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Choosing The Right Dog Food (hint: not Purina)

Updated on October 11, 2011

Conclusions First!

In the interest of front-loading my conclusion:

Read the ingredients in your dog's food! If the first 4 are not meat or (begrudgingly) whole grain, then use up that bag and start over. The brand I, personally, recommend are Innova and Canidae.

Your dog trusts you to take care of him as best you can.  (Photo by Rafael Ohana)
Your dog trusts you to take care of him as best you can. (Photo by Rafael Ohana)

What are you feeding your dog?

I bet it says that it's "vet recommended" and has been tested to ensure that it's nutritionally complete. You probably chose it with the best intentions, wanting to give your dog only the best you could provide.

But with all the pet food recalls in the recent past, you must've realized that something is going on in the dog food industry. I hate to tell you, but what you're feeding your pup may be slowly killing him.

Problems in the Industry

Rat poison is not the only problematic ingredient in brand name dog food, though it's one that got a lot of publicity after all the recalls. Some other foods were recalled because of Aflatoxin, which is poisonous and secreted by fungi that grows on grains like corn.

But it's not the ingredients making the recall lists that concern me. Obviously if something has been recalled, you're not going to feed it to your dog. The problem is that the pet food industry has been trying to convince you that they are carefully formulating the highest quality food possible for your pet, when most of them have been using substandard ingredients.

Companies use fillers like lard, corn husks, and blood meal to make food more appealing to dogs and cheaper to make. Many foods have "poultry fat" as a listed ingredient, which includes fat from poultry found dead and birds that had been put down in shelters. I'm not making this stuff up! I wish I were.

Unfortunately, you cannot trust what the companies tell you. Even more unfortunate is that you cannot trust what most veterinarians will tell you about what to feed your dog. This means that you'll have to do the research yourself. But there are lots of people out there who can steer you in the right direction!

Colorful doesn't mean healthy!  (Photo by Alessandro Paiva)
Colorful doesn't mean healthy! (Photo by Alessandro Paiva)

What Do Dogs Need?

Dogs are opportunistic carnivores. They are scavengers (this as opposed to the purely carnivorous cat, whose diet must consist of animal protein). This means that their diet need not be entirely meat-based, but it definitely can be.

Dogs need protein and fat, and their diets can often be supplemented successfully by fruits and vegetables. They don't need grains or artificial additives, and they certainly don't need unnamed byproducts like chicken feet and beaks.

It is a myth that giant breed dogs need different food from small dogs (though their growing period needs more attention to ensure what they're eating is right) and that puppies need different food from adults. For the most part, these different foods are marketing schemes by the dog food companies to convince you that their food is the right food. But a generic high quality diet will outperform any of these "special formulas" easily.

My Dog Seems Fine on His Current Dog Food...

Well, many dogs are not doing fine on their substandard (but highly marketed) kibble. This is because of the overabundance of corn and other grains and low-quality protein in these foods. These things lead to allergies, poor skin and coat condition, gastroenteritis, loose stool, and other general health problems that can cost you hundreds (thousands?) to diagnose and treat with a vet.

If your dog doesn't have any of these problems and is on a diet with fillers and additives, great! But that doesn't mean that she wouldn't do better on a higher quality dog food, maybe grain-free or even raw. You would probably see an improvement in coat quality (less shedding, shinier, not oily or dry) and smaller poops almost immediately. Dogs on high quality dog food also have higher energy levels.

You will also spend less on food because you will be feeding less. That's right. With higher quality food, you have to feed your dog less because he has to digest only the good stuff. He'll get filled up faster, and you won't have to break the bank.

Best of all, though, they're healthy! They're less likely to have digestive problems or allergic reactions to their food. And the high quality dog foods without fillers weren't recalled and are less likely to be, so you can rest a little easier with that.

A Vet's Counterargument

My mother's vet, stereotypically enough, argued that Hill's Science Diet is the best brand of food out there (Hill's notoriously pays for the only nutritional education that most vets receive in school and pays vets for recommending and selling their food in the office).

When she responded with some of the information I had given her, he said, "People anthropomorphize their pets too much and try to feed them human-quality food. They're dogs, and this dog food is good for them."

Insert sarcastic stare here.

I don't over-humanize my dogs; I know the limitations of dogs' cognition and everything, but I still consider them a part of my family. And I want what's best for my family.

Dogs may historically be scavengers and have strong stomachs, but why feed nutritionally useless chicken beak when I can feed quality chicken meal kibble? Why pay for a digestive problem later when I can prevent it with good food now?

What's the Best Food Out There?

There is no Greatest Dog Food Ever, unfortunately, or we'd all be buying it. People spend a lot of time arguing what is best overall, but when it comes down to it, there is no food that is the best possible food for every single dog. There probably isn't even one food that is the best possible food for most dogs.

