Any time I go onto a Dog-specific Facebook group I see this question pop up at least once every few days. "What are you all feeding your dogs, and what do you recommend?" To which there are usually at least a dozen answers. Of course, everyone will respond with what they are currently using because that is the best choice for them at the current time. We are going to primarily focus on kibble in this article as that probably accounts for 90% of what all dogs are fed, but we'll touch on the other options like Organic and Raw.
My Brand Recommendations
I recommend the following foods (note affiliate links.)
Orijen Dog Food - Pound for pound is probably the best dog food you can buy. It's produced by a Canadian company that has to meet strict Canadian pet food regulations. The ingredients are second to none. It uses high-quality, freshly sourced ingredients sourced in the US. Fresh ingredients are never frozen, and the brand supports local farmers, fishermen, and ranchers. It's also fairly expensive, but not, perhaps, as expensive as feeding raw.
Victor Dog Food - Probably the best dry dog food you can get for the price. It's not as expensive as Orijen and only marginally more expensive than Purina Pro-Plan. It's made in Texas from high-quality ingredients, and they offer a range of products to suit all needs.
The Victor Yukon formula is what I recommend if your dog has an allergy to chicken or beef. It's what I feed my dogs, as one of them is allergic to chicken.
Purina Pro Plan Sport is what I recommend for owners who do not like any of the options above. Perhaps your vet told you to stay away from grain-free and tried to sell you their in-house brand, and you're unsure about what to do. For my comments on this, read down below. Pro Plan is a good fallback choice, probably the best Purina makes, although, for just a little bit more, you can buy Victor, which is a superior food.
How do YOU choose the right dog food for YOU?
Great question, to which you should know there are as many opinions on the topic as there are canine professionals (maybe more!), but at the end of the day, it's your choice. What will guide your decision are things like the type of food, quality of the ingredients, cost, and your pet's age, breed, activity level, allergies, preferences, and other health concerns.
Let's talk about nutrition as the foundation, and then we can talk about a couple of common circumstances that would lead you to change your decision.
But before we do that, I have a pretty hard and fast rule. If Pork is the main ingredient in your dog's food, take it and throw it in the trash. Pork is one of those types of processed meats that are better left entirely off the canine menu. If your dog is a fan of pork, the best way to serve it is by just giving a little bit as a treat. Pork has a high fat content, and too much fat can cause a stomach upset and is a possible cause of dog pancreatitis - a life-threatening condition.
One of the fastest ways to check and eliminate particular dog foods is to check the labeling. While not foolproof, there are sneaky ways manufacturers can mislead you; it's a good place to start. The fundamental ingredients you want to see listed on the packaging of any dog food are as follows.
Meat or Fish - meat, meat meal, organ meat - should be listed in the top ingredients, with the general rule that we prefer a food that is 30 percent lean protein. Meat meal is generally preferred to meat as it's concentrated. i.e., Fresh chicken meat contains up to 73% water, whereas chicken meal contains 300% more protein than fresh chicken. Organ meat adds critical vitamins and nutrients. Avoid terms like "made with organ meat" and look for the actual organs to be listed. You want to see things like kidneys, heart, liver, spleen, and gizzard (if you are feeding a poultry-based food.) The most nutritious organs come from:
Liver - high in soluble vitamin A, glycogen, potassium, copper, B vitamins, and vitamins D, K, and E.
Heart - contains a concentrated source of CoQ10, along with taurine (an essential amino acid)
Kidneys - high in Vitamins A, B, and Iron
Spleen - contains Vitamins D, K, A, and E, iron, and zinc.
Note that if you choose to feed raw, you can get organ meat at a butcher shop. If it's not on display, just ask them. Then you can just boil them.
Rice, Fruits, and Vegetables - Dogs cannot live on meat alone. Carbs are important for energy and a balanced diet, as well as to provide fiber. Fruits, vegetables, and rice all provide fast sources of energy for your dog. Lower-quality ingredients are typically soy, corn, and wheat - and some dogs may be sensitive to these. Currently, more popular ingredients are pumpkin, squash, kale, apple, peas, rice, and berries. Beet pulp used to be common, and you may still find it as an ingredient as it's very high in fiber; however, you should avoid anything with beet pulp as it has been linked to a disease called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) - which can be fatal in medium to large breed dogs.
Good fiber is going to help with digestion, just like it does for us. It's also important for maintaining a healthy weight and preventing anal gland disease. It also helps keep the stool well formed - protecting against both constipation and diarrhea, but be wary of foods that are high-fiber diets as this will rob your dog of important nutrients.
Avoid foods that list "powdered cellulose" as an ingredient. This is a code word for cheap fillers that could include things like paper, tree pulp, and cotton.
