This comprehensive and unbiased guide is provided by Jacqueline Ma @ Reviews.com. Her team analyzed over 3009 dog food formulas to develop the short list of “Top Picks” that follow.
Given the statistically alarming and rising rate of Canine Cancer today, it is paramount that all Pet Parents take another look at what’s going into Fido’s food bowl. Reviews.com has done considerable homework for dog owners and we are happy to share their research with you, our valued clients:
High-quality food helps your pup stay active and playful, with a shiny coat, a good appetite and a healthy weight. We reached out to nearly 50 experts and dug into more than 3,000 dog food formulas to find the very best.
While we aren’t veterinarians ourselves, we’re confident all of our recommended brands offer high-quality protein and balanced nutrition. From here, your job is to find a formula your dog likes, at a price you’re comfortable with.
Our Favorite Dry Dog Food Brands and Lines
- Nutri Life
- Orijen Tundra
- Signature Pet Products: Leonard Powell Signature Series
- Tender & True
- Ziwi Peak
Our Favorite Wet Dog Food Brands and Lines
- AvoDerm Revolving Menu
- Canidae All Life Stages Wet Food Formula
- Canidae Under the Sun Grain Free Wet Food Formula
- Chicken Soup for the Soul Life Stages Wet Dog Food
- Eagle Pack Natural Dog Food
- Evanger’s Heritage Classics
- Evanger’s Organics
- Evolve Formula Dog Food
- Holistic Select Grain Free Pate(excluding Duck Pate and Lamb Pate)
- Hound & Gatos
- Koha Limited Ingredient
- Natural Planet
- Nature’s Logic
- Nutro Limited Ingredient Grain-Free
- Party Animal (excluding Jammin’ Salmon)
- Tender & True Organic
- Wellness Core 95% (excluding puppy formula, Hearty Cuts and Chunky Centers)
- Wellness Core Grain-Free
- Wellness Simple
- Wild Calling
- Ziwi Peak Grain-Free
Runners-Up for Best Dry Dog Food Brands:
Born Free: We couldn’t find this brand on Amazon, Chewy, PetSmart, or PetCo, and you can’t buy directly from their website, either. Currently only available at specialty pet food stores in the Midwest. Approved formulas: any.
Dynamite: Available directly from the manufacturer’s website, but not Chewy, Amazon, PetCo, or PetSmart. Approved formulas: any.
Only Natural Pet: Again, not available at major online retailers but can be ordered directly from the company’s website. Approved formulas: MaxMeat Air-Dried.
RedPaw: Not available on Chewy, Amazon, PetCo, or PetSmart. Can be purchased through the manufacturer and at some local pet stores nationwide. Approved formulas: X-Series.
TimberWolf: Not available at major online retailers, but can be purchased directly from the manufacturer and at a handful of locations in Florida and along the East Coast. Approved formulas: any.
Runners-Up for Best Wet Dog Food Brands:
Blackwood: Amazon currently carries one flavor, and it’s not available at all from Chewy, PetSmart or PetCo. We could only find it at one pet store in the greater Seattle area. Approved formulas: any.
Diamond Naturals: We had no trouble tracking down this brand’s mediocre dry food, but its wet formulas aren’t available on Chewy, Amazon, PetSmart, or PetCo. Approved wet formulas: any.
Grandma Mae’s Country Naturals: Spotty availability on Amazon, and not available at all from PetSmart, PetCo or Chewy. Approved formulas: the brand’s “Healthy” line.
Performatrin: Available from a small third-party retailer, PetSolutions.com, but not on Chewy, Amazon, PetCo, PetSmart, or manufacturer’s website. Approved formulas: any.
Pinnacle: Available in specialty pet food stores on the West Coast, but we couldn’t find this brand’s wet food at any major online retailer. Approved formulas: any.
PureVita: Available in some specialty pet food stores, and with hit-or-miss availability on Amazon. Approved formulas: any.
RAWZ: Available mainly in Texas. The company does not sell directly, and has a “strict” policy against 3rd-party ecommerce, so you’ll have to find it in person. Approved formulas: any.
How we chose our favorite dog foods:
We started with 3,009 formulas
We began by collecting every adult dog food currently sold in the U.S. That came to 3,009 dog foods. We then made two exceptions: We excluded products that failed to list their ingredients and any manufacturer that lacked a working website. This gave us a list of 2,969 formulas, including both dry and wet dog food. It took us about a month to compile our list. But we wanted to be sure we considered every formula pet owners are likely to run into, whether they’re browsing for dog food online, at the grocery store or at a specialty retailer.
Cut: Toxic ingredients
We weren’t surprised to find that most of our 2,969 formulas were free of ingredients known to be toxic to dogs, like avocados, grapes and chocolate. We were surprised to find that garlic and onion turned up in almost 200 formulas. Despite the punch that these two ingredients add to bland food, they are members of the Allium plant genus, which is toxic to both dogs and cats. Along with leeks, scallions, chives and shallots, garlic and onion can make dogs immediately sick in large quantities. If eaten in small amounts over time (say, as a flavoring in their regular food), they can damage red blood cells, causing anemia.
