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When asked, “What’s the best dog food?” our first question is, “Best for whom, exactly?” Are you feeding an overweight, sedentary dog? A Dachshund puppy? A mixed-breed puppy with enormous feet? An adolescent Border Collie agility star? A white Boxer with allergies? Four medium- to large-breed rescue dogs?
The point is, the “best food” is not likely the same for any of these dogs! An owner first needs to take into account all of a dog’s individual needs:
- Dog’s age (puppies need products that are formulated for puppies or “dogs of all life stages”).
- Dog’s size (small dogs need a smaller kibble size).
- Dog’s fitness and activity level (overweight and inactive dogs need lower-fat foods; dogs who are highly active or too thin need more fat and more protein).
- Dog’s ability to tolerate and digest ingredients (careful label review is needed for dogs who are allergic to or intolerant of certain ingredients).
- Your ability to afford the food.
But as much as we try to encourage people to identify their dogs’ unique needs in order to buy foods that best meet those needs, they want us to give them some examples – best foods for dogs with their dogs’ needs. So, for 2023, we’ve named the products we like best in a number of categories and explained what we like about our selections. If you are looking for some new, top-quality foods to try and our top picks in each category suit your dog and your budget – that’s great! But keep in mind that the most important thing is not whether we like a particular product, it’s whether that (or any other food) suits your dog.
Food Selection Tenets
We examine the offerings of the top pet food makers every year, and list the companies that produce foods that meet the basics of our food selection criteria, which is explained in detail on our list of Approved Dry Dog Foods for that year. The print edition of this list offers a summary of the products made by these companies: how many dry dog foods they make; how many of those are grain-free; whether they are made for adult maintenance or for dogs of all life stages; whether they are made with meat, meat meal, or both; and the range of protein and fat levels that can be found in each company’s products. We also describe, to the best of our ability, the attributes of each line of products offered by each company (this is difficult to ascertain in some instances, and the companies themselves are often not very good about explaining these differences themselves).
A few years ago, we started building a new database each year in the process of gathering information about each company’s products. We used this as a tool that would help us create the company summaries, but realized at some point that the database made it super easy for us to find foods with specific attributes. By adding filters, we could search the database to build lists of foods that would meet refined sets of data to help us identify candidates for the “Best Foods” in various categories, such as Best High Protein Foods or Best Lower-Fat Foods. In each category where we have named our top picks below, we have explained how we sorted and filtered the information in our database to find candidates to consider.
In addition, as a service to our readers, we’ve made this database, with detailed information and ingredient lists for more than 1,100 foods, available to our subscribers, so they can conduct their own searches for products that might suit their dogs’ needs better than whatever they are eating at the moment. This searchable database allows you to add as many filters as you want to find the most appropriate candidates for your dog. Looking for a higher-protein, lower-fat food without chicken or peas? Or a grain-free, adult-maintenance food that contains only beef as its animal protein source and does not contain potatoes? Add the filters and search!
We’d recommend keeping a few keys in mind, however – tenets that guided our own “Best Food” selections in the categories below:
- Unless your dog has very special needs, don’t pick one food and feed only that food forever. Switch often for nutritional “balance over time.”
- Many of the foods we’ve selected as our favorites below are available in the same formula but “small bites” varieties for small dogs. If you have a small dog, check the manufacturers’ sites to see if a small-bites formula is available.
- Watch your dog! Keep track of any adverse reactions, and write down the details (maker, protein and fat levels, ingredients). Let your dog’s response guide your future purchases.
- Unless your dog has a specific requirement necessitating it, avoid “extreme” foods, such as those with the absolute highest or lowest protein or fat, six different legumes or grains, novel proteins (alligator, brushtail, kangaroo?!), or 10 different animal species. Most dogs’ needs – and our selections below – fall in the middle ground.
