How to Decide on the Best Dog Food Brands for Your Pup

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Good Housekeeping

Just take a walk down the dog food aisle and you’ll realize that pet nutrition contains just as many buzzwords as the human kind: Grain-Free! Human-Grade! Healthy-Weight! Sorting through the noise and picking great kibble for your pup can feel daunting, but here, experts are sharing solid tips to make it all easier.

If you’re just looking for a few quick recommendations, brands like Purina Pro Plan, Hill’s Science, and Royal Canine might be good picks for your pup. But if you really want to learn the ins and outs of healthy foods for your dog, stick with us.

4 Things to Know Before You Shop for Dog Food

  1. Loop in your vet. He or she can provide personal recommendations based on your pup’s unique needs.

  2. Look for the words “complete and balanced.” They signal that the dog food should provide all the nutrients your pet needs in sufficient amounts. “Holistic” does not mean the same thing!

  3. Or the “AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement,” which you may also find in small print on the back or side of the packaging. AAFCO stands for the Association of American Feed Control Officials, and it provides nutritional recommendations. Anything marked as “intermittent or supplemental” won’t do the trick.

  4. Get ready to measure. Obesity poses a big problem in the pet world. Using the right portion size for your dog’s age, size, and activity level can help, so keep a dedicated measuring cup with the food instead of leaving out a full bowl. Make it fun and pour kibble into a puzzle or “slow feed” container, which doubles as a cool enrichment activity.

The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) also provides a few additional tips for curious shoppers. Click here for more detailed advice on buying dog food.

When to Shop Premium vs. Affordable

“There are so many good dog foods out there,” says Renee M. Streeter, DVM, DACVN, Veterinary Clinical Nutritionist at the Liverpool Village Animal Hospital in Liverpool, New York. “The most important thing to me is the company’s quality control practices.”

Those include employing a board-certified nutritionist to formulate the diet, testing the nutrient content and adequacy, and assessing for contaminants. Lots of major brands do this, but dog food still comes in all different price levels with various claims as to why some cost more than others.

Expensive varieties often boast about their ingredient lists. All dog foods must name everything that’s in them in descending order by weight, but ingredient lists do not tell you anything about quality.

Manufacturers can also influence the order by splitting up similar components (e.g., flaked corn and ground corn) or adjusting the moisture. For example, dry “meat meal” actually contains more meat than water-filled “whole meats,” according to the American Kennel Club.

“Many people are concerned about foods containing by-products instead of whole meat,” Streeter adds. “However, some parts of the animal that are considered by-products, such as liver, can be very nutritious.”

The two biggest (and most expensive) buzzwords in pet food right now are grain-free and human-grade, but don’t feel like you have to spend more.

“There is no reliable evidence that suggests that it is harmful to feed grains as a group to dogs,” the Clinical Nutrition Team at Tufts University Cummings Veterinary Medical Center wrote on its blog. “Whole grains, rather than being ‘fillers,’ can contribute valuable nutrients.”

As for human-grade, this marketing term should signify that the food and all of its ingredients meets federal regulations for human consumption. However, AAFCO states, “Human-grade does not automatically equal nutritional safety for pets.”

Ultimately, choosing a formula comes down to what you and your vet think is right for your pet, but both premium and budget-friendly versions can contain healthy carbs, proteins, and fats.

How Does My Dog’s Size Factor Into His Food?

Dog owners should also consider the right food for the size of their pets. Puppies do need specific puppy food, as they’re growing very quickly.

Large-breed puppies in particular need more nutrients that support musculoskeletal growth, according to the AKC. Royal Canin makes one for puppies expected to reach 50 to 100 pounds in adulthood.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

As for adult dogs, you can buy food labeled “for all life stages,” but feeding sedentary pets a calorie-rich mix also fit for young pups may contribute to weight gain. Smaller breeds can do better with smaller kibbles, but the super-specific distinctions become less important with dogs when they’re older.

Is Wet or Dry Dog Food Better?

“Wet food is not necessarily better, but it’s typically more palatable and the excess water it provides may help keep dogs hydrated,” Streeter says. “Including at least some in the diet is reasonable.”

Here’s a quick tip for when you’re scanning the cans: A named ingredient like “Beef Dog Food” means the product must contain at least 70{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} beef. However, names like “Beef Entree” or “Beef Dinner” only have to contain 25{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed}. “With Beef” or “Beef-Flavored” doesn’t have to contain much at all.

How to Deal With Weight Loss and Sensitivities

Uh oh: Your dog’s weigh-in at the vet didn’t go so well. Now what? While the doc may prescribe a special therapeutic diet, many brands sell food intended for chubbier pups as well.

“Weight-loss foods should be formulated with a lower-calorie density and may contain higher concentrations of other nutrients such as protein,” Streeter says. “Often, they are also higher in fiber, which should help them feel more full.”

For example, Purina ONE SmartBlend Healthy Weight Dog Food contains 15{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} fewer calories than its regular ONE SmartBlend formula.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

If you believe your dog suffers from a skin or stomach issue, the first thing you should do is consult your vet. The problem might stem from something other than diet.

Food marketed toward dogs with digestive sensitivities may limit certain ingredients or alter nutrient levels, but it depends on the company. Streeter advises seeking out formulas that contain omega-3 fatty acids in the form of fish oils to help soothe irritable skin, and switching to a food with new ingredients for tummy upset. Hill’s Science Diet Adult Sensitive Stomach & Skin Dog Food has hundreds of fans on Amazon.

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