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The best dog food: what to look for (and avoid) with advice from a pet nutritionist

We spoke to a leading animal nutritionist to help you shop smarter when buying dog food online.

the best dog food

We pay close attention to the food that makes it into our shopping baskets and onto our plates, and while we know that these decisions shouldn’t stop at the pet aisle, scanning nutrition labels to figure out which dog foods are healthy and those that aren’t can be daunting.

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Whether you’re the proud owner of a Great Dane in need of some food specifically designed for bigger dogs or the parent of a Pomeranian with a more modest appetite, with the right advice, choosing a dog food that is best suited to your dog needn’t be difficult.

To help you make the right choice when shopping for your dog, The Recommended spoke to a leading veterinary nutritionist to find out what you should look out for and avoid. You can read all of her advice at the bottom of this page. In line with this advice, we list our top picks for the best dog food to buy online.

The best dog food at a glance

The best dog food

Best dry food for small dogs: Royal Canin Adult Small Dog Dry Food

Complete and balanced formula

best dry food for small dogs

Royal Canin’s Adult Small Dog Dry Food is nutritionally complete and specifically designed to support the weight and health of small dogs.

Royal Canin states on its website that all of its dog food products are checked before entering production centres worldwide, their ingredients are chosen based on their nutritional content, and 100% of the raw materials they use are fully traceable and tested.

Dog owner Marcin says Royal Canin’s Adult Small Dog Dry Food “was recommended by a vet and agrees with our dog”, while fellow dog owner AR says the kibble  “seems to be working well” and is “nice and crispy and light rather than hard lumps”.

Best wet dog food: Lily’s Kitchen Grain Free Multipack

Three flavours

best wet dog food

Lily’s Kitchen dog food is nutritionally complete, grain-free, and consists of natural ingredients, with no added sugars or fillers. It comes in a pack of six 150g pouches, which is ideal for small dogs.

Lily’s Kitchen’s food is developed by animal nutritionists, product developers and vets, and each is tested to check it meets nutrient requirements before it’s sold. It is also tested by independent and accredited labs for food safety and nutritional value. This pack comes with a choice of three flavours: Wild Campfire Stew, Fishy Fish Pie, and Sunday Lunch.

Dog owner Ken highly rates Lily’s Kitchen dog food, claiming “my dog’s health and well-being has improved since changing to this food”, and his dog Fanny “always licks her lips afterwards”. Fellow dog owner Ann-Marie likes that “you can actually see the veg in them compared to other dog foods which are just a brown blob”.

Best hypoallergenic dog food: Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets HA Hypoallergenic Dry Dog Food

Ideal for dogs with food allergies

best hypoallergenic dog food

Purina’s Pro Plan Hypoallergenic Dry Dog Food is formulated to help diagnose and manage allergies and food intolerances in dogs. It is advised that you should only use this after speaking to your vet.

According to Purina, this hypoallergenic dog food supports dogs with intolerances by ensuring improved nutrient absorption via high protein, carbohydrate and fat digestibility.

Dog owner Nicola says, “this is the only dog food my dog is not poorly with. I can finally pick up what he leaves behind, and his stomach is no longer swollen”, while fellow dog owner Donna describes it as “great food for sorting out stomach problems quickly”.

Best natural dog food: Butternut Box Dog Food

Taste-tested by humans

butternut box Dog Food

Butternut Box has a similar process to Tails, where you fill out an online questionnaire to find out your dog’s individual dietary requirements based on its age, weight and other factors.

Butternut Box says their dog food is nutritionally complete and is tested to meet the European Pet Food Industry’s (FEDIAF) obligations. The company also says it uses strictly freshly prepared ingredients and ‘human-quality’ meats without ‘nasty preservatives’. All of their dog food is frozen after cooking to preserve freshness.

Best dog food for small senior dogs: Royal Canin Senior Consult Mature Small Dry Dog Food

Designed to help with ageing

best food for small senior dogs

This senior dog food from Royal Canin is targeted toward small breeds and elderly dogs, with a formula that includes nutrients that help support vitality.

According to Royal Canin, this dog food has a specially designed formula that includes nutrients that help support vitality in elderly dogs and preserve muscle mass with age. It also includes a calcium binder that is said to help delay the build up of tartar in the gums.

Dog owner Lorraine says her Yorkie pixie loves this food and has “a lovely shiny coat since she’s been on it”, while fellow dog owner Dave says he “tried a few [dry dog foods], but this is the best by far. My dog loves it and has been more content on it.”

Best dog food for large senior dogs: Royal Canin Senior Consult Mature Large Dry Dog Food

Designed to aid vitality in older dogs

best food for large senior dogs

Royal Canin’s Senior Consult Mature Large Dry Dog Food is specifically formulated to support large senior dogs over 25kg in weight.

Royal Canin says this dog food aims to support ageing cells, preserve kidney functions and support the brain health of ageing dogs.

Dog owner Val says that she is “so happy” with this dog food as “not only do I get the satisfaction of feeding healthy, well-balanced food, my girl, who is quite fussy and has turned her nose up at other premium branded kibble, loves it both as a meal and in her treat ball”.

Best dry food for large dogs: Nature’s Range Adult Dog Chicken & Rice Diet

Designed to aid the immune system

Natures Range Dog Food

This dry dog food from Nature’s Range claims to maintain your dog’s healthy mobility and movement and maintain its weight.

Chicken and rice flavoured Nature’s Range says this dry dog food is packed with essential vitamins and minerals – everything your dog needs to maintain a strong immune system. It is also said to consist of lean protein, which supports a healthy body condition, and is suitable for dogs with sensitive digestion. Nature’s Range dog food is manufactured in the UK, vet-approved, and comes in recyclable packaging.

