There are hundreds of really good dog foods on the market – and, unfortunately, also thousands of foods that are just OK and thousands more that are, in our opinion, pretty awful. We’re here to help you identify the good and better candidates.
Understand, however, there are plenty of dogs who seem to do just fine on any food that contains the minimum nutrient levels required by law in order to be labeled as “complete and balanced” – even products that solely contain cheap, highly processed by-products from human food manufacturing. It shouldn’t be surprising; a lot of research goes into finding ways to use waste products from human-food manufacturing in pet food – and even more research has gone into determining the minimum amounts of every nutrient that dogs need to live, grow, and reproduce.
If your dog can subsist on almost any food and still maintain vibrant health, a glossy coat, good stools, and a normal energy level – well, count your blessings! – because many other dogs need better-quality ingredients, higher-than-minimum levels of protein and/or fat, and thoughtful supplementation in order to thrive.
Also, some of us don’t want to miss the opportunity to give our dogs every nutritional advantage that might contribute to healthier skin, better resistance to chronic disease, stronger bones, and well-lubricated joints. And some of us are already sadly aware that our dogs have extraordinary dietary requirements; they may be allergic to or intolerant of certain ingredients or require a tightly controlled level of fat, protein, or fiber. Or, we may have experienced that they seem to feel, look, or even smell better on higher quality diets. This information is for those of you who have any of these or other reasons to be in search of better-quality foods.
How We Chose: Attributes of Quality Dry Dog Food or Lack Thereof
The attributes of quality that we look for in a dog food – as well as the traits that warn us away from low-quality foods – are described here. We used those criteria to identify the 60-plus companies that we describe in the February 2024 print edition of Whole Dog Journal (available here as a downloadable PDF to subscribers only). These companies all make good or great foods. But to select our favorite products for puppies or adolescent dogs, active dogs, inactive dogs, and so on, we used more refined criteria, which we’ll describe in each of eight categories:
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Dry Puppy Food/All Life Stages
Did you know that there isn’t any nutritional difference between foods that are formulated for puppies and those that are formulated for dogs “of all life stages”? – although products that are named or labeled as “puppy” foods are likely manufactured in a smaller kibble size. Whether the product’s small-type nutritional adequacy statement (also known as the AAFCO statement, as it references the Association of American Feed Control Officials) references “growth,” “growth and reproduction,” or “dogs of all life stages,” the product has been formulated to meet the same set of nutritional standards.
There are two of these standards; the other one is for “adult maintenance.” Foods that are formulated to meet the “growth” standards must have higher protein and fat levels, and higher levels of calcium, phosphorus, and linoleic acid than foods that have been formulated for “adult maintenance.”
Whether we’re looking for a food for puppies or a reasonably active adult dog, we look among prospects that have moderate (neither minimal nor very high) levels of fat and protein. If the food contains supplements such as probiotics or glycosaminoglycans (i.e., glucosamine, chondroitin), we want to see them listed on the guaranteed analysis, indicating they are present in verifiably beneficial quantities.
Whether we are shopping for a food for a puppy or adult dog, our preference is always for a product with a meat and a meat meal in the top two or more ingredients; and legumes (such as peas, chickpeas, and lentils) used in minor roles (below the 5th or 6th position on the ingredients list).
Best Dry Puppy Food/All Life Stages: Stella & Chewy’s Wholesome Grains Duck with Pumpkin & Quinoa
Things we like:
- Meats appear 1st and 6th; meat meal appears second
- Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, taurine, glucosamine, chondroitin, and total microorganisms (probiotics) on the guaranteed analysis
- Freeze-dried, raw coated baked kibble ensures palatability
First 10 ingredients: Duck, turkey meal, pearled barley, oatmeal, turkey fat, turkey, pumpkin, quinoa, tomato pomace, natural vegetable flavor
Protein: Min 26%
Fat: Min 16%
Calories: 448 Kcal/cup
Dry Dog Foods for Adult Maintenance
Adult maintenance foods usually contain lower levels of protein, fat, and certain vitamins and minerals than foods that are formulated to meet the growth and reproduction needs of puppies and their parents. That said, the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles do not declare maximum levels of fat or protein, so take a peek at the protein and fat levels in any adult-maintenance food you consider to make sure the amounts are appropriate for your dog. Less-active or overweight adult dogs don’t need high-protein or high-fat foods.
