How do I pick the best food for my dog’s health?

Gone are the days when we jumped at the chance to get a three cans for a dollar deal on Alpo at the local grocery store and a bag of Kibbles and Bits. Most dog folks know that feeding good quality food can be one of the most important decisions you can make for your animal friend. These days many people who come to my clinic are already feeding a high quality food.

So how do you choose?

While there are no set answers to this question, here are some rules of thumb to follow:

  • 1. Always feed high quality food – So how do I tell what is high quality you ask
    • Make sure meat is the first ingredient and that it is real meat. It should be chicken or turkey or some other recognizable meat (not animal which can be euthanized cats and dogs- yuck!) and it should not be by-product.
    • Make sure there is no corn, corn meal or other corn products. Many animals are allergic to corn and usually only low quality foods have corn. The one exception I can think of to this is that Weruva has a couple foods that have chunks of corn in them. I still think this is a high quality food.
    • Learn how to read labels. You want to see a list of foods you recognize at the top, and then a list of vitamin and minerals you may not, closer to the bottom. Avoid dyes, preservatives like BHA, BHT, and erythoxyquin, food stabilizers like propylene glycol and sugars. For more information on how to read a label see the article What is really in pet food? from Born Free USA.
  • 2. Here is a list of my favorite brands There are other good foods out there to but these are the ones I recommend most often.

    • Weruva This is the only dog food that looks good enough that I would eat it! Made with whole foods and there is no question when you open the can.
    • Wellness is a good solid food with good ingredients. In addition to their traditional and grain free lines, they have a simple ingredient line for dogs with food allergies which is a much better alternative to many of the expensive and low quality prescription diets
    • Homestyle by Prairie, Instinct, Nature’s Variety raw foods are all made by Nature’s Variety. Prairie is their main line, Instinct is grain free and they also make a great raw line I recommend under the Nature’s Variety name. I have been happy with all their foods.
    • Merrick makes a great line of canned and dry foods. I have used their canned line in many inflammatory bowl disease dogs with good success. And they have a very cute marketing campaign.
    • Avoderm and Pinnacle are both solid good natural foods. Avoderm is marketed for animals with itchy skin and can make a difference in dogs with environmental allergies.
    • Orijen and Acana are the best grain free dry foods out there for dogs. If you feed just a dry food or mostly a dry food these would be my top recommendations. They only make dry food but have their own packaging and processing plant for their food which gives them better control on keeping contaminates out of their food lines.
    • Darwin’s Pet is a great northwest company which makes raw diets. If you live in the Seattle area they will deliver to your doorstep. They have a very good quality product and because they are a small company a lot of control on what goes into their food. For raw diets in the Seattle area they are number one
    • Go! and Now! Moderate protein diets with grain free varieties, these two foods are good solid options. Tasty options if the higher protein Orijen doesn’t work and a very good canned option
    • Paw’s Cafe is another great local company in the Seattle area which makes homemade food, raw diets and custom diets. Great folks and very high quality diets. So far they only deliver to the Eastside but there is talk they may come over to Seattle soon. If they do they will be up there with Darwin’s.
    • Taste of the Wild is a newer food on the market. It is grain free with excellent ingredients and seems to be tasty.
    • The Natural Pet Pantry is located in Burien, Washington and makes a great product, both cooked and raw. They also will make special diets from scratch for your dog.
    • Update 5/20/10 Because of the recent buyout of Natura pet by Proctor and Gamble I no longer recommend Innova, Evo, California Natural, Karma, or Heathwise.

    I feed multiple brands of food to my own dog and switch flavors and brands daily. If your dog’s stomach allows it I recommend switching brands and varieties of food.

    If I have missed the food you feed your dog add a comment and I will give you my opinion on it.

  • 3. If you have an animal over eight years of age (or a younger geriatric animal) they should not be on an exclusively dry food. Ideally they should have little to no dry food. If your dog loses too much weight on a diet of no dry food try adding in an egg a day and canned sweet potato or pumpkin.

    Dry food can be hard on the kidneys of older animals. Home cooked and high quality canned food are the best option for these guys. Older animals can be on raw food although some older dogs have a hard time switching to raw late in life if they have been on processed food since puppy hood. If possible find a holistic vet to work with on diet for older dogs or move very slowly as you switch them.

    Dry food is cheapest and some people can not afford to feed anything but it. If dry food is all you can afford, adding a little water, chicken broth, wet food or good quality table scraps will help. There are also some animals that simply do not do well on anything but a dry food or will not eat anything but a dry food. If you feed only a dry diet make sure it is high quality.

    High quality dry food with water or broth is better than low quality wet food.

  • 4. Grain free foods vs foods with grain

    Our dogs should be on a diet with a high protein content and should be eating mostly meat.

    Animals with allergies, cancer, or epilepsy should ideally be on a grain free diet. Many animals with chronic vomiting also do better on a grain free diet or low grain diet.

    Some animals prone to diarrhea do better with a food with some grain.

    Healthy animals can be on a high quality diet with or without grain but if you feed just a dry food I highly recommend it being grain free.

  • 5. So if grain, how much grain?

    There should always be more meat than grain in the food you feed your animal.

    Meat should be the top ingredient but also beware of the multiple names for the same thing. If there are three corn or grain based ingredients right after meat then there is probably more grain in the food. Also stay away from foods with corn and wheat if possible.

    The more whole grain the better. Oats, barley, quinoa, and brown rice are ideal grain sources. Corn, wheat and white rice are not as good.

  • 5. The least processed the food the better (also known as dry vs canned vs raw vs cooked)

    In the ideal world we would all have time to come home each day and cook for ourselves and our pets. However many people don’t have time to cook for themselves or their dogs.

    If you have the time and/or money start your dog on a raw diet or cook for them at home. There are also companies like Paw’s Cafe which make homemade dog food. If you are against feeding raw food or your dog doesn’t tolerate it, raw foods can also be cooked. Crock pots and steamers are ideal for this. Although you can always throw it in a frying pan.

    If you feed a raw diet make sure it is a frozen commercial product or that you freeze the meat or the food before you feed it to kill of any parasites that may be in the food. Pork and fish should never be fed raw to dogs.

    In general the less proceeded the food the better. With raw being on the top, followed by cooked, canned and finally dry. But do what works for your household.

    There are almost no overweight dogs on raw diets. If your dog is overweight get them off the dry food.

    My own dog, who is a cancer survivor, eats high quality canned food. He doesn’t tolerate raw and I don’t have time to cook for him. We found that he also needed some grain to keep his digestion healthy.

    While I have a number of animals on homemade or raw diets, many of my clients feed their dogs a mixture of high quality dry and wet because of convenience and cost.

  • 6. Pick the meat which is best for your cat or dog. If possible rotate meat sources.

    If your animal has obvious allergies then this choice is made for you. If not, I am highly in favor of switching protein sources routinely. This reduces your animals chance of developing allergies and adds some variety to your their diet. Imagine if you had to eat the same thing over and over again. Boring!

    Chinese medicine also has an energetic system for working with food. See my article The dance of life and the energetics of food for more information.

    I do not recommend feeding pork to dogs because of the way pigs are raised and the energetics that go along with that. Pork must never be eaten raw because of the diseases that pigs carry.

  • 7. Table scraps are ok

    No really, I know we as a veterinary community have told you they aren’t. But if you eat healthy food it is fine for your dog to have some. Just remember – no grapes, no raisins, no onions, no chocolate.

  • 8. For animals in kidney failure, the quality of the protein is much more important than the amount of protein.

    For years the veterinary community has recommended low protein for dogs in kidney failure. The new studies out however show that diets moderate in very high quality protein are best for these animals.

    Avoid the low quality, low protein prescription kidney diets and feed a canned or whole cooked food diet with moderate protein and some grain or potato instead. Try your best to not feed dry food to these guys.

  • 9. Do what is best for your dog and you.

    If all the diets I recommend give your dog diarrhea, find something else to feed. If you can’t feed a raw diet it’s ok. If you don’t have time to cook, well you’re just like me. These are recommendations, not rules that are set in stone.

    Do the best you can and try to have fun with it! After all you know your dog better than anyone else!

  • Helpful links
    Dog Aware’s dog food page More information than you could ever use about dog food!.
    Born Free’s What’s Really In Pet Food A great article about pet food companies and processing.

    Books about dog food and diet
    Dr. Pitcairn’s New Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats
    The Whole Pet Diet: Eight Weeks to Great Health for Dogs and Cats
    The Healthy Dog Cookbook: 50 Nutritious & Delicious Recipes Your Dog Will Love

    Food Pets Die For: Shocking Facts About Pet Food
    Not Fit for a Dog!: The Truth About Manufactured Dog and Cat Food
    Home-Prepared Dog & Cat Diets: the Healthful Alternative

    Also see How do I pick the best food for my cat’s health?.

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    5 Responses to “How do I pick the best food for my dog’s health?”

    1. Jennifer K Says:

      Weruva is great for cats too! It truly is GOOD food – the fish ones have whole pieces of sardines etc in them. I really could see taking a bite myself sometimes. 🙂

    2. Food for thought… « The Dog Years Blog Says:

      […] trust what you see on TV and you can’t trust your vet (for the most part – though there are awesome vets out there who don’t peddle that crap), then how is the Average Joe supposed to know what to feed his […]

    3. Lena McCullough, DVM Says:

      Robin – I accidentally deleted your question when I was weeding through the spam today. I’m sorry about that:-(
      I was able to recapture the first part
      I’ve switched from dry Natural Balance sweet potato and fish variety to Weruva canned for my two dogs. Can you …
      Would you be willing to repost it and I promise to not delete it this time.
      best,
      Lena

    4. Robin Says:

      Hi Lena,
      Well it is months later and I’m reading your Web site again and saw that you asked me to repost. I can’t remember the entire post but am still having the same basic problem so I’ll post it in the frame of today OK?
      My dog Gizmo has allergies. He gets an allergy shot 1/week and worked his way up to the current dose about a year ago. I’ve seen some lessened itching but still the black skin change and hair loss. He gets an imune builder in drops on his gums each night. It’s called alpha interferon. Then, he was put on steroids, starting at 2 pills a day, then 1, then every other, then none and he’s supposed to be good to go. Well, we had been feeding him Natual Balance sweet potato and fish at the recommendation of the vet.
      So, fast forward a year – I got into looking at good foods, thanks in part to your site, and switched to weruva. I switched him too fast I think, and he threw up and had watery stools, so I cut back. The vet said I need to keep him on NB due to allergies so I cut off weruva. Now it’s been several months again. I’m really stuck for what to do. I don’t want him eating powdered calories and vitamins processed to heck for his food. And allergies are just as bad as always and dermatologist says he’s out of ideas. So, we keep with the shots, drops, and pills every day.
      Where to go next with this, I just don’t know.
      Anyway, I think this is basically my post from before.
      Thanks!
      Robin

    5. Lena McCullough, DVM Says:

      Hi Robin,
      Hopefully I will be able to see Gizmo soon since you are local:-) However some suggestions until I do. If he is on dry Natural Balance I would try slowly switching him to canned even if it is NB. I have had some dogs do well on Merrick who are very sensitive to the other diets so that may be one to try if the Weruva did not work for him and would be better than the NB. With the Merrick you have to look to see which ones do not have grain. With him I would definitely do a grain free diet that is high in meat. NB is grain free and it is a passable diet just not the very best. If he needs to be on dry try the Orijen. If NB is the only thing that works for him, I can work with that, especially if it is canned. Go slow, over a week or more when switching food.

      Of course if he has had meat sources that have made him more itchy in the past stay away from those. Most of these guys are not true food allergies however so I worry more about getting them on a high protein, good quality, low processed, no grain diet .

      I use diet as a good strong base to start with and then add in herbs to work on reducing their itching by changing the way there body processes allergens. In some animals diet alone is not enough to get them below the threshold of inflammation where they start itching. With herbs we can often achieve this.

      best wishes,
      Lena