How to Choose Healthy Dog Food

Two Parts:Determining the Dietary Needs of Your DogPicking a Nutritional Dog Food

You are your dog’s caretaker and want the best for your pet. A large part of your pet’s health is determined by the food that they eat. However, with so many food options out there, how do you choose which is best for your dog? There are some simple guidelines to help you with the decision of what to feed your pet. While there is no one “best” dog food, there are certainly some that are better than others in terms of nutrition.

Part 1
Determining the Dietary Needs of Your Dog

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    Keep in mind your pet's age and activity level. Your pet’s energy and nutrition needs are based on multiple factors including growth, activity, reproductive status and age. Pet food is geared for feeding during certain life stages of the animal. A young growing puppy will need more calories than an older pet. A pregnant or lactating dog will also need more calories than its spayed or neutered counterpart.[1]
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    Determine the nutritional needs of your dog. You should think about the caloric needs of your pet, but also remember that those calories should not all come from just one type of nutrient, for instance only protein or only carbohydrates. For instance, protein ranges of 20-25% of calories is sufficient for healthy dogs, growing and otherwise.
    • If your pet is maintaining a healthy body condition where you can see a waist and easily feel the ribs with the flat of your hand, those are signs that your pet is in good shape. If your pet is heavier than they should be, cut back the calories by 10-25% for a month and then re-evaluate. If your pet seems too thin, then increase the calories by 10-25% and see what happens. Level off the amount fed once the desired body condition has been achieved.
    • If you feed too many calories to your dog, it will store the excess calories on its body, whether it is calories from fat, protein, or carbohydrates.
    • Dogs can develop pancreatitis with high levels of fat (and sometimes protein) in the diet.[2] Fat is a form of concentrated energy. A lower fat dry dog food will have 6-8% fat, while a higher fat diet can be as high as 18% fat.
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    Talk to your veterinarian about your pet’s diet. See what advice they can provide based on your pet’s current health. If your dog has a particular health problem that is affected by diet (diabetes, kidney disease, pancreatitis, food allergy, etc.), your veterinarian will discuss options with you and develop a plan for your pet.
    • Consult your veterinarian if you have concerns about chronic diarrhea or skin conditions that may be related to food allergies. Diarrhea in dogs may have multiple causes (internal parasites, bacterial infection), but food is certainly a big possibility.
    • Occasional loose stool that corrects itself in a day or so in a pet that is otherwise acting and eating normally, is not usually a cause for concern. However, a pet that has chronic bouts of diarrhea that does not resolve and/or there are other clinical signs, like lethargy and decreased appetite, should be investigated and a dietary change may be part of the management of these cases. Chronically itchy skin that does not seem to change with the seasons may be related to a food allergy.[3]
    • There are commercially prepared diets or the diet formulation recommended may require the help of a veterinary nutritionist.

