How to Select the Best Dog Food for Your Money

By selecting the right food you can improve your dogs health and reduce your expenditure at the same time. The following guide will help you to understand what the listed ingredients actually mean

beagle dog eating food from a bowl

What you feed your dog has greater influence over his health than almost any other decision you could make for him, but with all the new choices in commercial dog food on the market today, and with merchants getting bonuses for pushing certain brands over another, it is often overwhelming trying to select a food that will give the most health benefits for your dollar. By being educated on the first three ingredients on any bag of dog food, and by knowing a few things to avoid, you can confidently select a superior food for your money, without being pressured by hidden agendas.

Trust no-one

Most retail pet food stores offer house-brands made by premium dog food companies at the cost of grocery store brands. Employees are usually pressured to promote these house-brands when a customer needs a recommendation, but an owner's best chance of finding true value in a high quality food at a decent price also lies in this sea of pet food store house-brands. Most veterinarians also receive bonuses for recommending certain brands over others and courses in nutrition offered at veterinarian colleges are often payed for and written by major dog food manufacturers. An educated consumer can simply read ingredient lists and determine for himself which brand offers a fair amount of quality for his money.

Dogs need protein

The first ingredient on your bag of dog food should be a protein source and the percentage of protein on the "Guaranteed Analysis" chart on the bag should be no less than 23%. The digestibility of a protein source is a reflection of how much of this 23% protein is actually absorbed by your dog, versus how much is simply eliminated through his waste. If the protein source was a leather shoe sole, it could still weigh 23% of the food's total weight and be listed as 23% protein on the bag, but most of the protein would simply end up in your dog's stool.

A human grade protein source must be over 90% digestible, meaning 90% of that 23% stays in your dog. If your dog has severe digestion issues you can buy a dog food that only uses human grade proteins, but it will be expensive. The two good quality animal grade protein sources to look for at the top of an ingredient list are chicken and lamb. Lamb is so digestible in fact that you should refrain from using it, the same way you should refrain from wearing glasses if you don't need them.

A chicken based diet is digestible enough to absorb a good amount of protein yet works the digestion system enough to keep it strong. If your dog develops tummy problems later in life, as many senior dogs do, you will then have Lamb as an easier to digest protein source to fall back on.

couple looking at the back of a packet of dog food
Avoid all the marketing and look at what really matters - ingredients
Protein can be weighed before or after having all the water dehydrated out from it. If chicken is weighed before dehydration it will be listed simply as "chicken" on the bag, but you must be aware that much of it's weight is from water. If the protein is listed as "chicken meal", it means that it was weighed after dehydration and you can know that it is still the first ingredient with the water removed. Chicken and chicken meal are both whole chickens with internal organs included.

Internal organs like kidney, liver and spleen are not bad for your dog and have many nutrients that he will thrive on. If you see your protein listed as "chicken by-product meal", it means that the company can include the organs in any proportions that they choose and so the food could be heavy in spleen one week and heavy in kidney another. These minor switches in your dog's food can upset the balance in his intestinal bacteria and cause bloating, gas, cramping and diarrhea. Choosing a food that lists the first ingredient as "chicken meal" means any organs were added only in the proportions that they are found in one whole chicken, every time, in every bag.

Although other more digestible sources of protein such as turkey, duck, egg or venison are available in more expensive dog foods, a food simply listing "chicken meal" as it's first ingredient is an affordable and excellent source of protein for your dog.


The second ingredient on your dog food bag should be a source of carbohydrate. Corn is very difficult to digest and should be avoided for being filler for his stool more than a carbohydrate source for his body. Companies will break corn up into it's smallest components in order to weigh them separately and so bury their placement on ingredient lists. If you can see items like "corn gluten meal" and "ground yellow corn" listed farther down, you can not know if they would appear as the first ingredient in your dog's food when weighed together and listed simply as “corn”.

Wheat is also sometimes used as a cheap carbohydrate source and is the culprit of many dogs being diagnosed with food allergies. The best and easy to find carbohydrate source that you want as your second ingredient is rice. There are even better and more costly sources such as brown rice, barley or even potato, but rice is a great source of carbohydrates, easy to digest and readily available in affordable dog foods.


Fats should be next after carbohydrates on a dog food's ingredient list. After fats are rendered or boiled out of the meats that they come from, very little of the meat proteins are left. This means that the source of the fat has very little to do with the quality of the fat. You can save money by looking for a great protein like chicken meal over selecting a specific fat such as "chicken fat".


Since it is the fat in a dog's food that can turn rancid quickly, it is right after the fat is listed in the ingredients where you will find the preservatives used in your dog's food. The preservatives BHA, BHT, and ethoxoquin have had much controversy over being used in foods. Although these preservatives can keep a bag of dog food from going rancid for five years over the two years that a naturally sourced preservative can, any product banned for human consumption or linked as a carcinogen should be avoided. Tocopherals are a natural preservative, source of vitamin E, and keep your dog's coat and skin healthy as well as his food fresh. You should see tocopherals or vitamin E listed after the fat, in brackets, on your dog food's ingredient listing. Although proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and preservatives make the base of your dog's food, and are where your scrutiny of ingredient listings is needed, there are a few other things further down the list of ingredients to look out for. Beet pulp is sometimes added to a dog food to instigate a reddish tinge to his coat. Since it is somewhat known that a dog digesting high amounts of minerals and nutrients may turn a reddish tinge, the beet pulp is added to artificially dye this appearance into your dog's coat. Beet Pulp is an insoluble fiber that passes right through your dog doing little else. Red dyes in dog foods have been linked to higher levels of aggression and also to symptoms of food allergies that may present as itching, scabbing, or balding.

Vague ingredients like "meat" over "chicken" should be avoided as much as possible as it allows the manufacturer the right to buy beef one shipment and pork the next.

A dog's main food should never be switched around to provide variety as it will upset the flora and fauna in it's digestive track.

Any new dog food should always be introduced gradually over several weeks to allow digestive adjustment to the change. Variety should be saved for treat time.

Knowing how to select a dog food with a high quality protein source like chicken meal as the first ingredient, a carbohydrate like rice as the second, a fat preserved naturally with vitamin E, and a few ingredients to avoid, can empower any dog owner into selecting an excellent quality dog food for the price of a grocery store brand.

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