Pawlicy Advisor / Pet Care Blog

How To Choose The Best Food For Dogs (By Age, Weight & Health)

Kate Boatright, VMD
Kate Boatright, VMD
Associate Veterinarian, Freelance Speaker and Author
Not sure what dog food is best? Learn from a veterinarian how to choose the best diet for dogs based on your pet's age, weight, and medical history.

Walking down the dog food aisle at your local grocery store or pet store may feel overwhelming with so many choices. Pet owners, breeders, veterinarians, store employees, and the general public all have different opinions on what type of food is best for dogs. Despite the wide variety of recommendations, there are ways to objectively evaluate the best dog food diet for your pet at home.

In this article, I'll explain why the best dog food depnds your pet's unique needs, most importantly, their life stage, weight, and known medical conditions. I’ll also talk about the most important qualities to consider when choosing a dog food formula, the debate on grain vs. grain-free kibble, essential pet nutrition tips, and more.

Table of Contents:

Life Stage

Dogs have different nutritional requirements depending on their age or life stage, and pet foods are generally formulated to meet the distinct needs of three groups: growth (and reproduction), adult maintenance, and senior care.

Some foods are formulated for “all life stages,” which means they can be fed to any pet. In order to make this claim, the food must meet the minimum requirements for growth and reproduction. This means that an “all life stage” food will have more calories and nutrients than what is needed for a healthy adult pet. While this is not necessarily harmful, it may lead to excess weight gain. Many veterinarians recommend choosing a food labeled for your pet’s specific life stage.

The Best Dog Food For Puppies

Puppies need more calories, fat, and protein than adult dogs. Puppy diets also contain higher levels of certain vitamins and minerals, like calcium and phosphorous, to support tissue growth and development until they reach maturity around 12 months old.

Keep in mind that large and giant dog breeds (with an adult weight of 50 pounds or more) should receive food specifically formulated for large-scale growth to prevent obesity, orthopedic issues, and other prevalent health risks.

Growth Formulas For Reproduction

Most puppy food also offers the ideal formula for female dogs in reproduction (those who are either pregnant or nursing). Your veterinarian may recommend switching a pregnant dog onto a puppy diet halfway through gestation until the puppies are weaned.

However, be sure to read the formula label very carefully to confirm the company has performed clinical feeding trials that confirm the product is safe and nutritional for gestation and lactation. The nutritional adequacy statement should specify whether it meets the needs of reproducing females.

The Best Food For Adult Dogs

Adult canines (four to eight years of age) should be fed a maintenance diet that helps them sustain a healthy weight and adequate energy levels. Compared to puppy food, the formulas have fewer calories, moderate amounts of most nutrients, and some additives that make dogs feel full upon eating.

High-Performance Dog Food Formulas

You may see some types of high-performance food geared toward active dogs between the ages of one and three. These diets are formulated to fuel the increased energy levels in young adults and athletic breeds with a unique blend of protein and fat.

The Best Food For Senior Dogs

Caring for your senior dog should include a carefully chosen diet based on their specific health needs, such as the prevention or treatment of chronic disease. These formulas are designed to improve the immune system and may include specialty ingredients like glucosamine for dogs with arthritis.

dog eating from food bowl

Weight

Maintaining a healthy weight is of utmost importance to your dog’s health. In fact, scientific studies have shown pets who maintain an ideal weight live longer. With this in mind, you should pay attention to the calories and feeding directions on the label. Your veterinarian can help you determine what an ideal weight and calorie target are for your pet.

Medical Conditions

If your dog has any medical conditions, including urinary stones, allergies, intestinal disease, or kidney disease, you should consult with your veterinarian about the best dog food choice, as they may recommend a prescription diet. These diets are specially formulated by veterinary nutritionists to meet the unique nutritional needs of pets with specific disease conditions and studied in these patients.

Your vet will advise you on which diet is best for your pet and whether or not the food is safe for all the canines in your home. Even if your pet doesn’t have a diagnosed medical condition, you can always discuss vet-recommended dog food at your pet’s annual preventive care examination.

What’s the Best Dog Food Brand?

When evaluating a pet food brand, there are several important things you should look for. The World Small Animal Veterinary Association’s Global Nutrition Committee has put forth a guide on how to select pet food.

When evaluating a brand, look for the following items as indicators of high quality and commitment to animal health. The brand should:

  • Have a veterinary nutritionist on staff,
  • Have an experienced pet food formulator on staff (this is not necessarily a veterinarian),
  • Formulate diets to meet AAFCO guidelines and nutrient profiles,
  • Have effective quality control of the manufacturing process to ensure pet food safety,
  • Perform feeding trials following guidelines established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO),
  • Publish data in peer-reviewed journals.

Some of this information is easier to verify than others, but you can ask your veterinarian for a brand recommendation or call the manufacturer for more information.

How to Read Dog Food Labels

Similar to human foods, nutritional labels on pet food display ingredients, serving suggestions, and manufacturer information. Some of this information is required, while other info is optional. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets the minimum labeling requirements at the federal level, while many states use models of pet food regulations produced by AAFCO.

The most important part of the label is the nutrition adequacy statement. This indicates if the food is complete and balanced, which means it can be fed as the only food item and provide all required nutrients to meet your dog’s needs for the life stage it is labeled for.

