The Best Dry Dog Food
All dog food is safe and will sustain life — the AAFCO and FDA see to that. But, just like humans, better ingredients lead to better overall health. We compiled a list of the top brands, analyzed labels, and talked to veterinarians to determine what ingredients were the most important and which to do without. We prioritized meat as the first ingredient and good grains like oats and quinoa (no corn, wheat, or soy), and avoided fillers like sugars and added sauces.
When choosing a dry dog food, finding a formula with responsibly sourced, nutrient-dense ingredients is vital. The better the ingredients, the better your dog’s digestion, the shinier their coat, and in many cases, the longer their life. “Nutrition and diet are truly the foundation of health,” integrative veterinarian and pet nutrition expert, Dr. Katie Kangas explains. “Low-quality food will not allow the body to thrive.” The ingredients to look for: high-quality protein, whole foods, and less filler and empty carbs.
The good news is that commercial dog food is regulated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That means that any food you buy for your dog is going to be safe. (AAFCO sets standards for the minimum and maximum nutritional profile of dog foods, while the FDA ensures the safety of the ingredients.) But, while all kibble is safe for your dog, not all kibble is equally wholesome.
Make sure to check the label. The AAFCO requires all dog food to have a Nutritional Adequacy Statement printed on the label stating that it’s “complete and balanced” to meet all of your dog’s nutritional needs. All dog foods must either pass a recipe lab analysis or conduct a feeding trial to meet this requirement.
To promote overall health, dry dog food needs to follow the minimal nutritional standards set out by the AAFCO. Their guideline: Your dog food should have a minimum 18% protein, 5% fat, and include all the necessary vitamins and minerals like iron and copper, Vitamin E for the immune system, and Vitamin A for healthy skin and coat. Maximum amounts of fiber and moisture are also specified.
These guidelines are designed for healthy adult dogs who are not pregnant or nursing. Dogs with food sensitivities, allergies, or other health conditions may require a different diet. It’s always best to check with your veterinarian.
How We Found the Best Dry Dog Food
We looked at dry dog foods (both kibble and air-dried) for formulas based on the AAFCO guidelines that provide “complete and balanced” nutrition. Keep in mind that your dog will help determine your pet food choices, as well. In general, you’ll know your dog is responding well to a food if he or she gobbles it up, has a normal stool, and doesn’t display signs of allergies. (The latter can show up in the form of dry, itchy skin, and paws, in particular.)
We looked for foods that contain meat as the first ingredient.
When a meat, poultry, or fish protein source is listed as the first ingredient, you know that the food is of higher quality. The manufacturer isn’t relying on corn, wheat, soy, or other unhealthy carbs to “bulk up” the food. “Anything that … starts out with grains in the top-three ingredients is a lesser-quality food,” Dr. Kangas says.
Protein is the single most important ingredient in a dog food. It provides the essential amino acids that are the building blocks of life. It’s also, surprisingly, the most common source of food allergy. In fact, one study showed that beef was the most common allergen in dogs, followed by dairy. If your dog has signs of allergy such as dry skin or upset stomach, consider the protein source first. Limited or single-ingredient protein sources will help you narrow down any potential sensitivities.
One important note: With pet foods, ingredients are listed by weight, which means the ingredients with the most moisture are listed first. In dry dog food, this can be a little misleading, because ingredients like meat meal have had water removed. Seattle veterinarian Dr. Mona Radheshwar explains, “chicken may be the first ingredient by weight, but it is 80% water. So after accounting for water loss, the percentage of meat is actually significantly lower.” While we prioritized meat being listed as a first ingredient, we also emphasized dog foods that have an optimal amount of protein overall — at least 18%.
We looked for dry dog foods that have healthy, complex carbohydrates.
Dogs are not true carnivores; unlike cats, dogs have evolved to be able to eat carbs, too. In fact, dogs’ digestive systems produce enzymes specifically designed for digesting sugars and starches. Though proteins and fats are their primary energy sources, dogs also use carbohydrates for energy. That’s why dry dog food needs to contain more than just meat or fish.
That said, not all carbs are healthy for dogs — complex ones are preferable, and they should be cooked. Dog food shouldn’t rely on starchy carbs with minimal nutritional value. Our recommended dry dog foods are largely grain-free, though some include healthy, nutrient-dense grains like oats or quinoa.
