Photo: Marcus McDonald
Whether you adopt a rescue dog or bring home an American Kennel Club–certified pup, providing that pet with proper care, a soft place to snooze, and good nutrition is, as the saying goes, a big responsibility. The question of what to feed your dog should take into account its age, size, breed, and any health issues it may have — and palatability, or how much your pup enjoys his food, says veterinarian Stephanie Liff of Pure Paws Veterinary Care. An easy way to gauge this is by looking to see if he finishes his meal in one sitting, as “dogs do not necessarily love to just leave food in the bowl until the next time they’re feeling hungry,” says Dr. Hunter Finn, a Texas-based integrative veterinary expert.
To get a better idea of which foods are preferred by the experts in this field — both human and canine — we talked to 18 veterinarians and animal specialists about the ones they recommend for their patients and feed to their own dogs at home. Note that since every dog is unique, if you’re thinking about changing your pet’s diet, it’s a good idea to consult your vet before doing so.
It’s important to look at a brand’s recall history and to locate an official nutritional-adequacy statement from the Association of American Feed Control Officials on the bag, box, or can. The statement is a sign that the food is nutritionally complete and balanced, explains Dr. Zay Satchu, the co-founder and chief veterinary officer at Bond Vet. If you’d like to dig deeper than AAFCO standards, Finn says he prefers “companies that employ a full-time board-certified veterinary nutritionist on staff and don’t just consult with one.” This can help ensure the food is backed by research a brand is invested in, says Dr. Gabrielle Fadl, a medical director at Bond Vet. Dr. Shelly Zacharias, a vice-president of medical affairs for Gallant, also stresses that ingredients lists should name the exact type of meat included (instead of “meat” or “meat byproducts”). This can help identify sensitivities to specific proteins, Fadl says. All the dog food recommended below meets or exceeds AAFCO standards.
We should also note that the FDA has warned against certain grain-free foods, which the agency thinks may be linked to an increase in dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs. According to veterinarian Dr. Sara Ochoa, “Large and giant-breed dogs are predisposed to this disease.” The majority of the vets we spoke with explained that the correlation doesn’t stem from the lack of grains in these foods but rather from the legumes or peas that have been added as a replacement. Veterinarian Dr. Angie Krause says, “When a dog’s diet gets so high in legumes as a protein source, it may change their uptake of certain amino acids.”
The main difference in foods formulated for small and toy dog breeds, according to Dr. Jamie Richardson, the chief of staff at Small Door Veterinary in New York City, is that these are made in smaller chunks. Because little dogs have smaller mouths and teeth, you want to give them something that’s easy for them to bite and chew. And because they don’t eat as much as large or giant-breed dogs, you may have more financial wiggle room when it comes to choosing their food. Meanwhile, Dr. Jennifer Lopez, a veterinarian at URvet Care, says large-breed dogs have a slower metabolic rate, so they typically need low-calorie food in greater portions to make sure they “stay full and avoid overfeeding or gaining weight that might be detrimental to their health, not to mention their joints.”
The decision to feed your dog wet food rather than dry often comes down to convenience, personal preference, and price. But if you have a dog that’s reluctant to drink enough water, serving wet food can be a sneaky way to help it stay hydrated. Fresh and human-grade dog meals should be considered wet foods since their cooking processes help retain moisture, but these usually come frozen and need to be thawed before feeding.
We’ve listed the approximate cost per pound for each option on this list based on the manufacturer’s suggested retail price.
Nutrition: First ingredients are brewer’s rice, chicken by-product meal, and wheat | Breed size: Small | Wet or dry food: dry | Cost: $6.80 per pound
Of the 13 veterinarians we spoke to, ten said Royal Canin dog food is their top pick for their own pets and the dogs they treat at work. Dr. Gregory Gstrein, a staff veterinarian at a VCA Animal Hospital in California, says, “The best foods are backed by actual research and feeding trials, and Royal Canin does the extensive work needed to prove their foods yield excellent real-world results.” Dr. Catriona Love, an associate veterinarian at Heart of Chelsea Veterinary Group, feeds Royal Canin to her five-pound, 12-year-old Chihuahua rescue and says that of the three dog-food brands she recommends to her patients, Royal Canin is the most palatable. “I think the animals tend to like it more,” she says.
Nutrition: First ingredients are water, pork by-products, and pork liver | Breed size: All breed sizes | Wet or dry food: Wet | Cost: $0.20 per pound
Veterinarian Dr. Jeff Werber says he likes Royal Canin because the brand has a positive track record and a trusted name, and its products are readily available. He told us he has always been a fan of mixed feeding, meaning providing a little of both dry and wet foods. Werber explains that because a lot of dogs don’t drink enough water, adding moist canned food (which has fewer carbs and more flavor) to their dry food is a win-win. He says his dogs “love with a capital L” Royal Canin’s low-fat canned dog food. Note that while this is the cheapest food on our list, it comes packaged in 13.5-ounce cans, so a single unit is much smaller than most other dry foods.
Nutrition: First ingredients are dehydrated chicken, organic barley, and dehydrated potatoes | Breed size: All breed sizes | Wet or dry food: Dry dehydrated | Cost: $7.99 per pound
When Strategist senior editor Crystal Martin’s soft-coated wheaten terrier started having stomach issues that caused the dog to lose almost 25 percent of her total body weight, she turned to food made with human-grade ingredients rather than kibble. “It stopped her [gastrointestinal] problems almost immediately, and she’s been fine ever since,” Martin says of the food she’s chosen for the past six years. And even though this food is gently dehydrated, Martin says it also looks like it could be for humans, “almost like they dehydrated every ingredient then minced it.” (To serve, owners add warm water to rehydrate the food and wait a few minutes for absorption.)
Nutrition: First ingredients are turkey with ground bone, turkey liver, and turkey gizzard | Breed size: All breed sizes | Wet or dry food: Dry dehydrated raw | Cost: $2.25 per pound
When it comes to raw-food diets for dogs, there are some strong opinions in the veterinary community. Unsurprisingly, many vets feel that feeding your pet raw food can lead to potential health risks for both the dog and the humans who live with it. “I am not an advocate for any raw food at this time, as there is a very real risk for contamination to other household members, including people,” says Finn. “If the research comes out years down the road and suggests that raw food is indeed better for pets and can improve their lives, then I will be the first person to switch my dogs over immediately. Unfortunately, the research is lacking at this point in time.”
Others, including Krause, Liff, and veterinarian Dr. Marty Goldstein (who literally wrote the book on holistic medicine for pets and has his own line of dog food), explain that extra hygienic precautions need to be taken with raw foods, but they believe those precautions are worth the added nutritional benefits, such as improved digestion and immune-system functioning as well as less inflammation and fewer allergies. Liff says she has patients that do well on raw diets, but she always has “a lengthy discussion with owners about food handling to prevent foodborne illness.”
According to Goldstein, freeze-dried raw foods have less risk of foodborne illnesses and can be stored without refrigeration. Krause says that if her own dog didn’t have specific food sensitivities, she would feed it a raw diet — specifically, these Stella & Chewy’s dehydrated raw turkey patties. They meet AAFCO standards and can be served dry or mixed with a little warm water to rehydrate them. Krause told us she’s a fan of literally everything the brand makes, saying, “Stella & Chewy has never put out anything I haven’t liked.”
Nutrition: First ingredients are ground beef, russet potatoes, and eggs | Breed size: All breed sizes | Wet or dry food: Frozen wet | Cost: $8.00 per pound
Fresh dog food is more appealing to many dog owners who appreciate that it looks more like something they would eat. “If health and wellness are a priority, I absolutely recommend human-grade fresh food,” says Satchu, who feeds fresh-cooked dog food to his own pets. However, he stresses that whatever food you pick (especially some of the newer, designer-label foods) must be nutritionally balanced. The AAFCO stamp of approval helps to make this easy to differentiate. When we spoke to veterinarians about the best food for puppies, Richardson recommended the direct-to-consumer subscription brand Nom Nom. According to her, the brand works directly with a veterinary nutritionist to create diets specific to your pet that conform to AAFCO standards. “There are not a lot of other companies who do that,” she told us.
Nom Nom says its plans start at $2.40 a day for the smallest dogs with few dietary restrictions. To determine a meal plan (and an actual price), the company asks you to fill out a survey about your pet’s breed, age, activity level, and weight goals. If you want Fido to try before you buy, you can order a variety pack with four of the brand’s foods for a flat $15.
Nutrition: First ingredients are chicken liver, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage | Breed size: All breed sizes | Wet or dry food: Frozen wet | Cost: Varies based on subscription
Satchu suggests the slightly cheaper subscription-based food from the Farmer’s Dog for anyone looking for a fresh option. (According to the brand, plans start at around $2 a day for the smallest dogs with few dietary restrictions to upwards of $12 for the largest breed dogs.) Like Nom Nom, this brand worked with board-certified veterinary nutritionists to formulate recipes that are complete and balanced according to AAFCO standards. As further evidence of its food’s quality, the Farmer’s Dog has released results from ongoing long-term feeding trials showing that the nutritional value in its food exceeds AAFCO recommendations. Again, you’re asked to answer questions about your dog’s breed, age, activity level, and weight goals to determine a meal plan and its actual cost.
Nutrition: First ingredients are lamb hearts, brown rice, and cauliflower | Breed size: All breed sizes | Wet or dry food: Wet food | Cost: $0.53 per pound
While Finn is not exactly anti-kibble — “Every animal and situation is different, so don’t ever let someone shame you for the food you feed your pet,” he says — Finn likes the California company JustFoodForDogs, which, he says, “has an astounding team of veterinarians from multiple specialties” and “is doing a good job in terms of fresh-cooked food.” Fadl also recommends the brand because they offer vet-prescribed diets — and because they’ve overcome “one of the biggest challenges” with prescription foods: low palatability. The company’s PantryFresh range is made up of complete meals formulated from human-grade ingredients like macaroni, rice, turkey, beef, potato, lamb, and chicken. As the name implies, these prepackaged foods are pantry stable and ready to eat, yet they contain no iffy preservatives, which means they can work for a dog with allergies or even one with kidney disease, Fadl says.
Nutrition: First ingredients are salmon, barley, and rice | Breed size: Large breed | Wet or dry food: Dry food | Cost: $3.80 per pound
According to the experts we spoke to, owners of large and giant-breed dogs should avoid foods that contain legumes as a protein source. Nicole Goudey-Rigger, the owner and CEO of doggy-day-care service Pets a Go Go, told us she took her two purebred Akitas and two medium-size mixed breeds (a golden retriever–Chow Chow mix and an Australian shepherd mix) off their low-grain diets after the potential connection between DCM and grain-free food was identified. Instead, she now feeds her four big dogs Purina Pro Plan Salmon Sensitive Stomach, which contains brewer’s rice and barley (and no legumes). She and four other experts we spoke with like Purina Pro Plan foods because, as Gstrein points out, the recipes meet AAFCO standards and are formulated by a veterinary nutritionist.
Goudey-Rigger adds that the Purina Pro Plan line also features a wide variety of proteins, including chicken, beef, salmon, duck, lamb, pork, and even quail. Looking for a variety of proteins in a brand’s line is important, she says, because “not all proteins agree with all dogs.” After discovering her Australian shepherd’s sensitivities to chicken, for example, Fadl began feeding the Purina Pro Plan food shown because the main protein source is fish. “A lot of other salmon-flavored foods still have some chicken by-products, so you don’t get a great response to feeding,” she says. Ochoa’s dog also likes Purina Pro Plan and gets a small portion of the brand’s shredded-chicken food (a legume-free mix that includes chewy and crunchy pieces) as a complement to Hill’s Science Diet.
Nutrition: First ingredients are cornstarch, hydrolyzed poultry by-products aggregate, and coconut oil | Breed sizes: All breed sizes | Wet or dry food: Dry food | Cost: $6.12 per pound
Although Krause is a fan of minimally processed or raw-food diets for dogs (and is a brand ambassador for the freeze-dried raw-dog-food brand I and Love and You), she says her own pug is “allergic to life.” Because of allergies, Krause’s dog is on a super-hydrolyzed diet, which means the proteins it eats are broken down into individual amino acids. She says the diet “is so far from natural, but he does great on it and he’s happy on it.” Liff, Gstrein, and Satchu also recommend this hydrolyzed diet for dogs with allergies, as does veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Coates, who feeds it to her elderly boxer, Apollo, which has severe inflammatory-bowel disease. Note: While this food is for sale online, you do in fact need a vet’s prescription to purchase it.
Nutrition: First ingredients are brown rice, brewers rice, and egg product | Breed sizes: All breed sizes | Wet or dry food: Dry food | Cost: $5.42 per pound
Hill’s vet-prescribed food is about $1.25 less per pound than the option above and is a favorite of Strategist junior writer Brenley Goertzen, who feeds it to her Great Dane, Benny, to curb his skin allergies. Last summer, when she noticed Benny licking his legs and paws until the skin became red and raw, his vet suggested a diet change: three scoops of this dry food mixed with half a can of the brand’s wet meal twice daily. Goertzen says that since the switch, Benny has displayed fewer allergy symptoms like itching and licking, plus “he seems to enjoy it even more than what we were previously feeding,” she says. Note: While this food is for sale online, you need a vet’s prescription to purchase it.
• Dr. Leslie Brooks, veterinarian and adviser at Betterpet
• Dr. Jennifer Coates, veterinarian
• Dr. Gabrielle Fadl, a medical director at Bond Vet
• Dr. Hunter Finn, Texas-based integrative veterinary expert
• Brenley Goertzen, Strategist junior writer
• Dr. Marty Goldstein, author of The Nature of Animal Healing: The Definitive Holistic Medicine Guide to Caring for Your Dog or Cat and creator of his own dog-food line
• Nicole Goudey-Rigger, owner and CEO of doggy-day-care service Pets a Go Go
• Dr. Gregory Gstrein, staff veterinarian at a VCA Animal Hospital in California
• Dr. Angie Krause, veterinarian
• Dr. Stephanie Liff, veterinarian at Pure Paws Veterinary Care
• Dr. Catriona Love, associate veterinarian at Heart of Chelsea Veterinary Group
• Dr. Jennifer Lopez, veterinarian at URvet Care
• Crystal Martin, Strategist senior editor
• Dr. Sara Ochoa, Texas-based veterinarian and veterinary consultant for doglab.com
• Dr. Jamie Richardson, chief of staff at Small Door Veterinary in NYC
• Dr. Zay Satchu, co-founder and chief veterinary officer at Bond Vet
• Nicole Goudey-Rigger, owner and CEO of doggy-day-care service Pets a Go Go
• Dr. Jeff Werber, veterinarian
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