Adult Maintenance Dog Food
Adult maintenance foods generally 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. So what is the best dry dog food for adult maintenance? When looking among the products that are formulated specifically for adult maintenance, we want to see meat and meat meals in the top two or more ingredients; moderate (neither minimal nor very high) levels of fat and protein; and legumes (such as peas, chickpeas, and lentils) used in minor roles (below the 5th or 6th position on the ingredients list). If beneficial supplements such as probiotics or glycosaminoglycans (i.e., glucosamine, chondroitin) are present, we like to see them listed on the guaranteed analysis, indicating they are present in verifiable quantities that can be compared to other products.
Best Adult Dog Food
Things we like:
- Deboned meat (1st and 9th on the ingredients list) and two meat meals (2nd, 3rd)
- Nice use (not overwhelming amount) of “ancient grains”
- Extraordinary amount of probiotics listed on the guaranteed analysis
First 10 ingredients: Deboned beef, turkey meal, chicken meal, barley, oats, spelt, chicken fat, ground flaxseed, deboned lamb, millet
Protein: Min 28%
Calories: 425 Kcal/cup
Puppy Dog Food
Our search for top-quality puppy food is very similar to our search for adult maintenance foods, except we are looking among those products that have been formulated for “growth and reproduction” – described on the label as being for puppies, “growth,” “growth and reproduction,” or for “dogs of all life stages.” The terms are equivalent in terms of which of the two AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles were used as a guide to the minimum (and a few maximum) levels of all the nutrients known to be required by puppies and their parents. These foods will generally have higher protein and fat levels, and higher levels of calcium, phosphorus, and linoleic acid.
With the exception of being formulated for dogs of all life stages, we also want to see meat and meat meals in the top two or more ingredients; moderate (neither minimal nor very high) levels of fat and protein; and legumes (such as peas, chickpeas, and lentils) used in minor roles (below the 5th or 6th position on the ingredients list). If beneficial supplements such as probiotics or glycosaminoglycans (i.e., glucosamine, chondroitin) are present, we like to see them listed on the guaranteed analysis, indicating they are present in verifiable quantities that can be compared to other products.
Best Dry Puppy Food
Things we like:
- Meat (1st) and two meat meals (2nd, 6th)
- Amount of DHA (important for puppy development) on the guaranteed analysis
- Freeze-dried, raw coated kibble ensures palatability
First 10 ingredients: Chicken, chicken meal, barley, brown rice, oatmeal, menhaden fish meal, chicken fat, ground flaxseed, lamb meal, salmon oil
Protein: Min 25%
Calories: 468 Kcal/cup
Limited Ingredient Dog Food
There isn’t a legal or even a commonly agreed-upon definition of a limited-ingredient dog food. Some manufacturers will label their products with just five or six major ingredients – the protein, fat, and carb sources – as limited-ingredient, while other “limited ingredient” foods will contain 10, 12, or even more protein, fat, and carbohydrate sources. The whole point of this appellation, from a dog owner’s perspective, is to find a product that has as few ingredients as possible, for feeding dogs who are sensitive to either known or as-yet unknown ingredients, for the purpose of either not aggravating a hypersensitive response, or helping 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 these foods is searching for products that meet all of our usual criteria and possess as few major ingredients as possible.
Best Limited Ingredient Dog Food
Things we like:
- Taurine listed on the guaranteed analysis
- A blend of fiber sources (brown rice, pumpkin, flaxseed, dried kelp, dried chicory root, beet pulp, and ground miscanthus grass) supports gut bacteria
- Made in the company’s own plant
First 10 ingredients: Chicken, chicken meal, brown rice, oatmeal, chicken fat, pumpkin, dried beet pulp, ground miscanthus grass, natural flavor, flaxseeds
Protein: Min 24%
Calories: 380 Kcal/cup
Budget Dog Foods
You won’t find any of the least expensive foods that you can find in a pet supply store on any our “Best Food” lists, for good reason. Any product that costs less than $1 per pound cannot possibly contain higher-quality ingredients, such as named meats, named fat sources (such as chicken fat), and whole-food carbohydrate sources (such as rice, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, and so on). Instead, in the lowest-cost foods, you will find more plant proteins than animal proteins (such as corn and peas) high on the ingredients list (1st, 2nd, or 3rd), unnamed animal protein and fat sources (identified on the ingredients list only as “meat,” “meat meat,” or “meat and bone meal,” and “animal fat”), and none or few whole foods used as carb sources. This is where you will start to see far more “fractions” (such as brewers rice, rice bran, rice mill by-product) or multiple iterations of essentially the same ingredient (i.e., a food that contains brown rice, white rice, and brewers rice). These latter two tactics are often used to disguise the fact that the product contains more of the repeated ingredient than higher-cost meat sources.
