The food you give your dog plays a critical role in his well-being, both on a daily basis and long-term. He needs a diet with the right nutrients to keep him active, happy, and healthy. And make no mistake: Not all dog foods are created equal. Since 1998, Whole Dog Journal has been proving that much in an annual review and ratings of dry dog foods.
Dog food brands like Fromm, Orijen, Diamond’s Taste of the Wild, and Merrick have been regulars on the Whole Dog Journal Approved list in recent years, as have Bench & Field and Wellpet’s Wellness, among many others.
Year by Year: Subscribers to Whole Dog Journal can access our annual dry dog food reviews online. Here are links to the past five years of approved dog foods:
- 2020 Whole Dog Journal Approved Dry Dog Food List
- 2019 Whole Dog Journal Approved Dry Dog Food List
- 2018 Whole Dog Journal Approved Dry Dog Food List
- 2017 Whole Dog Journal Approved Dry Dog Food List
- 2016 Whole Dog Journal Approved Dry Dog Food List
- 2015 Whole Dog Journal Approved Dry Dog Food List
Whole Dog Journal rates dry dog food and creates an annual “Approved” list (for publication every February) based on the following criteria.
Must-Have Ingredients in Dry Dog Food
Make sure your dog’s dry food has the following elements, the hallmarks of a quality product:
☐ Superior sources of protein: Look for dry dog foods that contain a lot of animal proteins—either whole, fresh meats or single-source meat meal. For example, you want to see “chicken meal” or “beef meal” on the label, not “poultry meal” or “meat meal.” A dog food label listing simply “meat” is an example of a low-quality protein source of dubious origin.
☐ Whole-meat source as one of the first two ingredients: Better yet: two meat sources among the top three ingredients (say, chicken and chicken meal). Meat, the most natural source of protein for dogs, contains the amino acids most important to canine health. A good mix of meat proteins helps round out a dog food’s amino acid profile.
☐ Whole, unprocessed grains, vegetables, and other foods. An unprocessed food for your dog has the best chance of surviving the food-making process with its nutrients—vitamins, enzymes, and antioxidants—intact.
Avoid Dry Dog Food with These Ingredients
When scanning dry dog food labels, keep your eyes peeled for the following undesirables. High-quality dry dog foods have these ingredients in minimal percentages:
✗ Meat by-products. Research has revealed that higher-value ingredients in dry dog foods tend to be processed and stored more carefully (kept clean and cold) than lower-cost ingredients—including “by-products.” And it’s just about impossible to ascertain the quality of by-products. We prefer to see these second-rate ingredients in a supporting role to whole meats or meat meals—say, below the top five ingredients.
✗ “Generic” fat source. “Animal fat”—an ingredient you may notice in some dry dog foods—can be just about anything, from an unwholesome mystery mix of various fats to recycled grease from restaurants. A preferable ingredient would be “beef fat” or “chicken fat.” The more generic the term, the more suspect the ingredient is. (We shudder to think of what’s in “animal digest”—another item we’ve seen on ingredient lists.)
✗ Artificial preservatives, including BHA, BHT, or ethoxyquin. Natural preservatives such as tocopherols (compounds often with vitamin E), vitamin C, and rosemary extract can be used instead. Note that natural preservatives do not preserve dog foods as long as artificial preservatives do, so owners should always check the “best by…” date on the label.
✗ Artificial colors. Trust us: Your dog doesn’t care about the color of his food. And he certainly doesn’t need daily exposure to unnecessary chemicals that provide color. Also avoid dog food with propylene glycol, a chemical added to some “chewy” foods to keep them moist.
✗ Artificial flavors. Your dog’s food should be flavored well enough with healthy meats and fats to be enticing to him.
✗ Sweeteners. Dogs, like us, have a taste for sweets. Corn syrup, sucrose, ammoniated glycyrrhizin, and other sweeteners are sometimes added to lower-quality foods to increase their appeal. But dietary sugar can cause or worsen health problems—including diabetes—in dogs.
