Raw. Frozen. Canned. Freeze-dried. And good, old-fashioned kibble.

When it comes to choosing the menu for your dog, there are several options available from a seemingly endless list of brands – and if you don’t like what they offer, you can even make your own. Off the shelf or home-cooked, each option offers pros and cons that can be beneficial or potentially detrimental to your pup—and maybe your lifestyle. So, while your dog may not always be picky about what they eat, you should know as much as you can about what you’re dishing out for your pet.

Before the early-to-mid 20th century and the introduction of nutritional regulation for the commercial pet food industry, preparing the dog's meals at home was standard practice. And home prep is still an option—if you have the time for it. For most pet owners, it’s hard enough to find time to roll out home-cooked fare for themselves let alone their four-legged friends.

That’s why most dog owners head to their local pet retailer to enjoy the convenience of commercial and see what’s on the shelf. Once there, though, how can owners determine which products are best for their dog? Let’s take a look.

Dog Eating Out Of Dog Bowl

How Commercial Food is Regulated

If you’re considering commercial foods for your dog, start with this question: is it safe and nutritious? Thankfully, with the benefit of two regulatory agencies that monitor nutritional and safety guidelines, those answers can be found by looking at the label.

The first agency, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), determines which nutrients all animal food should contain. Keeping an eye peeled for AAFCO compliance and an accompanying nutritional adequacy statement is a great place to start. This statement will often communicate standards specific to dogs at various stages of life with language like “provides complete and balanced nutrition for maintenance of adult dogs” or “puppies.” Using tried-and-true methods, AAFCO applies high standards to ensure nutritional value is present and appropriate for all types of dogs.

The second regulatory agency, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), measures the quality of the food’s ingredients—but to what degree? While the FDA examines whether the ingredients are safe and serve an appropriate function, the ingredients do not require “pre-market approval” and the review is capped at a certain limit. That’s where the pet parent takes over to ensure they’re purchasing a quality product from a reputable source.

Why Reading the Label is Key

Now that you’ve narrowed your list, it’s time to dive into the details.

When looking at labels remember that named animal protein should be primary. Look for whole proteins like chicken, beef, or fish listed among the top ingredients. Down the ingredient list look for whole grains, vegetables, critical nutrients, and natural preservatives. And pay attention to other meaningful marks of quality, like certified organic products and products made in the U.S. As in food labels for people, the ingredients are listed in order of their quantity in the mixture.

Another thing to look for on labels is the questionable practice of listing supposed quality items too far down the ingredient list. For example: a company could put items like kale, blueberries, and other yummy sounding health foods on the label. These items, if too far down (10th or lower) are in such minuscule quantity that they have no material health benefit to the food.

Also, you should avoid products with generic animal protein or fat sources, like “meat” or “byproducts”. Be on the lookout for split ingredients (where two or more similar foods appear (e.g., rice, brewers rice, rice bran) added sweeteners, and artificial flavors.

Products originating in poorly regulated countries are not ideal. Shopping local with products made and sourced in the United States is a best practice tip for dog nutrition. You can visit your local pet store or consult with your vet to find the best locally sourced dog food for your pet.

Two Puppies Eating Out Of Dog Bowl

Long-Term Benefits of a Healthy Diet

After examining labels, manufacturers, and production practices it should be clear: monitoring the quality of your dog’s food can be critical to their long-term health. Just as the right ingredients can produce a healthier dog, the wrong ones can potentially lead to recurring issues, vet visits, and more. Still, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach – your dog is unique, and they should have a personalized nutrition plan that fits their individual needs.

Yes, there are a lot of choices, and making the right one requires a fair amount of homework. But taking the time to choose the right food can help you provide a long, happy, and healthy life for your precious pup.