Best dog food for puppies: Nature’s Range Puppy Starter Diet

Designed to promote healthy growth

natures range puppy Dog Food

Nature’s Range’s Puppy Starter Diet dog food is specifically designed to provide puppies with the essential nutrients they need for healthy growth.

This dog food consists of high-quality protein, fat and minerals and promises to maintain puppies’ steady growth rate and healthy skeletal development. Nature’s Range says its products are 100% natural, nutritionally balanced and approved by vets. The ingredients they use are all said to be fully traceable, and their recipes are formulated to FEDIAF nutritional guidelines.

Best tailor-made dog food: Tails Dog Food

Customised to your dog’s needs

Best tailor made dog food

Our top pick for the fortunate pups that get treated to tailor-made food, Tails asks you to fill out an online quiz to create an individual recipe based on your dog’s height, weight and dietary needs.

Tails’ dog food claims to be developed by veterinary nutritionists, is nutritionally complete, and adheres to safety regulations set by DEFRA and the PFMA in the UK.

Best grain-free and complete dog food: Forthglade Complete Natural Wet Dog Food

Comes with a variety of flavours

Forthglade Complete Natural Wet Dog Food

Free from artificial flavours, colours and preservatives, this complete and balanced dog food from Forthglade is made using natural ingredients and is available to buy in a range of flavours.

Forthglade’s dog food is tested by independent pet food authorities and nutritionists. The brand receives SALSA food safety accreditations for its manufacturing and is regularly audited by the Animal Plant and Health Agency. This particular wet dog food is made in Devon using natural ingredients and meat that’s fit for human consumption, with added vitamins, minerals and botanicals.

Best air-fried dog food: Pure Dog Food

Add water before serving

Best air-fried dog food

Pure dog food is gently air-dried, which is said to lock in nutrients. Their food consists of traceable ingredients from GMP-certified suppliers and is third-party tested for nutritional value.

Pure says it has been successfully audited to SALSA standards by food safety experts, and its manufacturing facility works to approved HACCAP quality control guidelines. Their recipes are created by animal nutritionists and are specifically tailored to your dog’s individual needs following an online consultation.

Our pet food expert

Dog food expert (1)

Our expert Nicola Lakeman MSc BSc(Hons) RVN CertSAN CertVNECC VTS (Nutrition) works as the nutrition manager for My Family Vets, a nationwide network of local veterinary practices providing expert care online and in-practice.

Nicola graduated from Hartpury College with an honours degree in Equine Science and subsequently qualified as a veterinary nurse in 2002. Nicola has written for many veterinary publications and textbooks. She is the editor of Aspinall’s Complete Textbook of Veterinary Nursing, as well as one of the consultant editors for The Veterinary Nurse.

Nicola has won the BVNA / Blue Cross award for animal welfare, the SQP Veterinary Nurse of the Year and the SQP Nutritional Advisor of the Year awards. She also recently gained her Master’s degree in Advanced Veterinary Nursing from Glasgow University.

What ingredients should you look for and avoid when shopping for dog food?

According to Nicola, knowing what to look for and avoid when buying dog food depends on your dog’s individual dietary needs. To find that out, she recommends first speaking to a veterinary practice to provide your dog with a nutritional assessment. With this, you’ll be better placed to make sense of the “not overly helpful” naming of ingredients on UK dog foods.

Nicola also recommends being aware of negative perceptions of certain ingredients listed in dog food. “For example, ‘by-products’ are any part of the body that isn’t muscle. Liver would therefore be classed as a by-product, despite the fact that it is a superb source of vitamins and minerals,” she explains.

Is fresh dog food necessarily better than processed?

“Not necessarily,” says Nicola. “We all know that frozen vegetables actually have higher vitamin content than some ‘fresh’ foods, especially when they have been transported and stored in refrigeration units for long periods of time.”

In reality, “how the food is processed and stored is very important in maintaining nutrient levels. Good food companies will test all of their diets to ensure that the nutrients are at the levels stated on packaging until the expiry date.”

What are the differences between wet and dry dog food?

“The only difference is the water content,” says Nicola. “Wet foods can have between 70-80% water, whereas dry food typically has 6-10%. The water content only has to be on the ingredients list when it is over 14%, which can make comparing different diets difficult as you need to remove the water content and compare like-with-like. We compare the diets on a dry-matter-base.”

How much raw dog food should you feed a dog?

Based on current scientific research, Nicola does not recommend raw feeding due to bacterial safety issues. “Research published only last month showed that raw-fed dogs had high levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their stools. This does cause a potential health issue for the public.”

If dog owners are insistent on feeding their dogs raw foods, “a DEFRA monitored raw diet should be sought”, says Nicola. “These diets are routinely tested by DEFRA for bacterial levels. Owners also need to be educated in food preparation, handling and hygiene techniques.”

What dog food brands would you recommend?

“I only recommend pet foods that I know are developed by veterinary nutritionists, who test every batch of their food for nutrient levels, have short term and long term studies of their diets, and the food is complete and balanced,” says Nicola. “Many food companies develop their foods by formulation using spreadsheets and don’t research their foods through feeding trials.”

Nicola also wants to know how the food is manufactured, what quality control measures are in place during the manufacturing, and where the ingredients are sourced from. “Can the manufacturer provide information on any requested nutrient or the calorific values for their pet food? It is impossible to know everything about all pet foods that are available, but the pet foods that I would recommend meet these requirements.”

Due to the Veterinary Code of Conduct, veterinary professionals are unable to endorse specific products, but we believe the above products would fit Nicola’s guidance and criteria above when looking for the best pet food products.

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Want to read more expert-recommended pet product round-ups? Check out our Pets page for a full list of recommendations, including our list of the best dog treatsbest dog beds and best dog crates as recommended by dog experts.