Best Cheap Dog Food
Dogs may prefer one type of food over another, but owners should look for quality ingredients, like animal protein and nutritious carbohydrates.
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.
We Looked At
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.
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.
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.
Our Top Pick
Taste of the Wild earns an enthusiastic recommendation from experts for significant protein content from identified sources, the absence of by-products, and a taste that appeals to dogs (some cats, as well, it seems). Pet owners take pleasure in feeding their pets this healthy wet grub.
Good for all life stages.
Primary source proteins.
Flaxseed and sunflower oil for omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, respectively.
Some dogs develop gas or other gastrointestinal issues, say some reviews.
With a named protein source as the first ingredient, Merrick canned dog food is an excellent choice for the price. Most recipes spurn fillers such as wheat, soy, or corn, and some are 96 percent real meat. Dogs, particularly large ones, like the large chunks, and owners say it keeps their pets young and active.
Good for all life stages.
Most varieties are grain free.
Carbs often from sweet potato and fruits; oils like canola and olive.
Low glycemic, so good for dogs with blood sugar problems
Some varieties contain carrageenan, which some pet owners find objectionable.
Reviewers say they always come back to Fromm Gold after trying other kibble because their dogs love it. The product line includes formulas for puppies, adults, and seniors; large breeds; and weight management. The small family company has been around for more than 100 years.
Good for all breeds.
Heavy on named proteins.
Contains probiotics for digestion and salmon oil for omega-3 fatty acids.
Food is dense, so dogs don't eat as much.
No artificial preservatives, flavor, or color.
Some dogs develop stomach problems, owners report.
Contains barley, brown rice, and oatmeal, which are all healthy, but have a high carb content.
Available only at pet-food specialty stores or online.
With no wheat, soy, corn, or by-product meals, grain-free Blue Buffalo Wilderness rates highly with experts for above-average protein content. This dry dog food line includes multiple recipes and different formulations for large and small breeds, puppy, adult, and weight maintenance. The chow is a win-win for dogs and their owners.
High-quality proteins atop ingredients list.
Omega-3 fatty acids from fish and flaxseed improve skin and coats, owners say.
Good fiber from seeds and legumes.
Kibble bits contain antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
Some dogs developed gastrointestinal problems, reviewers report.
Several recent voluntary recalls.
Reviewers say that pets with allergies and skin problems improve after eating Natural Balance Limited Ingredient Diets, a wet dog food with a minimal number of inputs; potatoes, particularly the sweet variety, are prominent. Dogs seem to relish it.
Good for all life stages.
Grain-free, high-quality carbohydrates and protein.
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
No artificial colors, flavors, preservatives
Some blends are more expensive.
Not visually appealing to humans, some reviews say.
Relatively high carb content.
Less costly than the brand's Prescription line, Hill's Science Diet offers special formulations for all life stages (including middle age), and for health issues such as weight control, oral care, and skin sensitivity. Reviewers say the kibble helps clear up problems. Equally important, dogs like it.
Enormous variety of formulas and blends.
Most varieties list a primary-source protein or identified meal as the first ingredient.
Often recommended by veterinarians.
Several varieties contain tomato pomace, which some experts disdain for minimal nutritional value.
Carbohydrates often among top five ingredients.
Pedigree canned dog food enjoys a strong following, but the recipes are heavy on ingredients that experts scorn, such as fillers and unspecified by-products. This doesn't seem to deter hungry dogs.
Good add-in for costlier kibble.
Identified protein among top ingredients.
Generic meat by-products among top ingredients.
Lacking in high-quality carbohydrates.
Other Products We Reviewed
For dogs with sensitive stomachs and skin, it's AvoDerm to the rescue, according to reviews. The Chicken Meal & Brown Rice Formula, for example, earns near perfect scores at several sites, including Amazon and Petco. Dog owners attest to the noticeable improvements in their pets' coats and skins and alleviation of allergies and stomach upsets on a diet of AvoDerm kibble. Speaking for their pets, they commend the taste and speaking as masters they laud the absence of wheat or corn, two ingredients that many animal experts say are associated with allergies and digestive problems. This brand provides what Daily Finance terms a "natural" diet with plenty of meat protein and no empty fillers at budget prices. The review further notes that pets tend to need less of such high-quality feed.
Some experts raise doubts about the inclusion of avocado in AvoDerm (starting at 9 cents/ounce, Amazon) kibbles due to concerns about possible toxicity, but others retort that avocado contains the fats, fiber, and vitamins critical to a dog's health, particularly its skin and coat. Given the positive effects noted in AvoDerm reviews -- no more flaking or itching; the appearance of softer, glossier coats -- pet owners clearly side with avocado's proponents.