Part 2
Picking a Nutritional Dog Food

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    Don't be fooled by advertisements. Remember that marketing on TV, in magazines and in stores is targeted at humans. Even the design of the bag or can label is designed for humans to pick up and purchase. Don’t be fooled by pretty pictures and cute commercials. Do some research for the sake of your furry friend.
    • Labels that include marketing terms such as “premium,” “natural,” or “gourmet” are good for selling dog food but they do not have an actual definition recognized by the FDA or pet food manufacturers.[4]
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    Decide between canned and dry dog food. Giving your dog canned instead of dry food, or vice versa, is a matter of choice and budget. Most dogs will do fine on either one, but, on occasion, you may find a dog that is sensitive to the form of diet. They may develop symptoms, such as vomiting or diarrhea, that show their system cannot process the food correctly.
    • Canned food is generally more expensive than dry food options but it is about 75% water.
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    Make sure that the label has the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) statement. AAFCO membership is voluntary, but it provides guidelines for the formulation and manufacturing of pet foods. Having this label offers a baseline of assurance to the consumer that the food meets the basic nutritional requirements for the type of animal listed on the container.[5][6]
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    Check the label for the list of ingredients. Dogs are omnivores and they can eat meat, grain, and vegetables. However, you want to see the first ingredient listed as a meat, such as “chicken” or “beef” rather than “meat by product” or “meat meal.” Seeing the word “chicken” on the ingredient label means that the meat is primarily of muscle tissue, but can include the diaphragm of the animal or heart (or other parts).[7]
    • You are also looking to ensure that the first ingredient is not a grain or tuber or vegetable, unless for some reason you are feeding your dog a vegetarian diet.
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    Compare ingredients between different brands of dog food. The ingredients list on the label is listed in order by weight as they are found in the food’s formula. Ingredients with water included, like meat, will usually be higher on the list.
    • In order to compare dry (10-12% moisture) and canned diets (75% water), to truly get to the actual percentage of protein found in dog food, you need to consider the amount of moisture in the diet.[8] To calculate the “dry matter basis” of the amount of protein you are feeding in a can of dog food, you need to remove the amount of water in the food with a calculation. For instance, if the food says that there is 12% protein and the can has 75% water, divide 12% by 25% to get 48% protein. That is pretty high. (You use 25% in the denominator to reflect the dry matter left once you have removed the 75% water in the diet.)[9][10] This will help you compare dog foods, even if they come in different formulations.
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    Check the label for the “proximate analysis” that will tell you the amount of protein, fat, and fiber. The suggested amount to feed your pet, based on your pet’s healthy weight, can also be found on the side of most pet food bags.
    • Of course, it is impossible for the manufacturer to be able to tailor the amount fed for each and every pet individually, so use this information as a basic guideline and monitor your pet’s body condition.
    • You will most likely not find calorie content on the bag or can and will need to call the company or check online for that information.[11]
    • Consult your veterinarian if you have any questions about your pet’s weight and condition.
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    Find the freshest package of dog food. Once you have picked out a type of food, you need to make sure that the food is still fresh. Check the sell by (or best before) date on the container. Dry food in particular is sprayed with fat on the outside to increase palatability. Fat will eventually go rancid with time and exposure to air and light. Heat will increase the chance of rancidity.[12]
    • Also check that the bag is intact and there are no holes in the bag before you take it home.
    • Pet stores will place the oldest food on the top of the stack or the front of the line for the sake of inventory turnover. They want to sell the oldest food first, which makes sense. Just check to see if the product at the back or bottom of the row or stack has a much different date on it and take from the bottom or the back if appropriate.
    • Although it seems like you are saving money buying a 40 pound bag of food for your 10 pound dog, you are better off with a smaller bag for the sake of freshness, unless you store it in the freezer nicely wrapped up to prevent moisture contamination and freezer burn. Don’t forget to label the bag with the name of the food, lot number (in case of food recall), date of purchase and sell by date. Just take the desired portion out the day before you feed it to allow the food to thaw completely.[5]
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    Keep dog food stored properly. You should store dry dog food still in the original bag in an airtight container (plastic or metal) in the cool and dark place, like a closet or pantry or even the freezer.[13] Store leftover canned food covered in the refrigerator. Unopened canned food should be stored in a cool, dry place.
    • It is best to use up opened dog dry food within 6 weeks of opening, as long as it is stored properly.[14]


  • If you are interested in feeding a home cooked or raw diet, you really need to do your research and follow a reliable recipe. An unbalanced diet could harm you dog's health or cause a life-threatening illness.[15] Raw diets will require proper food handling safety precautions to avoid salmonella, listeria, E.coli, or other food contamination.
  • There are a wide variety of great resources that will help you figure out the best nutrition for your pet. Some examples include The Whole Pet Diet by Andi Brown, Dr. Becker's Real Food for Healthy Dogs and Cats by Beth Taylor, and Raw and Natural Nutrition for Dogs by Lew Olson.
  • Acana and Orijen are Canadian brands, that have strict health codes that are used in Canada. They are much healthier than an American brand but are priced a bit high. You can also buy Taste of the Wild it is really good, but inexpensive dog food. It is grain and gluten free and it doesn't have any bye product meal in it. Consult you vet to make your that you can feed you pet this food. Don't always give your dog wet food, giving your dog wet food all the time can be bad for their teeth and can upset their stomach.

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Categories: Feeding Dogs