But there are things you should look for in a dog food that can let you know if that food might be great for your dog.

  • What are the primary protein sources? They should be species-named meat or meat meal and within the first few ingredients on the list. They should not be byproducts or "hydrolated," and they should not use general terms like meat, poultry, or animal. We're looking for "Lamb Meal" or "Chicken" with no extra words like "byproducts".

  • If there are grains, they should not be the first ingredient, and they should be whole grains. Corn should really be avoided.

  • Whole vegetables and fruits are good but not necessary (dehydrated vegetables are not particularly great).

(In the interest of full disclosure, I'll say that I currently feed my hound mix dog Innova EVO food, but had him on Canidae All Life Stages until he finished growing because of protein concerns.)

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Should I Feed My Dog Raw?

Maybe. Just as not one diet is best for every dog, not one diet is best (or possible) for every human to feed their dog. But feeding raw is not as complicated, expensive, or confusing as people assume it is.

It requires some research and some decision-making, but you've already been doing that by reading this hub, and that wasn't so hard, was it? You might want to buy a book or two, but that's not necessary because there's plenty of information on the internet. There are excellent methods of support for feeding raw out there, too, especially in Yahoo groups.

The "pros" to feeding raw? Easy. You control the food that goes into your dog's body to ensure that he's getting absolutely everything he needs. The downside? Nothing, really, except that you'll have to do some extra reading.

(If you want to prepare your dog's food, raw is the best way to go. Dogs have a shorter digestive tract and can therefore withstand more bacteria in their food, and cooking the meat will actually leech ingredients out of it.)

What It Boils Down To... that you probably want to do what's best for your pet, for you, and for your wallet. For all three, the best thing is to feed your dog a super high quality food.

You won't have to pay for allergy medicines or treatments, surgery or treatments for digestive issues your dog develops later in life, and countless other vet bills that come from a life of improper nutrition.

Your dog will be healthier overall (and great kibble is not much more expensive -- if at all -- than terrible kibble), so you'll be able to enjoy his life for much longer.


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    • profile image


      11 years ago

      thats great ...

      interesting hub

    • helenathegreat profile imageAUTHOR


      13 years ago from Manhattan

      Exactly, crazycat! Do your own research and then consult with the professionals before making a decision that will affect your pet's life.

    • crazycat profile image


      13 years ago from Philippines

      It's good to read tips over the internet and consult a veterinarian in caring for your pet dogs. Because if we choose to have a pet, we should be responsible enough.

    • helenathegreat profile imageAUTHOR


      13 years ago from Manhattan

      positiveminded -- I'm glad you're already aware of the problem! It's always good to hear that. And if your dog is doing well on the diet, then that's the best you can do. Congratulations on doing right by your dog!

      stormyweather -- Thanks for the comment. Cavs are known for allergy problems, so I'm glad you've found a diet that works for them! As for the grapes.. some dogs can tolerate them, it seems. But you're right, it's really a shame that people don't realize they might be feeding their best friends something that is fine for human but toxic to dogs!

    • stormyweather profile image


      13 years ago from Devon, UK

      Helenathegreat - this is a good, well-meaning hub. Thank you.

      Not enough people know about the dangers of feeding their dogs toxic substances. I fed my poor dog Chantal grapes on and off - she really loved them - I had no idea. She lived to a ripe old age - but I still wonder how much damage those grapes did and would she have had a slightly longer life if I hadn't indulged her like that.

      I now feed my three cavaliers (Rio, Rocco and Roma) a homemade diet of fresh human quality fish or meat, brown rice, suitable vegetables, oats and milk. One of my cavaliers had terrible itching problems - and would chew his feet to distraction. I tried everything, but since I started to make my own dog biscuits all chewing and itching has stopped.

    • positiveminded profile image


      13 years ago from Mangalore, India

      Hi, I literally jumped on this hub; I was that eager to read it. It's great, thank you! After reading it, I could finally reassure myself that I was not poisoning my little sweetheart. I wrote a hub called 'Doggy Diet', though it is not as comprehensive as this, and I definitely did not do so much research. So thanks for this hub. I don't care to buy dog food. The only thing I get from the pet shop is dog biscuits, and the cats love it more than the dog does. I feed her(the dog) whole red rice, plenty of meat, heaps of meaty bones, and sometimes, veggies. I think she will do fine.

    • helenathegreat profile imageAUTHOR


      13 years ago from Manhattan

      My pup has eaten a big piece of regular dark chocolate cake and was fine (though my boyfriend was freaked out for a good four or five hours), so who knows!

      Of what I've read, I really like and trust the raw diet, but I definitely don't know enough to feed it yet and wouldn't anyway because Prucha is a puppy... I just wouldn't want to mess with it until he's grown. But he'll be getting fed the larger percentage of his body weight because he's so active.

