How to choose the best dog food? The detailed answer from a vet
Dr Marie is a poultry vet whose secret passion is nutrition. She loves to use her veterinary knowledge to help pet owners make the right decisions for their pets. Marie lives in Scotland, enjoys travelling, and has a rescue Bengal cat called Meeyu. She has a Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery and an MSc in Nutrition. She is also and Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy, because she’s passionate about teaching and has been involved at teaching at vet school.
There are thousands of options when it comes to feeding your pooch. When walking through the food aisle of the pet store, it is hard not to feel completely bewildered when it comes to picking out the best one for your dog. Not to mention the millions of opinions and reviews of different diets online!
If your dog has a clinical condition, you should work with your veterinarian to choose a suitable diet. With that in mind, the following guide will give you tips on what to look for and how to choose a good dog food.
First things first! What’s on the label?
The label on a dog food contains a wealth of information, but can also be used as a marketing tool. Depending on the pet food regulation laws in your country, the requirements for what must be listed on the label can differ. In the United States, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) have set requirements for what must appear on the labels of pet food. In Europe, these guidelines are set by the European Pet Food Industry Federation (Fédération européenne de l'industrie des aliments pour animaux familiers; FEDIAF).
Here some things you’ll find on a label:
The ingredients are a list of the different raw components that make up a diet. They are normally listed in descending order by weight. You will find websites that rank pet food based on their ingredient list, but the quality of a diet cannot be determined based on the ingredient list alone. Most often, the ingredients are simply the tasty vehicles for delivering what your dog really needs from his diet: the nutrients.
This list is the breakdown of the nutrient composition of the diet. It might be listed as the “guaranteed analysis” and can include the percentages of protein, fat, fibre, and moisture in the finished product. The label may list these parameters with the descriptor “crude”. This indicates that the measurements given have been closely estimated using validated laboratory methods.
You might notice that nutrient values are listed as a guaranteed “minimum” or “maximum”- you will want to take into account when assessing the suitability of a diet for your dog. If you find the need for more specific information, you can get a more thorough nutritional breakdown by asking the manufacturers directly.
Look for a statement regarding the adequacy of the diet to be fed as a complete meal and for which canine life-stage. In the United States, AAFCO has designated nutritional guidelines pet foods must follow before they can be given an adequacy statement. In Europe, a pet food must meet the guidelines set out by FEDIAF to be designated as “complete”. These statements on the label means the food meets all nutritional requirements when fed on its own in the correct amount.
Some dog foods may be regarded as adequate for “all life stages” – this means they are suitable for growing puppies, motherhood, and adults. These diets are suitable for most dogs, but the best food will most closely match your dog’s specific life stage – so a ‘growth’ food is best for puppies.
Some foods may be listed for use as a complementary feed. This means that they should only make up a portion of your dog’s daily menu, and he’ll need at least one other source of nutrients to ensure his daily requirements are met.
Should I feed wet or dry dog food? Is raw dog food better?
Dry foods have a crunchy texture and contain a maximum of 12% moisture. These foods can be stored in a dry cupboard in the bag in which they were purchased. One advantage of dry foods is that they can come in a kibble or nugget form and can easily double as treats. Some dogs will find their food so irresistible that it can even be used as a bite-sized reward during training.
Dry foods can also be easily used with most puzzle feeders. Puzzle feeders are a great choice for busy dogs who can use additional mental stimulation or playtime. These toys have to be manipulated by your dog in a certain position to access the food reward. They extend the time it takes to finish a meal and help to reduce begging behaviour.
Dry foods can be manufactured either as an extruded, baked, or cold-pressed product. Extruded kibble is the most common- it involves high pressure cooking of a dough made up of raw ingredients. The manufacture of baked nuggets is similar, but an oven is used for cooking. Cold-pressed nuggets are made by blending ingredients and pressing them into a nugget shape under high pressure and low heat. Because these nuggets are manufactured using a low heat, there is a greater potential for bacterial contamination of the finished product than with other dry diets. If you want to learn more about how dry foods are made, FEDIAF has released a fact sheet which you can find here.
