Choosing Dog Food
Almost half of all U.S. households own at least one dog, according to the latest 2017-2018 APPA National Pet Owner's Survey. That leaves thrifty masters on a determined hunt for the best cheap dog food, be it kibble in a bag or wet in a can. Either way, pet owners want to set out the healthiest products and, equally important, food the pet will enjoy. Cheapism nosed deep into expert and pet-owner reviews to find budget-friendly labels that keep dogs happily eating and on top of their game -- all for less than 20 cents an ounce.
Dry Dog Food or Wet Dog Food?Like cat owners, dog owners often fret about whether to offer kibble or canned food. Dry food is cheaper and far more convenient. It can be left in the bowl for days without spoiling while wet food must be used within a day or two of opening, with leftovers stored in the refrigerator. There are also far more choices for dry food in terms of special formulas and blends for fussy eaters, different life stages, and health issues. Wet food proponents counter that it's closer to ancestral diets, is lower in carbohydrates, and contains lots of moisture, which is increasingly critical as a dog ages and is a must in hot, dry climates. One easy solution is to offer the animal both, either one at each meal or mixing the two together.
Whatever the chosen consistency or serving combination, our research has uncovered several cheap options that should meet most canines' nutritional needs. Holding the title of best in show for canned/wet dog food are Taste of the Wild (starting at 17 cents/ounce) and Merrick (starting at 19 cents/ounce), both with grain-free options and loaded with primary-source proteins and healthy oils.
Over on the dry/kibble dog food side, top billing goes to Fromm Gold (starting at 9 cents/ounce) and Blue Buffalo Wilderness (starting at 13 cents/ounce), which are rich in animal protein and contain minimal amounts of filler.
Runner-up status belongs to Natural Balance Limited Ingredient Diets (starting at 15 cents/ounce), a canned formula, and Hill's Science Diet (starting at 9 cents/ounce), a dry food available in dozens of varieties. Both score points for health-conscious recipes that don't sacrifice taste.
We found two inexpensive brands that just don't cut it: Pedigree (starting at 5 cents/ounce) and Purina Dog Chow Natural (starting at 4 cents/ounce). Very low price points are a big part of their appeal, and while the offerings aren't bad for dogs, they won't win any health-food contest, either. It's possible to do better by your dog for a slightly greater outlay.
Editor's note: Some of our picks highlight a brand's specific formula or product line and others encompass the full lineup of dry or wet options; prices quoted are broadly representative but reflect just one variety for each label. Prices per ounce for dry food are based on largest bag size available; smaller sizes will increase base cost.
Cheap versus Expensive Dog Food Brands.The world of cheap dog food is dominated by a few manufacturers. Purina, which in addition to its eponymous products, also makes Mighty Dog, Alpo, and Beneful. Mars (the candy company) produces Royal Canin, Nutro, and Pedigree, among others, and Diamond Pet Foods is responsible for dog food varieties bearing its own name as well as Taste of the Wild, Costco's Kirkland Signature kibble, and more. What keeps prices relatively low? The protein source might be unidentified meal and by-products rather than a primary, or named animal protein, such as beef or chicken, and the carbs might be mostly fillers like corn gluten, wheat flour, and soybeans.
Mid-priced brands are made by smaller companies. They generally contain more primary-source protein and better-quality carbohydrates (e.g., fruits and vegetables) and incorporate fewer fillers; fillers that are used tend to be more palatable, digestible, and nutritious than those found in less costly chow. One example would be Acana Regionals (starting at 16 cents/ounce), a slightly higher-priced, but still affordable, dry food line that focuses on flavors from four distinct sections of the country.
At the high end of the price ladder are raw and organic foods that mimic the diet dogs would eat if left on their own; that is, extremely high in protein from (sustainable) animal sources. Ziwi Peak New Zealand Venison Recipe, for example, is a wet dog food that costs around 50 cents an ounce and includes venison meat, liver, heart, tripe, lung, and kidney as well as mussel, olive oil, and dried kelp; there are no fillers like soy or wheat, or additives like guar gum or carrageenan. Other boutique brands selling for heftier sums include offerings from Canadian-company Orijen, a dry food manufacturer, and Lotus, a California-based enterprise that boasts "natural food" in both wet and dry varieties.
Raw dog food is a new trend, and it comes frozen or freeze dried. These products tend to be rich in human-grade, steroid- and antibiotic-free organ meats and often include organic produce. Much of it is made in small batches and is available only locally, but some freeze-dried/dehydrated varieties, such as those from Primal, are national. This is as close as owners can get to DIY dog food, and the price of that convenience is steep. Primal Raw goes for more than $2 an ounce, although the cost per portion is less due to water that's added before serving.
Dog Nutrition.There is no single best diet for dogs. Experts all agree that plenty of moisture and animal protein are essential, as is some fat. Beyond that, recommendations vary. According to at least one vet at Healthy Pets, the absolute ideal is a homemade regimen of raw foods; supermarket brands rank near the bottom of what this expert site deems acceptable. The American Kennel Club, on the other hand, says commercial dog food is fine as long as it supplies the minimum nutritional requirements. The AKC also notes that dogs' nutritional needs differ by size and age; puppies require foods that optimize growing bones, for example. The Merck Veterinary Manual offers a helpful guide to required nutrients at all life stages.
The appearance of generic (source unspecified) meal, by-product, or by-product meal on the ingredients list is a cautionary signal. Dog Food Advisor explains that these inputs are the processed remains of animals after the human-grade parts have been removed; generic by-product might even come from sick or dead animals. Pedigree loses out in our rankings due to the use of unidentified meal or by-product meal among the top five ingredients.
The label "complete and balanced" or "100 percent nutritious" is affixed to nearly every manufactured dog food, which means it meets standards set by AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) for nutritional adequacy. By law, pet food labels specify ingredients in order of relative weight, a guaranteed analysis indicating minimum percentages of protein and fat and maximum percentages of fiber and moisture, and a statement of nutritional adequacy for a given life stage. (Note: The protein content of dry dog food is always higher than for canned because moisture accounts for a large percentage of wet formulas. To get a better sense of content percentages on a "dry matter basis," requires only a simple calculation that removes moisture from the equation.)
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Dog Food Reviews: What We Considered
Some dogs will eat anything put in front of them and some are picky. Many owners take a trial-and-error approach to learn which food the dog likes best. We read what experts had to say as well as reviews posted by pet owners to identify best in show; that is, the wet and dry dog foods that meet standards recommended by veterinarians, win approval from dogs, and sell at budget prices. Dog food reviews are somewhat light on commentary about the ingredients (unless the dog is dealing with a health issue) and focus more on taste. Expert sites we consulted include Dog Food Advisor, Healthy Pets, Doctors Foster and Smith, Whole Dog Journal, Pet MD, and Healthy Pets. For comments by pet owners we checked vendors such as Amazon, Chewy, Petco, PetSmart, Walmart, dog forums, and manufacturers' websites.
Protein.Animal protein is the most essential ingredient in dog food. In kibble it should be the first ingredient listed on the nutrition label; in canned food it might be second behind water or broth. Some proteins are better than others, though. Veterinarians note that protein from primary sources such as chicken, lamb, fish, beef, egg, or bison are preferred and easiest to digest. Animal-based by-products and meal are okay (as long as the source is identified) but not ideal, experts say, while plant-based protein is less nutritious. How much protein a dog needs depends on size, life stage, and lifestyle.
Among the canned foods we researched, our favorites meet the quality-protein standard. An identified animal protein usually holds first or second place in Natural Balance Limited Ingredient Diets formulas. Taste of the Wild specifies a primary-source protein as the first input in its different flavor combinations, as does Merrick in its extensive lineup. Dogs find the big chunks of deboned beef in its Cowboy Cookout recipe particularly tantalizing, according to reviews on Chewy. Pedigree, by contrast, lists primary-source protein among the top five inputs but also contains generic meat by-products.
The best dry dog foods, including Fromm Gold and Blue Buffalo Wilderness, list a primary-source protein as the first ingredient. Kibbles often contain meat or fish meal (meat/fish that's been rendered and dried), sometimes in place of and sometimes in addition to a primary-source protein among the top ingredients. High-quality meal is packed with protein and linked to a specified animal. Many varieties of Hill's Science Diet incorporate both primary-source protein and meal, although some special-diet blends drop the primary-source protein in favor of a source-specific meal. Protein in Acana Regionals comes from locally-sourced animals and fish, and includes other high-quality sources like organ meats, chicken meal, catfish meal and eggs.
Although reviewers often don't mention protein content as a reason for buying the foods highlighted here, Dog Food Advisor rates them highly specifically because of the protein quality. By contrast, the first ingredient in Purina Dog Chow Natural is whole-grain corn followed by chicken by-product meal; there are no primary-source proteins among the top five ingredients. That doesn't deter some pet owners, who write on Chewy that their dogs spurn pricier and more healthful foods and eat only Purina Dog Chow Natural.
Carbohydrates and Fillers.Just as some people are choosing grain-free diets, some dogs are following the same path. All of our favorite brands offer at least some, if not all, grain-free options. And while dogs don't necessarily need grains, they can find some benefits in carbohydrates, as used for energy, as fiber, and as a foundation for other nutrients.
That said, as with protein, the type of carbohydrate matters. Quality sources include certain types of grain flours, rice, sweet potatoes, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. Dry dog food in particular is dependent on carbs as a filler used for texture and density. Experts say there is no standard for what constitutes too much carbohydrate, but they scoff at anything above 50 percent. (Dog Food Advisor says carbohydrates accounted for about 14 percent of dogs' ancestral diet.) Carbohydrates are not part of the "guaranteed analysis," however, and can generally only be estimated by taking stock of the percentages of a food's other contents and assuming that carbs account for the remaining gap between these calculations and a 100-percent content total. Or, assuming that strict carb counts aren't required as part of a pet's special diet, simply look for products rich in protein and fat.
Corn and gluten, along with inputs like soybean meal and corn gluten meal are fillers that provide limited nutritional value. There is much debate surrounding their inclusion in dog foods, with many experts scorning them while others suggest they are not as bad for pets as may be imagined and they help keep prices low. Regardless, it's generally agreed that a meat protein source should be the primary ingredient in a good quality food. Whole grain corn, corn gluten meal, and soybean meal rank first, third, and fifth, respectively, on the ingredients list of Purina Dog Chow Natural, which is the key reason the brand sinks to the bottom of our list. Some varieties of Pedigree's wet dog food line contain fillers like brewer's rice, a cereal grain by-product, or wheat flour. One commenter on a dog food forum says saving money by buying chow with such useless ingredients winds up costing more in the long run due to higher vet bills.
Again, pet owners don't say much about carbs and fillers, although some reviews of Taste of the Wild mention the absence of what one describes as "junk" as a plus.
Other Nutrients.Two additives that veterinarians and pet owners welcome are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Dogs don't produce these nutrients, so incorporating them into the foods they eat is important. They help promote smooth skin and shiny coats, reduce inflammation, and boost the health of internal organs and the immune system. Derived from oils such as olive, canola, walnut, and flaxseed, as well as from fish, fatty acids appear in at least some, if not all, varieties of our favorite dog foods. While most users don't mention this as a reason that they bought a particular food, one Taste of the Wild review on Amazon notes that dogs need these fatty acids as much as people do, and some owners' posts on PetSmart credit foods with omega-3, such as Blue Buffalo, as an antidote to skin issues.
Other additives, such as tomato pomace, found in Hill's Science Diet and Fromm Gold, and carrageenan, found in most dog foods, are somewhat controversial. Tomato pomace, the remains after processing, is considered by some experts to be a filler of no nutritional value, while others contend it adds needed fiber. Carrageenan is a binder found in most pet foods (and some processed human foods). It's generally regarded as safe but some argue it's a carcinogen. At least one reviewer tells of rejecting Merrick because certain of its options contain carrageenan.
Most dog food, including some on our list, contains supplements, additives, and artificial flavors and colors -- many with unpronounceable names. Acana, by contrast, claims to add only zinc to its Regionals kibble line. A good rule of thumb: Stick to brands with the fewest chemical-sounding names in their ingredient lineups.
Taste and Texture.There are numerous reasons dogs take to one food and not another. PetMD, for example, suggests that older dogs might prefer canned food owing to its stronger flavor and odor. For the most part, though, the ins and outs of dogs' palates remain a mystery, and most owners simply opt for whichever brand, formula, and texture the dog enjoys.
Still, we found clues buried in some reviews about what dogs like and why.
Our preferred wet foods appeal because of the texture, with meaty chunks that seem closer to real food. A Taste of the Wild review on Amazon attributes its draw to the chip-like feel of the meat. The meat chunks and vegetables in Merrick Classic Grain Free find favor with both dogs and their humans; there are dozens of reviews on Petco's website from owners who say it looks like something even they would eat and who swear it's gotten the pickiest of canines dancing at dinnertime.
The best budget kibbles likewise attract a strong following. Reviewers of Fromm Gold write on Amazon that they don't mind paying a slight premium for the brand because it's so popular with its consumers. (They'd be even happier were they to order directly from the manufacturer's website, where prices proved to be significantly lower than any of the options offered on Amazon.) Hill's Science Diet scores with both owners and dogs; the former often reporting how quickly the animals take to the many formulas and flavors. And while dogs lap up the Blue Buffalo Wilderness blends, one note on Amazon says the round bits in the mix -- which are loaded with vitamins, fatty acids, antioxidants, and more -- were picked out of the bowl and scattered throughout the house.
Another interesting option some may find worth a second look comes in the form of Redbarn Naturals Dog Food Rolls (starting at 15 cents/ounce), which offer a meal somewhere in between wet and dry. Although some reviewers posting on Amazon, like this one, found the texture of this "semi-moist" (some say almost salami-like) food to be too crumbly for their liking, dogs seem to have a distinctly different opinion: A pet sitter who posted on Chewy claims never to have encountered a dog that did not love this product, which is frequently cut up and served as a training treat.
Special Dietary Needs.Many dog food producers offer a range of blends and formulas to accommodate large breeds and small, in addition to different health needs and life stages. Hill's Science Diet is the prime example, with foods that target challenges such as sensitive stomach, skin problems, aging, low activity, dental health, and weight control. Owners say these products help mitigate the conditions for which they're intended. For example, several posts on Chewy insist that the Hill's Science Diet Oral Care formula, which contains large bits of kibble meant to encourage dogs to chew more, really does help to clean teeth and can even freshen Fido's breath in the process.
Clearing up some health problems may be as simple as offering quality, nutritious food. Several commenters on a dog food blog report that digestive and skin issues were alleviated after starting a diet of Fromm Gold, which describes its recipes as "holistic." And one review on Petco tells of an aging dog with allergies who was about to be put on a prescription diet when the vet recommended Natural Balance Limited Ingredient Diets food as a potential alternative; apparently, it did the trick and the dog food it tasty to boot.