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- There are many excellent dog food brands, but finding the right food for your pet is not so simple.
- We spoke to veterinarians and an animal nutrition expert who guided us in selecting nutritious dog food.
- Here are some of the best dog foods, including kibble, canned food, fresh food, and puppy, senior, and grain-free diets.
- This article was medically reviewed by Karie Johnson, veterinarian and co-founder of VIP Vet Visit, a mobile vet service in the south suburbs of Chicago.
Choosing a healthy dog food can be an overwhelming process. The brands and formulas we’ve highlighted here are a sampling of the many excellent options available, and each recommendation was evaluated based on standards established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) as well as consultation with veterinary experts. (Products have been independently chosen by us based on our research and years of experience; none were recommended by our experts who maintain impartiality.)
The advice in this guide is tailored to the “average dog” – a sedentary or moderately active dog that is either a healthy weight or slightly overweight, does not have a specific health condition, and is not a working or performance dog. Each dog food was evaluated based on its nutritional adequacy, calorie content, guaranteed analysis, and ingredients.
At the end of this guide, you’ll find complete details on our methodology and the experts we spoke with, as well as information on how to read a pet food label, calculate your dog’s caloric needs, and find a food your dog likes to eat. You can also use this knowledge to evaluate any other brands you might be interested in trying.
Not all dogs are the same, so always consult your veterinarian before introducing new foods to their diets.
Here are 21 of the best dog foods you can buy in 2021
- Dry dog food: Purina Beyond Superfood Blend, Merrick Classic Healthy Grains, Nature’s Logic Canine Chicken Meal Feast
- Wet dog food: Go! Solutions Skin + Coat Care Pollock Pate, Wellness Lamb and Beef Stew, Nutro Limited Ingredient Diet Grain-Free Lamb and Potato Recipe
- Fresh dog food: Just Food For Dogs, Ollie, The Farmer’s Dog
- Budget dog food: Whole Earth Farms Adult Recipe, Natural Balance Original Ultra Whole Body Health, Blue Buffalo Life Protection Chicken and Brown Rice Recipe
- Grain-free dog food: Orijen Fit & Trim Grain-Free, Instinct Original Grain-Free Recipe With Real Chicken, Purina One True Instinct Grain-Free with Real Beef
- Dry food for puppies: Wellness Complete Health Small Breed Puppy, Orijen Puppy Large Grain-Free, Merrick Classic Healthy Grains Puppy Recipe
- Dry food for senior dogs: Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind Adult 7+ Chicken & Rice Formula, Merrick Healthy Grains Senior Recipe, Nulo Freestyle Grain-Free Senior Trout and Sweet Potato Recipe
Dry dog food is a practical option for many pet owners: It’s cost-effective, has a long shelf life, and is easy to store and serve. Always check a pet food label to ensure the food is AAFCO complete and balanced for your adult dog’s life stage — “maintenance” for adults and “growth” for puppies and pregnant or lactating females.
For adult dogs, we recommend foods containing moderate protein (the AAFCO minimum is 18% for adults) and low to moderate fat. Pet owners often assume more protein is better since dogs evolved as carnivores, but this is not so, according to Kelly Swanson, PhD, professor of animal and nutritional sciences at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Domestic dogs are actually omnivorous and do not require extremely high protein concentrations in their diet. “From a pet health perspective, the protein quality and digestibility are most important,” he said.
When shopping for dog food, look for meat sources of protein such as whole meats and meat meals at the top of the ingredients list. Complementary proteins like rice and beans may also be included. Swanson likes to see fat concentrations below 20%, although he doesn’t get too concerned about fat content for healthy-weight pets who do not have conditions like pancreatitis or gastrointestinal disease.
Veterinarian W. Jean Dodds, owner of Hemopet Holistic Care Veterinary Clinic, looks for a variety of nutrient-dense whole foods on the list. These include high quality meats or fish, some carbohydrates, a mixture of vegetables, and some fruit, including berries.
