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How to Choose the Best Dog Food

Nicole Cosgrove

As the sole provider of your dog’s nutrition, you’ll naturally want to give them the best possible food you can find. But how do you choose the right food for your dog? What is the best type? What ingredients should you look for? These are questions that many dog owners have asked, as choosing the best food for your four-legged companion can be stressful.

Most dog foods are in the form of dry kibble or wet canned food. While these may seem unappealing to us, they contain all the nutrients that your pooch needs to thrive, and most of these foods undergo rigorous testing before they are put on the market. There are hundreds of different options available, though, and making the right choice for your pooch involves a fair bit of research. After all, what food is best for your pooch has varying opinions between experts, vets, and food manufacturers. However, this is largely because there is no overall “best dog food” — all dogs have unique requirements according to their age, energy levels, and breed.

The best food for your dog is just that — the best food for your dog — but how do you know what that is? In this article, we take you through the steps to find the best food for your pooch so they can live a healthy, happy life.

divider-dog paw

Step 1: Nutritional requirements for dogs

Before you can read dog food labels with confidence, it’s important to have a basic understanding of your dog’s basic nutritional requirements. Dogs are omnivores, meaning they need a diet rich in animal protein and healthy vegetables. Dogs need a balanced mix of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water in order to thrive.

Important Nutrients for Dogs:
  • Protein is one of the most important nutrients to look for in dog food, and it should ideally be mostly animal-based. Protein is one of the building blocks of muscle development and maintenance, but it serves several other important functions too. Most importantly, it provides your dog with the essential amino acids that they can only get from food.
  • Healthy carbs from grains and vegetables will give your dog plenty of energy and help promote healthy digestion. They are vital in your dog’s diet because they provide sugars, starch, and fiber.
  • Fats are what give your pooch plenty of energy and help keep their skin and coat healthy and shiny. They cannot make essential fatty acids like omega-3 and -6, for example, so they need to get these from their diet.
  • Vitamins and minerals are vital for a host of different processes in your dog’s body, including proper immune function and healthy bones and teeth. A “complete and balanced” dog food should give your dog all the vitamins and nutrients that they need. You should always check the nutritional adequacy statement on the food’s packaging, and an American Association of American Feed Control Officials certification is a great sign that all the essential minerals and vitamins are included.
dog eating dog food
Image Credit: Mat Coulton, Pixabay

Step 2: Your dog’s age, activity levels, and breed

Your dog’s age, breed, and energy levels are hugely important when choosing the right food for them. Puppies and active dogs require far more calories per day than senior or less active breeds, and you should aim to feed your dog accordingly. Most commercial dog food manufacturers make breed-specific formula ranges and recipes specially formulated for puppies or seniors, although most will label their food for small or large breeds. Feeding a docile dog or senior dog a calorie-dense diet will likely cause them to become overweight. Conversely, feeding a diet lacking in the correct calories to an active dog can cause serious health issues.

Step 3: Top ingredients

Being able to read the ingredient list properly on your dog’s food is essential, as many items are misleadingly labeled or hidden behind other names. The most important ingredients are the first three to five listed ones because these make up the bulk of your dog’s food. There should be an animal product in the top three, preferably the first-listed ingredient. That said, meat has a variety of different labels, and it’s important to know what they are.

Commonly found ones include:
  • Whole meats. Foods with whole meats in the ingredients are typically more expensive but for good reason. Foods listed with “whole chicken” or simply “beef” or “lamb” are premium ingredients, usually human-grade meats. This is the best type of meat to feed your dog, although there is a downside: These whole meats contain a large amount of moisture that gets reduced by cooking, resulting in fewer nutrients overall than meat meal.
  • Meat by-products. Meat by-products can be defined as any part of the animal, including organs, beaks, and eyes. These are basically all the leftovers not being used after slaughtering. In general, any dog food containing meat by-products should be avoided, or at the very least, they shouldn’t be listed among the first five ingredients.
  • Meat meal. Meat meal is often found in dog food, and you’ll usually see it listed as “chicken meal” or “salmon meal.” This is different from meat by-products because only actual meat, skin, and bone can be used in the production of meat meal. Unfortunately, sick animals are legally allowed in its production, but for the most part, meat meal is a safe ingredient used in most animal foods.
dog's paws beside his food
Image Credit: mattycoulton, Pixabay

Step 4: The right type of diet

Choosing a diet for your dog has arguably never been more confusing. There is a growing community of grain-free advocates and raw food advocates for dogs, and many manufacturers are now making food to meet the demand. There are many varying opinions on how well a dog’s digestive system can handle grains, and many speculate that because our ancestors didn’t eat grains that our dog’s ancestors wouldn’t have either.

This largely comes down to the individual dog, though, and as long as your dog is not eating more than 10% grains in their daily diet, they will most likely be healthy. It’s important to note that grain-free foods are more expensive and have more fat and calories overall, increasing the risk of obesity. Unless your dog is specifically allergic to grains, most experts agree that there is no issue in giving grains to your pooch.

Raw diets are also becoming popular, either with homemade meals consisting of organ and muscle meats, bone, and fruits and vegetables or a commercial raw meals. Raw commercial foods are expensive, though. It’s also difficult to properly assess the nutritional value of raw foods and to be sure that your dog is getting the required minerals and vitamins and in the correct proportions. For this reason, it’s hard for us to recommend such a new diet. Instead, we suggest substituting organ meats into your dog’s diet alongside regular commercial foods.

wet and dry food
Image Credit: Yuriy Golub, Shutterstock

Step 5: Wet or dry food?

The last step to take is choosing whether wet or dry food is best for your dog. Dry food is generally cheaper and is certainly convenient, but does it contain the same nutrients? There is no definitive answer, but wet foods often contain fresher ingredients, especially when it comes to protein. That said, dry foods do not need to be refrigerated and are much cheaper, making them the best choice for most dog owners. Overall, it’s probably best to use dry food as a staple and add canned food as an occasional treat.


Always transition slowly

It’s important to note that anytime that you switch brands or recipes of your dog’s food, you should always do it as slowly as possible. Carefully reduce the old food and add in the new food over a week or so, and keep an eye on your pooch to make sure they’re not having any digestive issues.

How to choose the best dog food

With the ever-growing assortment of dog food brands, recipes, and diets, choosing the right food for your dog can be confusing. However, the nutritional needs of your pooch are fairly simple. Once you can break through the marketing haze and understand the ingredient lists of foods, there are only a few key things to look for.

As long as your dog’s food has a healthy source of animal-based protein, healthy fats, around 10% carbohydrates from vegetable, grains, and fruits, and the optimum balance of minerals and vitamins — which most commercial foods are required to have — your dog should get all the nutrition that they need to thrive.

Featured Image Credit: Jaromir Chalabala, Shutterstock

Nicole Cosgrove

Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts' knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.