Guide to Selecting the Best Dog Food


"Dog food needs to be comprised of 38 different components. The feeding habits of domesticated dogs reveal that they may require versatile components in feed. These may be products of animals, some parts of plants and even some synthetic components too.

Feeding practices have a significant role in a dog's health and body function, thereby requiring that like humans, a dog has a complete and balanced diet. A balanced diet should include components such as water, carbohydrates, proteins, minerals, fats and vitamins in the appropriate ratio. Unlike humans, these can be found in one food.

Dog foods may be home cooked or purchased commercially. For a balanced diet, commercial foods are often the best choice since there are multiple varieties and they are designed to provide dogs with the correct number of calories and nutrients they need."

Components of Canine Food

Quality dog food must contain all the essential components listed below, which together and in the correct proportion fulfill the nutritional requirements of a healthy dog. Energy level, body weight, age and health are sometimes important factors which should be considered when considering the appropriate levels of each component and when choosing a dog food. Ingredients named on a dog food label must account for 95% of all ingredients in the food.

  • Water: Fresh & clean water should be available all times. It is the most important component of a canine food. Usually all mammals require some 44 – 66 ml/Kg B.W of water daily, and for dogs, the most appropriate way is to let a dog drink water 2 – 3 times a day with dry dog food, while making water continually available throughout the day so a dog can drink as it feels it needs to.

  • Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates may be simple sugars (soluble) or complex crude fibers (non soluble) of starch and cellulose. A dog may require both, but it should be noted that dog food containing more complex crude fiber can cause diarrhea and abdominal complications such as pain. Beet pulp is a most suitable source of carbohydrates for dogs; it contains both soluble and non soluble forms of carbohydrates. 

  • Proteins: Proteins are a source of amino acids and are an essential component to increase nitrogenous compounds in a dog’s body. A dog may require proteins according to its age and quality of the protein supplied. Adult dogs usually require almost 2g/Kg B.W of protein each day. Balanced canine foods must contain 22 – 25% protein for growing puppies, while 11 – 14% of proteins in dry matter food for adult dogs. 

  • Fats: Fats are a condensed source of energy in canine food. Other then their use an an energy source, fats are also needed to help digest some essential fat soluble vitamins such as Vitamin A, D, E & K. A balanced food should contain 5 – 15% fat. 

  • Vitamins & Minerals: Vitamins may be water soluble or fat soluble, as both are essential for the physiological efficacy (health) of a dog’s body. Most commercial foods contain excessive amounts of vitamins, more than are usually required. Foods contain excess vitamins because vitamin quality declines as food sits on the shelf, so they add more to make sure a dog gets enough. It also compensates for low vitamin absorption in the gastrointestinal tract.

    Dietary minerals in food are macro minerals (sodium, potassium, calcium & phosphorus) & trace minerals (iron, zinc, copper, iodine etc.). Minerals are supplied in amounts of grams per day, and amounts should be related with the energy level of a selected food. If there is a deficiency or too many minerals in a dog food, nutritional diseases may occur.

Types of Food

Dog Food may be a commercial food or provided via a home cooked diet. Commercial foods are further classified as dry, canned & soft moist. Home cooked diets on other hand are referred to as raw dog food, due to uncertain quality and a uncertain component ratio. Only feed a homemade diet if it has been formulated by a veterinary nutritionist. Even then, food may require vitamin supplements. 

Commercial Dog Food

Selecting dry, canned or semi-moist dog food comes down to owner choice and convenience. All types of AAFCO certified dog food diets are perfectly acceptable for healthy dogs. Many owners like to combine the different types of food.

  • Dry Food: Dry food is the most popular commercial food, containing 90% dry matter and10% water. This is the most digestible form of dog food, where ingredients such as grains, meat, vitamins, fats, minerals and byproducts are combined and cooked. Complex fibers are converted to a simpler digestible form to ensure quality and energy levels. Dry food is preferred by owners due to its lower cost, digestibility and because it has fewer adverse effects on the oral cavity (mouth). 

  • Canned Dog Food; Canned foods contain 68% water and 32% dry matter. Ingredients are similar to those of dry dog foods, but with a slight difference in processing. High amounts of frozen or fresh meat are included in it with other components such as grains. Canned foods are more expensive then dry food, but have a long shelf life, improved palatability and are available in durable containers. Since these foods contain more water, dogs will need to eat more to get the same calories. 

  • Semi–Moist Dog Food; This type of food contains 25 – 40% water and 60 – 75% dry matter. These are usually preserved by a substance called humectants. The main component of semi–moist foods are simple sugars and salts along with other necessary components. These are convenient and digestible, but are expensive and may cause digestive problems in some dogs, due to the acidification of components.

It is not a problem if you and your veterinarian decide to mix wet and dry dog food

Home Cooked Dog Food

Home cooked foods are considered to be an acceptable option for dogs as the quality of ingredients can be controlled by the owner. Home cooked food contains fresh, reliable and quality ingredients, but it is essential that the formulation contains the correct ratio of components required for dog nutrition. In fact, a dog requires approximately 40 different nutrients. The ratio of components, balanced feed requirements and the appropriate supply of components like minerals, vitamins (especially fat soluble vitamins) and some preservatives is never an easy job. In most cases, home cooked food recipes contain higher quantities of minerals and proteins. This may result in severe digestive problems, obesity and a dog becoming over weight.

If you would like to prepare home cooked meals, consider consulting with an animal nutritionist. You can find one certified by the American College of Veterinary Nutritionists, and additional helpful information on canine nutrition and homemade dog food at or

Selecting and Comparing Dog Food

 Comparing dog food brands doesn't have to be complicated. Look at the following factors:

  • Price:
    Food can range in price from .38 cents per day (Wal-mart Ol' Roy Krunchy Bites & Bones) to close to $3 per day for gourmet organic foods. There is not scientific basis for choosing one food over another. Assuming your dog is healthy and the food is certified by the AAFCO, then a cheap dog food selection is fine.

  • Ingredients :
    Check the label for AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officials) certification. It must say "complete and balanced", which is the highest level of certification. Avoid their lower level of certification. This level states that "a food was formulated to meet the group's nutrient profiles".
  • Organic Dog Foods and other Features:
    There is no official definition of organic, premium, or gourmet in pet foods. Diet specific foods such as gluten free are only necessary for dogs suffering from food sensitivity, allergy or other medical condition. Antioxidants (vitamin E) and fish oil (omega 3 fatty acids) may help dogs, particularly the skin and coat, although the research in inconclusive.

  • Age Specific:
    Puppies and pregnant dogs should be provided with food made specifically for these groups. Labels which say "for growth" or "for all life stages" are good for young or pregnant dogs. Foods for pregnant dogs should say for "reproducing". Healthy Adult dogs should receive food that says "for maintenance" or "adult". The term "Senior" is more for marketing than for nutritional profile.

  • AAFCO Certification:
    Only buy canine food that is AAFCO certified, which is the Association Of American Feed Control Officials. This is the organization the certifies all dog food and sets the manufacturing and labeling standards. Make sure the label says "tested and found to be adequate" vs. a lower standard which is still AAFCO certified, but says "formulated to meet AAFCO standards."

  • Air Dried:
    Air dried dog food, also known as freeze-dried or dehydrated dog food, has several benefits over traditional wet or dry kibble:
  1.  It is a more natural way to preserve the food as it does not use any chemicals or preservatives. This means that the nutrients in the food are better preserved, providing a more nutritious diet for your dog. 
  2. Air dried dog food is lightweight and easy to store, making it a great option for those who travel with their dogs or have limited space. 
  3. It is often more convenient as it does not require refrigeration and has a longer shelf life than wet food. 
  4. Air dried dog food can also be a good option for dogs with food sensitivities or allergies, as it is often made with simple, high-quality ingredients.

    Learn more about air dried dog food

How to Analyze Dog Food Labels - Definitions

When choosing a balanced dog diet, it is difficult to sometimes tell the difference between words on food labels that actually represent what is being sold vs. those that are marketing terms to make a food sound more appetizing or better for your dog's health.

Here is a guideline on what labels mean:

Named Canine Food Ingredients

  • Named ingredients that appear next to the name of the food, must comprise at least 25% of the product by weight. For example, this would be true if the word Beef was listed next to the words "Dinner", "Entre", "Formula", "Nuggets", "Platter", and "Recipe".
  • With: If a label says "with", such as "with beef", then the ingredient must be 3% or more of the named ingredient. For example (Gourmet Fillets with Beef).
  • Flavor: If a food claims a specific flavor, then the food must have that flavor well represented. There is no specific criteria.

Ingredient Canine Food Analysis

  • Guaranteed Analysis: If a label states "guaranteed analysis" canine food, the food must contain the labeled percentages of protein, fat, fiber and moisture
  • Light, Lite, Low calorie: If the food is AAFCO certified, these phrases specifically mean that it meets the low calorie food standards for over weight dogs as defined by the organization.
  • Natural: Manufacturers that use this phase can only use few or no synthetic ingredients in the canine food. It is not clearly defined from a technical point of view.
  • Grain Free: This is used when the protein in the food is from non grain sources such as animal protein.

Dog Food Prescription Diet

Many diseases call for a change in diet as part of the treatment plan. A dog food prescription diet may be called for when treating food allergy, pancreatitis, constipation, malabsorption, diabetes mellitus, anemia, maldigestion and fever.

Alternative Diets

Many dog owners want to switch to an alternative diet that better matches their ethical or moral standards such as a vegan dog diet. Others need to switch their dog due to medical concerns that might be associated with meat as a protein source.

These options include:

  • Vegan Diet: no sources of animal derived products such as eggs, meat, seafood and dairy
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian Diet: includes diary and eggs, with no meat sources
  • Lacto-vegetaraian Diet: includes diary, but eliminates eggs and meat
  • Ovo-vegetarian: removes dair and meat, but includes eggs

It is possible to feed your dog one of the listed diets however formulating it yourself will be difficult without the help of a veterinary nutritionist. It is preferable to use an AAFCO approved "complete and balanced" diet. Investigate if the manufacturer has conducted the necessary dietary research over a long period of time to ensure that a diet meets all of a dog's needs. We suggest looking at options from companies such as Wild Earth, Halo Pets, Natural Balance Vegetarian and Nature's Recipe Vegetarian.

How to Adjust Feeding Times

Like changing dog food, you can also change the time you feed your dog.

If you need to change your dog's feeding time, it's best to do so gradually to prevent digestive upset. Begin by adjusting your dog's feeding schedule by just 15-30 minutes each day until you've reached your desired feeding time. For example, if you want to move your dog's feeding time from 7 am to 9 am, start by feeding them at 7:15 am for a few days, then gradually move the time up by another 15-30 minutes each day until you've reached 9 am. Avoid feeding your dog too close to bedtime to prevent any digestion issues while they sleep.  Consistency is key when it comes to your dog's feeding schedule, so once you've established a new feeding time, try to stick to it as closely as possible.


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The Merck Veterinary Manual

Small parts of this article was generated using automation technology and thoroughly edited and fact-checked by an editor on our editorial staff.