Best Dry Dog Food for Adult Maintenance: Acana Wholesome Grains Small Breed Recipe
Things we like:
- Meat (1st and 10th on the ingredients list), two meat meals (2nd, 7th), and organs (11th, 15th, and 16th) for 60% animal-sourced ingredients
- EPA, DHA, Omega-3 and -6, taurine, probiotics on the guaranteed analysis
First 10 ingredients: Deboned chicken, chicken meal, oat groats, sorghum, millet, eggs, catfish meal, chicken fat, oats, turkey
Protein: Min 27%
Calories: 413 Kcal/cup
Lower-Fat Dry Dog Foods
The legal minimum amount of crude fat in a dry dog food adult maintenance is 6.1% as fed; for puppies, the minimum amount is 9.4% as fed.
The words “as fed” are important. If you look up AAFCO’s Dog Food Nutrient Profiles, you will see the minimum requirement of crude fat for adult dogs as 5.5% and 8.5% for puppies. But the numbers used on the Dog Food Nutrient Profiles are based on the foods’ “dry matter” – what’s in the food if you have removed all the moisture in it. Nutritionists use dry-matter numbers instead of “as fed” numbers so they can compare the nutrients present in foods that have varying amounts of moisture. But the numbers that are used on the guaranteed analysis of all pet food labels are always “as fed” numbers.
Pregnant or nursing mothers and growing puppies need more fat than most adult dogs, so few people are searching for low-fat foods for puppies. Low-fat foods become more important for inactive and sedentary dogs, dogs who have diabetes, dogs who are overweight, and dogs who either have pancreatitis or are of a breed that is genetically predisposed to pancreatitis.
When looking for a lower-fat food for one of these dogs, we start our search by looking at products with lower (but not necessarily the very lowest) fat content.
Remember that dry dog foods contain protein, fat, and carbohydrates. When you reduce the amount of any one of those three macronutrients, one or both of the other two will rise – so some lower-fat foods will contain increased levels of protein, and some will contain increased levels of carbohydrates, and some will contain increased levels of both. This is where, as always, you need to take your own dog’s unique needs into account. Does he do better on higher protein or higher carb foods?
Our top picks reflect products that take a balanced tack, with increased amounts of protein and carbs. We didn’t select the foods with the very lowest amounts of fat that are on our Approved Dry Dog Foods list. If your dog is not just prone to pancreatitis, but has suffered one or more episodes of pancreatitis, you may wish to look among those products with the very lowest possible fat levels.
Best Lower-Fat Dry Dog Food: Merrick Healthy Grains Healthy Weight Recipe
Things we like:
- Deboned meat first, meat meal second
- Variety of healthy carbs without ingredient “splitting”
- Extra nutrients listed on the guaranteed analysis, including taurine, L-carnitine, Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids
First 10 ingredients: Deboned chicken, chicken meal, brown rice, oatmeal, barley, turkey meal, miscanthus grass, quinoa, natural flavor, chicken fat
Protein: Min 26%
Fat: Min 9%
Calories: 385 Kcal/cup
Eagle Pack Reduced Fat Adult (Min 6% fat)
Health Extension Lite Chicken & Brown Rice Recipe (Min 7.5% fat)
High Protein Dry Dog Foods
The AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles list minimum protein levels, on a dry matter basis, as 18% for adult dog maintenance and 22.5% for growth. Assuming a 10% moisture content (average for dry foods), the minimum as-fed protein values are 20% for adult dog maintenance, and 24% for growth.
Again, there are no established maximum values for protein in dog food. Dogs can eat and thrive on food that contains twice (or even more than that) of the minimum amounts of protein they require. This amount of protein is not necessary, however, and foods with high protein levels are much more expensive than lower-protein foods. On the other hand, some dogs absolutely do better on high-protein foods than they do on foods with more moderate or lower protein levels. Young, active dogs and canine athletes – particularly dogs who are used in endurance or cold-weather activities – may do better on high protein foods.
