What to Look for in a Commercial Dog Food

Commercial Diets:

Most dog owners choose to feed their pets a commercial diet. If you are choosing a commercial diet to feed your dog, it is important to make your decision with care, as your dog’s foundation for a healthy life is largely based on the food that nourishes his body.

Many dogs do well on properly formulated, nutrient dense commercial dog foods. Make sure you only feed products that will benefit your dog’s health and well being.

Basics when Feeding Commercial Dog Foods:

Commercial diets really can’t be beat in the category of convenience. Many owners enjoy the peace of mind in knowing that all the nutrients that their dog needs to thrive should be included in his kibble, canned, dehydrated, or frozen food. When choosing a commercial product, it is important to keep a few things in mind that will be discussed below.

Commercial products on the market that are labeled to follow AAFCO guidelines must contain the the recommended amounts of protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals for the stated life stage. With this being said, foods that meet the basic requirements established by the AAFCO can vary greatly in their quality. Some things to help direct what food to choose are the following:

  • Pick a food appropriate for your dog’s life stage:
    • Puppies needs are different in several respects from an adult dogs needs. Growing puppies need more fat, protein, calcium (but not too much!), and phosphorus than adult dogs do. There are also all life stage products, which can be fed to puppies, adults, and senior citizen canines.
    • Large and giant breed puppies have even more unique requirements to prevent them from growing too quickly all at once (see https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/nutritional-requirements-of-large-and-giant-breed-puppies). Because of their special requirements, large breed pups really should be fed a food that is specifically labeled for them.
  • Look for products that use plenty of high-quality, specific animal products:
    • Better brands use specifically named meats. For example, a better brand will have chicken, turkey, or duck listed instead of a general term such as poultry. Also avoid foods that use generic terms such as meat, meat meal, or animal fat. These terms are too general and give very little information about what is actually in the food. Instead, opt for products that list beef, pork, or lamb.
    • By-products can contain very beneficial ingredients such as organ meats, but they can also contain hair, hooves, and feathers, none of which are of significant nutritional value to your dog. If the food does specify that the by-products are organ meats, it is probably okay to feed since organs are very high in nutrients. Also, if a food has muscle meats listed in combination with some by-products, this may be ok as well. For more information on by-products, check out my post discussing this issue further.
    • A general rule of thumb is to only pick foods that have a specific animal protein listed first. While this does by no means assure that the food is meat based, it is usually a good way to quickly weed out  extremely low quality foods.
    • An easy to remember tip is to look for at least two of the first five ingredients in a kibble to be high quality animal products. The thought behind this is that the first five ingredients make up the bulk of what is in the bag. Thus, the more animal products in the first five ingredients, the better the food.
      • Some argue that the ingredients leading to the first major fat source make up the bulk of the food. While this may be accurate, I feel that the first five ingredient rule is a little easier to remember and is also pretty reliable.
  • Be careful about what grain free food you choose:
    • In recent years, grain free foods have gotten a bad reputation because of connections made between them and dilated cardiomyopathy. Grains don’t protect a dog against this condition, but it does seem that feeding grain free foods may be tied to an increase in incidence of this disease. While many hypotheses have been made as to the cause of this, no one is quite sure what the connection is.
    • For quite some time, I was feeding my one dog a mixture of fresh food, canned food, and grain free kibble. After a while, I noticed that he was constantly bloated and seemed more sluggish, despite having no obvious issues on exam and having normal blood work from the vet. After stopping the grain-free food, the bloating and excess gas went away. If you are feeding your dog a grain-free food and he seems exceptionally gassy, trying a food with grains or one without legumes may solve the problem. It seems that the legumes often used in grain-free foods can contribute to excess gas.
  • Avoid foods that contain wheat or corn gluten:
    • Wheat and corn gluten can inflate the protein content on the package, allowing the manufacturer to get away with not putting as much animal protein in the food. Dogs can’t digest protein from plant sources as efficiently as they can from animal sources, so even though the protein percentage may seem high, its not protein that the dogs body can effectively use. If a food otherwise has many animal sources of protein listed, these ingredients may not be as big of an issue.
  • Add fresh foods when possible:
    • Fresh foods are a wonderful addition to a commercial diet. My article Dog Food on a Budget addresses how to add fresh food to a diet that is primarily commercial food.
  • A note about special health concerns:
    • Dogs with unique health conditions often benefit from foods specifically geared for them. Hills, Purina, and Royal Canin have all been in the business of making prescription foods for many years now. Recently, Blue Buffalo also created their own prescription line.
    • Prescription diets often won’t line up with the guidelines above, because specific health conditions require unique adjustments.
    • Many argue that many of the prescription products are made up of low quality ingredients. I understand this argument and I wish the prescription diets used better ingredients than many of them do. With this being said, if a dog has a specific disease that requires treatment in the form of diet modifications, those modifications need to be made. This can be often done with fresh, homemade foods. If a fresh diet isn’t a possibility, a prescription diet will still be better than a non-prescription diet in many cases.

Pay attention to recalls:

If possible, pay attention to recalls on whatever commercial foods you choose to feed. Some companies will email you recall information if you get on their email list, and this can be very helpful. Often times, recalls are for things such as E. coli or Salmonella contamination. Such contamination is often more dangerous for the people handling the foods than it is for the pet, but it is still important to be aware of such problems as dogs can become sick from such infections, particularly dogs with underlying health concerns. More seriously, pet foods may need to be recalled over nutrient content issues. Several companies have had recalls in the past because of toxic levels of vitamin D being present in their products, and the infamous 2007 recall saw pet foods containing ingredients laced with poison; such issues can causes severe illness in pets and can even lead to death.

The following websites frequently cover pet food recalls:


Choosing the appropriate food to feed your best friend is one of the most important things to assure a long, happy life. By following the above tips, you can feel confident in your choice of food for your best friend.

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