Dog Food Buyer’s Guide

You care about your dog and you care about what you feed him. You probably spend time reading labels and trying to find the best dog food.

This article will help you sort through the claims made on dog food labels and help you find the best possible food you can afford.

A Brief History of Dog Food

You may be surprised to find out that there are mentions of dog food throughout history.

For example, the Roman philosopher Marcus Terentius Varro (who lived 2100 years ago) wrote that dogs should be fed meat, bones, and barley soaked in milk.

More recently, only about 650 years ago, Gaston III wrote that his hunting greyhounds should be fed bran bread and meat from the hunt. However, he cautioned a sick dog should be given goat’s milk, bean broth, chopped meat, or buttered eggs.

Of course, down through the ages, many families couldn’t give their dogs a special diet. They provided their dogs whatever food they could spare. The dogs ate table scraps and other things the people didn’t want.

There are stories of people in cities buying horse meat for their pets. Working horses would die and the owners would sell the horse meat to willing buyers.

Dog Food Certification and Quality Standards

I’m sure none of us want to search around trying to find a horse that recently died.

Fortunately, there are reliable sources of pet food easily available in stores and from online sellers.

But the question remains: how can we be sure the food is safe and provides Rover with the nutrition he needs?

In the United States, the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FD&CA) of 1938 regulates both human and animal food. That act was updated in 2011 by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

According to the Pet Food Institute,

Pet food is among the most highly-regulated of all food categories in the United States and is regulated at both the federal and state levels. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates both finished pet food products (including treats and chews) and their ingredients. Nearly all states also require products sold therein to be registered, and for their labels to adhere to strict requirements regarding product names and ingredients.

An ingredient cannot be used in pet food until it has been accepted by the FDA and/or adopted by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the organization of state regulatory officials that develops model regulations for pet food and animal feed that can be included in state law.

However, we all know that government regulation does not prevent all problems. Very often the regulators only react after a problem becomes apparent.

Dog Food Industry Organizations

The pet food industry is huge. Besides companies that make dog food, there are industry associations. Let’s look at a few of them.

Pet Food Institute (PFI)

The Pet Food Institute boasts that their members produce 98% of all U.S. pet food products. Their About page lists 26 pet food manufacturers as members and an even larger number of Associate Members.

PFI states, “we provide factual information about pet food and treat safety, nutrition, and health to pet lovers, and advocate for a transparent, science-based regulatory environment for our members.”

Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO)

AAFCO is a “voluntary membership association of local, state and federal agencies charged by law to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds and animal drug remedies.”

That makes it sound like they are a government organization that regulates pet food. However, that is not the case. Here is what they actually do:

“AAFCO establishes the nutritional standards for complete and balanced pet foods, and it is the pet food company’s responsibility to formulate their products according to the appropriate AAFCO standard.”

Included on their website are resources for small businesses that want to produce and market pet food and treats.

American Pet Products Association (APPA)

The APPA is a “not-for-profit trade association serving the interests of pet product manufacturers and importers.”

APPA was founded in 1958 and has over 1200 members. APPA assists its members by monitoring state and federal legislation and publishing market research.

They also have projects to encourage pet ownership and help pet owners choose products for their pets.

American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN)

The ACVN’s goal is “to advance the specialty area of veterinary nutrition and increase the competence of those who practice in this field …”

Their website has some valuable information for pet owners. For example, you can download a free copy of Your Dog’s Nutritional Needs – A Science-Based Guide for Pet Owners.

Who Makes Dog Food?

Now let’s talk about the companies that make dog food.

According to Statista, the four largest makers of dry dog food are Nestle Purina, Mars, Big Heart, and Rachel Ray. These four companies accounted for 82.1% of dry dog food sales in 2017. In addition, Private Labels added another 15.2% of sales.

dog food companies

The nine top selling brands are shown in the chart. These 9 brands accounted for 49.7% of the market in 2017. Again, Private Label added 15.2% of sales.

dog food brands

Dog Food is Big Business

Make no mistake. Dog food is big business.