When you increase the amount of one of the three macronutrients in a dog food (protein, fat, and carbs), one or both of the other three necessarily decrease. Some higher-protein foods will contain less fat, some will contain fewer carbs, and some will contain less of both fat and carbs. To select our favorites, we looked for products with a somewhat balanced approach (lower fat and carb levels). And, again, we didn’t select foods with the very highest levels of protein for our favorites; we chose foods that were among the highest 20% or so.
Best High-Protein Dry Dog Food: Wellness Core RawRev Wholesome Grains Puppy Food +100% Raw Turkey
Things we like:
- Two meats (1st, 7th) and two meat meals (2nd, 3rd)
- Amounts of DHA, EPA, taurine, and probiotics on the guaranteed analysis
- Freeze-dried meat and kibble made by Wellness (100% made in Wellness’ own plants)
First 10 ingredients: Deboned chicken, chicken meal, turkey meal, oatmeal, barley, chicken fat, turkey liver, flaxseed, tomato pomace, quinoa
Protein: Min 38%
Fat: Min 17.5%
Calories: 438 Kcal/cup
Orijen Amazing Grains Six Fish Recipe (38% protein)
Limited Ingredient Dry Dog Foods
Be advised that there isn’t a legal or even a commonly agreed-upon definition of a limited-ingredient dog food. Some manufacturers will use just five or six major ingredients (the sources of protein, fat, and carbs) in their limited-ingredient foods, while others will contain 10, 12, or even more sources of protein, fat, and carbohydrate sources.
The whole point of the “limited ingredient” appellation, from a dog owner’s perspective, is to find a product that has as few ingredients as possible. Usually, those of us buying these products are either feeding dogs who are sensitive to either known or as-yet unknown ingredients, trying to prevent aggravating a hypersensitive (allergic) response, or trying to identify which ingredients the dog seems to be able to digest without triggering an adverse response. The more ingredients a food has, the harder it is to identify exactly which ingredient is troubling the dog – so our bias in selecting favorites in this category was for foods with as few major ingredients as possible.
Best Limited Ingredient Dry Dog Food: AvoDerm Sensitive Support Wholesome Grains Salmon & Oatmeal Formula
Things we like:
- Single species of animal protein (salmon)
- Novel protein source may benefit dogs with allergies to more common proteins
- Made in company’s own plant
First 10 ingredients: Salmon, salmon meal, oatmeal, white rice, pumpkin, canola oil, brown rice, flax seed, avocado, dried tomato pomace
Protein: Min 24%
Fat: Min 14%
Calories: 437 Kcal/cup
Grain-Free Dry Dog Foods
The topic of grain-free food is a bit of a third rail in the dog world, but we’re going to keep this simple.
Grain-free foods can be a literal life-saver for dogs who are allergic to or intolerant of grains. However, the number of dogs who are genuinely among that population is much smaller than the number of grain-free foods on the market would indicate.
The demand for grain-free foods for dogs rose along with the heightened awareness of the prevalence of celiac disease in humans – but this popularity was further boosted by owners who promote “biologically appropriate” or “evolutionary” diets.
Dogs have no requirement for carbohydrates in their diets whatsoever – they can live and thrive on diets that contain only fat and protein – and people who adopted so-called “natural” diets for dogs increasingly cut grain out of their home-prepared diet recipes. But the vast majority of dog owners want to feed kibble, as it’s highly convenient, relatively shelf-stable, and more economical than many other types of diets. But to make kibble, you need carbs in the formula; it’s impossible to extrude a dog food that contains no carbs. Fortunately, there are lots of non-grain carbohydrate sources.
Potatoes and sweet potatoes were highly popular in the first grain-free products, but soon every type of legume grown on the planet found its way into these products: peas, lentils, chickpeas, and beans.