“Don’t be scared of grains. I recommend food where the first ingredient is meat versus corn or wheat, but the right grains’ added nutritional value does not need to be vilified.”
We avoided brands that used beet pulp, sugars, and sauces.
As for other ingredients, we avoided brands that use beet pulp, which is often used for adding fiber. There is disagreement about whether beet pulp is a problem; added fiber does help with colon health and weight management, but some pet owners are concerned that beet pulp leads to bloating and discomfort. Added sugar was another no-no; this is one carb source that dogs definitely don’t need, and it contributes to obesity. We also stayed away from brands that use spray-on “sauces” or other types of added flavor because these are often high-sodium, artificial enhancers that don’t add a nutritional benefit.
Finally, we took a careful look at brands have been involved in recalls.
Though dry dog food is more shelf-stable than wet or canned foods, there is still a risk of salmonella and other diseases being transmitted through the food. All of our recommended brands have been either free of recalls, or responded quickly and adequately to any food safety scares.
Our Top Picks for Best Dry Dog Food
Orijen Adult Grain-Free Dry Dog Food Guaranteed analysis: Crude protein (38% min.), Crude fat (18% min.), Crude fiber (4% min.), Moisture (12% max.) First 10 ingredients: Deboned chicken, deboned turkey, yellowtail ﬂounder, whole eggs, whole atlantic mackerel, chicken liver, turkey liver, chicken heart, turkey heart, and whole atlantic herring
ACANA Wild Prairie Regional Formula Grain-Free Dry Dog Food Guaranteed analysis: Crude protein (35% min.), Crude fat (17% min), Crude fiber (6% max.), Moisture (12% max) First 10 ingredients: Fresh chicken meat, fresh turkey meat, fresh chicken giblets, chicken meal, turkey meal, whole herring meal, whole green peas, whole red lentils, whole chickpeas, and fresh whole eggs
Earthborn Holistic Primitive Natural Grain-Free Natural Dry Dog Food Guaranteed analysis: Crude protein (38% min.), Crude fat (20% min.), Crude fiber (2.5% max.), Moisture (10% max.) First 10 ingredients: Turkey meal, chicken meal, potatoes, chicken fat, whitefish meal, dried egg product, tomato pomace, peas, blueberries, and cranberries
ZiwiPeak Daily-Dog Lamb Cuisine Air-Dried Dog Food Guaranteed analysis: Crude protein (33% min.), Crude fat (27% min.), Crude fiber (1.5% max.), Moisture (15% max.) First 10 ingredients: Lamb meat, lamb or sheep heart, lamb liver, lamb lung, lamb tripe, lamb or sheep kidney, New Zealand green mussel, lecithin, inulin from chicory, and dried kelp
Did You Know?
The truth about meat meal.
In many cases, dry dog foods also contain meat meal, which is a form of rendered animal parts that have been processed and dried, with the moisture removed. Meat, poultry, or fish meal is often used in dry dog food because it’s concentrated and packs more protein into the kibble. AAFCO has stringent guidelines as to what defines such a “meal,” so you can rest assured that while processed, they don’t contain unsavory byproducts like hooves or hair. The higher-quality meat meals name the protein source, e.g. “chicken meal” or “fish meal.”
Transitioning to a new food takes time.
If you do decide to try a new brand, take it slowly. Vets recommend switching your dog’s food if you suspect that your dog isn’t thriving on your current food, but not to do it all at once. The most common recommendation is to start with 75% of the old food mixed with 25% of the new food. Gradually increase the proportion of new food over the course of a week; by day 3, it should be 50/50 old and new food, and by day 6, it should be 90-100% of new food.
Only some dog foods have undergone a feeding trial with real dogs.
To meet AAFCO standards, dog food companies must verify that their foods meet a dog’s full nutritional needs one of two ways: either by laboratory analysis, or by a live feeding trial. While all dog foods meeting AAFCO standards are safe for your dog, some nutritionists prefer those tested with a feeding trial. This tells you that the company has actually fed the food to real dogs in formulating it. The label will include a phrase like, “animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (name of product) provides complete and balanced nutrition.”
Dry dog food doesn’t necessarily improve canine dental health.
A common myth has it that eating dry food helps clean a dog’s teeth via the additional chewing action and friction provided by the kibble. Research doesn’t bear this out, however. It’s important to brush your dog’s teeth regularly; don’t rely on daily doses of dry food to do that for you.