Skip to main content

A simple guide to finding healthy pet food brands for your dog

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, responsible pet owners must ensure “access to appropriate food, water, and shelter.” Our pets give us their unconditional love and affection without asking for anything in return. It’s our privilege as pet parents to meet their needs and ensure their health and happiness. A healthy, nutrient-rich diet is as essential to their health as clean water, shelter, and medication.

So, what’s the big deal about healthy pet food brands? Are they really that much better for your pets than inexpensive food you can pick up at any corner store? As it turns out, the answer isn’t as clear-cut as you may be expecting.

If you ask the experts at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University, food labels can be misleading. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the packaging boasts if the nutrition labels tell another story. From unclear nutrition labels to celebrity endorsements, there’s a gray area around what makes for the best pet food brands. Let’s look closer.

Four Black and Tan puppies with dog bones.
bill emrich from Pexels

How to read a food label

While many pet food brands hype up their products with claims such as “holistic” or “natural” one of the most informative pieces of information to look for is the Nutritional Adequacy statement, also known as an AAFCO statement. Using nutritional information published by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), Nutritional Adequacy statements measure several factors:

  • Does this food provide vital nutrients?
  • If so, what organization made this determination?
  • For what stage of life is this food developed?

Most often, Nutritional Adequacy statements are found in small print on the back or side of the bag. You’ll want to find something along the lines of “This food is formulated to meet AAFCO nutrient profiles for dogs of all life stages.” However, some foods are labeled as being intended for supplemental feeding only, which means they don’t contain the complete nutrients your pet needs for a healthy diet.

A woman in a black and white polka dot dress giving water to a Dalmatian.
Daria Shevtsova from Pexels

How do healthy pet food brands measure up?

Several pet food brands are touted as the be-all and end-all of healthy pet food. Each of the following recipes lists its AAFCO nutrient profile, which is always a good sign. But are they actually any good?


The first three ingredients listed on the Arcana Red Meat Formula are deboned beef, deboned pork, and beef meal. Beef meal may sound like a useless byproduct, but as it contains almost 300% more protein than fresh beef, it’s a fantastic source of nutritional protein.

With added protein from six legumes, healthy fats from beef fat and pollock oil, which also contains essential omega-3 fatty acids, inulin (a source of dietary fiber that doubles as a prebiotic), and a chelated mineral that aids in nutritional absorption, Arcana’s recipes are quite healthy.

Castor and Pollux Organix Grain-Free Small Breed

With organic chicken, organic chicken meal, and organic sweet potatoes as the top three ingredients in Castor and Pollux Organix, you can rest assured that your dog’s food is free of pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones. Added vitamin supplements, inulin, and amino acids provide essential nutrition. Carbs like peas and tapioca starch improve energy levels. Also included? Coconut oil, a medium-chain fatty acid that can help give cognitive function a boost.


One of the most popular healthy pet foods around, Orijen Original Formula’s top ingredients are deboned chicken, deboned turkey, and flounder. You’ll also find fresh and dehydrated eggs, organ meat like chicken heart, liver, and kidney, turkey heart, and cartilage. Apples and pumpkin aid in digestion, as does Lactobacillus acidophilus. Mackerel gives a boost of omega-3 fatty acids. Legumes provide extra protein and essential carbohydrates.

A tan and white dog being fed a treat.
Maksim Goncharenok from Pexels

What makes pet food healthy?

Now that you know what to look for on the label, it’s time to delve into what makes some pet foods healthier than others. High-quality pet foods provide better nutrition, which improves your pet’s quality of life. They’ll be less likely to experience allergic reactions and digestive issues if their diet is packed with nutritious meats, vegetables, and minerals. Here’s what you should look for — and what to avoid.

  • The first ingredient in your pet’s food should be meat. High-protein foods are essential for pets. Meats like chicken, fish, beef, pork, and lamb are common.
  • Look for carbohydrates. While cats have no need for carbohydrates in their food, carbs are important to your dog’s health, so look for foods enhanced with legumes or potatoes.
  • Avoid artificial dyes and preservatives. The liver and kidneys serve as filters for the body, so foods that are jampacked with artificial dyes, preservatives, and chemicals take a lot of work by these organs to remove. Similarly, fillers and byproducts don’t add nutritional value and only help your pet feel full.
  • Limit grains. Grains aren’t the devil, but you’ll want to look out for wheat, corn, and soy fillers, which are used to bulk up your pet’s food without providing nutrition. They’re also common allergens, which can cause itching, skin irritation, and severe digestive issues.

Your pet’s health matters, and good food is intrinsically linked to good health. Speak to your vet about your pet’s dietary needs and look for foods that provide essential protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals. When in doubt, check the Pet Nutrition Alliance chart to ensure your pet’s food meets her needs.

Editors' Recommendations

Mary Johnson
Mary Johnson is a writer and photographer from New Orleans, Louisiana. Her work has been published in PawTracks and…
Why do you often find your dog with their tongue out? Here’s what vets say about the ‘blep’
This behavior may be cute, but what does it really mean?
A German shepherd puppy sticks out their tongue

There's nothing cuter than a "blep" but what does it mean? Whether you first heard the term blep on the internet (it is meme-worthy, after all), or are learning of it for the first time, you're in for a treat. Bleps are positively adorable. The term started gaining online traction in the late 2010s, though it's no less popular today. The common canine behavior it's based on, however, is a habit as old as time: sticking out a tongue. Yep, a dog with its tongue out is enough to break the internet!

It's pretty dang cute, after all, but it's not always easy to figure out why a dog's tongue is sticking out. Don't worry though, pet parents — this is a great place to start. This is everything you need to know about bleps and what they mean.

Read more
When do puppies stop biting? That might be up to their owner
Those sharp little teeth hurt! What to know about your biting puppy
Pup biting on a finger

If you’ve ever watched puppies play together, then you know that biting and nipping are all part of the fun. Chewing and biting help growing puppies investigate the world around them and also help relieve sore gums when teething. However, while mouthing on your hand might have been funny when your little one was a ball of fluff, it’s no joking matter as he gets older. Those razor-sharp puppy teeth can really hurt. If you’re tired of living with broken skin and painful bruises, you’re probably wondering just when do puppies stop biting?

Do puppies grow out of biting and nipping?
While chewing everything in sight may decrease after your puppy is done teething (which can take anywhere from four to six months) they don’t naturally grow out of biting. The more a puppy is allowed to clamp down on your skin, the more he’ll continue to do it. As a responsible pet parent, it’s your job to teach your dog appropriate behavior.

Read more
Best reptile pets: These are the 5 most affectionate reptiles you can welcome into your home
These friendly reptiles will make great additions to your family
Basking Chinese water dragon

When you picture an adorable pet, you probably don't visualize an iguana. Reptiles aren't generally considered the cutest of animals, but that doesn't mean you can't find a cuddly one. Whether you're looking for a new buddy for yourself or for your lizard-obsessed kid, there's a reptilian beast out there that will work great in your home.

With proper socialization, these guys can learn to be handled daily, some even by children. If you want a new pet that enjoys human company, consider one of the most affectionate slitherers — they're the best reptile pets for handling.

Read more