How do I Check My Dog’s Food?

You can check to see if your dog food is good by first looking at the package and, second, looking beyond the package. When we say looking at the bag, we refer to two important steps listed below: 

  • Read The Dog Food Label: When we say read the label, we mean read everything on the bag – from the product title and net weight of the food to the list of ingredients and guaranteed analysis.
  • Understand The Dog Food Label: This step is easier said than done, as labels can be inaccurate or misleading. Also, they are not always what we expect. If you encounter a term or phrase you cannot decode, consult your trusted vet. 
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When looking beyond the dog food bag, consider the following steps: 

  • Research Dog Food Brands: The first thing is to choose a dog food brand. With so many different dog food brands, this can be a challenge on its own. The good news is that once you have picked a brand, things get easier as you can focus on the formulas it offers. It is a wise idea to choose brands from countries (US, Canada, Western Europe, and Australia) with strict food safety rules and protocols. 
  • Learn The Formulation Process: Inform yourself on whether the brand is consulting a nutritionist when formulating the product. It is even better if it has both a veterinarian and a canine nutritionist as regular staff members. 
  • Consider Manufacturing & Quality Control: See if the brand has its own manufacturing facility or outsources this step to another manufacturer. If the brand has a facility, it is more likely to perform proper quality control. 
  • Check the Dog Food Recall History: The brand’s recall history can say a lot about the brand. Usually, dog food brands with no recall histories are more reliable and trustworthy. 
  • Read Dog Food Reviews: Lastly, see what other pet owners think about the brand or its specific formulas. 

Alternatively, you can check to see if your dog food is good by going to the Pet Nutrition Alliance Website or, more precisely, its “Dare To Ask” campaign. The site is created by veterinarians and veterinary nutritionists. 

These professionals asked different pet food manufacturers basic questions (knowing what to ask is paramount) that can help you find the right formula and compare dog food brands. 

How to Read a Nutrition Facts Dog Food Label

dog bowl of nutritional food

According to current USA regulations, all dog food labels must feature information like product name, net weight of the product, name, and address of the manufacturer, guaranteed analysis, list of ingredients, intended animal species, statement of nutritional adequacy, and feeding guidelines. 

Deciphering these sections of the label can be a challenge. To make things easy, let’s break down each part of the label below: 

Product Name

The product name can say a lot about the food. However, it is important that you consider standardized names like the 95% rule (more on this below) rather than non-defined marketing terms like premium or holistic. 

Also, the product name is not necessarily a direct indicator of the food’s quality. Namely, a food labeled all-natural is not always better – sometimes non-natural options are healthier.

For example, chelated minerals are more digestible; hence provide better nutritional value for the dog than natural minerals. 

Net Weight of the Product

The weight of the product must be listed at the bottom third of the package’s front. This helps estimate how long the bag will last.  

Name & Address of the Manufacturer

Another must-have on the food label is the manufacturer’s name and address. According to WSAVA, it is also a big plus if the company provides immediate contact, including phone number or email.  

Guaranteed Analysis

The guaranteed analysis (GA) states the minimum amount of crude protein and fat, as well as the maximum amounts of water and crude fiber.

To be in sync with feeding guidelines, they are given on an as-feed basis. However, the GA does not depict the food’s actual nutrient content but rather the legal minimal and maximal requirements.  

For example, if the GA for crude protein says a minimum of 25%, the food may contain 27% or even more. 

List of Ingredients

All ingredients in the dog food must classify under the GRAS (generally regarded as safe) status. They must also be stated in descending order. However, the ingredient list must not list the ingredients’ grade or quality. Therefore, looking at the ingredient list alone does not reflect the formula’s overall quality. 

Intended Animal Species

This is relatively straightforward, and in your case, you will need a recipe formulated for dogs.  

Statement of Nutritional Adequacy

The food’s suitability for different life stages is defined in the statement of nutritional adequacy.

There are AAFCO-approved nutrient profiles – for growth, maintenance, and all life stages (this profile covers growth, maintenance, gestation, and lactation). We should note that currently, there are no official profiles for senior, geriatric, or weight loss. 

AAFCO-approved foods will feature the phrase “complete and balanced” for the specific life stage they are intended for. 

Feeding Guidelines

Finally, check the manufacturer’s feeding guidelines. Usually, most brands give an estimate of the amount of food per day a dog needs based on its age and body weight. 

Deciphering dog food labels is hard, and determining the right food is even harder. If you are unsure about the best food for your dog, consult with your vet. 

Also, do not fall for marketing tricks. Whenever the pet parent community gets hyped about certain food/ingredient, food manufacturers respond with formulas that further fuel that hype. 

Not every super-advertised food is good for your dog. Therefore, once again, it is paramount to talk to a vet before making changes in your dog’s nutrition.  

Lastly, after you have found the right food for your dog, it is still a good idea to switch flavors from time to time. A study on “Food preference in domestic pets” showed that dogs prefer novel over known flavors. 

How to Check If Your Dog Food Contains Preservatives

To check if your dog food has preservatives read the ingredient list, and not the front of the food bag/can. Food descriptions are deceiving, and the catchy term “all-natural” does not mean there are no artificial additives in the formula. 

Here are some of the most commonly used artificial preservatives are listed below:

  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
  • Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
  • Ethoxyquin 
  • Propylene glycol (PG)

What is the 95% Rule for Dog Food?

The 95% rule indicates that the ingredients displayed in the food’s name must account for 95% of the product’s weight (if excluding water) or 70% of the product (if including water). 

If the food’s name features two ingredients, they must together make up at least 95% of the product’s weight. However, individually, they must not comprise less than 3%. 

Formulas that meet the 95% rule will be titled “Canine’s Chicken Dog Food” or “Outdoor Hound Lamb and Quinoa Dog Food.” As you can see, these foods do not contain words like “formula,” “dinner,” or “recipe” in their titles. 

In addition to the 95% rule, there are four other rules: 

  • The 100% rule is when the food contains 100% of the listed ingredient. The rule allows for a small number of preservatives and processing water.
    • Example: All Chicken Treats or 100% Canned Tuna 
  • The 25% rule is when the ingredient accounts for 25% of the weight without water or 10% with water. Foods in this category must be further described by words like “dinner,” “formula,” “recipe,” etc., after the ingredient.
    • Example: Chicken and Brown Rice Recipe 
  • The “with” rule is when the ingredient after the term “with” makes up at least 3% of the product’s weight.
    • Example: Oven-Baked Treats with Salmon 
  • The “flavor” rule or the “less than 3% rule” is when there is no required minimum and the ingredient is included only to add flavor.
    • Example: Beef Flavored Dog Food 

What is Proper Nutrition for a Dog?

Proper nutrition for a dog is one that includes the six essential nutrients – protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and water. These six nutrients play vital roles in the body.  

Because these nutrients are essential, their presence (minimum and/or maximum is determined and set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). 

So, the first thing a food needs to check to be proper is to be AAFCO-approved. However, only some AAFCO-approved are suitable for some dogs – you need to take into consideration additional factors such as age, weight, breed, lifestyle, etc. 

How Can You Tell a High-Quality Dog Food?

You can tell that a dog food formula is of high quality if it exceeds the AAFCO standards and uses healthy, wholesome ingredients to ensure complete and balanced nutrition. 

In high-quality dog food, the first three ingredients will be meat-based. After all, dogs need animal-sourced protein to thrive. Another indicator of quality is the lack of fillers and artificial preservatives. 

Finally, a high-quality formula will positively impact your dog. This is especially true if using dog food for specific dietary needs. After 3-4 weeks, you will be able to notice a difference in the dog’s appearance or overall health/behavior.

You can check to see if your dog food is good by asking three questions: 

  • Are my dog’s stools normal (in quality and quantity)?  
  • Are my dog’s energy levels normal?  
  • Is my dog’s coat smooth and glossy? 

What Dog Food is Healthiest for Dogs?

healthy dog food

There is no universal one-fits-all healthiest dog food. There are many quality and healthy options. However, according to the American Kennel Club (AKC), the best food for your dog depends on its needs. 

For example, if your dog is fussy about food, you need dog food for picky eaters – even the most expensive formula is worthless if the dog refuses to eat it. Also, if your dog has a specific condition (grain allergy), the healthiest option for it will be a grain-free formula. 

When choosing the healthiest food, you should also consider affordability and price. If you are on a budget, get one of the best cheap dog food formulas. Or, if you do not have time to go food shopping, make a dog food subscription plan

Dog Food Formulas

Today, dog food formulas come in different forms and recipes. Each option has its pros and cons; ultimately, it all comes down to what your dog needs and wants. 

Below is a short overview of the different types of dog food formulas. 

  • Dry Dog Food. Dry dog food is the most popular and widely used option. Kibble has a lower weight and volume per calorie, thus being easy to store. Being low in moisture, dry food has a long shelf life. Plus, kibble can be used with slow-feeding bowls (a big plus for dogs that gulp down food) and with treat-dispensing toys.  
  • Wet Dog Food. Wet dog food is hydrating, which benefits dogs that are not keen water drinkers. It is also more palatable and an excellent choice for dogs with dental issues and tooth loss. Additionally, wet food makes it easy to sneak pet medications and supplements. 
  • Organic Dog Food. Organic dog food is free from potentially harmful and processed ingredients. The meat in organic formulas is from animals that were not treated with antibiotics and growth hormones. The plants in these formulas are grown without pesticides. Generally speaking, organic food is healthy but has a short shelf life as it lacks preservatives. 
  • Vegan Dog Food. Vegan dog food is made solely from plants and does not contain any animal-based products. Dogs on vegan formulas must be additionally supplemented to ensure complete and balanced nutrition.  
  • Raw Dog Food. Raw dog food consists of uncooked ingredients, including meat, organs, edible bones, eggs, dairy, and dog-safe fruits & vegetables. While there are some benefits of raw diets, there are also risks. Also, dogs on raw diets generally require supplements to ensure adequate nutrition. 
  • Freeze-Dried Dog Food. Freeze-dried dog food is the more practical alternative to raw food. Nutritionally speaking, they are the same. The main difference is that freeze-dried food has its moisture removed, thus allowing simpler storage and a longer expiration date. Also, the freezing process may reduce some bacteria. Before serving, freeze-dried dog foods should be rehydrated. 
  • Dehydrated Dog Food. Dehydrated dog food has its moisture removed via slow heating. Dehydration is the opposite process of freeze drying, but with similar results (fewer bacteria and longer shelf life). However, heat may affect some nutrients. This means dehydrated food is not nutritionally the same as raw or freeze-dried. 

Dog Food for Puppies

Puppies have unique dietary requirements – they need specific ingredients to fuel their growth and development. 

First, dog food for puppies has a higher caloric content (more calories per cup), as it contains more protein and fat than adult formulas. Puppy foods usually have around 30-40% protein and up to 20% fat, while adult dog foods have 20-24% protein and less than 10% fat. 

Puppy food is also higher in calcium and phosphorus to support skeletal health and DHA an omega fatty acid essential for eyesight and cognitive development. 

Every AAFCO-approved food for growth will check these boxes. However, you must also consider the following: 

  • Puppy Breed: Foods for large breed puppies have much higher contents of calcium and phosphorus to meet their fast-growing demands.  
  • Kibble Size & Shape: Also consider the kibble size and shape. Formulas for small-breed puppies should have smaller kibble. The kibble shape is important for pups that may have trouble picking up food (brachycephalic breeds). 

Dog Food for Adult Dogs

Dog food for adult dogs is specifically formulated to meet maintenance needs. The adult dog food is suitable for all dogs past their growth phase depending on the breed, this can be at the age of 6-7 months or after 12 months of age).  

When choosing adult dog food, consider the dog’s breed. For example, Bully breeds need to build muscle and are prone to skin issues. Therefore dog food for Pit Bull or other bully breeds must be high in protein and rich in omega fatty acids. 

However, dogs of the same breed do not always have the same dietary needs. For example, dog food for German Shepherds kept as pets will differ from that for working German Shepherds. So, in addition to the breed, consider lifestyle. 

Dog Food for Senior Dogs

The term senior dog food is widely debated and even seen as a marketing trick. According to AAFCO, there is no specific formulation guideline for seniors. 

A healthy senior dog will still require the same amount of nutrients as it did during adulthood. However, seniors with compromised health or at high risk of disease should be switched to prescription diets that target specific issues. 

Health issues affecting aging dogs that can be nutritionally managed include arthritis, skin disease, dental issues, kidney disease, and cognitive dysfunction. 

When choosing senior dog food, there is one more thing to consider – palatability. Old dogs have decreased appetites (maybe due to trouble chewing or a declining sense of smell). Either way, the food must be enticing to ensure proper intake.  

Dog Food for Small Breeds

Small dog foods have higher calorie and nutrient content. Small-breed dogs have fast metabolisms and quickly burn calories. Therefore, compared to large breeds, small dogs need more calories and nutrients per pound of body weight. 

Additionally, foods for small breeds feature smaller kibble that can fit in the dog’s mouth and be easily chewable. Large kibble pieces are hard to chew, and proper chewing is vital for efficient digestion and nutrient utilization. Also, large kibbles pose a choking hazard to small breed dogs. 

Finally, small dogs are notorious for being fussy eaters. Dog food for smaller dog breeds needs to be extra-palatable. 

Dog Food for Large Breeds

Large-breed dog food is usually lower in fats and calories. This is because large dogs have large stomachs – and would need a significant amount of food to fill them. If the food is calorie-dense, this will result in weight gain and obesity. 

Large-breed dogs are prone to musculoskeletal disorders, especially joint issues. Therefore, large breed formulas are enriched in omega sources (like fish oil) or glucosamine (from poultry or added supplements).   

Dog Food for Dietary Needs

Many health conditions in dogs can be managed through proper nutrition. That is why more and more dog food brands are offering diets formulated specifically for certain dietary needs. 

Below are some dog food options for specific dietary needs. 

  • High-Fiber Dog Food: As the name explains, high-fiber dog food is rich in dietary fiber (prebiotics). Fibers are important to dogs with digestion issues. High-fiber foods promote a healthy gut and regular bowel movements. They are also great for weight control.    
  • Hydrolyzed Protein Dog Food: Hydrolyzed protein dog food contains proteins that are broken down into tiny pieces. Because of their small size, they can pass by the immune system’s defense mechanisms. Hydrolyzed food is recommended for dogs with food allergies. They are also good for dogs with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). 
  • Grain-Free Dog Food: Grain-free dog food contains alternative sources of carbohydrates (peas, potatoes) instead of grains (wheat, corn). Grain-free food is an excellent choice for dogs with grain allergies (which, contrary to popular belief, are not particularly common). Dogs that are not allergic to grains should not be fed grain-free diets, as there is a correlation between these foods and DCM (dilated cardiomyopathy or enlarged heart). 
  • Dog Food for Allergies: Dog food for allergies or hypoallergenic food is formulated without common allergens and features only one protein source. Usually, this diet contains a few ingredients and is therefore known as a limited ingredient diet or LID. 
  • Dog Food for Sensitive Stomach: Despite being known for their dietary indiscretions, dogs can have sensitive tummies. Foods formulated for such needs feature high-quality and easily digestible ingredients. They have one protein source, are low in fats, and are free from fillers. Usually, foods for stomach sensitivities are enriched with probiotics and prebiotics. 
  • High-Protein Dog Food: High-protein diets are loaded with high-quality proteins. They are very palatable and suitable for high-energy and working dogs. High-protein foods are calorie-dense and, if fed to inactive dogs, will cause weight gain and obesity.   
  • Limited Ingredient Dog Food: Limited-ingredient dog food is a dog food formula made with a small number of selected items. Limited ingredient diets (LID) usually feature one protein and one carbohydrate source. The protein source is often exotic (venison, boar), and the carbohydrate source is of a non-grain origin (sweet potatoes, peas). LIDs are suitable for dogs with food sensitivities and allergies. 
  • Diabetic Dog Food: Diabetic dog food is specifically formulated to be low in carbohydrates and rich in dietary fiber. It must also be free from sugar, which can be added to dog food, as we will explain below. In general, wet foods are better for dogs with diabetes compared to dry dog food, they are lower in fillers.   
  • Anti-Yeast Dog Food: Anti-yeast foods are made with quality ingredients that strengthen the immune system and prevent yeast overgrowth. These foods are particularly helpful to dogs with skin and ear infections usually caused by Malassezia yeasts.  

What Dog Foods Should I Avoid?

Avoid dog foods that contain artificial additives, generic foods, and ingredients of questionable safety. Below is a detailed list of the ingredients you need to avoid: 

