Pet-nutrition experts say that the best dog food is made from top-grade ingredients like meat, whole grains and vegetables. What you don't want is a lot of filler as the primary ingredient; these are items that have less nutritional benefit.
According to reviews, better-quality dog food results in a healthier coat, fewer digestive problems and firmer stools. Because your dog will absorb more nutrients from better-quality dog food, less will be passed as waste.
Dogs love meat, and they need protein. Unlike cats, which need high amounts of protein and no carbohydrates at all, most dogs can easily tolerate a diet that contains 50 percent carbohydrates (or even more). Still, Whole Dog Journal points out that dogs don't actually need carbs at all. Experts say meat should be the first ingredient in your dog's food, followed by healthy carbohydrate sources such as potatoes or more absorbable grains like rice.
If you've read any dog food labels, you might have noticed the term "by-product." Meat by-products consist mainly of animal parts that are not used for human consumption, such as bones, organs, blood, fatty tissue and intestines. If a label says "chicken by-product," all the parts must come from chicken; the same goes for lamb, beef, etc.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to by-products in dog food. Some say that because a dog in the wild would eat the entire animal when killing prey, including skin, organs and bones, some amount of by-product in dog food is just fine. The other school of thought is that by-products should be avoided entirely, and that a dog's diet should contain meat, vegetables and absorbable grains. These critics say that it's simply too hard to know what exactly is included in by-products.
Even reviews that say by-products are fine say that dog owners should look for specific origin, such as chicken by-product or lamb by-product. Note that in poultry-based dog foods, the term "by-product" is used to identify by-product meals. However, in other types of dog food, by-product meal can be labeled as "meat and bone meal" (MBM) or even "beef and bone meal." This type of labeling is legal, but clearly misleading.
In dry foods the listing of meat at the top of an ingredient list can be misleading, because meat has a high water content that is removed when processed into dry pet food. However, specific meat meals, such as chicken meal or beef meal, are the named meat with the water removed, and finding them high up in the ingredient list is a good indication of a high-protein dry food.
The quality of the carbohydrate sources also matters. High-quality grains, such as rice, provide good nutritional value, but other grains deliver less of what dogs need in their diet. Corn, in particular, is the target of some scorn among pet-food advocates. Mike Sagman at DogFoodAdvisor.com looks at the pros and cons -- mostly cons -- of corn in dog food. Glutens are another group of ingredients that experts say don't provide much nutritional value to dogs and are a particular concern since 2007's massive recall of pet foods tainted by contaminated wheat and rice gluten from China.
Dog food companies are making moves to get away from using artificial preservatives in dog food. Chemicals used as preservatives, like BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin, have been under scrutiny, and many companies are switching to natural preservatives like vitamin C (ascorbate) and vitamin E (tocopherols). Naturox, which is made from natural ingredients, is also gaining in popularity. Reviews say natural preservatives are much safer. Ethoxyquin has been of particular concern to some because it is also used to preserve certain ingredients -- mainly fish meals -- before they reach the pet-food maker and hence is not included on ingredient lists.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best Dog Food: Which are the best dry and canned dog foods? Editors read expert opinions and user reports to identify the top choices.
Best Dry Dog Food: Which are the best dry dog foods? We look at expert advice to identify the most nutritious choices, and some great budget alternatives.
Canned Dog Food: Which is the best canned dog food? We name top choices based on dog food reviews by experts and dog owners.
Raw Dog Food: Is a raw dog food better for your four-footed friend? We look at what experts say and name top choices.
Buying Guide: What are the most important considerations when selecting a dry, canned or raw dog food? We discuss what you need to know in this dog food buyer's guide.
Our Sources: Links to the expert and user reviews we used to select the top dog food, along with our assessment of each reviewer's expertise, credibility and helpfulness.