Many foods also contain extra ingredients like omega fatty acids for skin and coat health, probiotics for digestion, and glucosamine, chondroitin, and green-lipped mussels for joint support.
Our picks for adult dry dog food:
The best adult wet dog food
Wet food is particularly appealing to dogs. Pet parents often like it for this reason, and because it has a long shelf life when unopened.
We selected wet foods that meet AAFCO complete and balanced standards, which are the same as those that apply to dry food. However, wet food generally contains more protein and fat and fewer carbohydrates, so be sure to talk to your veterinarian before switching your dog to a wet diet, especially if they have trouble digesting a lot of protein or fat.
Although the same standards apply to dry and wet food, it can be hard to compare their labels. Kibble has very little moisture, while canned food contains a lot of water. To understand a wet food label, you need to look at the percentages of protein, fat, and fiber on a “dry matter basis.” Read these instructions from the Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University to calculate them yourself, call the food manufacturer, or ask your veterinarian for help. For the foods below, we contacted the manufacturer.
When shopping, be on the lookout for wet dog food that is 100% meat. More protein might seem like a good thing, but these foods are for supplemental feeding only. “Dogs have evolved from wolves to become obligate omnivores,” said Dodds. This means that they need more than just meat in their diet. Small amounts of meat-only wet foods can make tasty meal toppers for your dog’s complete and balanced dry food.
Our picks for adult wet dog food:
The best fresh dog food
Fresh dog food is minimally processed, made with wholesome ingredients, often without preservatives, and cooked a short time before your dog eats it. All this means fresh dog food is some of the most expensive food you can buy.
Some dog food companies cook fresh, individually customized food and ship it directly to your door, usually via a subscription. It must be stored in the freezer, thawed in the refrigerator, and fed within a few days of opening the package.
Always check that the fresh food you plan to feed your dog is AAFCO complete and balanced and not intended for supplemental feeding. Most companies tailor the calorie content of the meals to your specific dog based on weight, breed, and activity level.
When choosing a healthy fresh dog food, look for the same beneficial ingredients you would for any dog food: meat sources of protein, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, marine sources of fat, and healthy extras like omega fatty acids, glucosamine, chondroitin, and probiotics.
Our picks for fresh dog food:
The best budget dog food
The phrase “you get what you pay for” holds true for dog food. Food made from organic, non-GMO, or human-grade ingredients comes with a premium price tag.
The good news is, it’s not necessary to go broke to feed your dog a great diet. If you’re looking to spend less, many high-quality dog foods provide excellent nutrition at a lower cost.
We don’t advise buying the cheapest food available — to keep the price down, such foods contain lower-quality ingredients and more fillers. As with any diet, choose the appropriate food for your dog’s life stage and check for the AAFCO complete and balanced statement on the label.
Our picks for budget dog food:
The best grain-free dog food
Grain-free diets aren’t necessarily superior to diets that contain grains, but they can be helpful for dogs that are allergic or intolerant to specific grains. There is also a misconception that these dog foods are carbohydrate-free, but the necessary carbohydrates just come from non-grain ingredients like white potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, lentils, chickpeas, soybeans, and tapioca.
Something worth mentioning in any discussion about grain-free food is the fact that the FDA continues to investigate a potential link between dogs fed grain-free diets and the development of a heart condition called non-hereditary dilated cardiomyopathy. For now, no firm correlation between grain-free diets and cardiac issues has been scientifically supported. However, it’s possible we may discover more in the future. Always talk to your veterinarian about feeding your dog a grain-free diet.
Our picks for grain-free dog food:
The best dry puppy food
Puppy foods are formulated to be energy-dense, which means they are higher in fat and calories to fuel growing bodies.
To ensure the food you’re considering is appropriate for puppies, check the label for an AAFCO complete and balanced statement that says it’s intended for growth for all life stages. A food labeled “maintenance” is only intended for adult dogs.
Some puppy foods are made specially for small breeds or large and giant breeds, but there aren’t any official AAFCO nutrient standards for these designations. “Balancing the nutrient needs of dogs given their wide size variety and ages is wise and common sense,” said Dodds.
