Your Guide to Dog Nutrition: The Best Dog Foods for Optimal Health

Your Guide To Dog Nutrition: The Best Dog Foods For Optimal Health

Along with the pleasure of having a canine as a companion animal comes the responsibility of caring for it. As dog owners, we want to provide the healthiest, happiest, longest possible lives for their best friends, and this guide to dog nutrition will help get you and your furry friends started on that path.

Based on our reviews of the best dog foods for 2017 - 2018, (updated for 2020 - 2021), we have identified what we believe to be the best options available.

General Dog Health

Humans and dogs have a unique relationship. Dogs have been faithful human friends and companions for nearly all of human history.

Archaeology shows dogs buried with humans almost 15,000 years ago, when people were still hunter-gatherers, predating any other animal’s domestication. Genetic records indicate that humans and dogs evolved together, over centuries of cooperation and companionship, in response to their changing needs and environments.

While dogs were domesticated initially to assist with hunting and defense, the modern dog is often more valued for the human-adapted social skills it picked up along the centuries. Today's dogs are more often our friends, companions, and even family members.

Dog food and nutrition plays a critical role in lasting health, don't forget these other essential aspects of a dog's well-being:


Puppy drinking water out of white bowl

Water is crucial for lasting health. Generally speaking, your dog will drink approximately one ounce of water per pound of body weight daily. Still, this amount will fluctuate due to moisture in food, outside temperature, the dog's activity level, and other factors.

It aids food digestion and helps carry essential nutrients throughout a dog's body. Water also lubricates joints and contributes to ease of movement. And water is vital for body temperature regulation and removal of waste.

Therefore, always provide fresh, clean water, and keep it available to your dog at all times.


Beagle on leash out for daily exercise

As with humans, exercise is an essential component of complete health. Dogs need at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day and working, hunting, and herding breeds require as much as 2 hours a day.

Exercise tones muscles and helps a dog's metabolism properly function. A dog who doesn't get enough exercise is more likely to become obese and may engage in destructive behaviors due to boredom and restlessness.

Dental Care

Dog getting teeth brushed

Dog food choices play a role in dental health; dogs need regular dental care just like humans do. Dogs often suffer from gum disease and tooth problems, which cause pain and can lead to serious health problems.

Brush your dog's teeth daily, feed high-quality food, and provide teeth-friendly chew toys. Bendable rawhide, rubber balls, and Kong's are all excellent choices for chew toys.

Avoid letting your dog chew on anything too hard (including sheep or cow bones), and the fuzzy coating on a tennis ball can be abrasive and wear down dogs' teeth.

Regular Checkups

Dog getting annual checkup

Dogs tend to naturally hide pain and weakness; it’s essential not to wait for symptoms to appear before seeking medical help.

Regular visits to the vet ensure that your dog is vaccinated and has all the necessary preventive care, and periodic checks of blood work, weight, teeth, and body functions will help keep your dog healthy into old age.

When considering different dog foods, it's essential to understand the fundamentals of nutrition and food labeling.

Here are the critical nutritional components of foods:


Protein is a macronutrient and is a structural component used to build muscle, bones, and cartilage. Protein is also used to make and repair fur, enzymes, and hormones.

The Proteins are found in many foods but most commonly found in meat, eggs, and dairy products. Dogs digest these animal proteins most efficiently due to their carnivorous ancestors and lack the specific amino acids necessary to benefit from most vegetable and plant proteins.


Fat is another macronutrient and is essential for cell structure and metabolic functions.

The Fats provide energy, help maintain body temperature, protect organs, and are necessary for healthy skin and fur. Dogs require more omega-6 (linoleic acid) than omega-3 fats.


Carbohydrates are the final macronutrient and can also be a source of energy for dogs. While carbohydrates contain necessary fiber and micronutrients, dogs do not require carbohydrates for survival and do not efficiently digest many grains, starches, and plants.


Fiber is an essential carbohydrate that aids digestion. Dogs benefit most from moderately fermentable fibers, such as beet pulp and rice bran, to gain fiber’s health benefits while avoiding excess gas and mucous associated with less digestible fibers.


Vitamins are essential organic compounds with many biochemical functions necessary for health. The body cannot synthesize them, and therefore must be consumed in foods.

As with humans, if a dog has a healthy, well-balanced diet, their food should contain all the necessary vitamins. A dog shouldn't require a vitamin supplement unless recommended by a vet.


Minerals are organic chemical elements necessary to regulate metabolism and fluid balance and are structurally crucial in bones, teeth, and fur.

Like vitamins, minerals must be consumed in food, and mineral needs are usually satisfied with a balanced, healthy diet. Minerals often undergo a process called “chelation,” making them easier for the body to digest and process.