Wet foods have a high moisture content that can be close to 75%. These diets can be stored in the refrigerator after opening for no longer than 7 days. They are a good choice for picky eaters as their high moisture will better release meaty aromas and they can be warmed up easily. Wet diets are soft and easy to swallow so are often recommended for dogs who have trouble chewing.
These foods are made by blending and cooking ingredients together. A flavourful gravy may be added before packing into an airtight can, tray, or pouch. These are then cooked and cooled to prevent bacterial growth throughout the product’s shelf life. FEDIAF has released a factsheet on how wet pet foods are made, which you can check out here.
Raw foods are made up of non-cooked ingredients. They carry a high risk of bacterial contamination because they don’t undergo any heat treatment during their processing. The benefits of a raw diet have not yet been well-documented and extra care is required when feeding them. All food preparation and serving areas must be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected after every feeding. Any in-contact surfaces are at high risk of carrying harmful pathogens.
Additionally, dogs eating raw can shed these pathogens in their poops and carry it on their coats. Young children, elderly citizens, and other immunocompromised individuals are particularly at risk of infection. Feeding a raw diet to dogs who share a home with these at-risk people is generally discouraged. You can learn more about safely feeding raw foods from the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association website here.
You will find raw products as either freeze-dried, dehydrated, or frozen. Freeze-dried and dehydrated diets come as nuggets or medallions which can easily be measured out from the bag to match your dog’s daily requirement. Frozen raw foods will require planning ahead of time for each meal. The meals should be defrosted slowly either in the fridge overnight or in a cold water bath before feeding. This is to limit bacterial growth which occurs rapidly at warm temperatures.
What do I need to know about the company that makes my dog’s diet?
Asking the manufacturer questions directly can help you decide if they are a good for your dog’s needs. Some questions that you may want to ask include:
- Who formulates your foods and what are their credentials?
- What specific quality control measures do you use to assure the consistency and quality of your ingredients and end product?
- What research has been done to support the nutritional claims on your products?
Look for a company that uses a PhD nutritionist or board-certified veterinary nutritionist to formulate their food. A good company will have quality assurance measures in place to ensure that they are closely monitoring all the ingredients that go into their food and that their reported nutrient measures are accurate. Any nutritional claims should be backed by a study- ideally one that has been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
In the United Kingdom, reputable companies will be registered with the Pet Food Manufacturer’s Association (PFMA). These companies adhere to pet food legislation, manufacturing codes of practice, and implement quality assurance schemes. You can find a list of these companies here.
In North America, companies can register with the Pet Food Institute. The members follow a code of practice that includes regulatory compliance, product quality control, and food safety programs. You can find a list of these members here.
Special label diets – does your dog need a special diet?
Grain-free food for dogs
Dogs may require a grain-free diet for medical reasons, such as a food reaction. However, these cases are very rare. Grains are a good source of fibre in the diet, which feeds the friendly gut bacteria and has been linked to good gastrointestinal health. Whilst some people worry that dogs can’t digest grain and that they are only added as a ‘cheap filler’. The good news is that dogs can digest grains and gain valuable nutrition, including several important vitamins, from them. Grain-free diets are currently being investigated for a potential link to a heart condition called “Dilated Cardiomyopathy” (DCM). The general advice is not to feed grain-free unless you are investigating a specific medical condition with your veterinarian.
Vegan or vegetarian food for dogs
Vegan diets are diets that are made only with plant-based products. These diets are increasing in popularity among people largely because of ethical concerns for farmed animals and health benefits of plant-derived ingredients. Dogs are omnivorous and can get all the nutrients they need while eating a vegan food, as long as it is complete and properly balanced. If you choose a vegan diet, check for an adequacy statement and ensure that the food is suited to your dog’s life stage. There is currently no research showing that a vegan diet is better for dogs than one that includes meat.
Some dry diets have built-in technology which supports dental health. It will be accomplished either through the physical scraping against the teeth as your dog bites down or with the inclusion of an ingredient which prevent tartar accumulation. Only foods that have met the standards set out by the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) will truly be effective in maintaining clean teeth. You can check the list of products that meet these standards here. Of course, tooth brushing is always the best way to keep up your dog’s healthy smile.