AvoDerm dry dog food formulas contain choice ingredients. Good sources of protein -- chicken meal, salmon meal, and lamb meal (meal is a concentrated form of the animal protein) -- take star billing as the first or second ingredient in AvoDerm kibble formulas, some of which also contain additional protein sources, like herring and kelp meals. AvoDerm kibbles also include high quality carbohydrates, such as alfalfa meal, brown rice, oatmeal, and barley. Avocado is standard; ditto for the absence of meat by-products, wheat or corn, chemical preservatives, food colorings or sweeteners. AvoDerm produces a full line of dry and canned dog foods, with formulas geared to puppies and adults, as well as recipes that are grain-free. It offers a companion line of cat food.
After sifting through our research, AvoDerm clearly rose to the top of the dry dog food segment. The budget price combined with nutritious ingredients and glowing reports about its positive effect on dogs' skin and coats make this a hard-to-beat choice.
Canidae Life Stages Review
Canidae Life Stages is a big hit with dogs and their owners. Reviews at Wag of the Lamb and Rice Formula as well as other taste combinations in the Life Stages line indicate that pets are wild about the taste of this canned food and their masters are thrilled with the quality and its contribution to the animals' overall health. One Canidae Life Stages reviewer who raises three dogs reports that all are prone to diarrhea when eating canned food, but this brand is an exception. Enthusiasm spills over at Chewy, where owners laud the taste and ingredients, in particular noting that the grain-free recipes are a boon to dogs with allergies. Several also report marked improvements in their pets' skin and coats.
Experts likewise give Canidae Life Stages a hearty endorsement: 4.5 stars at Dog Food Advisor and a "highly recommended" summation, primarily due to ingredients that include animal protein such as lamb and whitefish, sunflower oil (omega-6 fatty acids) and flaxseed oil (omega-3 fatty acids), and complex carbohydrates like brown rice.
Canidae Life Stages (starting at 15 cents/ounce, Amazon) comes in both canned and dry form, and includes different formulations for taste, animal age, and animal size. The Large Breed Adult recipe, for example, leads off with chicken, duck broth, duck, dried egg whites, and brown rice and also includes lentils and pea flour. Canidae dog foods are free of ingredients that experts frown upon, like wheat, corn, and soy, as well as artificial flavors, preservatives, hormones, and antibiotics. Canidae makes dog treats and snacks and a parallel line of foodstuffs for cats.
Many Canidae Life Stages reviews report using the canned varieties as a topper or mix-in with Canidae kibble. Alone or in combination, Canidae Life Stages is a line of natural dog food with top quality ingredients and lots of satisfied customers.
Fromm Classic Adult Review
Fromm Classic Adult formula reviews are generous with their praise. At Chewy, five stars are the norm, with a sprinkling of four stars just to keep things lively. What dog owners rave about in Fromm Classic Adult formula reviews is the reasonable price for a dog food made of top-quality ingredients (e.g., chicken, whole grains, egg, and plant-derived protein) that dogs seem to thrive on. One reviewer notes that her dog has completely recovered from intestinal and skin irritations since starting on Fromm Classic Adult formula, while others remark on the positive effect on dogs' coats, allergic scratching, and appetites. The fresh taste seems to appeal to one and all alike, making it possible to feed a multiple-dog household on just one kibble formula.
And yet, Dog Food Advisor's Fromm Classic Adult formula review awards it just 3.5 stars mainly because this expert considers the share of protein derived from animals to be a tad meager. The review does, however, extol the overall nutritional value of the ingredients, citing inputs such as chicken meal (more protein-dense than regular chicken), chicken fat (omega-6 fatty acids), fish meal, oatmeal (B vitamins and fiber), and flaxseed (omega-3 fatty acids and fiber).
Despite being described as a plant-based kibble by Dog Food Advisor, the first two ingredients in Fromm Classic Adult are chicken and chicken meal, two good sources of protein. Quality carbohydrates include brown rice and pearled barley, both recommended as excellent energy sources. The Classic Adult formula (starting at 10 cents/ounce, Amazon) also contains cheese, beet pulp, chicory root extract, and a variety of vitamins, minerals, and probiotics. There are no meat by-products, chemical preservatives, artificial food coloring, or sweeteners in any Fromm product. The company produces a varied lineup of dog and cat food, both dry and wet. Chow for dogs comes in three different formulas, each at a distinct price point; the Classic line sits at the budget end of the offerings.
We read a lot of positive comments about Fromm Classic Adult kibble. One thing we particularly like is the record of no recalls for products made by this small, family company, which stands in contrast to some of the bigger-name brands in the industry. Positive health effects are another mark in its favor.
Natural Balance Ultra Review
Healthy and tasty is the consensus view in Natural Balance Ultra reviews. Pet owners who posted at Chewy about the Lamb Formula in the Ultra line of canned dog food award it five stars, saying it helps reduce allergic reactions and keeps even finicky dogs energetic and satiated. Several owners report beefing up bowls of the company's (and sometimes competitors') dry dog food with spoonfuls of Natural Balance wet chow. Natural Balance Ultra Premium kibble likewise scores big with dogs and their owners. Facing a bowl mixed with another brand, writes a reviewer at Amazon, the animal picked out the Natural Balance bits and left the rest.
The few reviews of Natural Balance Original Ultra Premium at Wag are somewhat mixed about this variant on the Ultra theme. One pet owner raves about its healing effects on the skin of a rescue dog and in the appearance of its stools and another says the product pleases a fussy eater. A third, however, gripes about an off-putting smell and reports resistance, although ultimate surrender, by the pet.
Natural Balance Ultra (starting at 17 cents/ounce, Amazon) dog foods are packed with the kind of ingredients animal experts favor. The Original Ultra formula contains chicken, chicken liver, duck, lamb, and salmon as the top five solid ingredients, following chicken broth; healthy carbohydrates include oat bran and brown rice, as well as carrots and potatoes. The Liver Formula leads off with beef liver, followed by beef broth, beef, carrots, oat bran, brown rice, and potatoes. There are no artificial colors or flavors in the recipes. Other canned formulas from Natural Balance include "limited ingredient diets" and a vegetarian formulation. Dry kibble products likewise come in assorted variations, such as grain-free and organic and one for fat dogs. Owners can also choose food rolls, stews, and treats. A parallel line of cat formulas is available.
Natural Balance Ultra is a healthy food source for dogs. It contains a balanced mix of animal protein and quality carbohydrates. Owners like the effect on their dogs' skin and digestion, and user ratings for the Ultra product lineup (including kibble) are strong.
Purina Dog Chow Complete & Balanced Review
Purina Dog Chow Complete & Balanced garners surprisingly decent reviews at Petco, with the bulk of the comments focused on the low price and appealing taste. Some owners are not convinced, however. In a Purina Dog Chow Complete & Balanced review at Amazon, one asserts that it caused skin irritations and the dog's fur to fall out in clumps. Reviews of Purina Dog Chow Complete & Balanced slide downhill when the experts speak up. Dog Food Advisor grants this product one star and slaps it with a "not recommended" label based on the profusion of lesser quality ingredients.
For example, whole grain corn leads off the list of ingredients in Purina Dog Chow Complete & Balanced (starting at 4 cents/ounce, Amazon). Many animal experts consider this carbohydrate a useless filler, one that some dogs find hard to digest, and one that may be linked to allergies. Next on the ingredients label come poultry by-product meal and corn gluten meal, the former derived from assorted, leftover animal parts of unspecified fowl and the latter a lower-order plant protein that may set off allergies. Other less desirable ingredients include wheat, artificial coloring, and animal digest, which is sprayed on the kibble to enhance the taste.
Purina Dog Chow Complete & Balanced is one of several dry and wet dog food varieties formulated by Purina; among others are Beneful, One SmartBlend, and Veterinary Diets. The Dog Chow line comes in various iterations as well -- Puppy Chow, for example, and Healthy Morsels.
Despite dog owners' seeming enthusiasm for the price and taste of this product, we aren't sold. The ingredients list is far from ideal, and several reports about skin problems arising in dogs feeding on a Purina Dog Chow Complete & Balanced diet suggest it may make sense to step it up a notch with a recipe containing more nutritious inputs.
Dogs and their owners take to Purina Dog Chow Natural despite ingredients that don't rank at the top of the nutritional-value list. Reviews indicate that some owners supplement the kibble with vegetables and/or meat cooked at home.
No artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives.
Adult and puppy formulas.
Good for dogs who need low-protein diet, say owners.
Very high carb content; whole-grain corn is top ingredient.
Low-quality protein content.
There are four varieties in the Acana Regionals line of dry dog food, and reviews say they all are palate-pleasing. Owners laud the high-quality ingredients and some report that skin problems disappeared after switching to this brand.
Contains locally-sourced, human-grade animal protein.
Rich in carbohydrates from fruits, legumes, and vegetables.
No fillers or additives except zinc and copper.
Bags are small for large dogs, who scarf it down quickly.
Available only through authorized dealers in-store and online.
Pet owners use Redbarn Naturals Dog Food Rolls as a training treat, a meal, a disguise for pills, or an addition to kibble. Versatility is one of its charms. The rolls are something of a cross between dry food and wet. The prominence of meat makes this product particularly appetizing, owners say.
First three ingredients are identified, primary-source animal protein.
No need for refrigeration.
Some grain-free options.
Free of fillers, soy, and corn.
Wheat in some recipes is controversial.
Some reviews say crumbly texture hard to serve.