Cut: Low-quality mystery “meats” and “meals”
Whole meats are expensive, and many manufacturers supplement their formulas with meat meal to ensure your dog is getting a balanced diet at an affordable cost. Although meat meal sounds gross if you’re not a dog, there’s nothing terrifying about it. It’s created through a high-pressure, high-temperature process called rendering: Fat and moisture are separated out from dried, solid protein by grinding everything up and steam cooking it all at extremely high temperatures. The dried solids make up the meal.
The FDA, which regulates pet food labeling, notes that meal can contain higher concentrations of protein, nutrients and minerals than whole meats. Meal is basically concentrated meat. But there are two reasons this ingredient is controversial.
First, manufacturers aren’t required to be transparent about how their meals are rendered. The nutritional quality of meal can vary, since natural enzymes and proteins are sometimes destroyed during very high-temperature manufacturing processes. But there’s no way for consumers to monitor this since companies aren’t required to disclose their exact practices.
Second, the animal parts that meal is made out of are often low quality to begin with. The American Association of Feed Control Officials, a group that helps the FDA establish labeling standards, allows anything that’s labeled “meat meal” to be sourced “from mammals other than cattle, pigs, sheep or goats without further description,” which means you can’t be sure exactly what’s in it. We were pretty grossed out to learn meat meal can also be sourced from stuff like restaurant grease, diseased livestock and expired supermarket meat.
So we set two requirements.
We cut formulas that included unnamed meats of any kind.
These show up on ingredient lists as “meat meal,” “meat and bone meal” or “byproduct meal” (or sometimes simply “meat”). If meat meal showed up at all, we wanted to see a named source, like “duck meal” or “salmon meal.” This ensures the company manufacturing the food is being at least somewhat choosy about their ingredients.
And we a required a whole protein to occupy the first spot on the ingredient list.
According to the FDA, ingredients are listed in order of weight, with the heaviest ingredients listed first. While we didn’t want to eliminate every single formula that had any type of meal anywhere (this would’ve left only a small number of extremely pricey formulas), we did feel that a truly high-quality dog food shouldn’t take shortcuts on its main ingredient. So we cut formulas without a named, whole animal protein, like chicken or venison, in the first ingredient slot.
Cut: Formulas that relied on plant-based proteins
Deducing how much of your dog food’s protein comes from meat versus plant sources is no easy task. Labeling laws don’t require a breakdown of this information, and every single one of our remaining 2,354 dog foods contained plant-based ingredients of some kind. But as a general rule, the more prominently fillers like corn, soy or beans are displayed on the ingredient list, the lower the quality of the formula.
The grocery store brand Kibbles ‘n Bits ($0.46 per pound), which has a 1-star rating on Dog Food Advisor, lists “corn” and “soybean meal” as its first two ingredients. Since we’d already established that our top picks had to have a protein like beef or chicken at the top of the list, we cut any formulas with non-meat fillers as the second ingredient.
Cut: Potentially harmful artificial additives
Artificial preservatives, colors and flavors are extremely common in dog food formulas. There’s a lot of disagreement over what’s life-or-death bad and what’s probably fine but not ideal. An ingredient that is proven harmful in large doses, such as propylene glycol — a synthetic ingredient used to add moisture — can cause irritation and sometimes even organ toxicity in large amounts, but might still be approved by the FDA in very small doses.
Artificial food colorings have been known to cause hyperactivity, irritation and even cancer in humans, but are frequently used to make food look more enticing to dog owners. And artificial flavors show up with similar frequency, despite having no nutritional value and posing a risk for allergic reactions, diarrhea or excess intestinal bacteria growth over time.
“If the recipe is made with lots of meat and fruits/vegetables, why would there be a need for added flavor?”
Steve PelletierVice President of Food at Petnet
Healthy dogs won’t fall ill from occasionally eating foods with artificial additives. But if a dog eats those additives every day of his life, they could cumulatively result in negative health effects. “It’s like pointing a ship — if you’re a few degrees off you’ll end up miles away from your destination. Not a big deal for one or two feedings, but it’d be bad over the course of three or four years,” explains Pelletier.
Given how many better options there are, we felt it was best not to risk it. Instead of artificial preservatives, our top picks stay fresh with the help of rosemary, vitamin C and vitamin E.
Cut: “Natural flavor”
When we first encountered the phrase “natural flavor,” we pictured just that — juices and drippings that result from tasty things being cooked. We learned that’s not necessarily the case. The FDA explains “natural flavor” can indicate the inclusion of “digests,” “which are materials treated with heat, enzymes and/or acids to form concentrated natural flavors.”
When we asked Pelletier about this, he clarified that while concentrated flavors themselves aren’t necessarily a bad thing, the lack of transparency that goes into processing them should provoke concern: “Natural flavoring isn’t a great ingredient. According to current labeling rules, dog food companies are allowed to consider these natural flavors proprietary, and are not required to disclose exactly what is used to make the flavoring nor what chemical processes are involved.”