A diet that is labeled as “hypoallergenic” will not necessarily prevent your dog from having an adverse food reaction. “Hypoallergenic” is often used as a marketing term rather than a medical one. If your veterinarian suspects that your dog has a food allergy or reaction, they may recommend a hydrolyzed protein diet. These diets use proteins that are broken up into small enough pieces that they won’t trigger a reaction.
Obesity is an issue that affects a large portion of the dog population. Many diets have been created to help with this issue. These foods tend to have a lower calorie content, lower fat content, and are higher in protein to support healthy weight-loss. Choosing the right food and feeding the right amount per day are both important considerations. If you are concerned about your dog’s weight, talk to your veterinarian about an individualised dietary plan that is best suited to your dog.
Do I really need to get an age-specific diet for my dog?
Growing puppies have different nutritional requirements than adult dogs. Guidelines have been created, by both AAFCO and FEDIAF, to satisfy the nutrient requirements for growth, motherhood, and adult dogs. Foods are sometimes labelled as suitable for all life stages, but it is best to choose a diet that specifically matches your dog’s life stage.
There is no official recognition of a senior nutritional profile but manufactures can use research guidance to create a “senior formula”. For senior dogs, a diet with an adequacy statement for adult dogs is also suitable.
Step-by-Step Guide to Choosing a Dog Food
1. Choose a diet that is nutritionally complete and appropriate for your dog’s life stage.
Check the label for an adequacy statement and find one for a life stage that matches with your dog.
2. Consider the type of diet.
The decision to feed a dry, wet, or raw diet will depend on the factors surrounding how you would prefer to feed your dog. You should also consider the benefits and/or risks of each type of food.
3. Check that the food company is reputable.
If you have any questions about your chosen food, a customer service representative from the company should be able to answer them within a few days. Some companies will be registered with an organization that oversees pet food production and quality schemes. Ensure that you are happy with the way in which your chosen food was manufactured.
4. Check with your veterinarian.
Your veterinarian can help you choose the right diet, especially when it comes to finding one that is suited to a clinical issue. If your dog has a medical condition, it is essential to speak with your veterinarian before switching foods.
5. Ensure that your dog will eat the diet!
After putting in all that work to choose a diet, it is possible that your dog simply won’t eat it. Sometimes a diet will come as either a wet and dry version in different flavours. This makes it easy switch to the one your dog prefers.
6. Feed the correct amount of the new diet
The feeding instructions on the label of your chosen food is not likely to be an accurate match with your dog’s actual needs. It is important to feed your dog based on the number of required daily calories. Your veterinarian can help you calculate this amount and what volume of your chosen food is needed per day.
When measuring out your dog’s meals, use a weighing scale rather than a cup. Measuring cups have been found to be difficult to use accurately when preparing your dog’s meal. Regularly overfilling your dog’s bowl can lead to weight-gain and put dogs at risk of obesity-related diseases. To get an idea of how many calories your dog will need, you can use the Pet Food Manufacturer’s Associations (PFMA) online calorie calculator here.
7. Transition food slowly
It is important to introduce new food gradually. If you are transitioning from one diet to another, start by giving only a portion of new food mixed in with the old one. Increase the proportion of the new food in the bowl each day to the point where the bowl contains only the new food. This transition should occur over 5-7 days.
- American College of Veterinary Nutrition- Frequently Asked Questions: https://acvn.org/frequently-asked-questions/
- Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association Factsheets: https://www.pfma.org.uk/nutrition-facts
- AAFCO Talks Pet Food Information Resource for Pet Owners: https://talkspetfood.aafco.org/
- FEDIAF resource on choosing the right food: https://fediaf.org/39-prepared-pet-foods/91-choosing-the-right-food-for-your-dog-and-cat.html
- Pet Food Institute Website: https://www.petfoodinstitute.org/
Dr Marie is a vet whose secret passion is nutrition. She loves to use her veterinary knowledge to help pet owners make the right decisions for their pets. Marie lives in Scotland, enjoys travelling, and has a rescue Bengal cat called Meeyu. She has a Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery and an MSc in Nutrition. She is also and Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy, because she’s passionate about teaching and has been involved at teaching at vet school.
My mom needs to find the right food for her new dog. I like how you said that you need to look for a reputable dog food company. I’ll make sure my mom finds dog food with a good reputation.