The dry dog food that your canine companion eats forms an essential part of establishing their baseline wellbeing. The quality and ingredients in their dry food make a world of difference when it comes to their health, energy levels, and fitness.
If you have ever shopped for dry dog food, you are probably well aware that there is a potentially overwhelming and confusing range of options on the market. Different ingredients, different nutrients, different recipes, and different price points—to say nothing of medical diets, sensitive digestion diets, puppy and senior diets, and more—can make it hard to determine what, exactly, is the best choice for your dog.
The primary ingredient in most of the better processed dry foods is meat or meat-derived, providing the vital proteins that your pet needs.
However, because domestic dogs are omnivores, their foods also often contain some portion of grains, vegetables, and fruits as sources of other essential fiber, minerals, and vitamins. Veterinary nutritionists recommend against feeding dogs single-ingredient diets since these provide a poor balance of nutrients. Determining the most appropriate and safest mix of nutrient-sources from these many ingredients for your particular pet can be a challenge.
Fortunately, processed dog foods on the market today encounter regulation by industry and government standards. Dry dog food must pass a range of rigorous safety tests by veterinary medicine specialists. With few exceptions, almost all commercially available dry foods are safe for your pet to eat and contain the minimum necessary balance of nutrients, fats, and calories to keep most dogs healthy.
At the same time, though, not every dog has the same nutritional or medical needs as every other dog. If your dog has particular dietary requirements for medical reasons or due to food allergies or sensitivities, you should speak with a veterinary nutritionist to determine what the safest and best dry food is for your pet. When you go to the pet store or order dog food online, you might also notice that some manufacturers offer breed-specific dry foods. While these can occasionally be helpful—if, for example, the recipe provides a particular nutrient that your dog needs explicitly—they are often redundant: virtually any dog will benefit from any wholesome, age-appropriate dry food, regardless of the breed.
Perhaps the most fundamental step in deciding on dry food is to understand the eight categories of information that the Food and Drug Administration requires to printed on dog food labels.
1. Product Name. Rules govern what words pet food makers can use in their product names. If the product name contains the word “chicken”, for example, then at least 70 percent of the product must be made of chicken. If modifiers “dinner” or “entrée” appear, then only 10 percent comes from that ingredient. If the word “with” (as in, “with chicken”) appears, then only 3 percent is made of that ingredient. For “flavor” (as in “chicken flavor”), that means that less than 3 percent.
2. Net weight of the product. Consult a veterinary feeding guide or veterinary nutritionist to determine what the appropriate amount of this particular kind of food is for your dog, given their weight, breed, age, and medical history.
3. Name and address of maker. For any pet food to be sold commercially in the United States, it must adhere to specific federal and possibly state regulations. The name and address of the maker must appear on the dog food container or label.
4. Guaranteed analysis. For safety purposes, the maker must disclose the main nutrient content of the food, which includes at least the minimum percentages of crude fat and crude protein and the maximum rates of moisture and crude fiber.
5. Ingredients list. The ingredients on the label appear in order of quantity, with the most prevalent component listed first and the least frequent listed last.
However, some pet food manufacturers will employ strategies to alter how the list appears. For example, a grain gets broken down into different types of grain that appear in the food. “Corn” might be listed as “kibbled corn”, “ground corn”, and “flaked corn”—allowing the ingredient to appear further down the list even though its actual content is quite high. You should also familiarize yourself thoroughly with any particular allergies or dietary needs that your dog might have so you can know what ingredients to look for or to avoid.
6. Intended species. This information simply indicates whether the food is for a dog or a cat. Because the two species have very different digestive systems and dietary needs, you mustn't feed a dog food made for a cat, or vice versa.
7. Nutritional adequacy statement. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is a non-governmental, non-regulatory organization comprised of animal control and care officials from around the country that issues annual recommendations for animal feeding products. The AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement indicates whether the product is complete and balanced for a particular stage of life or if it is intended only for intermittent or supplemental feeding.
8. Feeding guidelines. Feeding guidelines explain how much and how often to give the food to your pet. Sometimes this information might be more detailed to provide instructions based on factors such as age, weight, or breed. While you should follow the guidelines provided by the manufacturer, you should also consult a veterinary nutritionist if there are extenuating circumstances or any other reasons why you suspect your pet might require a different feeding schedule or amount.
With these factors in mind, the following guide outlines some of the essential variables to consider as you try to decide on dry food for your pet. Each section contains information about a particular kind of food or dietary need: dry food for puppies, dry food for adult dogs, and dry food for senior dogs.
1. Best Dry Food for Puppies
After a puppy is weaned off its mother’s milk at around between four and eight weeks of age, they need to switch to a food source that will provide them with the vital nutrients that they need to establish the best possible foundation for healthy growth. The best puppy dry dog food will provide your youngster with a balance of nutrients that will support bone and muscle development, enhance their immune system, maintain an optimal ratio of fat, and prevent the onset of early-age diseases.
