I’ve been fortunate to interview many veterinarians and veterinary nutritionists throughout my 20-year career writing and editing for pet and veterinary publications, and I’ve fed my own dog many different dog food brands.
For advice on what to look for in a healthy dog food and what to avoid, I consulted two veterinarians and a professor of animal and nutritional science. Although this information guided me in my product selection, our veterinary experts did not specifically endorse any of the products included in this guide. This makes sense since a veterinarian’s goal is to find a food that best fits each individual dog, rather than making broad recommendations.
All the foods mentioned in this guide are complete and balanced according to the guidelines established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), contain high-quality ingredients, and offer appropriate levels of protein, fat, and fiber for their respective categories.
I also consulted educational materials from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and the Global Nutrition Guidelines published by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA).
What to look for in dog food, in order of importance:
AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement: The most important benchmark of a healthy dog food is a statement on the label that says it meets the nutritional standards established by the AAFCO, demonstrating that the food is complete and balanced for the dog’s life stage. All foods mentioned in this guide are AAFCO complete and balanced. Read more about those standards and definitions in the next slide.
Guaranteed analysis: The guaranteed analysis lists the percentages of the most vital nutrients in the food: protein, fat, fiber, and moisture. Sometimes, other nutrients like glucosamine, chondroitin, and omega fatty acids are also listed in the guaranteed analysis. Foods selected in this guide contain moderate to high protein (AAFCO minimums are 22% 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 ingredients list can be tricky to navigate, especially when taking water content into account, but in general, you want to see clearly identified animal sources of protein at the top of the list. Whole meat is great, but it is heavier due to its moisture content. Once that water is removed, the meat content might not be as high as you think. Don’t automatically write off meat meals. High-quality meat meals can be an excellent source of protein — the water has been removed, so they may provide more protein than whole meat. The ingredients lists of all the foods in this guide contain animal sources of protein at the top of the list.
Healthy extras: According to Swanson, some foods contain extra ingredients intended to support healthy skin, coat, and joints. Some of these may include additional long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA; usually supplied by marine-based oils or meals), omega-6 fatty acids (safflower oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, flaxseed, etc.), glucosamine, chondroitin, green-lipped mussels, and additional vitamins (vitamin A, biotin) and minerals (
, copper). Probiotics, prebiotics, and yeast fermentation products may also boost gut health.
Calorie content: The calorie content of dog food is listed in kilocalories, or k/cals. When dogs consume too many calories, they are at risk for becoming overweight or
calorie calculator to determine how many calories your dog needs. Your veterinarian can also evaluate if the amount you’re feeding is appropriate.. Less-active dogs need fewer calories and very active dogs like performance or working dogs need a food that is more calorie dense. For most dogs, being able to eat the largest volume of food while staying within the ideal daily calorie range will help them feel more satisfied. In general, such foods rated higher in our selection process. Check out this
Feeding trials: It’s great if a food has undergone feeding trials in addition to a laboratory analysis of the food’s ingredients. If the nutritional adequacy statement on the label has language like “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: Choose a pet food manufacturer that works closely with a veterinary nutritionist or other professional with a master’s degree or PhD in nutrition, animal science, or a related field. Manufacturers may employ one or more full-time nutritionists, or hire one or more nutrition consultants. For this guide, we prioritized brands that have a dedicated nutrition expert on staff to align with WSAVA recommendations.
Next-level ingredients: Seeing natural, organic, or human-grade ingredients on the label is nice, especially if you believe in the health benefits of organic foods. Wild-caught fish are as natural as you can get and, unlike farmed fish, are not treated with
or medications. Some foods use eggs and meat from cage-free chickens and turkeys, which is a bonus if you care about the welfare of the animals you — and your pets — eat. That said, ingredients in dog food need not be human-grade, organic, wild-caught, or cage-free to be healthy and nutritious for pets.