THE COST OF GOOD DOG FOOD: Is Expensive Dry Dog Food Really Better?
When you understand what traits make a good dry dog food, go compare the products in the price range that works for you. The ingredient quality of cheap pet food is generally lower, but the range of food brands and recipes used is so large, Whole Dog Journal is confident you’ll be able to find a suitable kibble for your dog.
Calculate the price per pound of any food you are considering. (Don’t be afraid to pull out your calculator app in the pet store!) Write the numbers down so you can compare prices at different retail outlets; if you are accustomed to buying your dog’s food in a grocery store, you might be surprised to find that you can find foods of a much higher quality at a comparable price in other stores.
For example, Beneful is a brand that’s sold in many grocery and big-box stores. It costs more than many of the foods in the grocery store, so you may be patting yourself on the back for buying a better food for your dog. A 12.5-pound bag of its Grain-Free Chicken variety sells for $14.19, or $1.13 per pound. But look at the ingredients (we’ll list just the first 10):
– pea starch
– cassava root flour
– chicken by-product meal
– soybean germ meal
– soybean meal
– canola meal
– beef tallow
– dried beet pulp
– poultry and pork digest
This food contains a minimum of 24% protein and 13% fat.
Now, let’s look at the first 10 ingredients of one of the foods on Whole Dog Journal‘s lists. We’ll compare it to a product from a company whose average prices are the lowest on our list: Eagle Pack. The Chicken Meal and Pork Meal formula sells for $39.99 for a 30-pound bag ($1.33 per pound).
– chicken meal
– pork meal
– ground brown rice
– dehulled barley
– chicken fat
– brewers dried yeast
This food contains a minimum of 27% protein and 14% fat.
Yes, there is a 20-cent per pound difference in the prices of these foods; the Beneful is less expensive. But the difference in quality is huge.
It’s nice that Beneful uses chicken meat as its first ingredient, but its next animal protein (chicken by-product meal) is fourth on this list. Because meat contains so much moisture, the chicken doesn’t contribute as much protein to the diet as a meat meal. Beneful props up the protein content in this food with low-quality protein sources: chicken by-product meal, soybean germ meal, and soybean meal.
By the way, we’d call the appearance of those last two ingredients “ingredient splitting.” If you added the weight of the soybean germ meal and the soybean meal, we’d hazard a guess that they would outweigh the chicken by-product meal, meaning they play a far larger role in the food than the chicken by-product meal.
Animal proteins contain more of the amino acids that dogs require than plant proteins, but plant proteins are less expensive – hence their appearance in lower-priced dog foods.
In contrast, Eagle Pack uses two high-quality meat meals as the first and second ingredients; this is where the food is getting most of its protein.
As a fat source, the Beneful food uses beef tallow – widely considered to be a lower-quality fat than the chicken fat used in the Eagle Pack food.
The grains used in the Eagle Pack food are either whole or lightly processed (ground or dehulled). In contrast, the carbohydrate sources in the Beneful product are highly processed (pea starch, cassava root flour, canola meal). Overall, there is a world of difference between the two foods.
Average Dog Food Price Per Pound
The 2020 Dry Dog Food Review lists a number of companies that make good- to great-quality dry dog foods in order of the average price of their products. We collected prices for kibble from online retailers and from the companies themselves, asking for their suggested retail prices for the largest-sized bags of their foods (the larger the bag, the lower the price per pound). We calculated the price per pound of each variety of food (by dividing the price by the number of pounds of food in the bag). Then we calculated the average price per pound of food for each company, using the figures from each food in each line.
Does a high-end dog food really make a difference to your dog’s lifelong health? As any long-time reader knows, the pet food industry seeks to maximize its profits, not the health of the animals who depend on it. Most humans can’t access grass-fed organic meat for themselves, let alone their dogs, so find brands of kibble with decent ingredient lists which you are comfortable paying for.
But do know that in the case of dog food, you do get what you pay for.
