With the overwhelming number of dog food brands available and plethora of information and misinformation regarding canine nutrition, it’s no wonder making the right choice becomes a daunting task for a confused dog owner.
This evidence-based guide will help you make better and well-informed selections for your individual dog, without trusting advice from any biased sources.
Examining Dog Food Labels
Reading the dog food label is a good place to start, but it’s really important to understand the shortcomings and limitations of the label (4). The label cannot convey information about quality of the ingredients listed, how the ingredients were handled, or where the ingredients are sourced.
The dog food label is more of a legal document for the pet food company, and isn’t designed to convey significant nutritional information.
The American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is the organization that implements and maintains the laws, standards and regulations surrounding pet food in the US. They do not enforce these laws, but rely on current scientific knowledge and input from experts to provide guidelines for dog food to minimize malnutrition (5).
Every bag of good dog food should have an AAFCO label that certifies that it meets or exceeds AAFCO standards. The AAFCO standards indicate that there are nine required components of a dog food label. We’ll go through each of these nine components and indicate healthy versus potentially problematic information.
The first requirement for the label is that the brand and product name must be listed. This seems trivial, but this may actually be one of the biggest indicators of a healthy dog food brand.
Brands that have a good reputation in the veterinary and animal expert communities are typically trusted the most. These brands often create diets with the help of dozens of veterinary nutritionists and scientists on staff. In addition, brands recommended and trusted by veterinarians also put a significant amount of money into canine nutritional research.
These brands are also typically the ones that have prescription dog food diets which are vital to maintaining the health of dogs with underlying diseases such as diabetes, kidney disease or irritable bowel disease (2, 5). These diets have a multitude of scientific data to support their claims for enhanced health in the diseases they treat (6, 7, 8, 9).
This doesn’t mean that a lesser known brand has bad food for dogs, but in many cases of cheap brands, it’s unlikely that these diets were formulated with the help of experts in the field of canine nutrition, have performed actual feeding trials with live dogs, or have any published research supporting their diets. All of this is too expensive for newer companies.
The second required component of the dog food label required by the AAFCO is the net quantity statement. This just tells you how much food is in the bag or container, and obviously has no bearing on quality.
The third requirement is the manufacturer or distributor’s information. This is important and sheds insight onto our discussion on good dog food versus bad food for dogs.
Pet food manufacturers should have representatives available for you to contact regarding questions you may have. One sign of bad food for dogs is if there is no contact person available, or if their answers are vague.
Dog food manufacturing is a multi-billion dollar industry in the USA. There are thousands of different brands and types of dog foods available; however, if you examine the label closely, you’ll see that just a few select manufacturers and distributors own a large portion of the market in America.
For example, Mars Petcare Inc. owns 41 dog food brands, including well-known names such as Pedigree, IAMS, Royal Canin, California Naturals, Cesar, and Eukanuba. These popular dog food brands represent a variety of different levels of quality, but are all manufactured by the same parent company.
Nestle Purina Petcare is another leading pet food distributor in the US. Their roster includes brands like Alpo, Dog Chow, Kit and Kaboodle, Purina and Purina One.
Some manufacturers of dog food also produce private label products that are sold at local stores. Diamond Dog Food, for example, owns Nutra Nuggets, Taste of the Wild, Diamond and Diamond Naturals, but they also manufacture food sold under private labels, such as local and regional store brands.
The forth requirement is a calorie content statement. This is often measured in kcal per cup of kibble or per can of food.
Calorie content can vary widely between foods of different types and purposes. Selecting a diet with appropriate calories for your pet’s age, lifestyle, energy level and breed is paramount.
Obesity being the leading nutritional disease diagnosed in pets today and overfeeding is the single biggest contributor to this. Research has proven that obesity contributes to a variety of diseases in dogs, including diabetes and osteoarthritis, to name a few [10, 11, 12, 13, 14].
This study in the British Journal of Nutrition showed that overweight Labrador Retriever dogs lived, on average, two years less than their littermates dogs kept at a lean body condition . Analyzing the calorie content on the label of dog food can help you keep your pet at a healthy weight.
A more calorie dense food isn’t necessarily less healthy, but it can be if it is overfed.
The fifth label requirement is a nutritional adequacy statement. This statement assures the buyer that the dog food diet is complete and balanced and which life stage it is designed for. All healthy dog foods should have an AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement.
Feeding a diet for the appropriate life stage is very important [16, 17]. The different stages include growth (meant for growing puppies), adult maintenance (meant for healthy adults), and reproducing or lactating adults (pregnant or nursing dogs).
Some diets are labelled for ‘all-life stages.’ Be careful with diets that claim they are nutritionally sound for all life stages because there is enormous variation in nutritional needs based on age, breed, size and energy level [18, 19, 20, 21, 22]. What is healthy for a sedentary geriatric poodle will not be healthy for a growing Great Dane puppy.
Here’s where it gets tricky though. Not all nutritional adequacy statements are the same. The first type of adequacy statement indicates the diet has been formulated to meet the nutrition levels recommended based on research. Diets with this label have not been tested on live dogs.
Alternately, an adequacy statement that says the diet is proven to be complete and balanced based on feeding trial with live dogs is best way to ensure a diet meets or exceeds the requirements for healthy dog food. Feeding trials are expensive though, and it is not practical to expect manufacturers to have every diet they offer tested with feeding trials.
The best assessment of a healthy nutritionally complete dog food is obtained with feeding trials on actual live dogs .
The sixth label requirement is the guaranteed analysis for minimum levels of crude protein, fat and fiber. The AAFCO has strict requirements for a healthy dog food, therefore diets with the AAFCO label should meet these guidelines .
The percentage varies a little with the life stage the diet is designed for, with dog foods meant for growing puppies containing slightly more protein and fat than diets designed for healthy adult dogs.
The recommended healthy range for protein is between 18 and 22% as a minimum . Dog foods with more protein than this minimum are not necessarily healthier since excess protein is burned as energy or stored as fat.
Healthy minimum levels for fat are between 5 and 8%. Some fat is needed for maintaining health, therefore a diet with less fat is not necessarily healthier. For example, some vitamins are fat soluble and require fats for absorption . Fat is also needed to maintain skin and coat quality .
The seventh AAFCO label requirement is the ingredient list. Consumers often put too much faith in the ingredient list to tell them about whether or not the dog food is healthy. The truth is that the ingredient list is very limited in terms of conveying quality.
Ingredients are required to be listed in order of descending weight. A dog food with meat as the first ingredient is not necessarily healthier since whole meat has a significant amount of moisture in the form of water which is heavy.
The diet could actually be deriving more of its nutrition from some other ingredient, such as a grain, which is more nutritionally dense and therefore weighs less.
The ingredient list also cannot convey information about where these ingredients were sourced, or how they were handled during processing.
Many pet owners are confused by ingredients that contain the words ‘by-products’ or ‘meal.’ The presence of these ingredients do not indicate a bad dog food, in fact, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Meat-meals, for example, are a rendered source of concentrated protein and are very nutritious. By-products include such ingredients as organ meat, which are very nutritionally dense [28, 29, 30] By-products do not include hooves, hair or feathers.
There has been a recent increase in the interest and demand for dog foods without grains in the ingredient list. This has been mostly driven by dog food manufacturer’s advertising and marketing and is not based on any scientific evidence that grains are an inferior source of nutrients [3, 31]. Dogs are not true carnivores. An all-meat diet is not healthy for dogs and can lead to disease [32, 33, 34].
A healthy dog food ingredient list should be free from harmful ingredients such as artificial dyes, sugar or other sweeteners.
The eight label requirement is the species designation. This merely requires the bag to indicate what type of animal it is designed for, such as cats or dogs.
The ninth and final label requirement is feeding directions. These are typically not very detailed and often weight ranges are very large. Moreover, calorie requirement can vary significantly between dogs of the same size based on age, activity level and whether or not they are neutered [35, 36, 37].
Dog food manufacturers are not required to use any sort of equation to determine the energy needs for dogs, therefore the amounts listed on the bag can often be overestimated. The best determination of how much to feed can be achieved by learning to lean feed .
Lean feeding is the idea that you feed to maintain a healthy body condition. Learning what a healthy weight for your dog is the most important aspect of being able to lean feed. Then if the dog gains or loses weight, you respond by adjusting portions.
The WSAVA Global Nutrition Committee has created a helpful resource for aiding consumers in selecting a healthy dog food, appropriately titled Recommendations on Selecting Pet Foods.
In this resource it is recommended that the dog food you select is manufactured by a company that employs a veterinary nutritionist who aids in the formulation of the diet. The dog food, ideally, has been tested and proven to be healthy with an appropriately conducted feeding trial.
Dog foods with ingredients sourced in countries with less stringent regulations, such as China, should be avoided. Manufacturers should have specific quality control measures in place that ensure the product’s safety and quality.
Selecting a healthy versus bad dog food is a big responsibility for dog owners. It can be difficult to wade through all the information and marketing that is aimed at consumers and learn what truly constitutes a healthy dog food. Your veterinarian will be an invaluable resource in this matter [39, 40].
The best indicator of a healthy dog food is one that your dog likes, makes her coat shiny and his energy levels good. Stools should be normal and the diet should fit your budget. Many healthy, ‘normal’ adult dogs will do great on a variety of different commercial diets.