      When fed right, I've seen raw-fed dogs be miraculously healthier than before they were fed raw: gorgeous, strong coats, clear eyes with no discharge, strong nails, and the smallest amount of poop you would believe for a dog that size. It looked like their bodies were digesting the food SO efficiently.

      But, as I said, some diets will never work for some dogs.

    • Whitney05 profile image


      13 years ago from Georgia

      Hm. I've never heard anything bad towards regular chocolate, always just no baker's.

      As far as I could tell she was feeding them properly. She researched the diet before she decided it was the best for her. The skinniest of them was even fed 3 times a day. But they were skin and bones. It was sad. I don't like the raw meat diet, as like I said I just don't think pet dogs have the same digestive enzymes as wild wolves and other wild canines.

    • helenathegreat profile imageAUTHOR


      13 years ago from Manhattan

      Was she feeding them correctly, Whitney? You can't just start giving them raw meat, you have to balance it pretty carefully. "Vet approved" isn't always a vet sentence, but sometimes it is. I don't actually know anything about Nutro.

      Baker's chocolate is DEFINITELY to be avoided at all times, but the vet has told me that dark chocolate is dangerous, too.

    • Whitney05 profile image


      13 years ago from Georgia

      I think the chocolate thing is more toward's baker's chocolate, not regular dark or milk chocolate. I could be wrong though. In regards to regular chocolate, you can feed it to your dog, it's just that most dogs have an allergic reaction to chocolate, so it's recommended not to feed it to dogs. Baker's chocolate should always be avoided though.

      Otherwise, I think my dog food say's vet approved, but it's not Science Diet, It's Nutro natural choice.

      I disagree with raw meals. Dog's aren't built to properly digest raw meats as they were as wild wolves. I knew a girl who fed her dogs raw, and they were skinny.

    • helenathegreat profile imageAUTHOR


      13 years ago from Manhattan

      Thanks for asking! I know some people that feed their dogs the occasional M&M as a treat, so each dog is different. The general rule is that dogs should never have dark chocolate but can survive some milk chocolates. I wouldn't intentionally feed my dog any sort of chocolate 'cause it's just not necessary, but it's really up to your mom, I guess!

    • Om Paramapoonya profile image

      Om Paramapoonya 

      13 years ago

      Hi, Helena. Great hub. Very informative. My mom's dog loves chocolate milk! She knows it's bad for him, but still lets him drink it once in a while (like twice a month). Is that a really horrible thing to do?

    • helenathegreat profile imageAUTHOR


      13 years ago from Manhattan

      Stacie -- The pet food industry as a whole is broken, and most of this certainly applies to cat food, as well. I'm always really happy to hear about pet shops that are educating their customers like the ones you describe; I wish there were more of them!

      Peter -- I'm glad you figured out what was wrong with your dog and fixed it without having to go through too much trouble. So many people say that, when they switched their dog's food, it was like a totally new dog or a puppy again or something. Thanks for commenting!

    • Peter M. Lopez profile image

      Peter M. Lopez 

      13 years ago from Sweetwater, TX

      Our dog is allergic to corn. We found out about corn allergies by researching our dogs behaviors (scratching, paw licking, etc.). Since we have found corn-free dog food, it's like he's a new dog. Great hub.

    • Stacie Naczelnik profile image

      Stacie Naczelnik 

      13 years ago from Seattle

      I follow a lot of your tips for choosing a dog food when I buy cat food. Seattle has some great pet shops--they promote healthy choices for your pets. You can walk into one of these stores, and the employees will give you a lesson as informative as this hub.

    • helenathegreat profile imageAUTHOR


      13 years ago from Manhattan

      Thanks for your kind words, Marlo. It's especially bad when it's listed as the first ingredient. You wouldn't feed your kid food that all had "corn syrup" as the first ingredient! Corn gluten has about the same nutritional value.

    • MarloByDesign profile image


      13 years ago from United States

      I agree with your corn comment - corn or corn gluten is very bad when it is listed as the first ingredient in your dog's food. Many inexpensive dog foods use this (like Pedigree).

      Thanks for publishing an informative article.

    • helenathegreat profile imageAUTHOR


      13 years ago from Manhattan

      Joe, I've done a lot of research to back up this hub. If you would like to write a hub this comprehensive that fully explains why I am wrong, I would be more than happy to read it. In the mean time, randomly bashing me is not going to change much.

    • profile image


      13 years ago

      It would be nice if you did not post opinions and try to pass them off as fact. If you talk to nutritionists you will find that 50% of your comments are incorrect. As far as the whole Hills thing with your vet, Hills is owned and operated by Vets. What do you expect? I think that your heart is in the right place, but you need to get your facts straight before posting something like this.


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