How To Choose The Right Dog Food: Fact Checked by our Vet
Here at Gentle Dog Trainers, we talk about different dog foods all the time. There are so many different options around these days that it can be hard to know where to even start. And on top of that, what’s great for one dog might not be acceptable for another - canines also have unique personalities and requirements.
Today, we’ll focus on helping you choose the best dog food option for your dog. We’ll start with the basics of what to look at when you come across a new dog food formula and finish with some tips to help you understand your dog's specific needs.
Go through these steps, and you’ll be able to choose your next dog food with confidence:
#1 Look at the Ingredient List
The number one thing you should do when you see a new dog food formula you might like, is to look at the ingredient list. If you know what to look for, you can quickly get a basic idea of the quality of the food in question. Here is what to check:
- Is the first ingredient a good source of protein? The first ingredient is the main ingredient of the formula. Typically, you always want to see meat there. If the first ingredient is wheat, rice, or something similar instead of meat, that’s a clear sign of low quality dog food. Sometimes you’ll run into terms like “meat meal” and “meat byproducts”. Typically, meat meal (like chicken meal, or beef meal) is OK as an ingredient for dog food, while meat byproducts should be avoided.
Related: The Best Meat Protein For Dogs.
Related: Real Meat vs Meat Meal in Dog Food.
Related: How Much Protein Is In Dog Food?
- Are the ingredients clearly named? Speaking of meat in dog food ingredient lists, it should definitely be named as clearly as possible. “pork”, “salmon”, “kangaroo” etc. are acceptable labels for meat. But if the ingredient list says “meat” without noting the animal it comes from, do you really want your dog to eat that? Would you eat something if someone told you it was just “meat”? We would rather skip that, and that goes for all other ingredients. If you can’t identify what goes into the food from the ingredient list, that’s definitely a bad sign.
- What kind of fillers are there? Truth be told, most dog food formulas will include some kind of filler, with the exception of some top-quality recipes which also come with a price to match. Pay attention to what those fillers are: vitamin-rich veggies are better than white flour, for example.
Remember to keep a critical eye on the ingredients when checking them out:
“The ingredient list has legal requirements (for example, ingredients names and being in order of weight) but it’s also used as a powerful form of marketing to pet owners. Namely, manufacturers include ingredients that will appeal to pet owners but probably don’t provide any nutritional benefit to the pet, such as artichokes, kale, and blueberries” - Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACVIM for Petfoodology (1)
Nevertheless, also keep in mind that an ingredient list is not everything.
Related: How Is Australia's Dog Food Industry Regulated?
Related: What is AAFCO? The Association of American Feed Control Officials
Related: What Is the Pet Food Industry Association of Australia (PFIAA)?
Related: AAFCO vs PFIAA: Dog Food Standards Comparison Australia
#2 The Guaranteed Analysis
If you are holding a package of dog food in your hand, you’ll probably notice a Guaranteed Analysis table. This will tell you the percentages of protein, fat, and fibre the food contains.
Guaranteed analysis can give you a good idea of how a dog food formula compares to competitors, but keep in mind that it’s not 100% accurate:
“The guaranteed analysis doesn’t give us the actual percentages of these four nutrients in the food; instead, they are listed as minimum levels (for protein and fat) or maximum levels (for fiber and moisture).” - Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACVIM for Petfoodology (2)
Additionally, different types of dog food (kibble, canned, freeze-dried and so on) contain different percentages of water. For this reason, it’s quite difficult to make precise comparisons based on the guaranteed analysis (although it’s possible, using either the dry matter basis or the calorie basis).
#3 Do Some Research on the Brand
As we’ve discussed above, the ingredient list and the guaranteed analysis can tell you a lot about a dog food formula, but they don’t tell you everything. There is still a lot of wiggle room for the actual food even if everything looks perfect on paper.
Related: The Best Australian Made Dog Food.
For example, the ingredient list does not tell you anything about the origin and the quality of the ingredients. Free-range, grass-fed meat will always be better for your pooch than some mystery lowest-quality meat. Moreover, a super high-protein dog food might not be that good if the protein actually comes from a plant source.
Related: The Worst Dog Food Brands Australia.
So what is left to do? Do some research and try to understand the brand behind the dog food. If they are transparent about the ingredients they use, that’s always a good sign. Among other places, you can find lots of detailed reviews of popular dog food brands on our site too.
#4 Understand Your Dog’s Needs
Last but not least, it's important to understand your own dog and their needs in order to find the perfect formula. This will almost certainly involve some trial and error, as your dog can’t really tell you what they like. But here are the three basic things to consider when choosing a dog food formula for your dog:
- Choose an age-appropriate formula. Proper nutrition is especially important for puppies, and they will require more energy and a good balance of essential nutrients during this critical period. Seniors, on the other hand, might have different needs and be more prone to gaining weight.
Related: The Best Puppy Food.
- Try to pick something that suits your dog’s life stage, but also, don’t grab a pack of dog food just because there is a cute puppy on it. There are also dog food formulas that are suitable for all life stages. This is often the case with high-quality formulas, so don’t shy away from recipes labelled “all life stages”. Just because a recipe is marketed specifically for puppies or for seniors, doesn’t mean it’s better.
Related: The Best Senior Dog Food.
- Consider your dog’s activity levels. The activity level is perhaps more important than age. Very active dogs and working dogs need a diet that will support all that activity. That means lots of protein and a decent amount of fat too. On the other hand, apartment dogs that aren’t very active might need to watch their weight. In that case, always choose a lower-fat option.
- Big dogs vs small dogs. Breed does influence dietary requirements. Small dog breeds actually need more calories per pound than large dogs, simply due to the way their bodies are built. On the other hand, giant breed puppies need the calcium to phosphorous ratio in their diet to be perfectly balanced (3).
Finding the right dog food can definitely be difficult. Once you start looking deeper into the recipes, the pet food aisle might start looking like a minefield. But, there are still many good options and if you know what to look out for you’ll find them easily.
In the end, you don’t have to overthink it (but you can, if you like to make decisions based on hard data). The key is in paying attention to your dog. If your furry friend is doing well on a certain type of food, keep it up. There is no need to ruin a good thing.
- Freeman, L. M. March 01, 2019. “Stop reading your pet food ingredient list!”. Petfoodology. Retrieved May 30, 2023. https://vetnutrition.tufts.edu/2019/03/stop-reading-your-pet-food-ingredient-list/
- Freeman, L. M. December 28, 2020. “What Is Guaranteed about the Guaranteed Analysis?”. Petfoodology. Retrieved May 30, 2023. https://vetnutrition.tufts.edu/2020/12/what-is-guaranteed-about-the-guaranteed-analysis/
- Coates, J. February 3, 2012. “Nutritional Differences for Small, Toy, and Large Breed Dogs”. PetMD. Retrieved May 30, 2023. https://www.petmd.com/blogs/nutritionnuggets/jcoates/2012/feb/nutrition_differences_for_small_toy_large_breeds-12459