If there’s one thing every pet parent has in common, it’s that we all want what’s best for our doggy friends. And since they rely on us for every aspect of their care, can you guess what the single most important decision we make for them daily is? What ends up in their tummy!
Food plays a HUGE role in overall health for people and pets, which is why it’s essential to choose the healthiest dog food you can afford to help your dog enjoy their happiest, healthiest life. Even if you are currently feeding your dog food that seems to agree with them, I recommend you read this guide, as there’s much more to choosing healthy dog food than you might realize…Knowledge is power when it comes to protecting our pets’ health!
What Are the Best Dog Foods?
In a perfect world, we’d all be able to feed our dogs home-cooked meals which have been specifically formulated to meet their individual needs by a canine nutritionist. Realistically though, most of us don’t have the time or resources to do this. While I recommend you consult a nutritionist if possible (especially if your dog is prone to allergies or other health concerns), home-cooked diets can be time consuming and even harmful if not formulated correctly. Luckily these days, there are many healthy dog foods to choose from – it just takes a little homework and “shopping savvy” to separate the best from the rest.
Choosing the Best Dog Foods
When shopping for dog food, the sheer number of options available can be overwhelming. Not only are there many brands of dog food, but many forms of it as well. In pet specialty stores, you’ll find canned wet food, dry food (kibble), freeze-dried food, frozen raw food and meal kits designed to be made at home.
Wet vs. Dry Dog Foods
There’s a long standing debate about wet versus dry food for dogs, as – until very recently – these forms comprised the majority of what was available on store shelves. Wet food has some inherent advantages, including a higher moisture content (which can be helpful if your dog tends to get dehydrated) and a savory smell and consistency that may appeal to picky eaters. However, this doesn’t mean that kibble is a less healthy option, despite its bad rap as the “junk food” of the dog world.
Contrary to popular belief, there are healthy, high-quality kibbles out there that are rich in animal-based protein and relatively low in carbohydrates (more on this shortly). So with the right choices, you can indulge in the convenience of dry feeding without guilt.
Raw diets are undoubtedly the most controversial contenders in the dog food arena. While many dog owners have claimed great successes with raw feeding, it’s a topic of debate among veterinarians. Opinions and beliefs vary as to how raw one should go…I personally tend to err on the side of caution, as truly raw meat requires safe handling to avoid parasite issues. At the end of the day, whether to go raw is really a personal choice to make after discussion with your veterinarian.
Freeze-Dried Dog Foods
Freeze-dried foods are minimally processed and usually made with high-quality, raw animal proteins, making them a good (and less messy) alternative to raw feeding. Since they’re freeze-dried to reduce moisture content to 5% or less, and under strict safety standards, there’s less of a chance of bacterial contamination than with fresh or frozen raw food. As freeze-dried foods also tend to contain lower glycemic carbohydrates like squash and pumpkin, they are better for weight maintenance than dog foods made instead with higher glycemic grains.
Although many freeze-dried dog foods are considered “complete and balanced,” some are recommended for supplemental feeding- that is, in combination with another type of food. Since freeze-dried dog food is usually more expensive than kibble, using it to supplement other dog food is a good option for pet owners on a budget. As a food topper, freeze-dried dog food can also entice picky eaters by adding flavor to a food they might otherwise find boring (our freeze dried treats and food toppers are great for this!) If you do choose to experiment with freeze-dried dog foods, remember that some require the addition of water.
Meal Kits and Homemade Dog Food
For those who wish to explore a home-cooked diet further, I again want to stress that dogs have very specific nutritional needs, and attempting to “wing it” with a home-cooked diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies. Doggie meal kits are a good solution to this dilemma, and are usually offer complete and balanced nutrition. Just make sure you choose a reputable product that’s been reviewed, if not formulated, by a canine nutritionist.
At the end of the day, it’s impossible to recommend exclusively feeding your dog one type of food over another – you’ve just got to find a balance between what’s best for your dog and what works with your lifestyle. In my opinion, the best diet is complete and balanced with enough variety that your dog won’t develop allergies or sensitivities from over-exposure to any single ingredient or protein source. This means an ideal diet would combine high-quality wet and dry foods (and possibly also freeze-dried food for an extra nutritional boost), and be given in controlled portions to prevent unwanted weight gain.
Meeting Dogs’ Nutritional Needs
Before shopping, it’s important to understand your dog’s nutritional needs so that you have a baseline to use when choosing a new food. Unlike cats – which are obligate carnivores – dogs are considered omnivores, which means they can meet their nutritional needs from both meat and plant sources (even though they don’t necessarily need to eat plants). Most dry dog foods contain plant material because it is cheaper than meat and serves as a binding material.
While I don’t recommend relying exclusively on food alone for complete nutrition (I’m a big believer in supplements, especially CoQ10 for middle age and senior pets and probiotics for dogs of all ages), you still want to get as close as you can to an “ideal” nutritional profile with whatever food you choose with the right balance of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals.
Understanding Dog Food Labels
Whether on wet, dry or freeze-dried products, dog food labels look a bit different than the ones we see on human foods. Ingredients are listed in order of weight and specific nutrients are divided into percentages according to type.
The Guaranteed Analysis (GA) is designed to provide clarity about the macronutrient balance of any given food. Here’s an example of what a standard dog food ingredient label might look like:
Ingredients: Duck, Duck Meal, Turkey Meal, Sweet Potatoes, Peas, Chicken Fat, Potatoes, Sun Cured Alfalfa, Natural Flavors and a Vitamin, Mineral and Probiotic Mix.
- Crude Protein (min.): 32%
- Crude Fat (min.): 16%
- Crude Fiber (max): 4%
- Moisture (max): 10%
This might seem a little confusing initially, but Guaranteed Analysis provides us with the macronutrient minimums and maximums so that we can easily compare one brand of dog food to the next.
How did the practice of putting a Guaranteed Analysis on a pet food label come about? The GA is designed to help brands adhere to AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) feeding and nutrition guidelines. AAFCO is a voluntary membership association made up of various local, state, federal, and international agencies that are charged by law to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feed and animal drug remedies. While AAFCO, itself, doesn’t regulate pet products (individual states do), it provides uniform guidance to the pet industry as to how to manufacture and market products that are in compliance with all state requirements.
In essence, AAFCO sets the industry standard for what makes a “balanced” pet food. Most brands follow this uniform standard, and some go above and beyond it. Although AAFCO doesn’t take ingredient quality into account, making sure that whatever food you’re giving your dog is manufactured in accordance with AAFCO’s feed guidelines is a great starting point in your search for the best dog food. Always check for some mention of AAFCO on the package (but be warned, the typeface will generally be quite small) and look for a food that’s deemed “appropriate for all life stages” (more on this below).
Ingredient Order Matters
The highest quality dog foods will ALWAYS list meat as the first ingredient. No matter what individual needs your dog may have, their number one nutritional requirement is animal-based protein. Look for a food that lists a specified muscle meat as the first ingredient, such as lamb, duck, chicken, beef, or venison, and not plant material or a meat meal like duck meal. The best dog foods are as close to nature as possible, and whether you choose wet, dry, freeze-dried or any combination of them, you want real food with real ingredients you can easily recognize.
Additionally, foods with a specified muscle meat as the first ingredient are less likely to contribute to taurine deficiency. I can’t talk about dog food without touching upon taurine and how to make sure your doggy friend is getting enough of this essential amino acid. Taurine deficiency can lead to a serious, potentially life threatening condition called canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) that may be linked with certain grain free foods.
The easiest way to make sure your dog is getting enough taurine is to choose a food that’s predominantly meat-based, and consider introducing a taurine supplement. You might also want to include a freeze-dried food topper or 100% meat freeze-dried treats to the program for added taurine and other essential nutrients.
Now, most dog foods will almost always contain some type of meat “meal,” which is just another way of describing meat products that have been cleaned, deboned and cooked down to a meal for a longer shelf life. The keys here are (1) that meat meal shouldn’t be the first ingredient, and (2) the meal meat should be SPECIFIED – for example, lamb meal or chicken meal. Why does specifying the animal make such a difference? Well, general meals (like “poultry meal” for example) can include the entire animal, including parts that are considered lower quality and byproducts- ones you might not want your dog eating. As a general rule – the more specific your label, the better!
A high-quality dog food should also always contain some vegetables as a source of carbs. Keep in mind, we don’t want our dogs overeating carbohydrates, as a carb-heavy diet can contribute to weight gain (which can lead to a whole bunch of other health issues). Generally, I recommend dog parents aim for a diet that contains less than 42% carbohydrates unless a trusted veterinarian or pet nutritionist recommends otherwise.
Now, you might be wondering “is the most expensive food automatically the best dog food?” Good news for your wallet folks- the answer is, “not necessarily.” While I don’t suggest you choose the cheapest food available, choosing the most expensive doesn’t always guarantee the highest quality product either. Sometimes that higher price just goes towards a bigger marketing budget and not a better product for your dog. The only way to see the truth behind the hype is to read that label, because the nutritional facts don’t lie.
Organic vs Conventional Dog Foods
You might also be wondering- are organic and non-GMO foods actually better and worth the increased cost? I think so…For decades, I have recommended that people choose organic and non-GMO foods whenever possible for health reasons, and feel the same should apply for our pets. But I also realize that organic dog foods tend to be more expensive than conventional dog foods, so choose the best food possible that fits into your budget.
There are certain instances where a healthy, high quality food brand might not pursue USDA organic certification, yet still conform to organic and/or GMO-free manufacturing practices. If you want to learn about how an individual brand makes their food and with what types of ingredients, call their customer support line – they are often happy to answer consumer questions.
Ingredients to Avoid
As with the foods we eat, what’s not in a dog food is as important as what is. Here are some “red line” ingredients that would make me think twice about buying a particular dog food:
Corn, wheat and soy: This trio of ingredients is a red flag because all three are extremely high in simple sugar (high-glycemic) carbs. Eating too much corn, wheat and soy encourages weight gain and increases risk of diabetes in dogs, and can also trigger allergies, sensitivities, and increased incidence of certain infections. Plus, corn and soy are almost always genetically modified – something to keep in mind if you’re actively trying to avoid GMO ingredients.
Fractionated ingredients (usually listed as vegetable proteins, flours, fibers and starches, like Pea Protein, Pea Flour, Tapioca Starch, etc.): Fractionated ingredients are often used by pet food manufacturers to minimize costs of production. For example, many companies will use fractionated vegetables such as pea protein instead of meat to increase or maintain the crude protein content of the food. Doing so helps lower the manufacturer’s costs because vegetable proteins are innately cheaper than animal meats.
This exact practice has also very likely lead to a marked increase in the number of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) cases in dogs. In smaller doses, fractionated ingredients are not harmful to dogs. But when they are listed among the first several ingredients (indicating that they are significant sources of crude protein) in a dog food, you should be wary about buying that food because of increased risk of taurine deficiency.
General (non-specified) meat meals, animal byproducts, and “animal digest”: We already discussed why specified meat meals should be favored over non-specified meat meals, and the same principle applies with other non-specified “byproducts” and “digest” (a material made from multiple animal tissues via a chemical process). The unfortunate reality is that dog foods can (quite legally) be made with diseased animals that are not suitable for human consumption. While not all byproducts are necessarily bad (since animals in the wild would consume the whole prey animal, not just the muscle meat), just listing “byproducts” on an ingredient label means that the manufacturer likely did nothing to separate the “good” from the “bad” byproducts, hence your dog could end up eating undesirable and even unidentifiable animal parts. Again, look for particular, not general, animal sources.
What about Dog Size and Life Stage?
Do dogs that are in different stages of life – like puppies vs. senior dogs – really need different foods? My answer is – in most cases, no. Not only do canines in the wild not hunt for different prey to accommodate pack members of various ages (they all eat the same thing), but not all dogs age at the same pace. Various breeds age differently throughout each life stage, depending on their size (yup! There is no uniform calculation of “dog years!”). Great Danes, for example are considered to be puppies until age 2, but become seniors a few years later. Conversely, Chihuahuas have a shorter puppyhood (becoming adults at 12-14 months), but they live longer and age slower. For example, a 15-year old Chihuahua is thought to be 76 in dog years, while a 15-year old Great Dane would be 115 in dog years (were they to surpass expectations for their breed and live that long). Hence, whether you’re feeding a small breed, a gigantic breed or anything in-between, your safest bet is going with an AAFCO-approved all life stage food.
All this said, if you have a puppy, there are special considerations that merit paying extra attention when reading food labels. Starting in 2016, AAFCO began recommending that brands specify whether their foods are appropriate for all life stages including growth of large size dogs (70+ pounds when full grown) or except for large sized dogs. This is a subtle, but important, distinction, as the growth of large and giant breed puppies can be negatively impacted by an excess or shortage of calcium, hence some foods which are otherwise fine should be avoided until your puppy is at least 2 years old. Look for an all life stage food designed for your dog’s size.
While dogs’ nutritional needs remain relatively consistent across various breed types and life stages, their caloric needs can vary massively. Age plays a big role, as does activity level. Since it can be quite challenging to get an overweight dog to lose extra pounds (especially when arthritis is at issue), portion control is very important. When it comes to overfeeding, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
A Gentle Reminder about Table Food
We can’t talk about dog food and weight control without touching upon table food…Despite our best intentions, those begging eyes usually get us every time! To make sure we don’t end up with an overweight dog, we have to be mindful of the table scraps we share with our dogs. This means paying attention to both the types of food we share, as well as the amounts.
As mentioned earlier, we want to avoid giving our dogs highly processed, high-carb (high glycemic) foods like breads, cookies, pancakes and pasta, since – as is also the case for us – a high-carb diet can lead to weight gain and other health problems. Unprocessed, lower carb (low glycemic) foods, on the other hand, are okay in small amounts. For example, it’s fine to give your dog the same meat you’d eat, and if you can get your dog to eat fruits and veggies like carrots, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, string beans, apples and even blueberries, go for it! Just remember to give them a little less of their regular dog food to make up the difference. Table scraps are often an easily forgotten source of excess calories!
Besides excess carbs and calories, sharing the wrong foods with our dogs can also have potentially dangerous consequences. Grapes (and raisins), chocolate, and products with Xylitol (a sugar substitute) are particularly bad for dogs. To learn more about which foods are safe to share with your dog, read our blog Can I Feed My Dog That?
Choosing the Best Dog Treats
Given how much fun it is indulge our dogs with treats, it’s easy to forget that treats fall under the category of food – which means choosing healthy treats is a must!
Rather than reach for a starchy biscuit (which, in addition to being a source of empty carbs and additional calories, also usually contains fillers, additives and even artificial colors), I like to share single-ingredient, freeze-dried treats with the beloved dogs in my life.
Why do I consider freeze-dried treats the best? Well, as we already discussed above, freeze-dried foods (including treats) are an easy way to share the benefits of raw feeding, but without the mess and less risk of bacterial illness. And when they’re made with just one ingredient each – like beef, turkey heart, bison liver, chicken breast or wild salmon – you know your dog is getting nothing but the good stuff!
Many freeze-dried treats are rich in naturally-occurring essential and beneficial nutrients like CoQ10 and the amino acid, taurine. I particularly like treats made with organ meats like heart and liver because organ meats are more concentrated sources of the nutrients dogs thrive on.
Lastly, dogs (and cats) love the raw natural flavor of 100% meat treats. Which means they are ideal for training and perfect for pampering.
Whew! As you can see, there is a LOT that goes into choosing the best dog food, but now that you’ve read through our guide, you’re more than ready to shop…It might seem like a lot of info to take in, but when we look into our dog’s eyes and realize that we’re the center of their world, how can we not provide them with the best we can afford?
To happy, healthy pets!
References and Additional Resources:
- The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) web site.
- American Kennel Club (AKC). How to Calculate Dog Years to Human Years. Akc.org, Nov. 20, 2019.
© 2020 Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.
Top photo credit: Foodandmore @ 123rf