So you want to know how to choose dog food? Congratulations, you're a responsible dog owner! While cost is a factor for most owners, most people quickly learn that buying better food saves money in the long run. Cheaper foods cost less because dog food companies use cheaper, lower quality ingredients in most cases. Buying a better dog food means you are usually buying better ingredients for your dog and that can translate into better health. It usually means you will be making fewer trips to the vet with your dog. While there are some good foods that cost less, and some expensive foods that don't live up to their price, you have to learn about ingredients and what to look for before you know how to identify these foods. The information provided here should be invaluable to you and help you make the best possible decisions when it comes to choosing a food for your dog.
In order to learn how to choose dog food, you need to understand a few key points. So let's get started!
While it's not quite as simple as buying the most expensive food to ensure that you are buying the best food for your dog, there is a lot of truth to the idea that you get what you pay for with dog food. Price is often an indication of quality. However, there is no need for you to pay for food your dog doesn't need or to pay more than you have to pay. Most of us can't afford to throw money away, especially if we have more than one dog or if we're feeding large dogs.
The cheapest food in the grocery store aisle is virtually guaranteed to be made from ingredients you do not want to feed your dog. If you feed your dog this food you can count on bad skin, greasy coat, and eventual health problems. Of course, we all probably know someone who feeds this food and they have a dog who is 20 years old - there are always exceptional dogs who can eat anything and thrive. But, to provide your dog with the best nutrition, you should steer clear of these cheap foods.
Most of the better dog foods today are sold in pet stores, pet food specialty stores, feed stores, or online rather than in grocery stores. You will find a wide variety of dog foods from these sources and not all of them will be suitable for your dog. For instance, if you have a large dog, most people feed a dry kibble instead of a canned food since high quality canned foods are very costly by the ounce. It takes a lot of cans to feed a large dog. Not only is it expensive to feed a large dog canned food on a regular basis as his main source of food, but carrying cases of canned food is cumbersome and heavy for most owners.
Some of the specialty food formulations found today include foods for senior dogs, puppies, large breeds, small breeds, dogs with sensitive stomachs, grain free foods, limited ingredient diets for dogs with allergies or food intolerances, prescription diets, and many others.
Some of these foods are more expensive than others but once you are looking at food in this range, simply choosing the most expensive food is not the best way to choose a food for your dog. For instance prescription diets are often the most expensive dog foods available but they are only for dogs who have special health problems.
Dog foods are generally labeled by age such as for growing puppies or seniors, or "all life stages." Most adult dogs will do well on a "maintenance" diet and most dog foods offer a maintenance food with plenty of protein and healthy fat. These foods are for pet dogs - not dogs who are extremely active or doing any kind of performance work. If your dog is performing and getting lots of exercise - such as regular agility work or lure coursing, for example - you would want to look for a "performance" type food with a higher protein and fat content to supply him with the energy he needs.
If you have multiple dogs and you are buying food in bulk, you may wish to buy your dog food online from one of the Internet pet food sellers. They often sell in bulk at a discount and with reduced shipping costs so you can save money. Or your local pet food seller may be willing to meet the price of the online seller if you inquire.
Don't let the price tag of the higher quality dog food scare you. At the cash register you might balk at the higher costs and wonder if it's even worth it. Believe me, it is! Here's why:
There are many other advantages that should lead you to choose dog food of high quality. From less shedding to easier training to an improved appearance (soft and shiny coat) to less "waste" in your yard to improved dental health and the list goes on. Find a high quality dog food and pay the higher price. It all evens out in the end.
Alright, now we know that a better dog food is the way to go and that even though the food may cost more, it will save you money in the long run. The final aspect to choosing the right dog food is to know what the ingredients are. Some dog food companies mark up their prices to simply make it appear to be better. This usually isn't the case, but it's best to take 30 seconds to look at the label. You'll be able to tell very quickly if the dog food is high quality or not.
Your dog evolved as a carnivore (check out my dog food digestion page if you'd like to learn more about that). There should be a meat item within the first three ingredients and preferably as the top ingredient. Let's quickly go over the different types of meat you'll find in dog food because all dog meat is not created equal!
In short, this is not good and you do not want to choose dog food with any type of meat by-product in the ingredients list. Meat by-product basically means any part of an animal can be used. So, for instance, if the label says Chicken By-Product, that means anything can be included like feathers, beaks, feet, eyeballs, intestines, etc. What's worse? They can also include animals which are very sick or animals which died before slaughtering. It's the leftovers and the garbage nobody wants. I recommend you find a dog food without any meat by-product at all, but at a minimum, make 100 percent certain a meat by-product is not included in the first 5 ingredients.
Alright, now we're getting somewhere! If you see something like chicken meal, lamb meal, salmon meal, or any other type of meal on the packaging of dog food, you are heading in the right direction. Meat items labeled as "meal" can only include actual meat. Unlike meat by-products, they can't use other parts of the animal like beaks, intestines, horns, feathers, etc. Meals consist entirely of meat, skin, and bone. The reason dog food contains meat meal is because it's a condensed meat which make it very high in protein and animal fat. Meat meals are very nutritious and beneficial for dogs. The biggest problem with meat meal is it may legally contain animals which are dying, diseased, deformed, or had died prior to slaughtering. Companies are not required to disclose if they use those animals in their production process. In general, however, meat meal is much better than any meat by-product and most higher end dog food brands will use higher end ingredients. Almost all brands will use meat meal. Use your best judgment on what brand is using the better ingredients. That's all you can really do.
