What to look for in dog food
Our experts recommend using the following criteria as your guide. Your veterinarian can also help you determine the most appropriate food for your dog.
AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement: This is the most crucial factor in determining whether a dog food is healthy. Any food you feed your dog should say on the label that it meets the nutritional standards established by the AAFCO. This means the food is “complete and balanced” for the dog’s life stage. You can learn more about these standards and definitions at the end of this article.
Guaranteed analysis: This is where you’ll find the percentages of the most important nutrients in the food: protein, fat, fiber, and moisture. You might find other nutrients like glucosamine, chondroitin, and omega fatty acids listed in the guaranteed analysis. It’s worth checking if the brand routinely tests its finished product to ensure it meets standards, Shepherd says. You can usually find this information on a brand’s website. The foods in this guide have moderate to high protein (AAFCO minimums are 22.5% for puppies and 18% for adults) and low to moderate fat (AAFCO minimums are 8.5% for puppies and 5.5% for adults).
Ingredients list: The first thing to look for at the top is animal protein sources. You’ll find these in the top slot in all the foods featured in this guide. Whole meat is ideal but tends to be quite heavy due to its water content. With dry food, that water is removed, so the meat content might not be as high as it seems. There’s no need to write off meat meals, which are usually made from parts of animals that humans don’t eat. These can be excellent protein sources if they’re high quality and might even pack more protein than whole meat. Meat byproducts do not have to be a deal-breaker either. They are processed to remove harmful pathogens and, according to the AAFCO, are safe and nutritious.
Healthy extras: Some foods contain extra ingredients intended to support healthy skin, coat, and joints, says Swanson. Examples include long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA, usually from marine-based oils or meals), glucosamine, chondroitin, green-lipped mussels, and additional vitamins (vitamin A, biotin) and minerals (zinc, copper). Probiotics, prebiotics, and yeast can also benefit a puppy’s immature gastrointestinal tract, and probiotics may help boost overall immunity in senior dogs.
Calorie content: Dogs might start gaining weight if they consume excess calories. That can cause health problems, so look for the calorie content listed in kilocalories (kcal) on the nutrition label. If your dog isn’t very active, they’ll need fewer calories, and if your dog is super active, they’ll need more calorie-dense meals. Helping your dog feel satisfied with their food is really important, and volume can help. Ideally, you want your dog to eat the largest volume of food possible while staying within their ideal daily calorie range. Check out this calorie calculator from the Pet Nutrition Alliance to determine how many calories your dog needs. Foods that struck this balance rated higher in our selection process. As always, your veterinarian can help you figure out if you’re feeding your dog the right calorie amount.
Feeding trials: If a food has undergone feeding trials in addition to laboratory analysis of the food’s ingredients, that’s a major plus. “It’s expensive to conduct feeding tests, and foods substantiated by feeding tests are made by companies that put a lot of resources into quality control,” says Shepherd. If the nutritional adequacy statement on the label says something along the lines of: “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that [product] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [life stage],” it means the food has been proven via feeding trials to be palatable, digestible, and able sustain pets over time.
Expert formulations: It’s important to consider who decided what would go in the food. Shepherd says you want to look for companies with a doctorate-level nutritionist with experience in dog nutrition on staff. The brand should also employ food scientists who collaborate with nutrition experts. For this guide, we prioritized brands that have a dedicated nutrition expert on staff to align with WSAVA recommendations.
Next-level ingredients: Despite marketing messaging, human-grade, organic, wild-caught, or cage-free are not necessarily healthier for your pet. But if you care about the welfare of the animals you and your pets eat, these ingredients are a plus. Unlike farmed fish, wild-caught fish aren’t treated with antibiotics or medications, so they may also be better for your dog. You’ll also find some foods with meat and eggs from cage-free chickens and turkeys.