Healthy Fats & Fatty Acids - Other than the fats found in the meats, sunflower oil, coconut oil, fish oil, flaxseed oil, and olive oil are all good sources of healthy fats. Dogs also need two kinds of fatty acids that they cannot make themselves: Omega-3 and Omega-6. Omega-3 can come from sources like fish oil and flaxseed, whereas Omega-6 comes from meat or poultry.
Electrolytes, Vitamins & Minerals - Electrolytes such as sodium, chloride, and potassium should be further down the ingredient list but are also found in other ingredients like pumpkin - which is a good source of potassium. Important vitamins, such as vitamin A, B vitamins, vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin K, and choline, may also be found in the other ingredients, but look for them on the nutrition label, along with trace minerals such as zinc gluconate, ferrous sulfate (iron), and manganese sulfate.
The price of your dog's food is going to be a factor, but you can find high-quality pet food for a reasonable price. There are all kinds of boutique diets out there, including Raw, Organic, Grain Free, etc. You can easily spend hundreds of dollars a month on dog food, but this is, in my opinion, unnecessary. Many of the current fads in pet food come from human diet fads, and the choice to participate in them is more about us than our dogs.
Pet Activity Level
I'm most familiar with sporting dogs, so let's start here. Sporting or GunDogs typically have a lot of energy, but they don't always need it. I like to start with a brand that includes a product for high-energy sporting dogs so that as hunting season starts, I can begin to transition him to that food to give him what he needs for the season. Once that season is done, I may transition him back to a food that is for healthy maintenance throughout the rest of the year and also easier on my pocketbook.
For most, however, this is pretty straightforward. If your dog has a continually active lifestyle, choose a food that supports that, and that may come with some additions for supporting joint health. If your dog is sedentary or older, then you probably want more of a maintenance diet to prevent obesity.
Many dogs these days may have food allergies. In my experience, these allergies may often present as chronic flatulence, vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss (excessive shedding), flaking of skin/dandruff, ear inflammation, hot spots, and skin infections - you may notice many of these as excessive scratching.
If you experience any of these, one of the things your vet may ask you to do is to go onto a limited-ingredient diet to try to eliminate any problem causes.
Most food allergies in pets are protein-related. Some of the most common include:
Chicken & Chicken Eggs - Chicken is fairly common, but the ingredient "chicken fat" should not produce an allergic reaction in your dog.
Soy & Gluten (wheat) - Although I think a gluten allergy in dogs is rarer than the popularity of gluten/wheat and grain-free dog foods suggests.
Grain-Free or Not Grain-Free
There are, in some rare cases, dogs that are allergic to grains. Grain allergies can lead to ear infections, red, itchy skin, and discolored paws. One indication of this may be excessive licking, not just of them but of you.
Many think that because Dogs are descended from Wolves, they should eat only meats; however, dogs are not wolves and have a different GI tract than wolves. Dogs have genes that wolves do not have that allow them to eat more grains. After thousands of years of evolution with Humans, Dogs, like us, are omnivores. There is no scientific information that grains are bad for dogs. In fact, some grains provide necessary vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids.
However, it is absolutely the case that a great many dog food brands contain overwhelmingly large numbers of grains as fillers, particularly corn or corn by-products, rice, and wheat, as cheap ways to stuff calories into dogs and to make dog food bags larger. This is the exact practice that the grain-free brands/products address. No doubt, the grain-free dog food "movement" also got to cash in on the human fad to eliminate grains.
Veterinarians are now recommending against all grain-free foods; however, you should know that there are no scientific studies to show that grain-free diets are either healthier or unhealthier, but actual grain allergies are very rare. Vets are recommending against grain-free foods primarily because of the DCM debacle. It's important to note that their in-house brand, Hill's, is not grain-free. Before we discuss DCM, a quick look at the most common Vet recommended brand is in order.
The Vet recommended brands
In the US, this is often Hill's Science Diet. Hills prescription formula is sold only by Veterinarians. It should be noted that the prescription formulas are only intended to be used for short terms to address specific issues. These would not be considered healthy for a normal dog, which is why you cannot buy the prescription formulas elsewhere. My understanding is that the prescription formulas are good for their intended uses. If your Vet has prescribed Hills to address a specific health problem, you should continue with this under the advice of your vet. For me, the issue lies with Hill's non-prescription foods and recommendations to use them, and most vets sell them.
What your Vet has probably neglected to tell you is that in 2019, multiple class action lawsuits were brought against Hill's. They recalled some of their food in January 2019 but should have instituted a recall much sooner. It is believed that hundreds, if not thousands of pets have died or become seriously ill as a result of eating Hill's pet foods. Hills settled in February of 2021. The class action suit was due to toxic amounts of vitamin D stemming from a lack of quality control. Colgate-Palmolive had outsourced many key ingredients to suppliers in China.
