Chew This, Not That: A Guide To The Healthiest Dog Food

By Sarah Jeanne Terry
hungry dog bowl
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When it comes to what we should feed our pets, there's a lot of misinformation out there. After years of diet trends and fads in the human world, the onslaught has moved on to our canine friends. Of course, we all want the best for our pets, but often, in the name of what's "healthy," certain fads attempt to capitalize on our love for our animals to convince us certain foods are better than others. But in truth, the rules of pet food are relatively simple, and if we follow them, our dogs should live long, happy lives.

We've broken it all down, so you know what your pup should chew, and what it shouldn't.

Chew This: "Complete and Balanced"

While it might just sound like marketing jargon, the phrase "complete and balanced" is actually VERY important. It's one of the most important labels you can find. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has very strict requirements for what that phrase means, and it means that your food has all the essential nutrients a pup might require. So if your pet food includes this label, then you can be pretty sure you're feeding your dog healthy food.

Fromm Family dog food.
credit: Fromm Family

Chew This: Products with simple names, because the product name matters.

According to the American Kennel Club, if a product is called "beef" or "chicken" or "turkey," then that food must contain at least 70 percent of that ingredient. That means when it comes to products like Nutro Beef and Brown Rice or Fromm Duck and Sweet Potato both contain a certain amount of their main ingredient. Of course, we want our pups to get as much real protein sources as possible, so feeding them a solid amount of protein will be a winner every time.

Puppy Eating
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Don't Chew That: Foods that add qualifiers to their main ingredients.

While "Beef Dog Food" means your food contains at least 70 percent beef, once the brand adds additions like "beef dinner" or "beef entrée," beef only needs to make up 10 percent of the food. And if the bad just says "with beef" or any other protein, that protein need only make up 3 percent of the food. So be aware of the way your food's label is phrased, so you know you're getting plenty of the good stuff.

Natural dog food
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Chew This: Shop natural.

We try to avoid putting too many synthetic ingredients in our bodies, and the same should be said for our pups. The AAFCO also has strict guidelines about how the term "natural" can be used when applied to dog food. Natural implies that a food is:

"a feed or feed ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur in good manufacturing practices."

And if a food says "all-natural" or "100% natural" that means it doesn't have any synthetic ingredients, like additives and preservatives. There is one exception, where a food can be "natural with added vitamins and minerals," if nutrients have been added to balance the food.

Dog Food
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Chew This: Healthy, whole grains.

Even though we think of them only as meat eaters, our dogs are omnivores, and they need variety in their diet. Whole grains provide your pup with valuable vitamins and minerals. So don't fret just because your pup's food contains some non-meat ingredients.

Meat and dry dog's food
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Don't Chew That: Grain-free if it's just about the fancy labeling.

This is where humans start to get weird and impose their own "gluten-free" trend on their poor pups. There's not necessarily anything wrong with the idea of grain-free dog food, except that it's unnecessary. Your dog likes and needs grains in their diet, and whole grains like rice can be very beneficial. However, many dog foods and treats now boast about being "grain-free," because it sounds healthy and it sells. And it might be perfectly fine, but it's also probably more expensive. If your food contains grains, don't fret! Unless your pet has an allergy to grains, there's no need to remove them from its diet.

A small puppy sitting by a bowl of food
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Chew This: Balanced, nutritional, cooked dog food.

Now we might be ruffling some feathers, but someone had to talk about it. Just like some of the humans promoting the "paleo diet," which attempts to mimic the way our ancestors eat, the raw dog food movement aims to have our dogs eating more like their wolf ancestors. But that logic isn't exactly sound.

As the American Kennel Club points out, commercial dog food is the product of years of science and research. Formulas are carefully and strategically put together, and there are strict guidelines about what can or can't be in food. So even though it might not seem as "natural" or "holistic" as feeding your dog a raw diet, it really is healthy.

Biologically Appropriate Raw Food for dogs
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Don't Chew That: Raw meat.

Yes, domestic dogs evolved from wolves, and yes, wolves are hunters. However, dogs have evolved alongside humans, and their diet needs have evolved as well. Their genetic makeup gives them the ability to digest grains and produce, as well as meat. Also, while no studies have pointed out a definitive benefit to feeding your dog raw meat, many scientists have shown that a raw meat diet carries a risk of infections to both the dog and the humans living with it.

Dog holding smoothie in a mug .
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Don't Chew That: Please don't try to make your dog a vegan.

While we appreciate and support all the humans who are able to cut animal products out of their lives and the health benefits it brings, the same can't be said for dogs. Vegan dogs are the opposite of the dogs pushed towards a raw diet, because these pets are being fed diets that are totally unnatural. Dogs are designed to eat meat, grains, and vegetables. Calibrating a vegan diet, so that your pup gets the proper nutrition is VERY difficult and overall not advisable. Just let your dogs be the meat eaters they were born to be.

english Bulldog puppies in chef's hat
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Chew This: Food formulated for the size, age, and preference of your dog.

The best food for your dog is almost always the one that they love to eat. While of course, you want to consider quality, pick a formula suited for your dog's age, and pick a size-appropriate food, you'll find plenty of foods that fit those criteria. And at the end of the day, you want your pup to enjoy their food, so don't question their preference too much.

Dog refusing to eat dry food
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Don't Chew That: Food that you think is "best," but that your dog doesn't enjoy.

On the same note, don't believe the hype and pick a food just because it seems "best." Of course, talk to your vet, but don't force food on your pet that it doesn't enjoy, because it will just come back to haunt you. And sometimes it takes a bit to figure out what your dog likes, but once you do, you'll be happy seeing how much your pup loves its food.

Do you want to learn more about what you're reading? Scroll through these recipes of vet-approved homemade dog foods and then follow us on Facebook to keep up-to-date on the latest health and behavior information for your dog.