First off, the American Pet Product Association (APPA), estimates that 68% of families in the US have a pet. And they spend a lot of money on them.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, households spent an average of $230 on pet food in 2015. That is 43.6% of the $528 total spending on pets.

household pet expenditures

The APPA found that in 2017-2018 households with pets spent an average of $300 on pet food and treats.

Pet food companies have noticed and now offer 630 brands of pet food!

Another source estimates that U.S. pet food and treat spending increased 5% from 2017 to 2018, to a total of $32.7 billion.

The U.S. is not the only country where people buy food and treats for their pets. The global pet food market was US$75 billion in 2017.

Basic Dog Nutrition

So with all of these companies, associations, and agencies, and over 600 brands to choose from, how do you find the best food to feed your dog?

Dogs require more than 40 essential nutrients. All mammals need 22 amino acids for proper body functions. However, not all of these amino acids need to be included in the food.

amino acid glycine
The amino acid glycine.

Dogs are able to synthesize 12 amino acids from their food. That means the other 10 (known as “essential amino acids”) must be included in the diet.

Your starting point is to find a dog food that is labeled as “complete and balanced.”

“Complete” means the product contains all of the required nutrients.

“Balanced” means the nutrients are present in the correct ratios.

An important aspect of a “complete” food is that it provides the 10 essential amino acids your dog needs.

But, remember your dog goes through various life stages. Therefore, the food must be complete and balanced for each life stage:

  • Puppy
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Senior

Puppy Nutrition

Your dog will be a puppy for between 6 and 18 months depending on the breed.

Of course, at the beginning, the new pup will nurse from its mother. After that, your puppy needs food that encourages growth and gaining strength.

Adolescent Nutrition

This stage will last until your pup is between 1 to 3 years old.

beagle eating from bowl

During adolescence your dog is very active and experiences significant growth spurts. Therefore, the dog food still needs to support growth and building strong bones.


At this point your dog will have reached the height and size that is normal for the breed.

Your dog is no longer growing. It becomes your job to ensure he gets enough exercise and you feed him a food that will maintain proper weight.


Depending on the breed, this stage begins when your dog is between 6 and 10 years old.

At this stage your dog will not be so active. Therefore, she will need a food that gives her the nutrients she needs but with fewer calories.

Pregnant and Nursing

A pregnant dog has unique nutritional needs depending upon where she is in the pregnancy.

During the first 40 days her nutritional needs are similar to any other healthy adult dog. it’s important that she eats enough to sustain her weight without becoming overweight.

During last 20 days of her pregnancy, her calorie needs can increase by as much as 60%. But, there’s a big problem. All of those little puppies inside her don’t leave a lot of room for her belly.

Therefore, during the last few weeks of her pregnancy she will probably need to eat small meals that are loaded with calories.

After she gives birth she now has the added burden of producing milk for the whole litter.

During this time she could need 2 to 4 times as many calories as a normal adult. This need for lots of calories will last for about 8 weeks until the puppies are weaned.

Summary of Life Cycle Nutrition

Your dog will need different amounts and ratios of nutrients suitable for each life stage.

The food that is complete and balanced for your puppy will not be balanced for your adult dog.

Your active, growing pup needs nutrients in different quantities and ratios than your adult dog. So too, the food that is right for an adult can lead your senior dog to become overweight or obese.

How Much Food Does a Dog Need?>

If you search around the internet, you will find charts and calculators to help you estimate how many calories a healthy adult dog needs.

dog with treat

However, The Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center cautions that, “Individual pet needs can vary by as much as 50% from calculated values.”

You can use these calculations as a starting point.

How much food your dog needs will depend upon such factors as:

  • genetics
  • environment
  • activity level
  • life stage

Also, be sure to remember that dry dog food may have between 300 to 700 calories per cup depending upon the brand.

There is also a quick rule of thumb you can use to see if your dog is putting on weight. Look straight down on your dog while he is standing still or walking slowly. You should see an hourglass shape and be able to feel his ribs.

What Do Wild Dogs Eat?

We all want to know what are the best foods for dogs to eat.

One way to find out is to study what feral dogs eat and what doggie ancestors ate. According to The Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management:

Like coyotes, feral dogs have catholic diets and are best described as opportunistic feeders. They can be efficient predators, preying on small and large animals, including domestic livestock. Many rely on carrion, particularly road-killed animals, crippled waterfowl, green vegetation, berries and other fruits, and refuse at garbage dumps.

