All pet parents want to make sure they are feeding their dog the best dog food possible—one that supports their dog’s health and overall quality of life. But what is the best dog food for your particular dog?
There’s no simple answer to this question; it will depend on a number of factors specific to you and your pet. Here’s a guide to help you determine what is the best dog food for your canine family member.
Important Factors in Choosing the Best Dog Food
To find the right dog food, you will need to consider these factors:
Your Dog’s Age
How old is your dog? Is she a puppy, a young adult, or a senior dog? Dogs in different life stages have different nutritional requirements.
How Do You Pick the Best Puppy Food?
The essential ingredients of all dog diets are proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. Puppy diets should typically contain about twice the amount of crude protein and fat than adult diets.
This is because puppies have higher energy requirements and are actively developing muscle and other tissues. Energy comes from the breakdown of protein fats and carbohydrates.
You may also see a mention of docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, on puppy food packaging. Additives such as DHA have been said to support a puppy’s brain, heart, and eye development. DHA is a fatty acid which is plentiful in oily fish, so salmon or other fish-based puppy diets may not need additional supplementation.
Large breed puppy diets should have lower calcium and phosphorus to support good bone development because large breeds mature at a slower rate.
What Is the Best Dog Food for Adult Dogs?
Adult dog diets should have at least 10% protein and up to 50% carbohydrates (to include 2-4.5% fiber). If you read the label of all over-the-counter dog food diets, they are all in compliance.
What Is the Best Dog Food for Senior Dogs?
As your dog ages, their reduced activity levels and slower metabolism mean that they will need approximately 20% less total calories than before. Your vet can help you determine the best senior dog food that will offer your dog the right amount of calories.
Older pets are also more prone to cognitive changes and arthritic changes in their joints, so they may benefit from foods that promote joint health and cognitive function.
You may see “glucosamine” and/or “chondroitin sulfate” listed in the General Analysis section of a senior dog food package. Glucosamine and chondroitin are thought to maintain cartilage and joint health, but the dosages of these supplements vary because a direct effect has not been proven.
It is essentially a "may help but will likely not harm" scenario. If glucosamine and chondroitin are incorporated in a senior diet, the dose your dog gets will also depend on how much food your dog eats.
The amino acid L-carnitine was shown in a 2012 study to help cognitive function in Beagles, although it was a small study (16 animals/group). The diet fed in the study also contained high levels of taurine and other health promoters that could have played a role.
In general, any additive to an AAFCO-balanced diet should first be discussed with your veterinarian. Ask them whether certain supplements or senior diets with these supplements might benefit your senior dog.
Your Dog’s Breed/Size
What breed is your dog? Joint issues are more common in large and giant breeds. Certain breeds are at a higher risk for skin conditions. You might look for certain diets that are made for larger breeds or that help promote skin health.
What Is the Best Dog Food for Small Dogs?
If you go for dry food, try one that’s made for small dogs and has smaller kibbles. This may seem like a no-brainer, but small and toy breeds use the nutrients from smaller kibbles better because they chew them more completely.
Check with your vet so you can be sure to meet your particular dog’s needs based on their lifestyle and health issues.
What Is the Best Dog Food for Large Dogs?
Large and giant breed dogs are prone to joint issues. Does that mean that the best dog food for large breeds is a joint health diet or one that contains glucosamine or chondroitin?
Not necessarily. Your dog may benefit from taking these as supplements instead of within their foods, to ensure that they are getting the full dose that they require.
Does your dog have any health issues like skin allergies, kidney disease, or inflammatory bowel disease? These pets may have specific nutritional requirements and need foods with or without certain ingredients. Your vet may also recommend a prescription diet for certain conditions.
Pregnant or Nursing Dogs
Is your dog pregnant or nursing puppies? Pregnant and nursing dogs require food that is higher in protein and has lots of water, like a pregnancy or puppy diet.
Do you have any personal preferences, like dry kibble versus canned, or raw diet versus processed?
What Is the Best Dog Food Brand for Your Dog?
After you've determined whether your dog needs a certain type of food for her specific health conditions, you can look into brands to find the best fit.
Get Recommendations to Discuss With Your Vet
Talk to your family and friends who have dogs. Get a sense of the brands they’ve used or liked, and take a look at their pet. Does their dog have a great haircoat? Is he active and energetic?
Also look at online reviews. Remember that there is no brand of food that is best for all dogs, but this step will help to narrow your choice. Then you can take a list of brands to your veterinarian to get their feedback.
What Is the Best Dog Food Type?
Another decision you’ll have to make is the type of food: processed or raw diet, canned or dry (if you go with a processed diet), and grain-free or with grains.
Canned Dog Food or Dry Dog Food?
Both canned dog food and kibble can provide adequate nutrition.
Canned diets contain more moisture and may benefit dogs with urinary problems or dogs that don’t tend to drink a lot of water. They are also more flavorful. However, feeding a 70-pound dog an all-canned diet will require lots of storage space.
Grain-Free Diet or Dog Food With Grains?
The verdict is still out, as the Food and Drug Administration is currently investigating grain-free dog food. Speak with your vet to get the latest information and their recommendations on grain-free dog food and diets that include grains.
Processed Dog Food or Raw Diet?
Raw diets may increase your pet’s exposure to foodborne pathogens. Speak with your vet or a veterinary nutritionist before making this decision. You will have to do your research and plan a recipe with your vet to make sure that a raw diet is complete and balanced.
How to Evaluate the Label and Ingredients
If you’ve gotten a recommendation for specific brands or formulas, and you know the type of food you want to try, the next thing to do is to read the dog food label. You can tell a lot about a dog food from the words used on the label.
Evaluate the Name of the Diet
Look for diets that follow the 95% rule. Labels like “salmon and rice” or “chicken and brown rice” mean that 95% of the diet is comprised of those ingredients (not counting any water added during processing). Words like “dinner” mean that whatever is in front of that word comprises only 25% of the diet.
Look for an AAFCO Statement
Make sure there is an Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) statement saying that the product is “complete and balanced.” Most balanced diets will contain a mixture of protein, fat, carbohydrate (to include fiber), minerals, vitamins and other ingredients generally recognized as safe.
AAFCO uses nutritional recommendations from the Nutritional Research Council (NRC). The NRC determines the minimum levels of nutrients and energy needed for the different life stages of a dog.
Pet food manufacturers are only required to note the minimums of crude fat, protein, fiber, and moisture in the Guaranteed Analysis section of the ingredient list. The actual amounts will vary by batch based on protein source, etc.
Check the Ingredient List, Especially the First Five Ingredients
Always check the ingredient list. Items are listed in a weighted order—so a dog food that has corn, beef meal, potatoes, peas, and chicken as the first five ingredients has more corn than chicken by weight.
What else should you know?
“Meal" means that the water and fat have been removed. It does not include hair, horns, or nails but usually organ meat like livers, kidneys, hearts, etc.
“Natural flavor” does not mean organic. This flavor can come from any plant or animal source, and the product must contain enough to be detected.
Chemical-sounding names are usually vitamins, minerals, and other supplements.
Some dog foods will have probiotics added, such as Bacillus coagulans fermentation product or Lactobacillus acidophilus fermentation product. Probiotics are live cultures of gut microorganisms. They may be beneficial but would have to be added to dry dog food after baking to be effective.
In the end, the only way to figure out if it’s the best dog food for your pet is to try it out. If your pet has good muscling, a great haircoat, normal and regular poop, great energy, and a good appetite, you’ve probably found it.
Featured Image: iStock.com/ Valeriya21