Whole Dog Journal’s Free Guide on Dry Dog Food

Is expensive dog food really better for your dog? The adage "You get what you pay for" has never been as true as when facing the cost of dry dog food. Finding the cheapest high-quality dog food is an art - here's how to find the sweet spot between quality and cost.

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This article summarizes information from several past discussions of dry dog food in Whole Dog Journal. Whole Dog Journal subscribers can access the 2021 list of approved dry dog foods here.

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.

Year by Year: Subscribers to Whole Dog Journal can access our annual dry dog food reviews online. Here are links to our lists approved dog foods over the years:

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.

Average Dog Food Price Per Pound

The 2021 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.

dog in a pet store

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.

Caloric Considerations

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:

42 COMMENTS

  1. I noticed that you had mentioned Tasteof the Wild as being “regulars”on your prevoius years approved pet foods lists. Are you aware that they have a lawsuit against them for the amount of lead found in their food?

    • I wish they’d stop condoning every kibble and/or wet food and only recommend raw or home cooked and supps
      I sure wouldn’t eat ANYTHING with a shelf life of 9 mos!
      That spells cancer, joint problems, heart and kidney problems!!!

      • While a lot of folks may WANT to feed other than kibble or canned, there are a lot of reasons they don’t. Being afraid of doing more harm than good by feeding an unbalance raw or homemade diet, not having the money are the two big ones. This list gives them better options than Beneful or Old Roy.

  2. My vet told me today that Orijgen 6 fish was not good due to lack of grain which can cause heart problems. What do you think? This is based on current study

    • ORIJEN IS FANTASTIC. Those cardio issues were mainly with a controlled group study of a MINIMAL amount of dogs, & of 1 breed. I believe they were Golden Retrievers. That said, the responsible dog food companies are adding I believe taurine? And a couple of other minerals & vitamins to their grain free varieties to avoid any potential issues. For example The Honest Kitchen is one of those companies. Merrick is now GARBAGE food owned by Purina… Purina Beneful has been killing dogs for YEARS with countless Purina recalls. Taste of the Wild? Also Garbage. Whole Dog Journal is LYING and EXTREMELY misinformed on their recommendations for dog food. No clue as to what they are speaking of… ZERO.

      • There were several breeds that developed cardiomyopathy not just Golden Retrievers. Goldens are more genetically predisposed of developing cardiomyopathy because they inherit low taurine levels.
        I find the list was very helpful by stating where the legumes are on the ingredient list. Most people have absolutely no clue as what is good and what isn’t good for their dog so this list and the article regarding ingredients gives everyone an opportunity to learn what to look for in their pets food.

  3. That’s very informative. You identify the ones of which is to acquire and to avoid. You also didn’t forget to take some writings about considerations on calories intake according to different categories. Thanks also by providing the sample dog foods for those who have health problems which is very important when sickness happens. Great work! It takes me a while to finish through but still I ended up satisfied for the new learnings.

  4. I want to get a back issue. I am not able to do that. there is not “Back Issue Archive” to click on! Would like to 11/18 canned food review. Can you send this to me?

  5. I receive Whole Dog Journal and was to receive 2019 approved dry dog food list . I have NOT received this article and when I go to website still can not go to this list. Very unsatisfied!!

    • Their food recommendations are TRASH. They have zero clue as to what they are speaking. I’m positive that these brands they are shills for are paying them for recommending them. Example Merrick is owned by Purina. TRASH. Taste of the Wild? Garbage. Purina Beneful killed 6 of my mother’s dogs.

  6. My vet has alerted us about taurine levels in dogs, and how the legume ingredients in grain-free dog foods is causing cardiovascular issues for dogs. I believe Whole Dog Journal needs to take this information, coming out of the FDA, into consideration.

  7. I have been giving my 2 Yorkies Taste of the Wild for years. The older dog has very loose stool and very gases. I have tried about 8 or 9 dry foods from your list. They will not eat any of them. Do any of these companies have samples? I cannot afford to keep buying 5 pound bags of dog food. I always enjoy your articles. Thank you.

  8. I am a subscriber to Whole Dog Journal but I am unable to see the list of the approved dry dog food list.

    Mike

    560 Frederick Street
    Frankenmuth Michigan
    48734

  9. I renewed my subscription about a month ago with the 2 for 1 and added my best friend to the subscription. I am trying to see the best dog foods and it tells me I am not a paying customer. I am a paying customer.

  10. By avoiding a discussion of the FDA ongoing study of the link between grain free food and dilated cardiomyopathy you are doing an extreme disservice to your readers. Dogs are dying of this silent killer and the evidence continues to point to
    the foods listed by the FDA.

    • Hi Barbra : it’s scary for me to think I won’t know what to give my elderly dog. I feed her Nature’s Recipe” wet food and got it because I read it was good, healthy choice and less expensive. Would you recommend a review site or place to study dog food and which to get or avoid. I know some brands are not good, just want to be proactive with my elderly dog and my future dogs. sigh. It seems greed has ruined some brands. So, are you saying the FDA has lists that are really bad recommendations?? OK, thanks for listening. Be well and hope your animal companions are as well !

  11. We went for Open Farm and are extremely happy with it – it’s the only human grade food with humanely raised meat and sustainably sourced fish that we could find around us (we live in Toronto Canada). Our previous food from a big name brand (the most common at the biggest pet food chain that you know ) had very bad ingredients such as ‘animal fat’ and artificial vitamins. After my previous dog had cancer I will only give my pet not shitty food. Please do your research.

    • The Honest Kitchen dehydrated raw is PERFECT. Farmina is an excellent option as is Orijen…. the crap they recommend here o’s just that. CRAP. I mean, just look at all the pea products in Fromm???? That’s just cheap filler…

    • Tax, I appreciated your comments about the article, and your decision to switch to Open Farm. I’ll read carefully about this brand, as well as the Honest Kitchen brand mentioned by Kim. Are you and your dog still satisfied with it? Are the dog’s health exams & lab results good? Thank you

    • Open Farm contains peas, chick peas and lentils, correlated with DCM. They don’t state on ingredient list if the meats are meal or fresh.
      I wouldn’t touch it.

  12. I keep going around and around in circles trying to get the approved 2020 dry dog food list.
    I am a subscriber. When i click the link, it send me back to my home page.

    • 2020 is not over yet. I believe the list of foods approved from the year 2020 will come out in 2021. That way, all dog foods made or sold in the year 2020 can be included in the approval process.

    • How’s your dogs coat? I’ve never heard of this brand, but just read about it. Interesting. I’m ordering samples. Fresh food is the route I want to take but it’s heavy on the pocket book for an 80# dog with osteoarthritis for whom I just received a fish recipe from our Vet Nutritionist. So I’m still trying to figure out the right approach for him.

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