Small breed puppy foods usually have a smaller kibble size for smaller mouths and are often slightly higher in calories to account for the higher metabolisms of these breeds. Puppy foods for large and giant breeds generally contain more protein; less fat; fewer calories; and an ideal balance of calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D to encourage slower growth to support joint health and prevent obesity.
Our picks for puppy food:
The best dry senior dog food
Senior diets are intended for the unique needs of older dogs. “Senior diets are formulated to target some of the common ailments of older pets, such as joint health, digestive health, immune health, and possibly others,” said Swanson.
These diets may contain higher amounts of protein, higher quality protein to maintain muscle, fiber to aid in fecal elimination, additional antioxidants to limit oxidative stress and aid in immune response, and additional omega-3 fatty acids for cognitive performance.
Since older dogs are often less active, these diets typically contain fewer calories. Some foods are also lower in protein, but contrary to popular belief, healthy senior dogs may actually benefit from more protein than younger adult dogs. If your dog does not have health conditions, look for a senior diet that is lower in fat and calories and contains extra protein — the AAFCO minimum protein for adult dogs is 18%.
Our picks for senior dog food:
I’ve been fortunate to interview many veterinarians and veterinary nutritionists throughout my 20-year career writing and editing for pet and veterinary publications, and I’ve fed my own dog many different dog food brands.
For advice on what to look for in a healthy dog food and what to avoid, I consulted two veterinarians and a professor of animal and nutritional science. Although this information guided me in my product selection, our veterinary experts did not specifically endorse any of the products included in this guide. This makes sense since a veterinarian’s goal is to find a food that best fits each individual dog, rather than making broad recommendations.
All the foods mentioned in this guide are complete and balanced according to the guidelines established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), contain high-quality ingredients, and offer appropriate levels of protein, fat, and fiber for their respective categories.
I also consulted educational materials from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and the Global Nutrition Guidelines published by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA).
Here are the main attributes we looked for, in order of importance:
AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement: The most important benchmark of a healthy dog food is a statement on the label that says it meets the nutritional standards established by the AAFCO, demonstrating that the food is complete and balanced for the dog’s life stage. All foods mentioned in this guide are AAFCO complete and balanced. Read more about those standards and definitions in the next slide.
Guaranteed analysis: The guaranteed analysis lists the percentages of the most vital nutrients in the food: protein, fat, fiber, and moisture. Sometimes, other nutrients like glucosamine, chondroitin, and omega fatty acids are also listed in the guaranteed analysis. Foods selected in this guide contain moderate to high protein (AAFCO minimums are 22% for puppies and 18% for adults) and low to moderate fat (AAFCO minimums are 8.5% for puppies and 5.5% for adults).
Ingredients list: The ingredients list can be tricky to navigate, especially when taking water content into account, but in general, you want to see clearly identified animal sources of protein at the top of the list. Whole meat is great, but it is heavier due to its moisture content. Once that water is removed, the meat content might not be as high as you think. Don’t automatically write off meat meals. High-quality meat meals can be an excellent source of protein — the water has been removed, so they may provide more protein than whole meat. The ingredients lists of all the foods in this guide contain animal sources of protein at the top of the list.
Healthy extras: According to Swanson, some foods contain extra ingredients intended to support healthy skin, coat, and joints. Some of these may include additional long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA; usually supplied by marine-based oils or meals), omega-6 fatty acids (safflower oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, flaxseed, etc.), glucosamine, chondroitin, green-lipped mussels, and additional vitamins (vitamin A, biotin) and minerals (zinc, copper). Probiotics, prebiotics, and yeast fermentation products may also boost gut health.
Calorie content: The calorie content of dog food is listed in kilocalories, or k/cals. When dogs consume too many calories, they are at risk for becoming overweight or obese. Less-active dogs need fewer calories and very active dogs like performance or working dogs need a food that is more calorie dense. For most dogs, being able to eat the largest volume of food while staying within the ideal daily calorie range will help them feel more satisfied. In general, such foods rated higher in our selection process. Check out this calorie calculator to determine how many calories your dog needs. Your veterinarian can also evaluate if the amount you’re feeding is appropriate.
Feeding trials: It’s great if a food has undergone feeding trials in addition to a laboratory analysis of the food’s ingredients. If the nutritional adequacy statement on the label has language like “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that [product] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [life stage]” it means the food has been proven via feeding trials to be palatable, digestible, and able sustain pets over time.
Expert formulations: Choose a pet food manufacturer that works closely with a veterinary nutritionist or other professional with a master’s degree or PhD in nutrition, animal science, or a related field. Manufacturers may employ one or more full-time nutritionists, or hire one or more nutrition consultants. For this guide, we prioritized brands that have a dedicated nutrition expert on staff to align with WSAVA recommendations.
Next-level ingredients: Seeing natural, organic, or human-grade ingredients on the label is nice, especially if you believe in the health benefits of organic foods. Wild-caught fish are as natural as you can get and, unlike farmed fish, are not treated with antibiotics or medications. Some foods use eggs and meat from cage-free chickens and turkeys, which is a bonus if you care about the welfare of the animals you — and your pets — eat. That said, ingredients in dog food need not be human-grade, organic, wild-caught, or cage-free to be healthy and nutritious for pets.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials is a private nonprofit corporation that defines ingredients and establishes nutritional profiles for animal feed and pet food. AAFCO establishes model language for states and other governing bodies. It does not regulate, test, approve, or certify pet food. The US Food and Drug Administration, which is a voting member of AAFCO, regulates pet food labels at the federal level. States also regulate pet foods, and most have adopted the model pet food regulations established by AAFCO.
Dog foods that meet the nutritional standards established by AAFCO may use a statement on the label that says the food is complete and balanced for the dog’s life stage according to the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profile. There are three life stages: 1) maintenance, for adult dogs more than 1 year old, 2) growth, for puppies less than 1 year old, and which also includes pregnant and lactating females, and 3) all life stages, which is any dog of any age.
Foods that do not display language asserting that they are complete and balanced as determined by AAFCO standards are labeled for supplemental or intermittent feeding only. Those foods should never be a dog’s sole diet as they are not nutritionally adequate.
Foods can meet AAFCO standards in two ways:
- Guaranteed analysis: Nutrient profiles are determined through laboratory analysis of the food. Foods that meet AAFCO standards as per nutrient profiles will display language like “formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for [life stage].” You can always contact the company to confirm the nutrient profile of the food also meets nutritional levels established by the AAFCO.
- Feeding trials: Pet foods can also meet the standards through feeding trials, where the food is fed to animals under controlled conditions and the outcomes are monitored. Feeding trials are not perfect, and they are also very expensive, so not all companies perform them. However, it’s nice to see them, though they should not replace nutrient profiles. If you see language like “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that [product] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [life stage]” it means the food has been proven via feeding trials to be palatable, digestible, and able sustain pets over time.
How to read a pet food label
Dog food packages feature attractive images and targeted descriptions intended to sell you on the quality and healthfulness of the food, but if you really want to know whether a dog food is high quality and a good choice for your dog, learn what to look for on the label.
A great place to start is this handy reference from the WSAVA about interpreting food labels. The most important information to look for on a label is the AAFCO complete and balanced statement, the guaranteed analysis (crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber, and moisture), and the calorie content statement.
The ingredients list is also important, but it can be difficult for the average pet owner to know how well their dog will do on a diet just based off the ingredients.
“Although many pet owners make their decision based largely on the ingredient panel, it is only one of many considerations,” Swanson said. “Without knowing the exact formula and percentage of each ingredient, it is not too useful. What is more important is that the dietary formula is complete and balanced.”
Certain terms on pet food labels can be confusing and even misleading. “Terms like ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ are very common in the industry today,” Swanson said. “While both terms were intended to highlight higher quality ingredients, they do not guarantee high quality.” He explained that quality depends on both the raw ingredients and good manufacturing practices. “Like other ingredients that do not carry these terms, they are highly variable due to differences in soil quality (plants), feed quality (animals), ingredient storage, ingredient handling, etc.,” he said.
If you find reading pet food labels confusing, your veterinarian can talk to you about your dog’s individual needs, help you choose an appropriate food, and advise how much to feed.
FAQs about dog food
What is the best food I can feed my dog?
It’s important to find a food your dog likes eating and thrives on, but this may involve a bit of trial and error. Individual dogs digest food differently. Some dogs do better with more protein, some need less. Some dogs can tolerate higher levels of fat; others need less. Dogs also handle amounts of fiber differently. Your veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist can help you sort out what diet will work best for your dog.
“Dogs are individuals,” said veterinarian Carol Osborne, of the Chagrin Falls Pet Clinic in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. “What works well for Dog A, might not work well for Dog B. If you want to know if a food is good for your pet, look at your pet. Your pet is a reflection of what he or she is eating.”
Outward signs of good health include clear eyes and nose, ears that aren’t smelly, and a coat that isn’t dry, flakey, or shedding excessively. Your dog should not be vomiting or experiencing diarrhea. “Soft stool is not normal,” Osborne said. “Bowel movements should be formed and homogenous. You should not be able to make out the pea, the piece of corn, the carrot. [Homogenous stool] means the food has all been digested.”
What is human-grade dog food?
Pet foods that use the term “human-grade” must follow strict rules. The term may only be used if it applies to the finished food as a whole — not individual ingredients. Both the ingredients and finished product must be documented to be stored, handled, processed, and transported according to the current good manufacturing practices for human-edible foods, and the label must clearly state that the food is intended for dogs.
Swanson has tested a few human-grade pet foods in his lab over the years. “While I don’t have a strong preference to any one type or brand of diet, I can say that the human-grade foods I have had experience with are highly palatable, highly digestible, and resulted in a low volume of stool that allowed for easy clean up,” he said.
Is a raw diet good for my dog?
A raw diet consists of uncooked meat, bones, and vegetables. Raw pet food poses dangers to both dogs and humans. Veterinarians told Insider Reviews that despite some reported benefits, there are too many risks for pets, including bacterial infections, nutritional deficiencies, and injuries from bones in the food. In addition, people who are immunocompromised, elderly people, and young children are at risk of bacterial infections if they live in a household where a dog is fed a raw diet. For more information, read the statements from the FDA and CDC regarding the health and safety risks of feeding raw dog foods.
- Dr. Kelly S. Swanson MS, PhD, is a professor of animal and nutritional sciences in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in Urbana, Illinois. Dr. Swanson’s lab conducts research on nutrition-related problems like obesity and intestinal health. Dr. Swanson is the Kraft Heinz Company Endowed Professor in Human Nutrition.
- Jean Dodds, DVM, obtained her veterinary degree from Ontario Veterinary College. A clinical research veterinarian for more than 50 years, Dr. Dodds has more than 150 research publications. She is the founder of Hemopet, the first nonprofit national animal blood bank. Dr. Dodds is the developer of NutriScan, a food sensitivity and intolerance diagnostic test for dogs, cats and horses. She co-authored two books with Diana Laverdure, The Canine Thyroid Epidemic: Answers You Need for Your Dog (Dogwise, 2011) and Canine Nutrigenomics: Foods that Heal Your Dog (Dogwise, 2015).
- Carol Osborne, DVM, is founder and director of the Chagrin Falls Veterinary Center in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. She is author of the books Naturally Healthy Cats (Marshall, 2006) and Naturally Healthy Dogs (Marshall, 2006) and hosts a weekly National Pet Talk AM radio show broadcast. Dr. Osborne has appeared on Good Day L.A. and Today in New York, where she was the on-camera staff veterinarian.
- Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO)
- World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) Global Nutrition Guidelines