Other important things you should consider when looking at a pet food label include:

  • The ingredient list. It is important to note that because the ingredient list is ordered by weight of ingredients (with the ingredient that has the highest total weight listed first), it can be difficult to compare foods side by side based on ingredients alone as different ingredient preparations contain different amounts of water, which alters their weight.
  • Calorie content. If this is not available on the label, it should be available from the manufacturer or on their website.
  • Contact information. Does the manufacturer provide contact information such as a phone number or email in case of questions or concerns regarding the food?

woman looking at dog food

What are by-products in dog food?

By-product ingredients in dog food refer animal or plant materials leftover from food that's originally processed for human consumption. Common animal by-products include organ meat, bones, and blood. You may have heard that dog foods containing by-products are lower quality or less nutritious, but this is not true.

By-products are safe for your dog to consume when they are manufactured for dog food, as there are strict regulations on how by-products are processed prior to inclusion in pet formulas. Many kibble formulas contain animal by-products, while other companies sell raw dog food formulas that offer protein without additives, fillers, or preservatives.

Note that not all formulas are created equal, and it's essential that the product you choose is nutritionally complete and balanced to satisfy your pet's needs. It’s important to be cautious and take sanitary steps when serving raw food because the risk of bacterial contamination is very high.

Do your research to confirm the brand you choose manufactures its products in a USDA-certified facility with strict compliance to safety standards. Some brands, like We Feed Raw, go above and beyond by using methodologies such as HPP (a USDA-recognized step in the production process) to eliminate harmful pathogens and make raw feeding safer for families at home.

Is grain-free dog food bad?

At this time, there have been no recalls of any grain-free dog food related to a product’s unsafe usage in dogs. The reason why many people think grain-free diets are bad for dogs is because the FDA launched an investigation (July 2018) into a potential link between boutique, exotic ingredient, and grain-free (BEG) diets and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).

DCM is a disease of the heart muscle that results in dilation of the heart and can progress to heart failure due to poor heart function. Several breeds are genetically predisposed to DCM, but between 2014 and 2020, the FDA received over 1100 case reports of pets (the majority of which were dogs) diagnosed with non-hereditary DCM.

Veterinary cardiologists reported many cases of non-hereditary DCM that improved with diet changes and supplementation, which led to the FDA’s investigation into BEG diets. One commonality that was observed in many diets was that “pulses” — which include peas, lentils, and other legume seeds — were high on the ingredient list of foods eaten by affected dogs.

However, this was seen in both grain and grain-free diets, so there’s no evidence to suggest grain-free diets are bad for dogs. In the latest update, the FDA states it “does not know the specific connection between these diets and cases of non-hereditary DCM and is continuing to explore the role of genetics, underlying medical conditions, and/or other factors.”

For most dogs, there is no medical indication for a grain-free diet. Dogs are naturally omnivores, meaning they eat both plant- and animal-based foods. Many pet owners choose grain-free diets due to allergy concerns, but true food allergies are rare in dogs.

Additionally, the most common allergens are protein sources, such as chicken or beef. Therefore, along with the role of diet in non-hereditary DCM being not yet fully understood, it is my veterinary opinion that grain-free diets are not recommended for most dogs.

Can I make home-cooked dog food?

Whereas pet food manufacturers take great care in formulating diets, most home-cooked dog food is not nutritionally balanced, meaning your pet could miss out on essential nutrients. If you decide to make home-cooked food for dogs, you should consult a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and follow their recipes exactly.

Even if you don’t cook your pet’s entire diet, there are certain human foods dogs can't eat. While treats can strengthen the bond between pet and owner, make sure you know that the food you share with your pet is safe.

Also, remember that offering too many treats or table scraps is a quick way to pack on the pounds, so let your veterinarian know about all the foods your pet consumes when discussing weight or dietary concerns. If you do choose to give your pup human foods, choose fruits and vegetables safe for dogs that can act as safe, low-calorie snacks.

Key Takeaways

  • Choosing a food for your dog can be overwhelming, but your veterinarian can help guide you and direct you to reliable resources that can answer your questions about your dog’s food.
  • Consider your dog’s life stage, weight, and medical conditions when selecting a food.
  • Look for the nutritional adequacy statement on the pet food label to ensure that your dog’s food is nutritionally complete, balanced, and meets the nutritional requirements of your pet’s life stage.
  • By-products are safe and nutritious when manufactured for pet food.
  • Grain-free diets have not been definitively linked to heart disease but are not indicated for most dogs.
  • Home-cooked dog food is rarely nutritionally balanced and should be avoided.
Kate Boatright, VMD

Kate Boatright, VMD

Associate Veterinarian, Freelance Speaker and Author - Penn-Ohio Veterinary Services and KMB Veterinary Media LLC

Dr. Kate Boatright, VMD, works as a small animal general practitioner, freelance speaker, and author in western Pennsylvania. Since graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with her veterinary degree in 2013, she has worked throughout Pennsylvania as both a general practice and emergency veterinarian. Both in the clinic and outside of it, Dr. Boatright enjoys building relationships with her clients and educating pet owners on how they can keep their pets as healthy as possible. She loves being a veterinarian and educating students and colleagues on wellness, communication, and the unique challenges facing recent graduates. Outside of the clinic, she is active in many veterinary organizations, enjoys running, watching movies, and playing games with her husband, son, and cats.

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