As a dog owner, you might often wonder, “What makes good dog food?” With a vast array of options, from dry kibble to canned foods, finding the perfect meal for your furry friend can be challenging.
Good dog food should meet your dog’s nutritional requirements, be complete and balanced, and cater to any specific dietary needs, such as food allergies or sensitive stomachs.
It’s essential to look for high-quality ingredients, such as proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals, and to consult veterinary nutrition guidelines from organizations like the American Kennel Club and the World Small Animal Veterinary Association.
Interested in comparing dog foods? See how Blue Buffalo dog food stacks up to the competition.
Every year, hundreds of pet foods are recalled due to contamination. Don’t let your pet become a statistic. Get pet food recall warnings delivered directly to your inbox.
By choosing a highly-rated dog food company that adheres to AAFCO guidelines and prioritizes your pet’s health, you’ll be able to support your dog’s well-being throughout its life stages.
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.
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 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 not have 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.
As the world moves towards healthier, more natural eating habits, the realm of dog nutrition has kept pace with high-quality organic dog food options. Picture it like preparing your dog for the ‘National Championship’ of health and wellness.
Choosing a rated dog food that’s organic means feeding your dog a complete and balanced diet without artificial additives or harmful pesticides. The organic food manufacturing processes ensure that the food for your dogs meets stringent standards set by entities like the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).
The veterinary medical community, including board-certified veterinary nutritionists, acknowledges the potential benefits of organic dog food, especially for dogs with food allergies or sensitive stomachs. Ingredients are key here: high-quality proteins in dog foods like cage-free chicken, grass-fed beef, or sustainably-caught fish; organic vegetables such as sweet potato and peas; and beneficial grains.
Fats, particularly omega-3 fatty acids, are essential for your dog’s health, skin, and coat. Furthermore, the right mix of vitamins and minerals ensures nutritional adequacy, catering to every life stage, from puppy food to adult dogs to senior dog needs.
Your furry loved ones deserve nothing less than the best, and good organic dog food offers a nutritious and wholesome option to keep their tails wagging.
Although 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. As per the certification, its ingredients can’t be genetically engineered, grown in chemical fertilizer, or irradiated.
Selecting the right type of dog food is similar to gearing up for a ‘National Championship’ – you need a game plan!
Dry dog food, often known as kibble, is a highly rated dog food option due to its convenience and long shelf-life. Many dog food companies manufacture nutrient-rich, complete, and balanced dog kibble that caters to various breeds, life stages, and nutritional requirements.
For example, grain-free diets for sensitive stomachs or food allergies, puppy food with special nutrient compositions, and senior dog options with joint health support. The crunch of dry food can also help keep your dog’s teeth clean, acting as a little dental health tool with every bite.
On the other hand, wet or canned dog food can be a beneficial addition to your dog’s diet and can often seem like gourmet fare compared to dry kibble! These foods often contain higher moisture content, which is beneficial for hydration and renal health. They can be particularly enticing for picky eaters, as they usually offer a richer flavor and aroma.
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 more affordable 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.
While canned foods can be more expensive and have a shorter shelf-life once opened, they are often more closely aligned with a dog’s natural dietary preferences.
Consult with veterinary medical professionals and review the nutritional adequacy statement to ensure your choice – whether dry, wet or a mixture of both – provides a balanced diet to help your dog lead a healthy and happy life.
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, maybe breed-specific, and other factors may be 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.
These diets are marketed as a more natural food option, often higher in proteins and fats. Supporters argue that they’re better for dogs, particularly those with food allergies or sensitive stomachs.
However, it’s crucial to note that dogs can digest grains, and they offer beneficial nutrients, including essential fatty acids and fiber. Grain-free diets are not inherently healthier; they simply provide a different nutritional profile.
Yet, not all grain-free dog foods are created equal. The key to a good diet is variety and balance, so look for dog food brands that provide a complete and balanced diet, as confirmed by a nutritional adequacy statement.
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:
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.
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 “toppers,” which are pieces of traditional and organ meats that you mix in with their kibble, like this one from Instinct.
This wet canned food features lamb as the first ingredient, along with chickpeas, flax, and sunflower oil.
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.
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.
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 the protein.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
We care about your pets. Be the first to know about pet food recalls and pet care products.
Sign up to get notifications delivered to your inbox.