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The Very Best Diet for Dogs, According to Vets

You are what you eat isn't just a mantra for people. It goes for pooches, too. A high-quality diet, after all, is key to helping your dog live longer and healthier. Here are the facts you should know about choosing the best food for your dog with tips on storing and serving, too.

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Cute funny dogs eating dry food at home
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There isn’t a one-size-fits-all diet for all dogs

While some dogs do well on a plant-based diet, others don’t. Same goes for meat-based diets. “The more decades I spend in veterinary medicine with an emphasis on nutrition, the more I’m convinced that diets for dogs are highly individualized and you have to pay attention to how your dog is doing on the diet you’re feeding,” says Ernie Ward, DVM in San Francisco and founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. If it’s not working, switch, you’ll know if you see these telltale signs your pup isn’t feeling right.

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The Golden Retriever eating

Evaluate a diet for its nutrients, not its ingredients

Your personal food philosophy will most likely determine what you feed your dog. While some people might think a meat-based diet is best for their dog, others may believe a plant-based diet is. And that’s OK, as long as you follow this rule: “Make sure whatever diet you choose is nutritionally adequate,” Dr. Ward says, adding that there are very few commercial diets available in the United States that he takes issue with. The one exception? Raw diets, which he says may cause nutritional inadequacies in dogs. If you’re looking to adopt, check out the most loyal dog breeds you’ll want to bring home.

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young Jack Russell Terrier dog near bag with organic herbs and vegetables on grey background

A compelling new reason to consider a plant-based diet for your dog

Dogs (and cats) have a tremendous impact on the environment, so much that one study found that they’re responsible for 25 to 30 percent of the environmental impact of meat-eating in this country. Because animal agriculture is responsible for up to 14.5 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, it makes sense that switching dogs to a plant-based diet could help quell the effect.

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Cute overweight pug and bowl full of food on floor at home
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Processed foods aren’t healthy for dogs

Highly processed food is as bad for pups as it is for people. “Processed food, which are foods that have been cooked at high heat or undergone an extrusion process, will never offer the fresh nutrients that you get from eating fresh food,” says Judy Morgan, DVM, a holistic veterinarian in Clayton, New Jersey, and author of Yin & Yang Nutrition for Dogs. “As with people, when dogs eat highly processed foods, we see an increase in chronic inflammation which can show up as arthritis, chronic elevation of liver enzymes, immune thyroiditis, and inflammatory bowel disease, among others.” In addition to processed foods, these are the 11 other items you should never feed your pet and the ingredients in pet food you should be on the lookout for.

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Cute Labrador Retriever eating from bowl at home
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Looking for the AAFCO label is a shortcut of assurance

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) helps ensure minimum nutritional requirements for your pets, and Dr. Ward says its label could be a shortcut for assurance. But know this: AAFCO doesn’t regularly inspect or guarantee that the amounts of nutrients as stated on the bag are actually in that food. That’s one reason Dr. Ward recommends raising the bar even higher by checking that the nutrient levels meet or exceed European Pet Food Industry guidelines, which have different requirements for certain nutrients. By the way, here are the best natural dog foods for every age and size.

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Cute Beagle dog lying on floor near bowl, top view
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Wet food is more nutritious than dry food

Dry kibble is what most people serve their pooches, namely because it’s convenient and may be cheaper upfront. Yet canned wet food is more appropriate. “You get higher protein and moisture content so it’s more specific to what dogs need,” according to Dr. Morgan. If you want to see the cutest dog pictures, check out these stunning dogs with green eyes.

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English cocker spaniel puppy eating dog food from ceramic bowl
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Go low grain

Grain-free is a hot nutrition trend for dogs, but only a small percentage of dogs needs to eat grain-free because of allergy issues. Instead, Dr. Ward advocates feeding your pooch a low-grain diet. “Grains are carbohydrates which contribute calories and can lead to weight gain so I recommend a reduced carbohydrate diet, or in other words, a lower grain content,” he says. This small amount of carbohydrates will provide fiber, which will improve the health of your dog’s gut microbiome. “Bacteria produced by the gut are important for giving the immune system what it needs,” Morgan says.

