digestion, producing dog poop that’s smaller and firmer, Freeman explained. (Any dog owner knows this is a huge win). The field of high quality, whole food (and often human-grade) options is growing, as is demand for it. According to the nonprofit American Pet Products Association, people will spend upwards of $38 billion on food and treats for their pets in 2020 (up from $36.9 billion in 2019). But which dog food is best for your dog? To compile the best dog foods out now, we consulted experts on how to figure out which dog food is best and some of the best dog food options.
Whether you adopt a rescue dog or bring home an American Kennel Club–certified pup, providing that pet with proper care, a soft place to snooze, and good nutrition is, as the saying goes, a big responsibility.
The question of what you feed your dog should take into account its age, size, breed, and any health issues your dog may have. But none of that will matter if he or she doesn’t like the way the food tastes. Veterinarian Stephanie Liff of Pure Paws Veterinary Care explains that palatability is a vital part of deciding what to feed your dog. “I want my patients to like eating it,” says Liff, who feeds her three-year-old Labradoodle a combination of human-grade and air-dried raw food as well as kibble. One way you know your dog is eating the right food, according to Liff, is if he produces “good, quality (easy to pick up) stool.” Other important things to look for are a brand’s recall history and an AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) statement on the bag, box, or can. The AAFCO statement is a sign that the food is nutritionally complete and balanced, explains Zay Satchu, the co-founder and chief veterinary officer at Bond Vet.
Before getting into the list of recommended dog foods, it should be noted that the FDA recently put out a warning about certain grain-free dog foods, which the agency thinks may be linked to an increase in dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs. According to veterinarian Sara Ochoa, “Large and giant breed dogs are predisposed to this disease.” The majority of the vets we spoke with explained that the correlation isn’t from the lack of grains in these foods, but rather from the legumes or peas that have been added as a replacement. Veterinarian Angie Krause says, “When a dog’s diet gets so high in legumes as a protein source, it may change their uptake of certain amino acids.”
To get a better idea of what foods the experts (both human and canine) like, we talked to Liff, Satchu, and eight other veterinarians about the good foods they recommend to their patients as well as what they feed their own dogs at home. Since every dog is unique, if you’re thinking about changing your dog’s diet, it’s a good idea to consult with your veterinarian before doing so.
One of the most important steps in figuring out the best hypoallergenic dog food is through the ingredient list, says Freeman, noting the first three are the most critical. “This will help you determine if the formula is vegetable-based with things like corn and rice or meat-based with chicken, fish, or lamb,” says Freeman. While each dog is different, they generally do best on a protein-rich, meat-based diet, she adds.
Next, analyze what type of meat is within. “Look for brands that specifically name the type of meat, like beef, chicken, or lamb,” says Judy Morgan, DVM, a veterinarian who specializes in integrative care. She noted that meat, bone meal or meat byproducts could come from any animal. Similarly, “poultry meal” signals any bird, she says.
The ingredients will also highlight some of what you want to avoid. Freeman suggests avoiding dog food that includes: dyes (dogs do not care what color their food is, she points out), sugar and high salt (which could be used as preservatives), as well as other solvents and preservatives like propylene glycol, BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin.
The field is wide and so are your options. You’ve got wet dog food and dry dog food, refrigerated food and fresh subscription-based options.
Another expert’s opinion: Not all dry dog food is created equally, and premium labels can be deceiving. Dog food quality (and price) are all over the place. So we tapped Dr. Carly Fox, a veterinarian at New York’s Animal Medical Center, to weigh in. “The pet food industry is not well regulated,” says Fox. Because of this, she warns buyers to not be fooled by packaging and marketing and not to discount the bigger sellers.
Fox recommends shoppers make sure dog food has been evaluated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) first, and then read the ingredient list to make sure the dog food is rich in high-quality protein and doesn’t contain cheap fillers like corn (here’s a list of recalled pet food). Pretty packaging and ‘premium’ small-batch blends don’t necessarily make the best dry dog food.
“Artisanal brands may have not been evaluated by AAFCO. Larger brands that are more familiar to you have the money and research to make their food the best it can be,” says Fox. Dry dog food is more convenient because it can be left out for hours, or days, and it doesn’t stink (all that much). But if your pet doesn’t drink enough water, or is older, wet food is a good choice because it provides extra hydration and is easier to eat, which can be important for elder pooches with dental issues. As for raw dog food, Fox says to opt-out, especially if you have small children. It’s the equivalent of leaving raw chicken on your floor and letting your kids root around in it.
The FDA reports that raw food is more likely to be contaminated with bacteria, including salmonella and listeria monocytogenes, which can spread to people when you handle the meat, when your dog licks your face and mouth after eating, or if you don’t scrub your hands after touching it. And we all know just how thoroughly little kids wash their digits. These dry dog food options are high quality and low risk.
