Good nutrition is essential to keeping dogs healthy. However, taking a broad topic like nutrition and narrowing it down to answer a question as specific as “What food is best for my dog?” can feel overwhelming.
When you break down the process of choosing the best dog food into more manageable steps, you’ll soon have an answer to the age-old question, “What should I feed my dog?”
Store-Bought vs. Homemade Dog Food
First, ask yourself if you have the time and energy to make your own dog food. Preparing healthy homemade dog food is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. Recipes found online or in books usually do not provide dogs with adequate nutrition, so it’s always safest to work with a veterinary nutritionist or a service that is run by veterinary nutritionists, like PetDiets.com or BalanceIt.com.
It’s also best to avoid feeding raw foods to your dog, due to the increased risk of foodborne illnesses caused by potentially dangerous bacteria like salmonella, E. Coli, and Listeria; and parasites including Sarcocystis and Toxoplasma. These can affect both the dogs that eat raw foods and the people who handle contaminated items and are exposed to dogs that could be shedding disease-causing microbes.
Pet food manufacturers make many high-quality dog foods, and they aren’t all expensive. For most pet parents, feeding commercial dog food is the right choice.
Make Sure the Dog Food Meets AAFCO Guidelines
One of the benefits of purchasing commercial dog food is that reputable manufacturers follow guidelines put forward by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). AAFCO guidelines determine much of what appears on a pet food label, including:
The nutritional adequacy statement
The guaranteed analysis
The ingredient list
Nutritional Adequacy Statement
The easiest way to determine whether a dog food meets AAFCO guidelines is to look for the nutritional adequacy statement that will be printed on the label. Nutritional adequacy statements come in several forms but will usually read something like one of these two examples:
[Name of food] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for [life stage].
Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that [name of food] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [life stage].
The three life stages for which AAFCO has developed standards are growth and reproduction; adult maintenance; and all life stages.
Consider Your Dog’s Age
It’s important to feed your dog a diet formulated for their life stage, as puppies and adult dogs have different nutritional needs.
Dogs that are still growing require higher levels of protein, certain amino acids, fat, essential fatty acids, calcium, and phosphorus in comparison to adult dogs. Puppy-specific foods meet these needs.
Large-breed puppies—those that are going to weigh 50 pounds or so when they are fully grown—should eat large-breed puppy food specifically designed to help them stay slim, and that also has tightly controlled levels of calcium and phosphorous. This can help reduce their risk of developing orthopedic diseases, such as hip dysplasia. If your pup is going to be big, look for puppy foods specifically labeled for large breeds.
Feed puppy food, not adult dog food, until your pup is done growing. This usually occurs around the following ages:
Small dogs: 10–12 months
Medium-size dogs: about 12 months
Large dogs: 12–18 months
Giant dogs: 18–24 months
Adult Dog Food
Your veterinarian can help you decide when it’s time to switch from puppy food to adult dog food. Adult dog food tends to be a little lower in fat and protein than puppy food. Once a dog is done growing, they need less of these nutrients and any extra will simply be stored as fat.
You’ll also find foods that say they are for all life stages, but this is essentially puppy food, as they meet the more rigorous nutritional requirements of puppies. Feeding puppy or all life stages food to an adult dog can increase their risk of becoming overweight or obese.
Sometimes there is a good reason to feed an adult dog the extra calories and protein found in puppy food or all life stages food (for example, if a dog is extremely active or has trouble maintaining their weight). But most healthy adult dogs should eat dog foods designed for adults.
Senior Dog Food
The AAFCO has no separate nutritional standards for senior dogs. In fact, specific nutrient guidelines for older pets haven’t been established.
Senior dog foods can be very different from each other, so it’s wise to do a little more research; look at the rest of the dog food label; and talk to your veterinarian for guidance.
Read the Label
Much of what appears on a dog food label is marketing. But if you look closely, you will find some good information, particularly in two locations: the guaranteed analysis and the ingredient list.
The guaranteed analysis will tell you the minimum or maximum amounts of several important nutrients for dogs.
Protein is an expensive nutrient, so manufacturers will often look there first to cut costs. Find the protein percentage on the guaranteed analysis and compare it to the minimum levels recommended by the AAFCO: 22.5% for puppy food and 18% for adult dog food.
You can do this directly for dry foods, but you’ll need to convert to a dry-matter basis if you’re looking at wet dog food. Better dog and puppy foods will contain significantly more protein than the AAFCO minimum, often 25%–35%.
The ingredient list on a dog food label tells you where all the nutrients it provides come from. The list is ordered from the ingredient present in the largest amount, based on weight, to the one present in the smallest amount.
Don’t get too bogged down in the details—just make sure the first few ingredients are healthy sources of protein and carbohydrates, including (but not limited to!) meat and fish; meat and fish meals (which are a more concentrated source of nutrients); grains; and potatoes.
Better dog and puppy foods will contain significantly more protein than the AAFCO minimum, often 25%–35%.
Make Your Decision and Watch How Your Dog Responds
By now you probably have several good options for your dog’s food, so it’s time to look at some practical considerations. Pick a food within your budget that you can easily purchase. Does your dog have favorite flavors or textures? Don’t ignore them! Even the best food won’t benefit pups if they don’t eat it.
Whenever you are switching dog foods, do so slowly—over a week or so. Gradually mix increasing amounts of the new food with decreasing amounts of the old food. This gives your dog a chance to get used to the new food and decreases the chances they will refuse the new food or get an upset stomach.
Feed the new food to your dog for a month or so, then assess how they are responding to it. Do they have:
A good appetite and look forward to their meals?
A shiny coat that isn’t shedding more than normal?
Firm stools (no diarrhea, constipation, or excess gas production)?
A good energy level?
If so, you’ve found a good diet for your dog.
Talk to Your Vet
Involve your veterinarian in your decision; this is even more important if your dog has medical problems. But even if your pup is healthy, their doctor is in the best position to make specific dog food recommendations.
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