How we research dog food
Over the course of our decades of writing and editing for pet and veterinary publications, we’ve interviewed many veterinarians and veterinary nutritionists. We’ve also had the chance to feed our own dogs lots of different brands and types of foods.
It’s important to note that our veterinary experts didn’t specifically endorse any of the products in this guide. When you think about it, this makes sense, since most veterinarians agree that the best food for each individual dog will vary based on a variety of factors. So, to make picks for this guide, we consulted four veterinarians, including a board certified veterinary nutritionist and a professor of animal and nutrition science, on what qualities to look for in a healthy dog food and what to avoid. From there, we used the information gathered to guide our selections.
Every food in this guide is complete and balanced according to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) guidelines, contains high-quality ingredients, and offers the right levels of protein, fat, and fiber for their respective categories.
When making choices, we also referred to educational resources 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: This is the most crucial factor in determining whether a dog food is healthy or not. 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 find out more about these standards and definitions in the next slide.
Guaranteed analysis: This is where you’ll find the percentages of the most important nutrients in the food: protein, fat, fiber, and moisture. Sometimes, you might find other nutrients like glucosamine, chondroitin, and omega fatty acids listed in the guaranteed analysis, too. It’s worth checking if the brand routinely tests their finished product to ensure it meets standards, Shepherd says. (You can usually find this information on a brand’s website.) All of the foods in this guide have 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).
Ingredient list: Navigating the ingredients list doesn’t have to be intimidating. The first thing to look for at the top of the list is animal sources of protein. You’ll find these in the top slot in all the foods featured in this guide. Whole meat is ideal, but it tends to be quite heavy due to the water content. With dry food, that water is removed, so the meat content might not be as high as it seems. Also, 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 sources of protein if they’re high quality. Since the water has already been removed, they might even pack more protein than whole meat.
Healthy extras: Some foods contain extra ingredients intended to support healthy skin, coat, and joints, Swanson notes. Examples include long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA; usually from 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 can also benefit a puppy’s immature GI 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, or k/cals, on the nutrition label. If your dog isn’t very active, they’ll need fewer calories, and if your dog is super active (for instance, a performance or working dog), they’ll need much more calorie-dense meals. Helping your dog feel satisfied with their food is really important, and volume can help with that. Ideally, you want to have your dog eat the largest volume of food possible while staying within their ideal daily calorie range. Check out this calorie calculator to determine how many calories your dog needs. In general, foods that struck this balance rated higher in our selection process. As always, your veterinarian can also 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 a 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,” Shepherd says. 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 to sustain pets over time.
Expert formulations: When choosing a dog food, it’s very important to consider who actually decided what would go in the food. You want to look for companies that have a PhD-level nutritionist with experience in dog nutrition on staff, Shepherd says. 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. And, unlike farmed fish, wild-caught fish aren’t treated with
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.