What Dog Foods Do Veterinarians Recommend?
By Paula Fitzsimmons
Nutrition has a huge and lasting impact on your dog’s overall health, but with conflicting opinions and an ever-growing number of pet food companies entering the market, it can be hard to choose the right diet for your pup.
“Feeding your dog a complete and balanced diet can help your dog live a long and healthy life,” says Dr. Susan Jeffrey, a veterinarian at Truesdell Animal Care Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin.
To help guide your decision-making process around what type of food to buy, we asked veterinarians to weigh in.
What dog food do vets recommend most?
Dogs need about 40 nutrients in their diets in varying amounts, including proteins, carbohydrates, fats, fiber, vitamins and minerals. However, these individual nutrients aren’t as important as the final product.
The best veterinarian-recommended dog food is one that’s complete and balanced for your dog’s life stage, as recognized by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). This organization sets nutritional guidelines for pet foods.
“Complete” means the diet meets or exceeds the requirements for essential nutrients, and “balanced” means that the nutrients are incorporated so as not to interfere with absorption or utilization of another nutrient, says Dr. Joe Bartges, professor of clinical nutrition services at the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
You’ll know your dog’s food is complete and balanced if it has a statement of approval from AAFCO on it. This statement confirms that what you’re feeding offers the overall nutrition your dog needs for their life stage.
In addition to an AAFCO statement, “it’s usually a good sign if the product has veterinarians or veterinary nutritionists involved in the formulation of their product and if they have a helpline,” says Dr. Zay Satchu, chief veterinary officer and co-founder of BondVet, based in New York City.
She also recommends asking the company about ingredient consistency. “Pet food regulations allow manufacturers to change [formulas] for a specific period of time without changing the product’s label and ingredient list. This can really impact pets with allergies, who may suddenly react to a food they’ve been eating for years without a problem.”
If your pet’s food has recently changed and you’re noticing an allergy flare up, work with your veterinarian to determine the right option to switch to.
Food will often be sold for two life stages: puppy (or “growth” formula) and adult dog food. “Growing puppies need a diet that’s higher in calories in order to meet their growth needs, whereas an adult dog could become obese on a puppy food,” says Dr. Satchu. There are also specific options for senior dogs.
Which dog food is better: wet food or dry kibble?
The biggest difference between wet and dry dog food is moisture content, which is 75 to 85% for most wet food and 5 to 10% for most dry kibble-based food, says Dr. Satchu. Extra moisture can be a good thing for pets who need additional hydration, like dogs with urinary or kidney issues.
In addition, wet foods tend to contain fewer carbohydrates, which Dr. Satchu says may be beneficial in preventing or managing conditions like diabetes. “However, not all pets need this formulation, since plenty of high-quality kibbles deliver appropriate nutritional balance, too.”
Many pet parents opt for kibble because of its convenience and cost-effectiveness, says Dr. Shelly Ferris, regional medical director of Vetco Total Care. “There are many benefits of dry food. It comes in several varieties, it doesn’t spoil easily, it helps support dental health and you can easily transition your pet to new foods if needed. When considering food options, be sure to consult your veterinarian, who can inform you of any specific needs your pet may have.”
All that said, wet or dry food doesn’t have to be either/or, and both types of food can easily be incorporated into your pet’s diet at the same time.
What are byproducts in pet food?
Byproducts are pretty misunderstood, but the good news is that byproducts from reputable pet food companies usually include things that aren’t in human-grade food but are generally fine for dogs to eat, like organ meat. These byproducts add nutrients to your pet’s food, says Dr. Jeffrey.
Even grains like corn can add value to a pet’s diet. “Corn byproduct provides a certain level of essential amino acids,” says Dr. Bartges.
Parts that don’t add nutritional value, like hair, hooves, horn, hide trimmings and intestinal contents, are not incorporated into AAFCO-approved diets and should be avoided, Dr. Jeffrey adds.
Artificial ingredients and additional ingredients to avoid
Artificial ingredients in pet food, like added colors, flavors and preservatives, are unnecessary for your pet’s diet and should be avoided. These ingredients are often chemical compounds that have no nutritional value or benefit to the pet.
According to a recent Petco survey, “87% of pet parents say feeding their pet food made with no artificial flavors, no artificial colors and no artificial preservatives is important to pet's health and well-being,” says Ferris. As a result, Petco is the first and only national retailer to have removed artificial ingredients from dog and cat food and treats.
In addition, human foods, specifically those that are toxic to dogs like chocolate, grapes, onions, garlic and xylitol, an artificial sweetener, should be avoided when considering what to feed your dog.
Does my dog need a special diet?
Pet food companies have increased their number of dietary formulations in recent years to address specific issues in dogs.
One of these categories is diets for large breed dogs, who have different caloric needs and digestive transit times than smaller dogs, says Dr. Satchu. “The difference is even more pronounced for large breed puppies, who need a large breed puppy diet to ensure they grow at a safe rate. Rapid growth can contribute to bone health problems.”
For small breed dogs, veterinarians may recommend a diet specific to their size so that the kibble is smaller and easier to eat.
Another category is solution-based or veterinary diets, which may be recommended based on any underlying health issues.
“I will recommend [veterinary] diets for dogs with renal disease, weight loss diets for dogs who have difficulty with weight loss, and either hydrolyzed protein diets or novel protein diets for pets with food allergies,” says Dr. Jeffrey.
If you believe your dog requires a specialized diet, work with your veterinarian to determine the appropriate option for your pet’s specific needs. And when you do change your pet’s food, make sure to do it slowly, over a period of 10 days.
Transitioning your pet’s food slowly can help prevent digestive upset and allow you to get a better understanding of how your pet is truly doing on the new food, says Dr. Satchu. “Also, it may take one to three months to see beneficial effects from a new diet.” And of course, any conversation about nutrition should always begin with your veterinarian.