YOUR DOG’S UNIQUE DIET AND NUTRITION NEEDS
Whole Dog Journal‘s Approved list is based on assessments of dry dog food ingredients along with the “Guaranteed Analysis” anyone can find on food labels. Dog owners are encouraged to develop an understanding of which ingredients are beneficial and which aren’t—and to routinely look at labels before buying.
A scan of a dry dog food’s ingredients can tell you a lot about the maker’s intentions and philosophy. If a dog food company admits to using artificial preservatives, say, or lots of grain “fragments” or animal “by-products,” you’re probably not dealing with a top-of-the-line product.
Conversely, if a list of dog food ingredients leads off with a quality protein source followed by whole, healthy foods, you know you’ve found a worthy product.
Keep in mind that there’s no “right” food that works for every one of the 77.8 million dogs in America. They’re all individuals with unique physiological and metabolic make-ups. Consider:
A dog who is prone to urinary tract infections would be better off with a food lower in pH (and thus less acidic).
If your dog is lean and active, you might look for a higher-fat, higher-protein brand.
If your dog is older and less active, you might want food with a higher percentage of lean protein.
These are just some possible factors you might be dealing with when looking for a dog food. Here are some real-world examples of equally valid dog food buying decisions.
Another thing you have to consider is the caloric content of the food you choose. If the food you select for your dog is energy-dense, and your dog is a couch potato, you may have to cut her daily ration considerably to prevent her from getting fat. Some dogs respond to forced dieting with begging, counter-surfing, and garbage-raiding. If your dog is one of these, you may have to seek out a high-fiber, low-calorie food – one that may not necessarily contain the highest-quality protein or fat sources on the market – to keep your dog feeling contentedly full without getting fat.
Dogs exhibit a wide range of energy requirements. You may have to seek out a higher- or lower-calorie food based on the following attributes that can affect your dog’s energy needs:
• Activity level. The more a dog exercises the more energy he needs to consume to maintain his condition; it’s that simple.
• Growth. Growing puppies have higher energy requirements than adult dogs. A food with a higher protein level, but a moderate (not high) fat level is ideal. Obese puppies are far more prone to degenerative joint disease – especially in large and giant breeds – than puppies with a normal or slim physique.
• Age. The age at which a dog becomes a senior citizen varies from breed to breed, with larger dogs considered geriatric at earlier ages. Older dogs typically require fewer calories to maintain their body weight and condition, partly because they tend to be less active than younger dogs.
• Environmental conditions. Dogs who live or spend much of their time outside in severe cold temperatures need from 10 percent to as much as 90 percent more energy than dogs who enjoy a temperate climate. The thickness and quality of the dog’s coat, the amount of body fat he has, and the quality of his shelter have direct effects on the dog’s energy needs.
• Illness. Sick dogs have increased energy needs; it takes energy to mount an immune response or repair tissues. However, dogs who do not feel well also tend to be inactive, which lowers their energy needs.
• Reproduction. A pregnant female’s energy requirement does not increase significantly until the final third of her pregnancy, when it may increase by a factor of three.
• Lactation. A nursing female may require as much as eight times as much energy as a female of the same age and condition who is not nursing.
• Neutering. It is generally accepted that neutered (and spayed) dogs have reduced energy needs. However, there are actually no studies that conclusively prove that neutered dogs require fewer calories simply as a result of lower hormone levels. It has been suggested that these dogs gain weight due to increased appetites and/or decreased activity levels.
• Other individual factors. Other factors that can affect a dog’s energy requirement include its temperament (nervous or placid?) and skin, fat, and coat quality (how well he is insulated against weather conditions).
Dog Food for Managing Canine Illnesses & Health Problems
If your dog has any sort of disease or an inherited propensity for disease, ask your veterinarian about the benefits of nutritional therapy to help treat or prevent the disease. Don’t settle for the suggestion of a commercial “prescription” diet; most of them are formulated with lower-quality ingredients. Instead, ask what specifically in the diet has been manipulated so as to be beneficial for your dog. Then, see if you can find a product that offers the same benefits and better-quality ingredients. The best example is a “kidney” diet for dogs with kidney failure. The goal is to feed these patients a diet with a moderate level of very high-quality protein and low amounts of phosphorus (see “When to Say No to Low-Protein“). An intelligently formulated home-prepared dog food diet can do a far better job of accomplishing these goals than the commercial dog food diets on the market.
You should also do some research on your own to determine what dietary changes might help your dog. A good starting place is Donald R. Strombeck’s Home-Prepared Dog & Cat Diets: The Healthful Alternative (available by order in bookstores). Dr. Strombeck details strategies for changing the dog’s diet to treat and/or prevent gastrointestinal, skin, skeletal and joint, renal, urinary, endocrine, heart, pancreatic, and hepatic disease.
Other diseases that can be improved with dietary management include:
• Allergy or intolerance. There are a number of breeds that are particularly susceptible to food allergies, including Cocker Spaniels, Dalmatians, English Springer Spaniels, Labrador Retrievers, Lhasa Apsos, Miniature Schnauzers, and more. Again, it’s important to keep a record of what foods you feed your dog, what they contain, and how your dog looks and feels. If your records indicate that one or more ingredients trigger bad reactions in your dog, seek out foods that do not contain those ingredients in any amount. (See “Walking the Allergy Maze,” “Diet Makes the Difference“.)
• Cancer. High-fat, low-carbohydrate (or carb-free) diets are ideal for cancer patients. Cancer cells use carbs for energy, and don’t easily utilize fat, so you can effectively “starve” the cancer cells while providing extra energy to your dog with a diet rich in a high-quality fat sources. (See “Feed the Dog, Starve the Cancer,”)
• Inherited metabolism disorders. Some breeds are prone to diseases with a strong dietary influence. For example, the West Highland White Terrier and the Cocker Spaniel have an inherited tendency to suffer from copper buildup in the liver; these dogs should eat a diet that is formulated with low levels of copper. Malamutes and Siberian Huskies can inherit a zinc metabolism disorder, and require a high-zinc diet (or zinc supplements).
Ask your veterinarian (and reliable breeders) about your dog’s breed-related nutritional requirements. And contact the manufacturer of your dog’s food for the expanded version of the food’s nutrient levels. Pet food makers are not required to print the levels of every nutrient on their labels, but should make this information available to you upon request.
So take your dog’s age, condition, and health history into account. Consider product availability, too; a large percentage of the brands on WDJ‘s Approved list are available at independent stores, and some cases are regionally sold products.
And, of course, price can come into play. The right dog food isn’t necessarily cheap, but that old axiom, “You get what you pay for,” applies here, too.
BEST PRACTICES FOR CHOOSING DRY DOG FOOD
Nutrition experts don’t agree on everything, but one thing they generally concede to be true is that all animals enjoy the best health when given a balanced and varying diet of fresh, species-appropriate foods.
They also generally agree that highly processed foods are not as healthy as lightly processed foods; some of nature’s value is always lost to oxidation, heat, pressure, and chemical interactions. Foods made with highly processed (and sometimes, as a result, aged) ingredients are at a big disadvantage compared to those that are made with fresh, whole ingredients.
The healthiest dog foods contain high-quality proteins and whole, unprocessed grains and vegetables. Always ensure that the dry dog food you buy include high-quality proteins, such as either whole, fresh meats or single-source meat meal (“chicken meal” or “beef meal.”) Avoid dog foods that use vague wording on the ingredients list, such as “poultry meal” or “meat meal.” Any label that simply says “meat” should be disqualified as a low-quality source of protein.
Finally, remember that it’s a good idea to switch dog foods regularly. Choose several brands that contain the right ingredients and give your dog some variety over time. It’ll help correct the excesses, insufficiencies, or imbalances that result from the same dog food day in and day out.
Year by Year: Subscribers to Whole Dog Journal can access our annual dry dog food reviews online. Here are links to the past five lists of approved dog foods: