How to Choose the Best Food for Your Dog

Not all dog foods are the same
How to choose the best food for your dog

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With the sheer number of dog foods on the market today, trying to find the best one can leave your head spinning. There are options for nearly every diet, size and age of dog. And that’s a good thing, because different dogs need different nutrition. Choosing the right dog food can mean more comfort for your pup, fewer health problems down the road and saving some money on groceries. Here’s how to choose the best food for your dog.

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The first thing you should consider is whether you want dry or wet dog food. Wet food and dry food have different ingredient compositions, but neither is necessarily “better” than the other. Both give your dog vitamins and nutritional value that other sources like raw meat don’t include. The main advantage with dry food is that it can be stored at room temperature. However, some dogs will take to wet food much better than dry food. Wet food can be a little more expensive — or a lot more expensive — and must be refrigerated after it’s been opened.

Another factor to consider is your dog’s age. Most dog foods fall into one of three categories: puppy, adult or senior. Puppies and older dogs have different nutritional needs than other dogs do, and therefore need different food to be at their healthiest (with an occasional Puppuccino, of course). Consult with your veterinarian before switching from puppy to adult food, or from adult to senior food. Quality pet food should be clearly labeled with the age of dog the food is meant for, and you can also use foods labeled for “all life stages” if you have dogs of different ages or don’t want to switch over later.

Next, you should account for the size of your dog. Like age, the size of your dog will indicate different nutritional needs. A 150-pound Great Dane is obviously going to need more, and different, food than a 5-pound Chihuahua.  Small dogs can also choke on the larger pieces of food made for larger breeds. Dog foods should indicate what size dog they’re intended for, and you should make sure you’re following the label’s instructions for how much to feed your dog based on their weight. In addition, you may want to look for special foods if your dog is a working dog or especially athletic.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and the Food and Drug Administration both set standards for pet food labeling and nutrition. For instance, in order to meet AAFCO standards, a pet food has to provide a complete and balanced diet for your pet based on their age, breed and size. AAFCO compliant pet foods will state this on the label. According to the AAFCO website, most states have adopted a version of the AAFCO Model Pet Food Regulations into their own laws, so nationally distributed pet foods are likely to meet AAFCO Regulations.

There is a lot of controversy about dog food ingredients, but it’s not too hard to decode the ingredient labels to find out what’s in your dog’s food. This FDA document contains a full explanation of the rules pet food manufacturers have to abide by in order to use certain marketing terms on their labels. For instance, a product labeled “Beef Dog Food” must contain at least 25 percent beef. However, a product labeled “Dog Food with Beef” only needs to include 3 percent beef. Knowing what kind of ingredient mix you want in your pet’s food will give you a better idea of what terms to look for when you go shopping.

Unfamiliar ingredients are also a common concern, and one of those is animal by-products. Animal by-products are the parts left over after meat for human consumption is taken from animals. By AAFCO standards, animal by-products may include organs, connective tissue, skin, bone, giblets and other animal parts. They cannot include hair, hoof, horn, teeth, manure or stomach contents. While we might find these ingredients less than appealing, your dog likely doesn’t mind, and these parts contain nutrients your pet needs while keeping costs low.

Meat meal is another one of those “mystery ingredients” that really isn’t so mysterious. Meat meal is meat that has been cooked to remove harmful bacteria and then is ground into smaller pieces. This process also removes water and fat, leaving mostly protein and minerals. Because of this, meat meal contains a higher amount of actual meat by weight than whole meat does. The whole meat that goes into meat meal must meet the same standards as whole meat and animal by-products. So don’t be afraid if you see meat meal or animal by-product meal on a pet food ingredient list.

Grain-free and gluten-free diets have become more popular for dogs in recent years because of the popularity of grain-free and gluten-free diets in humans, and the awareness of food allergens in dogs. While it might make sense to feed your dog a grain-free diet since we don’t imagine dogs eating grain as much as meat, most dogs can actually digest grain and gluten pretty easily. Furthermore, the FDA is investigating a link between a type of heart disease in dogs and some of the ingredients used to replace grains in certain dog foods. While grain-free diets may be an option if your dog does have an allergy, in most cases it’s not necessary. Your veterinarian can help you determine if a grain-free diet is necessary for your dog.

You may also wonder if an organic pet food brand is better for your dog. Organic dog foods are made with ingredients that are free from synthetic fertilizers, genetic engineering and irradiation. Some brands may contain more organic ingredients than others, but those with the USDA Organic seal on the label are required to have at least 95 percent of the ingredients be organic. “Made with organic” foods are required to have at least 70 percent of the ingredients be organic.

Sifting all those options can seem daunting, but by reading the label carefully and considering your specific dog’s needs, you can find a food that works for your pup. But even the best dog foods can benefit from the addition of these 18 superfoods you can try feeding your dog.