How To Choose The Best Dog Food

Long gone are the days of going to the store and seeing only generic 20-pound bags of one kind of kibble. Our dogs now have a veritable smorgasbord of food offerings befitting any member of our families. And why shouldn't they? But beyond what they deserve, there's what they need. Not all dogs are alike; they have different nutritional requirements, appetites, and tastes. Some dogs may need to be on a diet, while others may need more calories. Choosing the right food for your dogs is an important part of keeping them happy and healthy—and giving you peace of mind.

After all, dogs' eating habits can also tell you a lot about their health and well-being, so it's important to pay attention to any sudden changes. If your dog stops eating for more than a few feedings, it's a good idea to see a veterinarian to make sure everything is OK.

With so many different products on the market, it's helpful to start narrowing down your options. There are several factors to consider when shopping for your dogs. Are they puppies, adults, or seniors? Do they have any health issues? Do they need to be placed on a special diet?

Here are a few general guidelines to help you with your decision-making.

Age: Puppies have different nutritional needs than adult dogs. For one thing, they need more frequent feedings to keep up with their speedy metabolism. But what they eat also matters. Puppies need food that is higher in calories, protein, vitamins, and minerals, which are important for animals that are still growing.

Food for senior dogs, on the other hand, should be lower in fat and calories (since older animals are less active and have slower metabolisms) and high in fiber (for easier digestion). Older dogs may also have a harder time chewing food, so it may be beneficial to find a food that comes in smaller pieces.

Size: Larger dogs need to eat larger amounts of food, so many owners will buy dry food, which is more portable and easier to serve than canned (wet) food. Smaller breeds eat less food, so canned food may be a practical option.

Health Concerns: Always consult with your veterinarian about necessary changes to your dog's diet if they are being treated for an illness or if there are other health concerns. If your dog has kidney problems, for example, a veterinarian might suggest a diet lower in protein or phosphorus. Dogs living with cancer may benefit from diets that are high in calories and fat and low in carbohydrates. Of if your dog has allergies or needs supplemental nutrients for bone or dental health, there are dog foods tailored to their needs.

Ingredients: You want to give your dog the best, most well-balanced diet possible, and that starts with high-quality ingredients. Pet food labels, by law, have to list the ingredients by weight, so a quick scan will give you a good idea of whether the food is mostly made of ingredients with high nutritional value, fillers (inexpensive starches that contain little nutritional value), or meat by-products (meat trimmings such as lungs, spleen, liver, and kidneys that is not intended for human consumption). Look for the Complete and Balanced certification on the label. That means that it meets the Association of American Feed Control Officials' (AAFCO) standard of nutritional integrity.

Natural vs. Organic: You may see some pet food described as natural on labels. The AAFCO defines natural as:

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.

Currently there are no organic regulations specific to pet foods, but those products that say they are organic must meet the human food regulations set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP). According to the NOP website, organic products are:

Produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering may not be used.

Do Your Homework: One good resource to use when you're shopping for dog food is the FDA's explanation of pet food labels. Among other things, it outlines AAFCO's rules for naming. For example, if a meat ingredient is listed first in the name (such as "beef dog food") then the food must contain at least 70% of that meat, when water is taken into account. When a recipe is described as a "dinner" for dogs, then only 25% of the recipe must be part of that ingredient.

This guide breaks down three types of dog food and includes tips regarding each kind.