What is the best dog food? [2020]

LAST UPDATED 21 JULY 2020

This article is written by Pet Circle veterinarian, Dr Carla Paszkowski, BVSC (Hons)

With so many different types of pet food available these days, and with so much conflicting information out there, it can be difficult to know what is truly best for your pet.

The food you provide for your pet plays a crucial role in their health and wellbeing, both in the short term and the long term. And the truth is, not all pet foods are created equal.

Our 'best' dog food picks...

One pet parent's definition of 'best' can be different to another's: it depends what you value most. Some place value in Asutralian made food, while others may prefer foods which are grain free or made using natural ingredients. To make the decision easier for you, we've collated our top picks for 4 key categories below: 'High Meat Content', 'Tailored & Scientific', 'Natural Ingredients' and 'Australian Made'.

1. High Meat Content 2. Tailored/Scientific 3. Natural Ingredients 4. Australian Made

For puppies...

Open Farm

Royal Canin

Holistic Select

Ivory Coat

For all breeds...

K9 Natural

Hill's Science Diet

Open Farm

Vetalogica

For large breeds...

Instinctive Bite

Advance

Black Hawk

Meals for Mutts

For small breeds...

Ziwi

Pro Plan

Billy + Margot

Savourlife

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So what dog food is best?

When assessing what is the best dog food on the Australian market, there are a number of criteria we need to look at.

1. Animal protein content: more meat, fewer 'fillers'

2. Optimal nutrients, and thorough testing

3. Specific ingredient names

4. Free from artificial nasties

5. Place of manufacture: is it locally made?

6. Our 6 best pet food brand recommendations

1. Animal Protein Content

While it's not a sweeping rule, generally pet food that is higher in animal protein (as opposed to cheaper plant-based protein) is considered more digestible for our furry friends, and better quality over all.

How can you tell if your pet food is high in meat? In the pet food industry, all ingredients are required to be listed on the label in order of weight. This means that the ingredients listed first make up the largest proportion of the recipe.

Why Meat is Important: Are dogs carnivores?

Strangely enough, the question as to whether dogs are carnivores or omnivores is actually unclear and frequently debated. Many people assume that dogs are carnivores because they evolved from wild, wolf-like ancestors.

The truth is, modern dogs are actually omnivores. Fifteen thousand years spent living alongside humans has resulted in the development of a highly adaptive canine metabolism, and the evolution of three new genes related to starch and glucose digestion. Domestic even dogs produce carbohydrate-digesting enzymes in their digestive tract which other carnivores, such as cats, do not.

Plant-based ingredients are in fact an important part of a dog's diet as they contribute fibre, as well as important vitamins and minerals that dogs need for longevity.

However, while dogs can digest grains and plant-based proteins, they are still best suited to a diet high in meat and animal protein.

This means, when looking at ingredients, it's generally best to look for foods that list meat or animal proteins as the first ingredient, if not the first few ingredients.

An easy rule to use is that if the food contains two out of the first three ingredients as whole-meat sources, it's a winner. However, note that some cheap pet food brands tend to 'split' their carbohydrate ingredients to make them seem like a smaller portion. An example of this is by listing 'wheat' as a second ingredient, and then 'wheat bran' lower down the list. This avoids having to list 'wheat' as the first ingredient and therefore makes another ingredient, such as meat, seem more prominent.

Winners: Top Picks for High Meat Content Diets

2. Balanced nutrients, thorough testing and quality assurance

'Nutrients' are not the same as 'ingredients'. An ingredient is something like 'chicken' or 'wheat', whereas a nutrient is a measurable element such as 'protein' or 'Vitamin C'. Every individual ingredient contains all nutrients in varying amounts. It might help to think of nutrients as the 'building blocks' of ingredients. Nutrients include carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins, fibre, and water.

Why is this important to know? Well, it's all well and good to have a beautiful selection of nice-sounding ingredients, but if the nutrients are all out of whack, your dog won't get everything they need.

International guidelines are set out for pet food manufacturers which detail minimum levels of nutrients required for each life stage. The most widely used guidelines are those set out by AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials). However, it's important to note that these are guidelines only, and usually only detail 'minimum' requirements. If a food contains too much of a nutrient, it may still qualify as 'meeting standards', but may in fact provide your dog with too much of a nutrient (and in the case of some nutrients, this can potentially do damage over time).