Look, for example, at a random food made by Pedigree. Here are the first 10 ingredients present in Pedigree Complete Nutrition Grilled Steak & Vegetable Flavor Adult Dog Food, a product that costs about $0.64 per pound: Ground whole grain corn, meat and bone meal, corn gluten meal, animal, soybean meal, natural flavor, chicken by-product meal, dried plain beet pulp, salt, potassium chloride. This sort of product doesn’t meet any of our basic food selection criteria.
The least expensive dry dog foods that do meet our basic selection criteria start around $1.25 per pound. Foods at that price point rarely contain named meats at the top of the ingredient list; they generally are made with meat meal only. Though you will find a few dozen of these foods on our “Approved Dry Dog Foods” list, when we selected our favorites for “Best Budget Dog Food,” we looked only at foods that contain a named meat and a named meat meal at the top of the ingredients list. Products meeting that additional criterion generally start around $1.75 per pound.
Best Budget Dog Food
Things we like:
- Ingredients include meat (1st) and two meat meals (2nd, 3rd) before carb sources
- Added taurine
- Manufacturer sources ingredients and formulates and manufactures the food in its own Safe Quality Food (SQF) -certified plant
First 10 ingredients: Deboned lamb, turkey meal, chicken meal, ground brown rice, barley, oat groats, rice bran, chicken fat, dried plain beet pulp, natural chicken flavor
Protein: Min 24%
Calories: 347 Kcal/cup
Lower Fat Dog Foods
All dog foods that carry a nutritional adequacy claim that they provide “complete and balanced nutrition” for dogs must meet minimum nutrient levels established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). The minimum amount of crude fat in a dry dog food for the maintenance of adult dogs 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 these numbers are reported on the Dog Food Nutrient Profiles 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; using the dry-matter numbers to a product’s as-fed nutrient levels is inaccurate. Most dry (kibble) dog foods contain 10% moisture, so we’ve made the conversion of AAFCO’s dry matter numbers to the pet food maker’s 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 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, as before, all of our previous food selection criteria apply, but we start our search by sorting the foods on the WDJ Searchable Dry Dog Food Database by fat content, and looking at the 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? While carbohydrate amounts are not listed on product labels, if you look at the ingredients list and protein amounts of the foods you are considering, you should be able to make an informed choice for your dog. Our top picks reflect products that take a balanced tack, with increased amounts of protein and carbs.
We also didn’t select the foods with the absolute lowest amount of fat that were on our Approved Dry Dog Foods list. If your dog is not just prone to pancreatitis, but actually as suffered episodes of pancreatitis, you may wish to look among those products with the lowest possible fat levels.
Best Lower-Fat Dog Food
Things we like:
- Meat first, meat meal second
- Inclusion of legume (peas) in minor but supportive role (6th)
- Complete nutrient profile available on Wellness website
- Extra nutrients listed on the guaranteed analysis, including microorganisms (probiotics) and taurine
First 10 ingredients: Deboned chicken, chicken meal, oatmeal, ground brown rice, ground barley, peas, tomato pomace, rice, ground flaxseed, tomatoes
Protein: Min 24%
Calories: 405 Kcal/cup
High Protein Dog Food
What we said in the lower-fat foods section regarding the minimum numbers in the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles and the as-fed numbers used on pet food labels applies to the protein levels, too. The 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, the minimum as-fed protein values are 20% for adult dog maintenance, and 24% for growth.
However, there are absolutely 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, and foods with high protein levels are much more expensive than lower-protein foods – but 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, as always, we didn’t select foods with the absolute highest available levels of protein on our Approved Dry Dog Foods list; we chose foods that were among the highest 20% or so. Your dogs’ needs may require a different approach.