While buzzwords like “natural” aren’t regulated, notes Freeman, there are some solid takeaways you get with an “organic” label. With that tag, your dog food is certified to be free of antibiotics, synthetic hormones, toxic pesticides and preservatives. And per the certification, its ingredients can’t be genetically engineered, grown in chemical fertilizer or irradiated.
Dry Dog food versus wet or canned:
Freeman argues the amount of water in wet food might make it an unwise investment, and instead recommends you go with dry food. One benefit to dry food (or kibble), she notes, is that the friction of chewing it can help keep your dog’s teeth and gums healthy. It’s also less messy. Morgan adds that bags of dry food also tend to be moreaffordable compared to the other options.
However, Morgan notes that kibble typically includes less meat and often includes some sort of grain, legume, or potato. If you go with kibble, Morgan suggests topping the dry food with a bit of canned food, meat from home, or other toppers.
Grain-free formulas have risen in popularity, but there’s recently been worry over them: The FDA opened an investigation in 2018 to examine a potential link between grain-free diets and a heart condition called canine dilated cardiomyopathy. Existing research is based on a small sample size, may be breed-specific and there may be other factors involved, says Morgan: “Overall, there needs to be more research done, and unfortunately this has affected many good-quality dog foods.” Consider speaking to your vet about your dog’s unique nutritional needs before making the leap to grain-free dog food.
While ingredients are important, what you really want to determine is whether the food contains the nutrients your dog needs to be healthy, not necessarily if it does or does not contain grains, some experts argue. To ensure you’re buying high-quality food, look for the nutrition adequacy statement. You should be able to find the statement — which the FDA considers “one of the most important aspects of a dog or cat food label” — on the back label (in small font). Finding it may require a bit of sleuthing first but it will provide many helpful details about the dog food, including profile information on the type and age of dogs it’s best for.
So, what are good dog food types in the market? What follows is a list of some leading options:
1. The Farmer’s Dog
There are several subscription home delivery services, like The Farmer’s Dog. “I call these TV dinners for dogs,” says Morgan. These companies regularly send bags of fresh, human-grade food designed especially for your dog’s needs to your door. If you are on a budget and have a large dog, this might not be a cost-effective option for you, but it may be more doable for owners of smaller dogs, she says.
2. Instinct RawBoost Mixers
If you feed your dog dry food, Morgan recommends adding a topper to expand the range of nutrients you’re feeding them. You can do this at home by adding a cooked egg, canned sardines in water, sautéed dark leafy greens, blueberries or pumpkin, as a few examples. You can also purchase freeze-dried raw “topper,” which are pieces of traditional and organ meats that you mix in with their kibble, like this one from Instinct.
3. Zignature Lamb Limited Ingredient Canned Dog Food (limited availability)
This wet canned food features lamb as the first ingredient, along with chickpeas, flax and sunflower oil.
4. Freshpet Fresh From the Kitchen
You’ll find chicken listed as the first ingredient. Considering you can see the different foods within — like cranberries and carrots — you can feel good that your dog’s getting a meal full of the good stuff.
5. Organix Chicken & Oatmeal Dry Dog Food
In Organix, organic chicken is the first ingredient, along with oats and barley for whole grains and flaxseed and coconut oil for a healthier fat.
6. Taste of the Wild Ancient Prairie
They’ve revamped their formula to include ancient grains like sorghum and millet, but the first two ingredients are buffalo and pork to pack in protein.
7. Orijen Original Dry Dog Food
The company says that 85 percent of the ingredients within are animal-based (the remainder is fruits and veggies). In their original formula, you’ll find fresh chicken and turkey meat, and cage-free eggs as the first three ingredients, followed by organ meats and fish.
8. Spot Farms Turkey & Whole Grain Recipe
Add water to this dehydrated food and voila! Made with human-grade ingredients, turkey, barley and flax make up the bulk of this formula, which is rounded out with vitamin-packed produce like apples, carrots and sweet potatoes.
9. Only Natural Pet MaxMeat
Air Dried Dog Food Made with air-dried meat, the lamb and cod formula can be used as a meal or a topper to kibble to up the protein and add variety to your dog’s dish. The company uses free-range and pasture-raised New Zealand lamb. (Your dog deserves it, right?) This one is grain- and legume-free.
10. Rachael Ray Nutrish
Supermedleys A newcomer to the dog food space, this dry food features beef as the first ingredient, along with a bevy of fruits and veggies like pumpkin, blueberries, spinach and carrots.
Check out “Is Blue Buffalo a Good Dog Food?“
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