If you're in the mood to spoil your dog, you can find something with whole meats. These types of meats will simply be labeled as chicken, beef, lamb, salmon, etc. They may also say something like Fresh Chicken or Whole Chicken. This is the premium stuff and may be human grade meat. The main difference with whole meat is it can contain up to 70% moisture before cooking whereas meal has the moisture removed before being processed into kibble. That means, whole meat contains less nutrients than a meat meal. As long as the first 5 ingredients contain at least 3 meat sources, you're in good shape.
It should be noted that none of the ingredients in dog foods can legally be labeled as for "human consumption" or called "human grade." That is not allowed by the FDA. However, some companies do claim to use "human grade" ingredients, but the term is mostly a marketing term. However, it gives you something to look for when you look at dog food claims. "Holistic" and "natural" are other terms which have no meaning according to the FDA. Any dog food company can use these terms about their foods.
While the first 5 ingredients don't have to be only meat and likely won't be, they should consist mostly of meat products and the other ingredients should be free of corn. If there is a carbohydrate this high on the list, it's better for it to be something such as potato (especially sweet potato), oatmeal, millet, amaranth, or rice (except brewers rice). These carbohydrates are much easier for a dog to digest than wheat or corn products.
The final aspect of understanding how to choose dog food is by learning which ingredients to stay away from. A lot of cheap commercial dog food use ingredients which are simply fillers. Many of those fillers are often used as the top ingredient. If you decide to change your dog's food, take this list with you to the pet store. It's best to find a brand without any of the following ingredients:
While some people have strong feelings about grain, low to moderate amounts of grains and other carbohydrates will not harm your dog. They do not cause allergies, weight gain, diabetes, or other health problems. Some dogs are allergic to wheat, corn, and soy, but more dogs are allergic to beef, dairy products, chicken, lamb, fish, and chicken eggs. Dogs can become allergic to any protein and, although we think of wheat, corn, soy, and other grains as carbohydrates, they provide protein to dog food in the form of plant protein. While plant protein is not as easy for dogs to digest as animal protein, it is not just a cheap filler or completely lacking in nutrition. However, your dog will do better if you keep the grains and other carbohydrates in the low to moderate range. Whether you choose to feed your dog a grain-free food or not is up to you but, if you do, you will probably find that there are other carbohydrates in the food to make up for the lack of traditional grains, if for no other reason than the fact that extruded dog food (and that covers just about all kibble food) requires some grain/cereal/carbohydrate in the food to help it form a paste so it can go through the machinery. From a nutritional viewpoint, it's also a good idea for your dog to have some complex carbohydrates in his digestive tract so he can digest them slowly and continue to feel full after eating.
Meat by-product can include bones, blood, intestines, lungs, ligaments, heads, feet, and feathers. Your dog would probably enjoy eating these parts, but it's not what you want him to eat.
This is a very low quality fat source used to increase the taste of your dog's food but does little to improve nutrition. You should look for high quality and naturally-derived fat sources such as poultry or chicken fat, which is naturally preserved with vitamin C or E.
This is a very generic term for mammal or poultry fat that has been rendered from miscellaneous sources. Again, you want fat, meat, and other ingredients to be as specific as possible.
This usually consists of low quality leftovers from some other types of food manufacturing processes such as leftover waste rice which was used in the production of alcohol products. You also want to avoid any labels which say potato product, middlings/mids, mill run, cereal food fines, corn bran, oat hulls, rice hulls, peanut hulls, distillers grain fermentation solubles, brewers rice, and cellulose (ground up wood particles).
Not only do you want to avoid sugar, but you also want to avoid cane molasses, corn syrup, sorbitol, sucrose, fructose, glucose, ammoniated glycyrrhizin, propylene glycol, and xylitol. This is used to make food more tasty for your dog. They add additional calories unnecessarily and have absolutely no nutritional value. Sugars can also lead to obesity, hyperactivity, nervousness, and tooth decay.
Unspecified animal parts are cooked down into a broth and sprayed onto food or sometimes mixed right in. Avoid it.
Food coloring, including blue 2, red 40, yellow 5, yellow 6, and titanium dioxide should be avoided. They are unnecessary as your dog doesn't care what size, shape, or color the food is. The coloring is added to be more appealing to the human.
Some dog food companies use this in their food to help dogs digest their food better. Hydrochloric Acid is produced naturally in a dogs stomach to break down food. Any food which needs to have hydrochloric acid added in addition to what the dog naturally produces should be a clue that it's a terrible food! Do not purchase any dog food containing hydrochloric acid.
See, that wasn't so bad, was it!? You now have the knowledge to choose dog food with confidence! Want some recommendations? Well, first of all, no dog food is right for all dogs and the point of telling you all of this is so you can go make your own decision simply based on the ingredients list. We've performed a bunch of dog food reviews though. You can check them all out right here: