If you just brought home a new puppy or have ever wandered the aisles in a pet store, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by dog food choices. Start by checking the label for the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) statement. Then choose the right life stage (puppy, adult, senior) to make sure your dog is getting the nutrients they need. You may want to get even more specific and choose a food based on the size of your dog or based on their breed.
There’s even more to consider when choosing dry versus wet and regular or grain-free. Because there’s so much to take into account when feeding your loyal buddy, we consulted with several veterinarians for some tips.
It's also a good idea to talk to your vet to find out if your pet has any specific needs, but here are the best dog foods according to our research.
Best Overall Dry
Hill's Science Diet Small Bites Dry Dog Food
Many formulas and flavors
No artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors
Can be more expensive than some
Hill’s Pet Nutrition has been in business for more than 70 years. A favorite of many veterinarians and nutritionists, Hill’s Science Diet has many formulas and flavors. There are recipes for small and large dogs, puppies and seniors, and for health concerns ranging from weight management to digestion issues and oral care.
Fans say picky eater pups are sure to find a flavor they’ll like. Like many of the recipes, this particular food has chicken as the main ingredient. There are no artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors.
Best Overall Wet
Blue Buffalo Homestyle Recipe Adult Wet Dog Food
Lots of flavor choices
More affordable than many high-end canned foods
Protein is main ingredient
Doesn’t come in small cans
There are lots of high-end canned dog foods on the market, but when you have to feed wet food every day that can take a huge toll on your wallet. Blue Buffalo’s recipe is not only affordable, but it offers your pet the key nutrients they need in all sorts of tasty formulas.
Real beef, chicken, fish, lamb, or turkey is the main ingredient in this paté-like food. There are no artificial flavors or preservatives and no added corn, wheat, or soy. You can feed this wet food as a complete diet or mix it into dry kibble to make it more delicious.
Best for Puppies
Purina Pro Plan Puppy Chicken & Rice Dry Dog Food
No artificial colors or flavors
Features chicken as the first ingredient
Formerly Purina Pro Plan Focus, there’s some confusion over the formulas
Also a favorite with veterinarians, this popular Purina puppy food is a step above some of the company’s more basic offerings. Each formula features protein (meat, poultry, or salmon) as the main ingredient and has added probiotics and antioxidants. It’s fortified with DHA for brain and vision development, omega-6 fatty acids for skin and coat, as well as all the minerals and nutrients you’d expect for a growing puppy.
There are no artificial colors or flavors and the cost is relatively affordable. There are also recipes for puppies from small to large sizes and for special health needs such as sensitive skin and stomach.
Best for Senior Dogs
Nutro Natural Choice Senior Dog Dry Food
Main ingredient is chicken or lamb
No artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives
Also available in large and small breed sizes
Only two flavors
As dogs age, they might need fewer calories but they have changing nutrient needs. This formula has extra calcium to support strong bones and joints, fiber for digestion, and antioxidants for a healthy immune system. The main ingredient is either chicken or lamb, depending on the recipe.
The food is made without corn, wheat, soy protein, or GMOs. It’s also available in small breed senior and large breed senior for special formulas tailored to the needs of small and large aging dogs.
Best for Small Dogs
Merrick Healthy Grains Dry Dog Food
No preservatives or fillers
Only one flavor
Featuring tiny kibble that’s easier to eat, this food for small dogs has chicken as the primary ingredient. The recipe features high amounts of glucosamine and chondroitin for healthy joints and omega fatty acids for healthy skin and coat.
The Texas-based company uses ancient whole grains such as quinoa to promote digestion. The ingredient list is filled with familiar whole foods like carrots and apples with no preservatives, fillers, corn, or soy.
Best for Large Dogs
Royal Canin Large Breed Adult Dry Dog Food
No artificial colors or preservatives
Formulated for bones and joint health
Only comes in large bags
This large-breed recipe is formulated for adult dogs between the ages of 15 months and 5 years old who weigh 56 to 100 pounds. But there are similar formulas before and after for large-breed puppies and seniors. The food is large-sized for large mouths and the recipe is formulated to help support bones and joint health in large breed dogs.
The food is fortified with antioxidants and omega-3s to support a healthy skin and coat. It contains lots of dietary fiber to help with digestibility. There are no artificial colors or preservatives in the kibble.
Best for Allergies
Wellness Simple Limited Ingredient Duck & Oatmeal Recipe
Single protein is the main ingredient
No artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors
Four protein choices
More expensive than some others
Dog may develop food allergies to all kinds of pet food ingredients. A single protein is the main ingredient in this simple, limited-ingredient food for dogs with food sensitivities makes it easier to avoid the ingredient that give your pet issues. The formula is rich with probiotics and easy-to-digest carbohydrates. The mix doesn’t have any artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors.
There are regular and grain-free versions and the grain-free is fortified with taurine. Early research found a link between grain-free foods and taurine deficiency. The formula is also fortified with omega fatty acids, antioxidants, and glucosamine.
What to Look for in Dog Food
AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy Statement
Check to see if the food has an AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) statement to indicate that the food is nutritionally complete and balanced for your dog's specific life stage.
“Foods that contain an AAFCO statement have been verified through laboratory testing and in some cases, feeding trials to confirm they are complete and balanced for a particular life stage of a dog,” says Dr. Erin Katribe, DVM, MS, medical director and veterinarian for Best Friends Animal Society. “Other things to look for on the label include mention of the company’s quality control process, and if the company provides contact information and is available for questions.”
Nutrients and calorie needs are different for each stage of a dog’s life—puppy, adult, senior.
“The caloric requirements of puppies are much higher than adult dogs, and if not fed a diet that’s calorie dense enough, they may lack the energy necessary for growth and development,” Dr. Katribe says. “In contrast, older dogs tend to have slower metabolisms, and senior diets have nutrient profiles that are adjusted to prevent or slow the onset of chronic diseases that we commonly see in older pets.”
In general, dogs should be fed puppy food until they’re a year old, adult food until 7 years old, and senior food after that, says veterinarian Kristin Wuellner, an employee of Hill’s Pet Nutrition.
Dr. Wuellner says feeding a puppy age-appropriate food is important because they are active and growing, so pound for pound, they need more calories and nutrients than an adult dog. "The biology of mature dogs changes around seven years of age and certain nutrients are needed to support healthy functioning of organs, bones and muscles,” she says. “As dogs enter their golden years, their metabolism often slows down significantly, so they typically eat fewer calories than when they were younger, yet still need the full complement of essential nutrients.”
Size or Specific Breeds
Some foods are targeted toward small or large breeds. Others are targeted toward very specific breeds such as Labrador retrievers or Chihuahuas. Does your dog need something that detailed? It depends, says Dr. Katribe.
“The importance of these is variable; for example, it may be important for some small breed dogs to eat smaller kibble if they struggle with larger food sizes,” she says. “Other factors may be less vital, but there may still be important benefits, such as the inclusion of supplements that have been shown to impact the development of osteoarthritis in older dogs.”
It is crucial for large and giant breed puppies to eat a diet designed for them, she says. “It’s important that their diet has the correct calcium and calorie content to support bone development but not allow them to grow too quickly, which can also lead to problems,” she says.
Grain-Free or Not?
Grain-free diets are very popular, but not needed for most dogs, says Dr. Wuellner.
“Grain-free dog food is only necessary if your pet has been diagnosed with an allergy or intolerance to grains via an elimination diet trial. This type of allergy is rare in dogs,” she says. “The most common grains we see in dog food include barley, corn, oats, rice, wheat, rye, and sorghum and they all play a role in providing your pet with the nutrients they need. For example, barley is seen as a superfood for dogs, oats are known to benefit heart health, and corn provides vitamin E and linoleic acid.”
In addition, recent research suggests a possible link between some grain-free diets and heart disease in dogs. Researchers aren’t exactly sure of the connection but it seems to be related to a deficiency in the amino acid, taurine. It could be that there isn’t enough taurine in the diets or that it isn’t absorbed as well.
“For this reason, until we understand more about this mechanism, feeding only grain-free is not recommended,” Dr. Katribe says.
Dry vs. Wet Dog Food
If given the option, your dog might vote for wet food, but that’s not always the best choice for every pet. Dry food can have an advantage over wet food because when your dog chews it, the mechanics help clean teeth.
Wet foods have a higher percentage of water which can help when your goal is weight loss for your pet, says Dr. Katribe. Your dog will feel fuller after eating a meal with more water. Wet food can also be helpful when a dog is recovering from an illness because it’s more appealing and they may be more likely to eat it. It’s also good when they might have dental pain.
How much should I feed my dog?
Every bag or can of dog food will have feeding recommendations based on your dog’s age and weight, but that’s just a starting point. Just like humans, metabolism can vary from dog to dog, Dr. Katribe points out, so the amount should be adjusted based on weight gain or loss. Your veterinarian can help you figure out your dog’s ideal weight.
“For animals with slower metabolisms or limited activity, bag guidelines are often too high; for a very active dog, though, they may be too low,” she says. “A key way to judge your dog’s weight is that you should be able to feel their ribs when applying slight pressure to the sides of their chest, but not see those ribs through the skin.”
Does dog food expire?
You might notice that dog food has a “best by” date, which is the window in which a food is the most nutritious for your pet. This can vary from months to years depending on the manufacturer and type of food. It doesn’t mean that the food has expired after that time, but it’s not as healthy.
How you store the food, however, can impact spoilage and contamination. “When storing dry kibble, it is best practice to keep it in an airtight container and not remove it from the original bag,” says Dr. Wuellner.
Is plant-based dog food safe for dogs?
Dogs can be kept on plant-based or vegetarian diets as long as the diet is nutritionally complete and balanced, says Dr. Katribe.
“Because these formulations are newer and it can be more challenging to ensure nutritional requirements for dogs are met with only plant-based ingredients than when meat is included, it’s important to not only check the label for completeness statements, but also consider contacting the company to ensure the diet was formulated by someone with professional training in canine nutrition and food science,” she suggests. “As these diets are generally newer, there may be new developments as we learn more about long term effects and as more research is performed.”
Should you switch dog foods regularly?
Don’t worry about your dog getting bored with their food. “Our dogs’ gastrointestinal tracts get very accustomed to a single type of food when we primarily feed one thing every day,” says Dr. Katribe. “Switching diets isn’t necessary if there isn’t an issue that needs to be addressed." In fact, she says if the transition is done too quickly, it can actually cause stomach upset (diarrhea, vomiting).
If you want to keep things interesting, give your dogs treats in small quantities. You can do that in food puzzles or treat balls to make things mentally stimulating as well.
You should, however, consider changing food based on your pet’s life stage and any health considerations when nutritional needs change, says Dr. Wuellner.
“If a pet owner is considering switching up their diet, it’s vital to do it gradually,” she says. “Slowly incorporate the new food into a pet’s diet, mixing it with the older food at first, to lower the possibility of upsetting a pet’s stomach. Always talk to your vet before making any changes.”
Why Trust The Spruce Pets?
We interviewed several certified veterinarians, including Dr. Erin Katribe and Dr. Kristin Wuellner, about what to look for and consider when choosing a dog food. We then researched dozens of dog food brands to find the best for this roundup.
This article was researched and written by Mary Jo DiLonardo who has covered animals and pets for several decades. Mary Jo has fostered more than three dozen puppies and is always searching for the healthiest and most effective products, foods, and treats for them. She has also cleaned up after all of them!