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Dry food for dogs and cats based on raw meat and vegetables on dark stone backgroud top view copy space
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You can make dry food more nutritious

If dry kibble is a more convenient option for you than canned, no problem, Dr. Ward says. But do add in fresh vegetables and even fruit to your dog’s diet along with the food. Just don’t feed onions, citrus, avocado, grapes or these other foods that can be toxic to dogs.

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English Cocker Spaniel caring female and male mother with two small puppies, 24 days old dogs outdoor on garden rock. Mother love concept.

Check that whatever food you buy is appropriate for your dog’s life stage

Your dog’s nutritional needs change with age. That’s why you want to make sure you’re buying food for the right life stage, whether that’s puppyhood, adulthood, or the senior years, says Dana Brooks, president and CEO of the Pet Food Institute.

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Freezer full of ice cubes and frozen food

Frozen meals are a healthy option for dogs

No doubt you’ve heard about cooked frozen meals, many of which are delivered to your home (like The Farmer’s Dog, Olly, PetPlate, NomNomNow, and ChiDog). But are they worth the price? Yes, especially given how convenient they are, says Dr. Morgan. Freeze-dried or rehydrated meals offer similar benefits as frozen fresh meals. Although they require a small amount of work, usually mixing the food with water, they’re probably healthier than kibble, Dr. Morgan says. “These foods are closer to whole-food nutrition, which is always better for dogs.”

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Cute Chocolate Lab in Kitchen Smiling at camera ears propped forward
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You can cook for your dog—as long as you do your homework

Home-cooked meals can be an effective way to feed your dog. But there’s a huge caveat: “You have to make sure you’re providing balanced meals,” Dr. Morgan says. In one study from University of California–Davis, researchers evaluated 200 recipes for home-prepared dog foods and found that 95 percent lacked the necessary levels of at least one essential nutrient while over 83 percent had several nutrient deficiencies, many of which could result in serious health issues. If you want to go this route, researchers recommend consulting a board-certified veterinary nutritionist or at the least, your own vet. Don’t miss these wire-haired dogs that will make a great addition to your family.

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Buy small bags of dry kibble

If you are feeding dry kibble, buy a bag of kibble you can use within three weeks. “Kibble is sprayed with fats for nutrition and taste, but those fats will oxidize quickly and become rancid, which can cause pancreatitis and inflammation in your pet,” Dr. Morgan cautions. When you open the bag and expose it to air and light, it further oxidizes and heat can also create oxidation. To store it properly, keep the food in the bag in a sealed container and roll it down tightly after each use. As with all food, you should also check the expiration date.

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Cropped view of woman holding bowl with pet food near cute golden retriever dog
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Feed your dog one to two times a day

Dogs evolved to eat bigger meals less frequently. “Their stomach can expand to five times its volume, which is almost unique in the animal world,” Dr. Ward says. That’s why they have no problem eating only one to two times a day. Dogs, like people, can overeat. If that’s the case with your pup, follow these tips to help your dog lose weight.

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Go light on the treats

Pet obesity is an epidemic in this country, and because excess food can drive up weight, you need to dole out treats responsibly. “Treats should make up no more than 10 percent of your pet’s daily calories,” Brooks says. The healthiest treats for dogs? Fruits and veggies, excluding any that are toxic to dogs, Dr. Morgan says. Try berries, apples, carrots, broccoli and green beans, even frozen beans. Of course, food is only part of the equation when it comes to having a healthy pup. You’ll also want to figure out how much exercise your dog really needs.

Next, read up on what the best large breed dog food is and why.

Karen Asp
Karen Asp, M.A., C.P.T., is an award-winning journalist and author who specializes in fitness, health, nutrition, pets and travel. She writes for RD.com’s pets sections, and also contributes regularly to leading publications including O, Real Simple, Prevention, Eating Well, Forks Over Knives, Better Homes & Gardens, Martha Stewart Living, Happy Paws, VegNews, Woman’s Day, Women’s Health, and many others. She’s the author of two books, her latest being Anti-Aging Hacks, and is a certified personal trainer, athlete with several world records in Nordic walking, plant-based nutrition educator, and vegan mentor for PETA and Vegan Outreach.