Dog Food Labeling

Dog food ingredients in dog bowls

Knowing these nutrition terms and their role in a dog's health makes it much easier to understand and interpret a dog food label.

Here are some things to keep in mind when reading a dog food label:


As with human food labeling, dog food ingredients are listed in order by weight. Keep in mind that pure meat’s weight is about 75% water weight; if the water were excluded, meat would fall lower on the ingredient list.

However, meat-based “meals,” such as chicken or bone meal, have had the water removed, which concentrates the animal proteins in that ingredient.

Guaranteed Analysis

Like human food labels, the guaranteed analysis gives the minimum percentage of protein and fat in the dog food and the maximum percentage of fiber and moisture.

AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy Statement

Look for foods that are certified to meet the AAFCO nutrition levels. Higher-quality foods often will have gone even further and invested in an AAFCO feeding trial. These feeding trials on real dogs are the best way for a dog food brand to prove that it provides complete nutrition for healthy pets.

Terms like “natural,” “organic,” or “holistic” are marketing terms with no legal definition in animal food products. There are no official standards for using these terms, so they don't automatically mean that the food is healthier for your pet.

Also, terms like “complete and balanced” or “high protein” are vague and undefined; the ingredients must be of the kind and quality that your dog's body can digest to use them.

Merely putting the words on the package isn't enough; you have to look closely at the ingredients.

When reading the ingredient list on your dog food, take note of the first three ingredients. The primary ingredients should be from meat sources, not vegetable sources so that your dog can properly digest the protein, so two of the top three ingredients should be from meat sources.

When vegetable ingredients are listed, look for whole vegetables and grains rather than processed gluten and grain meals.

Here are some common dog food ingredients to avoid:

  • Stay away from generic terms like “meat” meal or “animal” fats. The label should name the specific animal, which indicates a higher-quality, less-processed ingredient.
  • By-products. While many by-products are safe for dogs to eat, the term is so broad that it can potentially include less nutritious, digestible ingredients.
  • Avoid artificial sweeteners, flavors, and colors.

A Note About Preservatives

While preservatives are necessary to keep the food from spoiling, choose natural preservatives like tocopherols (vitamin E), ascorbic acid (vitamin C), or rosemary extract.

Avoid artificial preservatives like BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin, and propylene glycol. While the FDA says that these ingredients are safe and legal to feed to pets, many people attribute adverse reactions to artificial preservatives and choose to avoid them. But when selecting natural preservatives, your dog food is likely to have a shorter shelf-life; pay attention to the “best by” date on the package.

Dog foods with a high percentage of real animal proteins may cost more to buy; dogs need to consume less of it than food with many grains, fillers, and artificial preservatives.

Foods rich in proper nutrition not only prevent later health problems, but your dog will eat less, eliminate less, and have fewer digestive problems with gas and bloat. It’s not as expensive in the long run as it may seem to choose high-quality dog foods.

Your Dog’s Changing Needs

When considering what food to choose for your dog, here are a few more important things to keep in mind.

Your Dog’s Breed & Size

Big and small dog on white background

Dogs do not generally require breed-specific diets, and breed-specific foods usually are just a marketing tactic. Size is a much more relevant indicator of the correct food for your dog.

It’s vital to feed small-breed and large-breed puppies the appropriate food for their eventual size.

  • Small breed dogs have high metabolisms and benefit from frequent small meals of energy-rich foods.
  • Large breed dogs are prone to joint problems in adulthood, so many foods for large dogs will include supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin.

Dog food labels include suggested feeding amounts based on your dog’s size. Keep in mind that these are only suggestions.

Your Dog’s Activity Level

An active dog needs more food than a less-active dog. And in cold temperatures, a dog will burn calories to maintain homeostasis and may need more food than in warm temperatures or climates.

Your Dog’s Life Stage

As dogs mature and age, their nutritional requirements will vary. Eventually, it may be necessary to switch to a “senior” dog food formula to account for older dogs' reduced activity and increased risk of obesity.

The time to change from an adult to a senior formula is different for every individual dog and should be discussed with your veterinarian.


Puppies get 100% of their nutritional needs met through nursing for the first four weeks of life. Starting from about 3-4 weeks through 7-8 weeks, the puppies should learn to eat food independently during a natural process known as “weaning.”

It’s essential to feed small-breed and large-breed puppies the appropriate food for their eventual size.

  • Small-breed puppies need frequent, high-calorie meals to stay strong and healthy.
  • Large-breed puppies need slightly lower calories and carefully balanced calcium and phosphorus, so they grow up with healthy bones and joints.

Puppy food should have small kibbles to make it easier for the puppies to eat and have easily digestible ingredients as they transition to solid foods.

Pregnant & Nursing Mothers

Puppy nursing

Believe it or not, puppy food is the best thing to feed your dog while she is pregnant and nursing. Pregnancy places high demands on her body, and she needs more nutrients than merely increasing the quantity of adult dog food will provide.

Puppy food is higher in fat, calories, calcium, and has the vitamins and minerals she needs to stay healthy and feed her babies before and after birth.

Feeding mother and pups the same food also helps ease the weaning process since the babies will naturally begin to snack on kibbles leftover in their mother's dish.

The “best” food for your dog depends on your dog's size, activity level, and phase of life. There won't be a single dog food that you will use throughout your dog's life; you will be re-evaluating your food choices based on various factors. This is why understanding dog food labeling and nutrition are so important.

What to Feed Your Dog?

Silver bowl filled with dog food on white background

Dry dog food is also known as kibble, and it is the most common type of dog food. Dry dog food is easy to purchase and feed in large quantities, and high-quality dry dog food is a complete and balanced meal for your pet. However, dry food is more likely to contain unhealthy additives and preservatives.

Canned/wet dog food is easy for dogs to eat and digest. This food is often used to supplement diets where the dog needs more moisture or has digestion problems.

In most cases, you can simply follow the feeding instructions on the package, with some adjustments for your dog's activity level and lifestyle.

Avoid Overfeeding Your Dog

The most important thing you can do when feeding your dog is to be mindful of overfeeding. Obesity is very common in pets, and, as in humans, it can have detrimental health effects.

You should be able to see your dog's waist when viewed from above and the side and should be able to feel the dog's spine and ribs when you touch.

If you have to press or feel for your dog's ribs, your dog is overweight. If your dog is overweight, slightly reduce the quantity of food given, and increase their activity level to help get them to a healthy weight.

Avoid Table Scraps

Speaking of weight, treats and table scraps should be remembered when considering your dog's overall calorie consumption and nutritional needs.

Try to increase non-food-related attention and affection, expressing love and bonding in a healthy way. If you can't resist giving treats and scraps, remember to reduce the amount of food offered at regular mealtimes proportionately.

Your dog will enjoy healthy people foods in moderation, but never give your dog bones, raisins, onions, chocolate, avocado, nuts, or the pits of stone fruits.

Best Dog Foods Reviewed

With all that in mind, it's time to look at a few dog food brands. While there are hundreds of commercial dog foods available, here are our reviews and ratings for some top-rated dog food brands.

Best Large-Breed Puppy Food

As mentioned above, large-breed puppies need a specific diet to reduce the risk of joint and bone problems as they grow. The ratio of protein to carbohydrates and inclusion of calcium and minerals should be specially formulated for large breed puppies.

25 Pound Bag Of ORIJEN Large Breed Dry Puppy Food

Orijen Puppy Dry Dog Food for Large Breeds

A look at Orijen's Large Breed Puppy ingredient list reads like a grocery list for your growing dog. The top three ingredients are fresh chicken meat, fresh turkey meat, and fresh whole eggs, all high-quality, easily digestible proteins for a growing puppy. 

The addition of fruits and vegetables like cranberry, kale, pumpkin, and apples help add needed vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

The inclusion of organ meats and cartilage replicates the dietary benefits of wild, carnivorous hunters. There are no artificial preservatives, flavors, or fillers in the Orijen kibble, which means that dogs eat smaller quantities of food, which helps offset the purchase price.

The Good Stuff

  • It has all-natural ingredients.
  • Ingredients are responsibly sourced.
  • Quality checked and maintained throughout the manufacturing process.
  • Orijen's foods, production process, and staff have won numerous awards.
  • Rave customer reviews on
  • It has 5-star reviews from,, and
  • First place awards at
  • Best food award by popular vote at 2011-2017.

The Bad Stuff

  • It has a pretty high purchase price.


Orijen provides fantastic, natural nutrition for large breed puppies, helping them to grow strong and healthy. However, the quality of the ingredients is reflected in the price, which may deter some customers.

4.5 of 5 stars

26 Pound Bag Wellness CORE Natural Grain Free Dry Dog Food

Wellness CORE Natural Grain-Free Dry Dog Food

It's a little bit humorous that this product is labeled on Amazon as being “puppy flavored,” when it is, of course, not puppy flavored, but the puppy formula.

In fact, the Wellness CORE is made of mostly high-quality poultry meats and has a great list of grain-free, whole, and natural ingredients.

It has no artificial flavors or preservatives and is loaded with animal fats and proteins, necessary for puppy health. This food is not specifically formulated for large-breed puppies, but the label indicates that it is healthy for puppies of all sizes.

The Good Stuff

  • It’s grain and gluten-free.
  • Full of high-quality ingredients.
  • Complete and balanced nutrition.
  • Mostly animal proteins and fats.
  • It has a 5-star rating on
  • Also a very high customer ratings on,,, and

The Bad Stuff

  • Wellness brand has had product recalls in Feb. 2011, May 2012, October 2012, February 2017, - and March 2017.
  • Not explicitly formulated for large-breed puppies, although the label says it's “suitable” for them.


Wellness CORE Natural Grain-Free Dry Dog Food is a very high-quality, nutrient-rich, excellent dog food. While the product recalls are important to note and possibly raise questions about supply standards, there don't appear to be any related cases of canine injury or illness related to the recalled foods.

4.5 of 5 stars

22 Pound Bag Of Blue Buffalo Wilderness Rocky Mountain Recipe Dry Puppy Food

Blue Buffalo Wilderness Rocky Mountain Recipe Dry Puppy Food

Blue Buffalo Wilderness Rocky Mountain Recipe Dry Puppy Food has ingredients that are well-formulated to care for a large-breed puppy’s unique needs.

While it doesn't have the abundance of whole carbohydrates as in the Orijen and includes some refined starches, it doesn't use refined grains or artificial preservatives and is very high-quality food.

The only potentially problematic ingredient, included in small amounts, is caramel. 

According to the Dog Food Advisor, “Caramel is a natural coloring agent made by caramelizing carbohydrates. Pet food manufacturers use it to impart a golden brown tint to the finished product.

However, the concentrated version of this ingredient, commonly known as caramel coloring, has been considered controversial and found to cause cancer in laboratory animals.

In any case, even though caramel is considered safe by the FDA, we’re always disappointed to find any added coloring in pet food.

That’s because coloring is used to make the product more appealing to humans — not your dog. After all, do you think your dog cares what color his food is?” 

The Good Stuff

  • It’s grain-free for grain sensitive puppies.
  • It has high-quality whole proteins and an abundance of natural ingredients.
  • Blue Buffalo gives back by strongly advocating and supporting animal shelters and adoption programs.
  • It boasts very high customer ratings on,, and
  • 4.5-star review on

The Bad Stuff

  • The inclusion of caramel isn't ideal, although not harmful.


Blue Buffalo Wilderness Rocky Mountain Recipe Dry Puppy Food is a very high-quality, highly-rated puppy food at a substantially lower price than the Orijen. It's an excellent compromise between quality and purchase price.

4.5 of 5 stars

24 Pound Bag Blue Buffalo Wilderness High Protein Dry Puppy Food

Blue Buffalo Wilderness High Protein Dry Puppy Food

Blue Buffalo Wilderness High Protein Dry Puppy Food has ingredients that are well-formulated to care for a large-breed puppy’s particular needs.

While it doesn't have the abundance of whole carbohydrates as in the Orijen and includes some refined starches, it doesn't use refined grains or artificial preservatives and is very high-quality food. 

The only potentially problematic ingredient, included in small amounts, is caramel, as mentioned above in the Rocky Mountain recipe.

The Good Stuff

  • Grain-free for grain sensitive puppies.
  • It has high-quality whole proteins and an abundance of natural ingredients.
  • Blue Buffalo gives back by strongly advocating and supporting animal shelters and adoption programs.
  • It has very high customer ratings on,, and
  • 4.5-star review on

The Bad Stuff

  • The inclusion of caramel isn't ideal, although not harmful.


Blue Buffalo Wilderness High Protein Dry Puppy Food is a very high-quality, highly rated puppy food, much like the Rocky Mountain Recipe. It's an excellent compromise between nutritional quality and purchase price.

4.5 of 5 stars

34.6 Pound Bag Of IAMS PROACTIVE HEALTH Puppy Dry Dog Food

IAMS Proactive Health Puppy Dry Dog Food

As with our other less-expensive puppy foods, a look at the ingredients for IAMS Proactive Health Puppy Dry Dog Food shows a predominance of grains and vegetable proteins.

It also includes chicken by-product meal fairly high on the ingredient list, and the problematic caramel color. However, we don't see vague “animal” attributed ingredients, and there are also many whole vegetables.

According to the above label, there are no artificial preservatives, but says that IAMS uses ethoxyquin as a preservative in their fish meals present in this dog food.

The Good Stuff

  • Full of named animal proteins.
  • Prebiotics and DHA are healthy for puppies.
  • It has high customer ratings on and
  • 4-star rating from

The Bad Stuff

  • It’s loaded with grains and vegetable proteins.
  • Only 3 stars from


IAMS Proactive Health Puppy Dry Dog Food is the least expensive food on this list and not the worst for nutrition. While more animal proteins and chelated minerals are preferred, there is nothing in this food that would hinder your puppy’s health or happiness. If you are concerned about sound nutrition at a low price, IAMS is a good bet.

4.5 of 5 stars

Hill's Science Diet Puppy Large Breed Dry Dog Food

Hill's Science Diet Large Breed Dry Dog Food

Hill's Science Diet is a famous dog food brand, and rightly so. Unfortunately, two of the top three and five out of the top six ingredients in this puppy food are grains.

The prominence of wheat, sorghum, and corn gluten meal indicates a large percentage of plant-based ingredients which, while not harmful, do not provide digestible nutrition for a dog.

Some dogs also develop sensitivity to wheat and corn, both of which are present in large amounts in this food. Finally, while many essential minerals are included in this recipe, they are not chelated, which may make them more difficult for a puppy to absorb.

The Good Stuff

  • Some quality animal protein.
  • Good calcium ratio for healthy large-breed bone development.
  • It’s reasonably priced.
  • High customer reviews on and

The Bad Stuff

  • It has a large percentage of grains.
  • Unlike most puppy foods, this food is not suitable for pregnant or nursing dogs.


Hill's Science Diet Large Breed Dry Dog Food is a fine choice for your puppy, likely to provide adequate nutrition at a reasonable cost. While it's preferable to have more animal fats and proteins in dog food, and chelated minerals are more readily bioavailable, these choices help reduce the consumer’s cost.

4.5 of 5 stars

34 Pound Bag Of Purina Pro Plan Focus Puppy Large Breed Dry Dog Food

Purina Pro Plan Focus Puppy Large Breed Dry Dog Food

A look at the ingredients for Purina Pro Plan Focus Puppy Large Breed Dry Dog Food raises a few concerns about this food’s nutritional benefits.

While chicken is the primary ingredient, the next three ingredients are grain, including processed corn gluten meal. 

We also see poultry by-product meal and several ingredients with the too-vague “animal” attribution. “Animal fats” should always be specified with the animal’s name to show that it's not a processing byproduct. 

Grains and gluten have no nutritional benefits to a dog, so we prefer not to see them so high on the ingredient list. This product also includes garlic, which has been scientifically linked to Heinz-body anemia in dogs.

The Good Stuff

  • This product has high customer reviews on,, and

The Bad Stuff

  • This product has a 2.5 “not recommended” rating from


The inclusion of problematic ingredients and the lack of high-quality proteins make this dog food not the right choice for growing puppies. While it costs much less than the Blue Buffalo brand, it's not such a significant cost saving as to give potentially unhealthy ingredients to your dog. And remember that dog food full of grain is difficult for a dog to digest, so they need more significant volumes of lower-quality food to offset the purchase price.

4 of 5 stars

Best Large-Breed Adult Dog Food

30 Pound Bag Of Wellness Complete Health Natural Dry Large Breed Dog Food

Wellness Complete Health Natural Dry Large Breed Dog Food, Chicken & Rice

The ingredients for Wellness Complete Health Natural Dry Large Breed Dog Food are what you would want to see. Lots of natural, whole meats and healthy, real ingredients, with no artificial flavors or preservatives.

An abundance of vitamins and minerals support the health of adult dogs. This food includes glucosamine and chondroitin, both of which are beneficial to large dogs’ joint health.

The Good Stuff

  • Loaded with high-quality animal proteins.
  • It’s full of whole vegetables and essential fats.
  • It has high customer reviews on,,,, and
  • 4-star rating from

The Bad Stuff

  • Wellness brand has had product recalls in Feb 2011, May 2012, October 2012, February 2017, and March 2017.


Wellness Complete Health appears to be an excellent, high-quality dog food to ensure an adult large-breed dog’s health. The only concern is the large number of recalls associated with the Wellness brand, which have not resulted in any known animal illness or injuries.

4.6 of 5 stars

Final Thoughts

Now you know what to consider and look for when evaluating your choices in the enormous dog food marketplace, and it's not as complicated as it may have seemed. High-quality dog food, healthy exercise, and freshwater will help give your furry friend a long, healthy life, and avoiding overfeeding is one of the kindest things you can do for your dog.

Keep in mind the words of advice from the expert breeder: “When they get too thin, I feed them more. When they get too fat, I feed them less.”

We hope you enjoyed reading our guide to dog nutrition, and we look forward to hearing all your experiences - stories in the comments below. 

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 0 comments