This quote makes it clear that dogs are carnivores. However, they also eat vegetables and fruit.

It is also documented that they will eat the partially digested contents of their prey’s stomachs. That would include vegetable matter.

Dog food does not need to be 100% meat. However, the best foods will have a high percentage of meat.

Types of Dog Food

In this section I will discuss the major types of dog food you will find at the grocery and pet store near you.

Let’s start with one of the major topics: wet food versus dry food.

Wet Dog Food vs Dry Dog Food

Wet dog food is also known as canned dog food because (wait for it…) it comes in cans.

Many people, including some veterinarians, claim that the worst wet food is better for your dog than the best dry food. Others are satisfied to feed their pet any food that meets the standard of “complete and balanced.”

Here are the pros and cons of each type:
Wet dog food pros

  • Wet food adds water to the dog’s diet. This can be important for a dog that does not drink enough.
  • The food may smell better to your pet. This can be especially important for older dogs.
  • The soft food is easier to eat for dogs missing teeth or with small mouths.

Wet dog food cons

  • Your dog may make a bigger mess when eating wet food.
  • Your dog may be more prone to dental problems.
  • The food does not last long after being opened.
  • Wet food may be more expensive than dry food.

Dry food pros

  • Dry food can be bought in larger packages.
  • The larger packages may be less expensive per pound.
  • Dry food is easier to store and keeps well after the package is opened.
  • The food can be used as a treat one kibble at a time.

Dry food cons

  • Dry does not provide the moisture of wet foods.
  • It may rely too much on grains rather than meat.

Homemade Dog Food

It’s no secret that many people are suspicious of the dog food produced in bulk by major corporations.

Couple the suspicion about large companies with the dog food recalls of recent years and it’s no wonder people are looking for alternatives.

One alternative embraced by some people is the DIY dog food option.

You cook food for your own meals. Maybe it’s not so hard to spend a little bit more time in the kitchen and cook for your dog, too.

Before you jump on the DIY bandwagon, keep in mind this warning from the American College of Veterinary Nutrition:

In general, home prepared diets are more expensive than commercially available diets. Of course, they are also more time consuming to prepare. There are many recipes for home prepared pet diets available on the Internet and in books; however, the vast majority of these are inadequate and unbalanced.

I don’t think their statement is that shocking. Clearly, the most important thing is to find recipes that your dog likes and provide the right nutrition.

Weight Control Dog Food

Just like their humans, many dogs struggle to keep their weight under control.

Actually, I doubt the dog struggles at all. Every dog I’ve seen appears happy to eat as much food as he can. And that can lead to your dog putting on too many pounds.

Before you purchase that “weight control” food, you could try a couple of simple approaches.

Are you feeding your dog the right amount of food. It’s easy to overfeed. And Rover is not likely to tell you to stop.

Once you know you are giving the right portions at meal time, then check how many treats you’re passing out each day. A few extra treats every day can add up.

Also, is your pooch getting enough exercise? A couple of more times around the block might be good for both of you. 🙂

The weight control dog foods contain extra fiber and reduced calories. The idea is that your dog should still feel full but won’t have the extra calories to cope with.

It’s very important to make sure the food still fulfills the standard of “complete and balanced.”

Limited Ingredients Dog Food

A growing trend in dog food is to buy food with limited ingredients.

As a responsible dog owner, you should be aware that there is no standard definition of “limited ingredient” dog food.

Many of these foods attempt to limit ingredients that may cause problems such as itchy skin or dull coat. If your dog is suffering with one of these problems, you may have to try several foods before you find one that works for your dog.

If your dog has an allergy problem, it’s almost always due to proteins. In such a case a food with a different meat source may solve the problem.

Grain Free Dog Food

Grains are familiar foods such as barley, oats, rice, and wheat. Should your dog eat them?

As one dog owner said, “I don’t think you’ll find any wolves grazing in a wheat field.”

No doubt that is true. However, wolves in the wild have been seen to eat the stomach of their prey first. What’s in the stomach? Lots of grains and other vegetable matter.