An aside: Hill's was started by a Vet, Dr. Mark Morris. He started selling his formula for dog food in 1943, but Hill's was bought by Colgate-Palmolive in 1976. Hill's Pet Nutrition initially relied on independent medical supply and pharmaceutical distributors to sell their food to more than 21,000 small-animal veterinarians in the United States. They worried that competitors would scoop up these independent distributors, and so in 1987, they purchased the Veterinary Companies of America (VCA) 1. Hills is very involved in the veterinary world. They sponsor a lot of colleges and provide free food to veterinary students who sell their products.
The DCM Issue
A couple of years ago, there was a rise in the number of cases of non-hereditary dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM.) Some dogs died, and the FDA started an investigation into grain-free foods, no doubt encouraged by other dog food makers. The suspicion was that overuse of legumes was leading to DCM and that legumes are used more heavily in grain-free foods than non-grain-free foods. However, the FDA themselves have this to say about legumes: "Legumes, including pulse ingredients, have been used in pet foods for many years, with no evidence to indicate they are inherently dangerous."
The FDA then compiled a list of food brands/products that were being fed to dogs who were diagnosed with DCM. This list of dog food products on the FDA website included both grain-free and non-grain-free dog foods. A study of non-hereditary DCM found 22 cases over a 2-year period in dogs on grain-free foods and 27 cases of dogs eating food with grains.
It should be noted that DCM can be caused by low levels of the amino acid taurine. Your dog normally gets taurine from meat or other enhanced food sources.
A major culprit, or *the* culprit, appears to be Beet Pulp, which all of the top grain-free manufacturers immediately removed from their foods. Beet Pulp, a popular filler, reduces taurine levels in your dog. However, not all manufacturers have done this. A number of lower-cost products still include Beet Pulp. The top brands (including those I recommended above) also scaled back on the use of legumes.
For more information on the Grain Free debate, have a look at this article from TopDog Foundation titled No Controversy: Why We Feed Grain-Free
For more information on Beet Pulp, check out this article by the dog food manufacturer Lyka, on why they do not use it.
There are advantages to feeding a raw diet. Many of the promoted advantages include:
Vitamins and Nutrients are not lost due to cooking. The cooking process destroys many of these, which have health benefits. Canines have the biological tools to eat a raw diet.
No/fewer preservatives. Additives and preservatives can, theoretically, have long-term health impacts.
Higher water content
You know what's going into it - particularly if you make it yourself so you have the opportunity to have higher quality ingredients, but if you buy it, this is not a guarantee.
Improved feces quality - less smelly and more compact.
Potentially better periodontal health - particularly if raw bones are included - however, the feeding of raw bones is in itself a topic of vigorous debate.
There are also some disadvantages of a raw diet to consider:
Higher cost - potentially much higher cost and lower "shelf life." If you have a small dog, this may not be a large issue, but if you have a medium-large or very active dog that eats well, your costs could increase sharply.
Risk of infection to the dog and humans due to harmful bacteria or parasites. When processing, storing, and feeding, you need to ensure that you are properly washing all tools, utensils, containers, and the dog's bowl between every feeding.
Not all dogs will transition to Raw easily. Expect your dog to have increased diarrhea, cramping, and gas. You may need to add small amounts of yogurt, goat's milk, or cheese to help digestion until their digestive systems adjust. Keep in mind that most dogs are lactose intolerant, so the amount of dairy needs to be kept to a minimum, but there are many ways to adjust to this. Active culture yogurt can aid in lactose digestion, and many kinds of cheese, typically hard-aged cheeses like Swiss, parmesan, and cheddar, contain little to no lactose.
Making your own "raw" food is a huge investment in time, education, materials, and storage. Depending on your lifestyle, you need to be honest with yourself if this is something you can research and maintain. You will need to do your research to ensure that what you are feeding will meet all of the nutritional needs of your dog.
It's important to highlight the safety issues with feeding raw. As mentioned in a recent article posted on Yahoo with regards to commercially available Raw dog foods:
the U.S. Food & Drug Administration also warns against feeding your pet raw dog food. In 2012, the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) tested more than 1,000 samples of pet food for bacteria such as Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes. Not only did the FDA find that “quite a large percentage of the raw foods for pets we tested were positive for the pathogen Listeria,” but the only dog foods found to contain Salmonella and Listeria were the raw dog foods.
Unfortunately, the rest of the article seems to be a marketing piece.
Additional Notes on Regulation
In the US and New Zealand, the quality of pet food is self-regulated. There has been a recent rise of pet foods coming out of New Zealand, but like products made in the US, you need to do your homework as there is no regulatory standard.
AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) doesn’t test, regulate, certify, or approve pet foods in any manner. Rather, it sets the nutritional standards that pet food manufacturers must follow to have their products validated as “complete and balanced.” American Pet food producers should formulate their products according to AAFCO’s guidelines.