Again, this ingredient is unlikely to kill your dog, but if you’re going to be feeding your best friend the same few brands his whole life, we think it’s best that he’s not continually ingesting any ingredient shrouded in mystery.
Cut: Wet food formulas with “gravy” or extra water
The FDA rules that the maximum moisture percentage for wet dog foods is 78 percent. But many companies exceed this limit, in part because there’s a loophole. The FDA allows moisture to cap out at 87.5 percent if the formula’s name includes the words “stew,” “in sauce” or “in gravy,” even though there’s no consensus about what stew, sauce and gravy are.
The FDA notes that “review of cookbooks and other references shows no common definition or formula for generic terms such as gravy, sauce or broth.” In other words, there’s no guarantee you’re not just paying for extra water. Adding to the confusion, we discovered that even some formulas without the “stew,” “sauce” or “gravy” disclaimer exceeded the FDA’s 78 percent maximum moisture rule.
Water obviously isn’t going to harm your dog. But Dr. Joseph Bartges explained that the higher the moisture percentage, “the more nutrient dense the dry matter must be; otherwise the diet will not be complete and balanced.” It’s possible to calculate the exact nutrient profile of a food’s dry matter. But the general principle is this: the less water, the more protein and fat, and the higher the overall nutrient levels. We cut all formulas exceeding 78 percent moisture, including dog foods with sauce, gravy or stew.
Cut: Product lines with inconsistent quality
Large dog food companies cater to lots of customers, which means different formulas from the same brand can vary in price and quality: We cut AvoDerm’s “Grain Free” line because it had too many plant-based fillers, but the AvoDerm “Revolving Menu” recipes passed with flying colors thanks to including high-quality proteins.
We certainly don’t begrudge companies for offering lower-tier dog foods. For some pet owners, it’s the only affordable option. That said, we want to ensure the formulas within a single line offered consistent quality. Take PureVita’s Grain-Free Dry Food: It comes in five flavors — duck, salmon, turkey, beef and venison — all sold in virtually identical bags. We cut three because they contained garlic. We cut one because it had artificial flavoring. One was totally fine. But we could see ourselves grabbing a new flavor at the grocery store without realizing there was a difference.
So we cut any product lines that weren’t uniformly great. If you’re partial to Nutro’s “Limited Ingredient” line, you can purchase any flavor and rest assured your pet’s food quality won’t change.
We made sure our remaining picks were easy to locate. Some, like Born Free, we could find only in brick-and-mortar pet shops in the Midwest. Others, like Dynamite, could be purchased directly through the manufacturer’s site but nowhere else. We’ve listed these harder-to-find brands as runners-up, and they’re great options if you’re inclined to track them down. But our favorites were all-around winners not only for their top-notch formulas, but because you can easily find them at national retailers like Chewy, Petco and Amazon.
Just like humans, dogs have preferences. One of our office dogs, for example, devours salmon with gusto, but acts offended if he’s served bison. Since no single protein source is superior, it’s fine to cater to your dog’s preferences — or to explore a variety of flavors if you’re a new pup owner.
Signs that your dog may have a food allergy include itchy skin, diarrhea and gassiness. If you don’t think your dog has a food allergy, he’s probably fine: Food allergies make up 10 percent of all dog allergies. But if you’ve noticed any of the issues above, it might be time to switch formulas. “When pets have food sensitivities or allergies, it is most commonly due to protein in the food,” Dr. Gary Richter told us. “Sometimes the problem is a meat like chicken or beef, and sometimes it is the protein component of plant material, such as wheat, corn or rice.”
Our top picks are all readily available online, but some companies only distribute regionally or in specialty stores. If you prefer in-person shopping, you might run into some of our regional runners-up on the shelves. Rest assured that they are excellent choices as well.
Look at cost:
No matter what your budget looks like, don’t feel guilty about sticking to it. If you’re willing and able, and want to splurge for our most expensive dry food (Ziwi Peak), go for it. If you prefer paying less for Fromm Classic, our cheapest pick, we’re confident that it’s a balanced, nutritious and high-quality option. Don’t feel pressured to get the most expensive food in order to be a No. 1 dog parent.
Consult your vet!
After hundreds of hours of ingredient research and expert interviews, we ended up with 30 top brands. They’re all great and we’d feel good feeding any of them to our pets. However, you know your dog’s needs best. If you have any concerns, it’s a good idea to talk to your vet about which food will work well. If they’re unfamiliar with the presented issues, it’s recommended to reach out to a Boarded Veterinary Nutritionist for help or clarification. Veterinary nutritionists willing to give advice may be contacted through the American College of Veterinary Nutritionists.
Note to our readers: If you wish to review the specific dog food brands that were “cut” from the list, or receive additional information, please visit: https://www.reviews.com/dog-food/.
Many thanks to the team at Reviews.com for the salivating information in this report!
Attribution for photo of Golden Retriever and empty food bowl found on Pinterest by affdog.com