Do grain free foods cause heart attacks? Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a type of canine heart disease that has been linked to grain free food.

There is reason to be concerned. But, according to the AKC, as of now it’s not known if it’s being grain free that’s the problem or the substitute foods (such as lentils and chickpeas) that are the problem.

Organic Dog Food

According to AAFCO, “‘organic’ refers to the handling and processing of ingredients and products. Pet foods and pet treats must comply with the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) regulations (7 CFR 205).”

These regulations cover:

  • ingredient sourcing
  • ingredient handling
  • manufacturing
  • labeling & certification of products wanting to use the word “organic” in their labeling

As of this time, for pet food to be certified organic it must meet the same standard for people food.

Dog Food for Health Problems

You can find dog food for various health conditions.

Of course, you should consult your vet to see if there are other health problems that may be causing the more obvious condition.

Sensitive Skin

Sensitive skin can be caused by a number of things.

One potential cause is dog food without enough fatty acids. Fatty acids are essential for your dog to have good skin and a healthy, shiny coat.

You can solve the low fatty acid problem by either switching to a better quality food or giving your dog a fatty acid supplement.

Also, consider using a moisturizing shampoo or a shampoo formulated to reduce skin cell loss.

Sensitive Stomach

Your sweet dog may be sensitive to many different ingredients in dog food.

“Sensitive stomach” means mild symptoms in the stomach or intestines. The common symptoms of sensitive stomach include:

  • vomiting
  • loose stool
  • gas

Please note, we are only talk about “mild” symptoms. If you see severe symptoms in your dog, it’s time for a trip to the vet.

There are a number of food ingredients that can cause sensitive stomach. It will take a fair amount of detective work on your part to find the cause.

The AKC has an extensive article on sensitive stomach.


Just like people, dogs can be allergic to many substances. Here we are only interested in allergies to food.

Your dog is allergic to a food when that food triggers the immune system. The immune system then attacks the part of the food causing the reaction.

A food allergy is potentially serious and should not be ignored.

Your dog may develop an allergy to almost any protein or carbohydrate in her food.

Some of the more common food proteins that your dog may be allergic to are:

  • beef
  • chicken
  • dairy products
  • eggs
  • lamb
  • soy
  • wheat gluten

If your dog suffers from a food allergy, the usual treatment is to find a food that does not include that food. Again, this can take time and detective work on your part.


Like in people, diabetes is a serious health problem that needs to be treated with care.

Also, it turns out a lot of the steps that help people cope with diabetes are also good for your dog.

The first step is to take off excess weight.

Have your vet estimate how many calories your dog needs each day. Then work out a reduced-calorie feeding regime.

According to WebMD for Pets,

Researchers are still exploring what diet is best for dogs with diabetes. Most vets recommend a high-fiber, low-fat diet. Fiber slows the entrance of glucose into the bloodstream and helps your dog feel full. Low-fat foods have fewer calories. Together, the diet can help your dog eat less and lose weight.

That can mean regular food in controlled amounts or a special diet food.

Also, adding more exercise into your dog’s day will also help take off the extra pounds.

How to Choose the Best Dog Food

Let’s summarize we have discussed in this long article.

1. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), establishes nutritional standards for dog food. Any dog food you purchase should meet AAFCO standards.

This may not be indicated on the label. Don’t hesitate to email or call the manufacturer to ask them if the meet AAFCO standards.

2. Always read the label on the bag carefully. Remember, the label is designed to entice you to buy the product.

Let’s say, for example, that you don’t want your dog’s food to contain ingredients from China. If the label says “prepared and cooked in the United States” you might conclude that all of the ingredients are from the U.S.

However, the company could still be importing ingredients from all over the world and doing the final preparation and cooking in the States.

3. You should always purchase a dog food that meets the standard of “complete and balanced.”

The only exception is when your vet recommends a food to meet a particular need. Then the vet will tell you when and for how long to feed the special food.

4. It’s possible to avoid commercial dog foods and go the DIY route. By preparing food for your dog you will have complete control over the ingredients and can ensure they are of the highest quality.

However, it also will be your job to ensure that the food is complete and balanced and is meeting your precious dog’s nutritional needs.