Typically, puppies mature to their adult size—and thus no longer need to eat puppy food—by around 10 to 12 months of age for small and medium breeds and 18 to 24 months for larger breeds. However, because the dietary needs of puppies are profoundly different than those of older dogs, it is important not to start a puppy on adult dog dry food too early.
Puppies fed a diet not correctly balanced for their needs can develop hypertension, heart disease, osteoarthritis, immune malfunctions, or diabetes.
There are four essential nutrients that the best puppy dry dog food will include, and you should check to ensure that the food you choose has the proper balance of all of these.
1. Protein. Puppies need the most protein immediately after they stop weaning and then steadily less as they age. This nutrient helps their bodies build up the muscle mass that they need to maintain their active and energetic lifestyle. Veterinary nutritionists recommend dry food for puppies that contain no more than 32 percent protein and gradually step down to around 22 percent as they mature. Exceeding the recommended protein levels can result in maximal growth problems, including obesity.
2. Calcium. Calcium contributes to the formation of your puppy’s teeth, bones, and hair. Smaller and medium-sized breeds should be fed dry food with a calcium level ranging between 0.7 percent and 1.7 percent, depending on the dog’s size and breed. Larger breeds have more precise calcium needs because of their bone-growth density as they mature, so if you own a larger dog, you must find a puppy food that lists precisely their weight-range, age, and/or breed on the label.
3. Fats. The essential fatty acids in dry puppy food deliver a potent supply of stored energy as well as fat-soluble vitamins to your growing dog, including the vital antioxidant vitamins E and selenium, which help your dog’s immune system grow strong. Fatty acids also contribute to skin and hair health, and the omega fatty acid DHA is essential for healthy brain development and vision. At the same time, too much fat in the diet can lead to early-onset obesity and the development of severe orthopedic disease in puppies. Depending on your dog’s breed, look for a dry puppy food that comprises no more than 25 percent fat content and no less than 10 percent.
4. Digestible carbohydrates. Carbohydrates provide your dog with the daily energy supply they need to remain active, play, and grow. Too much can lead to obesity, but too little can lead to sluggishness and malnutrition. Veterinary nutritionists recommend that puppies eat dry food that contains between 15 percent and 20 percent carbohydrate content.
Unless recommended or prescribed by a veterinarian, avoid giving your puppy any additional mineral or vitamin supplements. Ideally, they should derive all of their nutritional needs from their diet alone. If you give them treats beyond their daily dry food, try to keep the number of treats they receive to under 10 percent of their total daily diet and make sure that the treat adheres to the puppy dietary needs described above.
Because puppies are still learning to eat in healthy ratios, avoid free-range feeding until your dog has matured. Instead, feed them only a single serving portion for about 10 to 20 minutes between two to four times per day, depending on their size and age (more often for younger and small dogs; less often for older and larger dogs). The size of an individual portion depends on your dog’s size, breed, age, and metabolism.
2. Best Dry Food for Adult Dogs
Once your dog has reached adulthood, his or her dietary requirements will become more stable and less dynamic than they were as a puppy. Except for particular medical conditions, dietary restrictions, or breed-specific necessities, most adult dogs have fairly consistent nutritional needs. Choosing a dry food that meets these needs in the most healthy and wholesome way possible is important because your dog will likely be eating this food for most of his or her life.
Here are some tips about what to look for when looking for the best dry dog food for your adult dog:
• Meat first. Choose a dry food that derives the majority of its protein from a named meat source. The phrase “meal” after the name of the meat (as in, “chicken meal”) is OK. While "meal" might not sound appetizing for a human, dogs love it, and, importantly, meat meal has less water content than whole meat—which means that the food will have a higher protein content from its meat ingredients. Also, do not shy away if it says “animal byproducts”; again, this sounds less than appealing for a human, but the byproducts typically used for dry food (such as internal organs) are very high in nutrients. Do, however, avoid products with non-specific ingredients, such as “meat”, “meat meal”, or “animal fat”.
• Ratios. Keep an eye out for the AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement, but also pay close attention to the guaranteed analysis statement on the label. Ideal dry food for a typical adult dog should be around 27 percent to 40 percent protein, 13 percent to 23 percent fat, and 29 percent to 52 percent estimated carbohydrates. In other words, you are aiming, if possible, for a fat-to-protein ratio of between 42 percent and 57 percent.