  • Artificial Preservatives: Preservatives are added to increase the food’s shelf life and keep it fresh for longer. However, artificial preservatives are often associated with health risks.
    • Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) & Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT): BHA and BHT are synthetic antioxidants that reduce mold growth in dog food. They also prevent the fats from going rancid. 
    • Ethoxyquin: This is another preservative usually added to fish-containing foods. It is inexpensive and keeps the fats from spoiling. Ethoxyquin is linked to liver damage, and in high amounts, it is toxic to dogs. 
    • Propylene Glycol: Propylene glycol (PG) prevents bacterial growth and keeps foods in a palatable, semi-moist form. The side effects of PG do not seem significant but can be dangerous to dogs with pre-existing problems. 
  • Artificial Colors: Colors have no nutritional value for the dog – they are added to make the food more appealing to the human eye. However, some artificial colors are dangerous and linked to allergies, sensitivities, or even cancer. 
  • Artificial Flavors: The issue with flavors is they rarely contain the listed ingredient. For example, bacon flavor is not necessarily derived from real bacon. 
  • Generic Ingredients: Loosely described ingredients listed by their generic name, like, for example, meat meal or animal fat. They are not necessarily bad, but how can we know if they are not specified correctly?    
  • Garlic & Onion Extracts: As members of the Allium family, both garlic and onion are toxic to dogs. However, some formulas feature them because, in small amounts, they can be beneficial. But why risk it? 
  • Sugar: Sugar is an excellent flavor enhancer. However, when it comes to dogs, increasing the food’s meat content is a safer and more beneficial way of improving the flavor. 
  • Carrageenan: Carrageenan is a thickening additive extracted from red seaweed. It is used to improve the texture of semi-moist and wet foods. However, the additive is known to cause gastrointestinal inflammation.  

There are also ingredients that can give you pause, but only because they have a bad reputation. Common examples include meat meals, meat by-products, and corn. 

Meat meals and by-products are actually quite nutritious as long as they are used in adequate amounts and specified. As for corn, contrary to popular belief, it is digestible and not as allergenic as marketed. 

How to Compare Dog Food Brands

dog food brands

Decoding dog food ingredient lists and nutrient analysis is challenging. However, comparing dog food brands is even trickier. 

There are many features you need to factor in if you want a legit comparison. Yet, for a good start, go with these considerations: 

Title or Product Name

The product name gives a quick insight into the food. However, it is important to differentiate between “standardized” titles and catchy advertising slogans or “hype” terms. 

Example: Food names displaying the 100% or 95% rule are good – it means the food contains a very high percentage of the listed ingredient. A dog food labeled “100% canned venison” means the formula is all venison with the exception of a small amount of processing water and maybe some preservatives. 

On the other hand, food names displaying marketing tricks are bad. At the moment, there are no specific standards for foods labeled as “holistic,” “premium,” and “gourmet.” They sound above average, but according to AAFCO, they are not necessarily different than “regular” formulas. 

In fact, a 2014 study, “Evaluation of eight commercial dog diets,” showed there is no significant difference in digestibility between “premium” and store-bought brands. 

Ingredients

The ingredients in the compared dog food brands must be of high quality and easily digestible. Usually, the first five ingredients are the most important as they make up the bulk of the formula. When it comes to ingredients, consider two additional factors:

Ingredient Splitting: Ingredient splitting refers to transforming one ingredient into different forms. This allows dog food manufacturers to move ingredients up and down the ingredient list. 

Example: Peas can be split into pea protein, pea meal, or pea fiber. So, a formula that contains a significant amount of peas (among the top 5 ingredients) will have small amounts of the split ingredients (allowing for them to be listed in the middle or end of the list). 

Ingredient Specificity: Ingredients must be listed as specifically as possible. The lack of transparency often makes us falsely assume an ingredient is bad. 

Example: The ingredient “animal by-products” has a bad reputation since it is not transparent enough – “animal” can mean roadkill, and “by-products” can refer to any organ. 

To avoid false assumptions, the food brand should say, for example, “beef liver.” Beef liver is still an animal by-product. However, it is specific enough to be understood. 

Guaranteed Analysis (GA)

The GA is the equivalent of the nutrition label found on human foods. Typically, it gives quick information about the food’s composition. 

However, there is a catch – the analysis does not include water, and water content can vary significantly among dog foods (especially if comparing dry kibble to wet gravies).   

Therefore, to make a real brand-to-brand comparison, you need to calculate the dry matter profile based on the provided guaranteed analysis. Learn how to do the conversion math here. 

AAFCO Statement

Finally, when making dog food comparisons, consider the AAFCO adequacy statement. The AAFCO statement covers for:

Lifestage: The food must be complete and balanced for the dog’s life stage. AAFCO-approved formulas can feature one of these terms “for growth,” “for all life stages,” and “for maintenance.” 

Example: Puppies can eat formulas that are “for growth” or “for all life stages,” while adults can eat formulas that are “for maintenance” or “for all life stages.”

Feeding Trials: This ensures that the food was given to dogs during carefully monitored periods to check its safety and suitability. 

As previously stated, comparing dog food brands is a time-consuming task. At veterinarians.org, we want you to spend as much time as possible with your dog and less time comparing brands. That is why we reviewed the most popular dog food brands – take a look at the list below: