What Should I Feed My Dog?

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Here’s what to keep in mind when choosing a dog food.

If you feel confused — or even a little intimidated — while browsing the dog food aisle, you're not alone. We all want the best for our pets, but there are just so many brands, varieties, featured ingredients and menu combinations, not to mention formulas for puppies, adults and older dogs. And it doesn't matter if you're a first-time dog owner or you’ve recently adopted a new pup — all dogs differ in their nutritional requirements. 

Choosing a dog food doesn't have to feel overwhelming, though. You just need a primer on dog food nutrition: the essential ingredients your pup needs, how to read a dog food label, which food is best for puppies, adult dogs and seniors, and what diets are available if your dog has a sensitive stomach, allergies or another health concern. Make sure to talk with your vet, too — they’ll be able to recommend a food based on their knowledge of dog nutrition and your dog’s unique circumstances.

How to Choose Dog Food 

Every dog differs, not only in breed, but in size, age and nutritional needs. After your veterinarian offers specific nutritional advice about the type and amount of food to feed your pet, you’ll still need to decide on which brand, form, flavor and ingredients — not to mention what your dog will enjoy.

Nutritional Requirements for Dogs 

Dogs are primarily carnivores — aka meat eaters — but are technically omnivores, like humans. Most thrive on a diet rich in protein from meat and fish, but they also benefit from vegetables or grains as a source of carbohydrates. All dogs require vitamins and minerals, as well as specific essential fatty acids.

So, does the dog food you’re considering meet all the nutritional requirements for your dog’s health? Look for the words “complete and balanced” on the packaging. Dog foods that contain this verbiage meet the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) Dog Food Nutrient Profiles. This means the food is nutritionally balanced and contains “every nutrient listed in the profile at the recommended level.”1

Types of Dog Food

The first thing you may notice at the store or online is the division of kibble or dry food in bags and wet foods in cans or pouches. Either type, or a combination of both, is fine for most dogs — and it's perfectly all right to try both to see what your dog prefers.

You’ll also notice that some dog foods are labeled as “Puppy” or “Senior.” Pay attention to those distinctions, especially for puppies. Young dogs need a different balance of nutrients than adult dogs. Puppy diets are designed to help puppies develop strong immune systems, bones and teeth, and help them better absorb and metabolize proteins, carbohydrates and fats.2

When should you change from puppy food to adult dog food? Consult your vet to be sure, but typically puppies should switch to adult food when they are 1 year old.

Likewise, talk to your veterinarian about whether your senior dog should eat a specialized “mature” or “senior” diet. While the amount of protein in most senior dog foods is often similar to that of adult dog foods, senior dog foods typically contain nutrients that address health conditions common in older dogs, such as obesity, kidney disease, arthritis or dental disease.3

Dog Food Ingredients

In general, most dog foods will include protein in the form of meat or fish, and additional ingredients to support your dog’s health and satisfy their taste buds. You’ll encounter a seemingly endless variety of meats and fish: mackerel, chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, duck and pork. Not to mention the combos: beef and vegetables, chicken and rice, lamb and vegetable, and so on. Food regulators have set standards that all dog food providers must follow, so you can trust all major brands to be balanced options.4

Wondering about the best dog food for allergies, or the best dog food for a sensitive stomach? There are plenty of specialty diets to consider, including:  

  • Grain-free diets, which contain no corn, wheat, rice or other grains, and no soy products 
  • Limited-ingredient diets, which only contain one protein, carbohydrate or fat source 
  • Novel-protein diets, which often feature less-mainstream proteins like lamb, venison, duck or rabbit 
  • Prescription veterinary diets, designed to address medical conditions such as obesity, arthritis or allergies 
  • Homemade diets, which are cooked and served fresh at home

Check out our specialty pet food guide to understand the pros and cons for each of these diets.

How to Read Dog Food Labels and Packaging

Thanks to organizations that monitor dog food contents, you’ll find plenty of information on the dog food nutrition label and the packaging description.

On every dog food label, you’ll find information about its composition. This list of nutritional ingredients spells out the percentage of protein, fat, fiber, moisture and special nutrients such as calcium.5

Keep these additional tips in mind as you navigate the wealth of information found on dog food labels and packaging descriptions:  

  • Ingredients are listed in order by weight, starting with the ingredient used in the greatest amount.  
  • Toward the bottom of the list, you may see long names like pyridoxine hydrochloride or thiamine mononitrate. Don’t be alarmed; these two chemicals are vitamins B6 and B1, respectively. 
  • A “best before” date advises when the contents may begin to lose their freshness and nutritional value.  
  • When it comes to packaging, in order to label a product “beef for dogs” or “lamb dog food,” the food must contain 95% of the named ingredient.  
  • Names such as “turkey and rice” or “salmon platter” must contain at least 25% of the featured ingredient (in this case, turkey or salmon).  
  • Any ingredient coming after the word “with” needs to contain only 3% of that ingredient.  
  • Watch out for the word “flavor”! Products labeled with “beef flavor” or “chicken flavor” may not contain that particular animal protein; the flavor just has to be “detectable.”

Foods Dangerous to Dogs

While we’re discussing the best dog food for your pup, it’s important to know which foods could cause serious health issues. These foods include, but are not limited to:5  

  • Avocados 
  • Candy, especially chocolate or any candy or gum containing the sweetener Xylitol 
  • Grapes or raisins 
  • Fruit pits, such as cherry and peach pits 
  • Onions, including powder and flakes 
  • Walnuts and macadamia nuts

For a full list of foods and beverages toxic to dogs, see this list provided by the Humane Society of the United States.

Research Equals Peace of Mind

Feeling informed about dog food nutrients, ingredients and types? Put that knowledge to work and choose a food your dog will love — and rest assured that whatever you serve them, they’ll receive the proper balance of nutrients they need to thrive.


  1. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. “Complete and Balanced” Pet Food. Accessed July 31, 2023. https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/animal-health-literacy/complete-and-balanced-pet-food
  2. VetHelpDirect. Why should I feed my puppy a special diet? Accessed July 31, 2023. https://vethelpdirect.com/vetblog/2022/04/23/why-should-i-feed-my-puppy-a-special-diet/
  3. PetMD. Does My Dog Need Senior Dog Food? Accessed July 31, 2023. https://www.petmd.com/dog/nutrition/does-my-dog-need-senior-dog-food
  4. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. FDA’s Regulation of Pet Food. Accessed July 31, 2023. https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/animal-health-literacy/fdas-regulation-pet-food
  5. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Information on Marketing a Pet Food Product. Accessed July 31, 2023. https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/animal-health-literacy/information-marketing-pet-food-product.
  6. Humane Society of the United States. Plants and food that can be poisonous to pets. Accessed July 31, 2023. https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/plants-and-food-can-be-poisonous-pets

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