• Grains and vegetables. Do not be turned off by grain-inclusive ingredient lists. As noted above, dogs are omnivores and will often thrive better if they can derive their needed minerals and vitamins from a variety of food sources rather than just one. Many quality dry foods for adults incorporate oatmeal, barley, peas, brown rice, millet, pumpkin, sweet potato, or other vegetable and grain products. Be sure that these are being used for nutritional purposes, however, and are not merely fillers (particularly the case for grains); one way to do that is to make sure they are not too prevalent or high up on the ingredients list. You want a dry food that is a balanced meal—not one that is dominated by empty carbohydrates. The two grains that you should try to avoid as ingredients, however, are wheat and corn. Dogs are generally gluten sensitive, which wheat contains. Gluten can trigger severe antigen reactions and lead to the development of several medical complications over time. Corn is very high in sugars, which can result in diabetes.
• Flavors. There is no good explanation of why, but some dogs are just picky eaters. It may take some experimentation, but you should try different flavored dry foods to find the one that best appeals to your pet. Buy small portions of different types of foods and try each one for a couple of weeks at a time. Most flavor in dry food comes from the use of different kinds of meat, such as beef, chicken, fish, rabbit, lamb, duck, turkey, pork, or venison.
• Other ingredients. Try to avoid dry dog foods that employ preservatives and artificial chemicals, colors, or flavors. Extra ingredients get added to dry food to make their appearance and smell more appealing to humans—in other words, to make them seem more like human foods. But they often reduce or even wholly counteract the nutritional benefits of the food’s natural ingredients.
For most adult dogs, consistency in their diet is an essential factor for overall health. Once you find a particular dry food that appeals to your pet and meets their dietary needs, try to avoid switching away from it. If you do need to change for some reason, though, make sure to introduce the new food gradually: transition your dog from one dry food to the other by mixing the new one into the old one at steadily increasing proportions over a week or two. Transitioning will help your dog become familiar with the new food and will allow you to identify any potential medical or food-sensitive issues that might arise from the use of the new product.
3. Best Dry Food for Senior Dogs
The age at which your dog becomes a “senior” dog depends on their breed and size. Typically, smaller and medium-sized breeds become seniors when they reach eight years to 10 years of age. Larger dogs become be seniors at the age of five years to seven years.
At this point in their lives, not only do most dogs eat less, their dietary needs shift to foods that can be easier to metabolize and that are lower in calories. Most dry food for seniors will have a fat level of around eight percent to 12 percent. Older dogs lose muscle mass more rapidly than younger dogs; they need a protein source that can replenish their amino acids. Thus, dry foods for senior dogs should have a ratio of 75 grams of protein for every 1,000 calories.
When choosing the best dry dog food for your senior dog, seek the advice of your veterinarian or an animal nutritionist, since the balance of nutrients and vitamins that your dog requires may vary depending on any medical conditions they might have. In general, however, the best dry food for senior dogs will include the following nutrients, either derived from the ingredients used or from supplements added to the food by the manufacturer:
• Fiber. Additional prebiotic fiber in your senior dog’s diet can help ease constipation and other digestive complications such as inflammation. At the same time, though, too much fiber can lead to problems of its own. An ideal fiber content for most senior dogs is around 3 percent to 5 percent. Unless prescribed by a veterinarian, avoid prolonged use of high-fiber foods, and, while using such foods, be sure that your dog gets plenty of exercise to help burn the additional calories.
• Omega-3 fatty acids. These nutrients are an essential part of your dog’s dietary health throughout his or her life. As a dog ages, they provide improved bodily protection against inflammation and help maintain kidney health. Omega-3 fatty acids, such as vitamin A and linoleic acid, can keep your older dog’s skin and coat healthy. DHA, which is derived primarily from fish, can help maintain cognitive health (aim for 0.5 grams of DHA for every 1,000 calories, to start).
• Antioxidants. As your dog ages, their immune system slows down and becomes less and less effective at fighting off infection and disease. A diet that is rich in antioxidants can boost your dog’s immune system and help keep them healthier.
• Chondroitin and glucosamine. One of the most common ailments to strike older dogs is arthritis, or other muscle and bone weaknesses. These two compounds are ideal for healing and protecting the cartilage that makes up your dog’s joints, allowing them to move easier and with less pain if they do happen to develop any muscle or bone deterioration that impedes their mobility.
• Dental additives. If your senior dog is developing dental problems, you want to provide them with a diet that will help supplement periodic cleanings and maintain good oral health. Look for dry food that incorporates citric acid or sodium hexametaphosphate. These compounds can help keep the minerals that lead to calculus from adhering to the teeth. Probiotics are also helpful for maintaining oral health in dogs.
• Medium-chain triglycerides. Like humans, older dogs experience slowing memory and cognitive processing. Antioxidants from carotenoids can help with this, but so can MCT, which is a kind of fat derived from coconut oil and palm oil.
Be sure that any dry food you choose for your senior dog has only moderate levels of sodium and phosphorus. Too much sodium can elevate your dog’s blood pressure, and too much phosphorus can reduce the efficiency of your dog’s kidney function. Avoid, also, dry foods that have elevated magnesium levels as too much of this nutrient can result in damage to your pet’s nervous system and heart, which can also result in the formation of bladder stones.