The name will tell you how much of the advertised ingredient is actually in the food. That’s because manufacturers are allowed to label their dog food in three different ways:
If the packaging uses an ingredient name followed by the word “food” the product is required to contain at least 95% of that ingredient. So Tiny Pup Chicken Dog Food would need to contain at least 95% chicken. This is not very common, because you wouldn’t actually want your dog’s food to have this much meat (it wouldn’t provide enough other nutrients like carbs).
If the packaging uses synonyms for the word “food” like formula, dinner, recipe or entrée it means at least 25% of the food has to be based on that ingredients. So Tiny Pup Chicken Dinner would need to have at least a quarter of chicken in it. This is what you want to look for, because 25% is the very minimum a food should have.
If the packaging uses the word “with” in the product name, watch out. Those products only need to contain 3% of the advertised ingredient. So Tiny Pup With Chicken only has a measly 3% minimum for chicken.
Ingredients are always listed in descending order of weight. So when looking at dog food, check out the first 5 ingredients. Those make up about 80% of the total weight, so it’s very important to make sure they’re high quality. We recommend looking for whole meats (like chicken or salmon) and meat meals (like chicken meal or salmon meal) because both provide excellent protein and nutrition. Whole meats contain more water before being processed (which cooks off) and meals are already cooked to remove their water, so a mix of both on the ingredient label is a great thing.
Here’s the deal: Avoid foods that use unnamed meats sources (like poultry, ocean fish, meat, or animal liver) - you always want to know what’s in the food and what you’re paying for. If a manufacturer doesn’t identify the species they are using in the food it doesn’t inspire trust.
Skip foods to include by-product meals (especially unnamed ones like animal by-product meal). Those by-product meals are often lower quality than meat meals. So as a rule of thumb, pick foods with named meats, named meat meals, and named by-products that are not meals.
Just like you don’t want mystery meats in your dog’s food, you also don’t want unnamed fats. We prefer food that lists “chicken fat” instead of “animal fat” or “salmon oil” instead of “fish oil.” No matter if the fat comes from animals or plants, make sure to choose a food that is transparent about its ingredients.
Some manufacturers split up ingredients on the food label to make it look like there’s less of it in the food. Here’s an example: If you see a bunch of different varieties of corn as an ingredient, label splitting is the likely culprit. We’ve seen foods that use corn, corn meal, ground corn, kibbled corn - all on the same ingredient list… Sounds like way too much corn, doesn’t it?
Check the packaging for the words “complete and balanced.” This is a regulated term that means that the dog food has to contain all nutrients your dog needs to be well nourished and healthy. Almost all foods have this on their label, but some toppers and specialty foods don’t, so double check to make sure the product is suitable to be the only food your dogs eat.
You’ve probably heard about the many dog food scandals and recalls in recent years. It’s clear: Quality is more important than ever and that starts with the laws and food regulations of the country the food is made in. We recommend buying dog food that’s made in the United States, Canada, Europe, New Zealand or Australia - all known to have high quality standards and regulations. “Made in the USA” for example is a regulated term that means that “all or virtually” all of the parts come from the U.S. and processing is done here, too. By the way, our dog food reviews show you exactly where each dog food comes from.
There are a lot of controversial ingredients like high fructose corn syrup. Being controversial doesn’t necessarily mean an ingredient is bad. It just means that it’s not agreed upon as good. Many dog owners prefer to avoid dog foods with any controversial ingredients which is why we show you a list of them for each dog food we review. Check out our product reviews to learn more.
Here’s the deal: Not all artificial preservatives are bad. That’s because they serve an important purpose, which is to prevent food from spoiling and making your dog sick. However, eight artificial preservatives are controversial because of their potential link to cancer in dogs. They are Propyl Paraben, Propyl Gallate, BHA, BHT, EMQ, TBHQ, Sodium Metabisulfite, and Potassium Sorbate. Honestly, this sounds like a crazy list of local radio stations, right? We agree! Plus, most of these will hide under different names like E216 on the ingredients list anyways. But no worries, we’re here to help: We’ve checked thousands of dog foods for a huge list controversial ingredients and highlighted them for you in our dog food reviews.
By the way: While some safe artificial preservatives can be a smart choice to keep dog food fresh, artificial colors and flavors make no sense in dog food. As a dog owner, you’ve probably seen your dog gobble up anything from a hot dog to poop - they have a forgiving palette, so there’s no need to add colors and flavors.
Recalls get a lot of attention and for good reason. They show a company’s commitment to quality and safety. It’s important to know that recalls can be voluntary (better) or mandatory (worse) and that they split into four levels of severity from class 1 (most serious) to class 4 (least serious). So in short, not all recalls are created equal. Both a dangerous salmonella outbreak and a typo on the food label can trigger a recall.
To help you see the big picture, we’ve researched recalls for all dog food brands and show them in detail food each dog food we review. You can see them in our dog food buying guides.
We love dog food brands that are committed to transparent business practices. If you make quality dog food you should also be willing to openly talk about how it’s sourced and produced. But who wants to email and call dozens of dog food companies? Well, we did! To help you see how open brands are willing to be, we contacted dog food companies with eight questions which put a spotlight on how they make their food. You can see the results of this research for each food in our dog food reviews.
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Great question! The truth is that there is no “one-size-fits-all-dogs” food. Each dog has specific dietary needs. So now that you know what makes a great food, let’s talk about which food is right for your dog.
Puppy, adult and senior dogs should eat age-appropriate foods as their nutrition and calorie needs change throughout their life. Make sure to pick a food that’s designed for your dog’s age. This will be shown on the packaging (and we also include it for each dog food review).
Your dog’s breed, size and weight influences which food is best and how many calories it needs. Keep an eye on the food packaging and check if it’s made for a specific breed or for all breeds. If you have a giant breed dog pay extra attention as giant breeds have special dietary needs. For your convenience, we show you the breed sizes dog foods are made for in our reviews.
Working dogs that hunt, do dog shows or enjoy other activities like running need a lot of extra energy compared to sedentary dogs. Adjust the type of food and how much you feed to your dog’s activity level to make sure she gets enough nutrients but also doesn’t get overweight. Very active dogs may do well on special “performance foods” which have higher levels of protein, fat and calories to support a high-energy lifestyle.
Just like humans, dogs can have sensitive stomachs, allergies and medical conditions that affect which food is right for them. Our goal is to help you find great dog food using facts and science. However, we’re not a replacement for consulting your vet. If you have a dog with special dietary needs make sure to check with your vet about which food to buy.