Best High Protein Dog Food
Things we like:
- Five meats (1st-5th) are followed by two dehydrated meats (6th-7th) before grains appear on ingredients; no meat meals
- Amounts of DHA, EPA, taurine, and probiotics on the guaranteed analysis
- Orijen is made in Champion’s own manufacturing plants
First 10 ingredients: Chicken, turkey, chicken liver, whole herring, whole mackerel, dehydrated chicken, dehydrated chicken liver, oat groats, millet, chicken fat
Protein: Min 38%
Calories: 490 Kcal/cup
Grain-Free Dry Dog Food
The topic of grain-free dog foods is a bit of a third rail in the dog world, but we’re going to take pains 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 for dogs. 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. However, if you want to feed kibble, you need carbs in the formula; it’s impossible to extrude a dog food that contains no carbs. Fortunately, there are lots of carbohydrate sources that are not grains.
Pet food makers have used a number of ingredients to formulate complete and balanced dog foods that do not contain grains. 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. Tapioca (also known as cassava or cassava root) is the latest carb to find its way into these products.
In 2018, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) turned the dog world upside down with a preliminary advisory that warned 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 there are tens of thousands of dog owners and veterinarians who still suspect a link.
Veterinary nutritionists were already aware that diets that are low in methionine and/or cysteine (the amino acids that dogs use to manufacture taurine, which they need for cardiac health, among other things) can cause non-genetic DCM (DCM in breeds that don’t carry a genetic predisposition to the condition). What became more widely known as the issue was studied was that foods that contained very high inclusions of legumes were implicated in the most cases of diet-related DCM – and that some dry food formulation and/or manufacturing processes may alter methionine and cysteine, damaging them or otherwise making them unavailable for dogs to convert into the taurine they need. An immediate prescription for dog foods that were implicated in early cases of non-genetic DCM was to add or increase the amounts of taurine and/or add cysteine and methionine in the formulations.
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 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 with 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. Our recommendations are always moderate! We are not likely going to recommend products that contain five different legumes, or products that have a legume in the 2nd and 3rd spots on their ingredients list, even if they are heavily supplemented with taurine. As you will see, our top picks for Best Grain-Free Foods contain relatively low inclusions of legumes.
For more about canine DCM and grain-free diets, see “Update on Grain-Free Diets and DCM Cases in Dogs.”
Best Grain-Free Dry Dog Food
Things we like:
- No reliance on (and typical over-representation of) legumes to replace grain
- Amounts of taurine and probiotics on the guaranteed analysis
- Freeze-dried raw coating on kibble, plus chunks of freeze-dried meat
First 10 ingredients: Beef, pork, pork meal, sweet potato, tapioca, beef liver, natural pork flavor, pork fat, lamb meal, ground flaxseed
Protein: Min 36%
Calories: 420 Kcal/cup
Dog Foods Containing Alternative Proteins
While the number is likely quite low, there are some dogs who are hypersensitive (allergic) to all or most animal protein sources. Also, there are more humans every day who have ethical, moral, and/or environmental objections to raising and killing using animals to feed their dogs. And today, there is an increasing number of complete and balanced diets for dogs that contain no “dead animal” sources of protein to meet the needs of the aforementioned dogs and/or their people.
Our top pick in this category of dog foods uses chicken eggs as the primary protein source, so it’s a vegetarian but not a vegan product. The other two use insect sources of protein. Please note that all of them meet the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for complete and balanced nutrition for adult maintenance only, not “dogs of all life stages.”
For more information about dog foods made with alternative protein sources, see “Dog Food, Protein, and Sustainability.”
Best Alternative Proteins Dog Food
Things we like:
- Eggs used as primary protein source
- Very limited number of ingredients (can be helpful for dogs with multiple food allergies/intolerances)
- Taurine listed on the guaranteed analysis
First 10 ingredients: Eggs, brown rice, oat groats, pearled barley, millet, quinoa, sunflower oil, dicalcium phosphate, natural flavor, calcium carbonate
Protein: Min 23%
Calories: 364 Kcal/cup