In 2018, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration turned the dog world upside down with a preliminary advisory warning of a possible link between grain-free foods and the incidence of canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). Despite much study, that link has not been proven, though a link between higher rates of DCM and foods with high inclusions of legumes (such as peas, chickpeas, lentils, and beans) is still suspected. Today, we feel confident that there is no link between the broad category of “grain-free foods” and canine DCM, and that even foods with a high legume inclusion are safe for dogs as long as their maker adds adequate amounts of taurine and/or its metabolic precursors, methionine and cysteine.
However, given the relatively recent use of – and extremely high inclusion rate of – legumes in dog food today (grain-free as well as grain-containing), we feel more comfortable recommending grain-free foods only for dogs who have a demonstrated lack of ability to thrive on foods that contain grain, and/or grain-free foods that contain a relatively low inclusion rate of legumes.
Best Grain-Free Dry Dog Food: Open Farm RawMix Open Prairie Recipe
Things we like:
- Certified humanely raised chicken and turkey
- Complete nutrient analysis on website
- Freeze-dried raw coating on kibble, plus chunks of freeze-dried meat
First 10 ingredients: Chicken, turkey, potatoes, Menhaden fish meal, herring meal, sweet potatoes, tapioca, coconut oil, sunflower oil, pumpkin
Protein: Min 30%
Fat: Min 15%
Calories: 405 Kcal/cup
Budget Dry Dog Foods
Our “budget” foods are more expensive than the cheapest foods you can find, but that’s because the cheapest foods you can buy would be disqualified from our approved foods list by several criteria. The cheapest foods usually use plant proteins (such as corn and peas) rather than animal proteins as the main protein sources, unnamed animal protein and fat sources (identified on the ingredients list only as “meat,” “meat meal,” or “meat and bone meal,” and “animal fat”), and none or few whole foods used as carb sources. We just can’t recommend those foods.
Best Budget Dry Dog Food: Chicken Soup Classic Adult Dry Dog Food Chicken, Turkey & Brown Rice Recipe
Things we like:
- Two meats (1st, 2nd) and two meat meals (3rd, 4th) before carb sources; more meats 15th and 16th, but this is insignificant
- Company provides more than 1 million meals annually to animal rescue organizations and food banks
First 10 ingredients: Chicken, turkey, chicken meal, turkey meal, cracked pearled barley, brown rice, peas, oatmeal, white rice, faba beans
Protein: Min 25%
Fat: Min 13%
Calories: 355 Kcal/cup
Alternative Protein Dry Dog Foods
While they are quite rare, some dogs are hypersensitive (allergic) to all or most animal protein sources. Also, many people have ethical, moral, and/or environmental objections to raising and killing animals to feed their dogs. Fortunately for individuals of both kinds, there is an increasing number of complete and balanced diets for dogs that contain no “dead animal” sources of protein.
We’re aware of fewer than 10 foods that fit in this category. Some are vegetarian, some are vegan, and some are . . . well, we’re not quite sure what to call products that use insect sources of protein!
Please note that all of these meat-free foods provide complete and balanced nutrition for adult maintenance only; none are formulated for puppies or dogs of all life stages.
Best Dry Dog Food Containing Alternative Proteins: Jiminy’s Cravin’ Cricket
Things we like:
- Eco-friendly, humane, sustainable formula
- Cricket protein is prebiotic, helps feed beneficial bacteria in the gut
- Baked, not extruded
First 10 ingredients: Crickets, oats, quinoa, sweet potato, brown rice, chickpeas, milo, potato protein, peas, sunflower oil
Protein: Min 24%
Fat: Min 12%
Calories: 378 Kcal/cup
Lucy Pet Vegetarian Formula (protein sources are dried yeast, chickpeas, and potato protein)
Open Farm Kind Earth Premium Insect Kibble Recipe (protein sources are Black Soldier Fly Larvae and dried yeast)
Now you choose!
So, that’s what we would choose and what we’d base those choices on. Now it’s your turn! You’ll need to consider your dog’s age, weight, health, and preferences – and your budget and preferences – but you’ll have plenty to choose from; we suggest using our searchable database of Approved Dry Dog Foods, which allows you to sort prospects on their ingredients, protein and fat levels, price, and more.