Many of the higher-end premium pet food brands conduct laboratory analyses and studies to determine the optimum levels of nutrients in their food, as well as regular batch testing to ensure consistency. (So, it's not just the high quality food you pay a little more for - it's the extra attention to safety standards too!)

Winners: Top Picks for Nutrients, Research, and Quality Assurance

3. Consistent Recipes

Another way to judge whether a pet food is of a high quality is by determining whether the recipe is consistent and specific, or 'open' and likely to change between batches.

What is an 'open' recipe? As a method of cost-cutting, many cheaper pet food brands opportunistically source ingredients based on availability at the time. Perhaps there are more chicken carcasses available from the human chain this month? Poultry it is! Next month there'll be a lot produced by the pork industry, so it'll be pork by products next month!

On the other hand, high quality pet foods always stick to the same recipe, using the same quantity of each ingredient every time. This makes for an honest recipe with no surprises, and is particularly important for dogs with food allergies.

Common examples of vague terms found in ingredient lists include 'meat and their by-products', 'cereals and their by-products', 'vegetables', and that ever confusing term 'and/or'. If you see these words in an ingredient list, you can almost guarantee their recipe is ambiguous and may change opportunistically batch by batch.

To compare, ingredients from a high quality pet food tend to name the specific meat, grain or vegetable. You will see words like 'lamb', 'barley', or 'sweet potato', rather than 'meat', 'cereal' or 'vegetable'.

What is 'meat meal'?

Many people cringe at the term 'meat meal', as they assume it is similar to a 'byproduct'. However, the word 'meal' is not anything to bawk at - it basically means 'dehydrated meat', and it just implies that the meat protein could be derived from other parts of the animal. However, do keep in mind that 'beef meal' is more specific than 'meat meal', likewise 'chicken meal' compared to 'poultry meal'. (Remember what we said about specific names before?)

Ultimately, if your pet has no food allergies, 'open' recipes won't do them any harm. But the consistency of a recipe is an easy way to determine the integrity and quality of a pet food overall.

4. Avoid artificial colours, preservatives, flavours, or sweeteners

Most people prefer to avoid artificial 'nasties' in their own food, and it's no different for our furry friends. While many additives may be harmless, some can cause deleterious effects over time. And with so many natural alternatives, artificial additives are simply unecessary nowadays.

Some cheaper pet foods still add artificial colours to their food. We're sorry to say it, but this truly is unnecessary - rest assured, your dog doesn't mind what colour their food is. Artificial colours are only added to appease pet owners.

Likewise, some cheaper pet food companies also add sweeteners such as corn syrup, sucrose, or ammoniated glycyrrhizin to cheaply increase the calory content, or to improve the taste (because even cardboard tastes good if you cover it in syrup!) This can lead to weight gain and nutrient imbalances.

What about preservatives? Artificial preservatives to steer clear of include ethoxyquin, BHA, or BHT. Instead, it's look for a recipe that uses natural preservatives, such as tocopherols (such as Vitamin E), vitamin C, and rosemary extract. However, note that because they are natural, of course they don't work for quite as long as artificial preservatives, so always check the expiry date!

Winners: Top Picks for Natural Ingredients


5. Is the food locally made?

While this shouldn't be used as a black-and-white rule when judging the quality of a pet food, it can be useful to check the place of manufacture. Buying locally can have major benefits both for you and your pup.

Why buy Australian Made dog food? Considering recent pet food recalls due to deficiencies or contaminated food, one can never be too careful. Many dog owners find it comforting to know they're buying food from trusted, 'first world' Australian facilities (with nationally controlled manufacturing factories, quality assurance, and OH+S standards).

There is also a financial benefit: buying locally avoids unecessary import costs. This all adds up to a better good quality pet food for a much fairer price. Plus, buying locally produced pet food ultimately helps support our economy!

Below we've listed which pet food is Made in Australia, and which is not.

MADE IN AUSTRALIA:

MANUFACTURED INTERNATIONALLY:

Open Farm

Open Farm Open Farm Pet Food hits the mark in both ethics and nutrition. This new-to-Australia brand is the first ethically raised and sourced pet food, and each formula is complete and balanced in accordance with veterinary nutritionists. Open Farm recipes use 100% Certified Humane meats, ocean-caught fish sourced in accordance with Seafood Watch standards, and their entire supply chain is audited and certified by third party organisations which ensure humane and sustainable farming practices. They also partner with TerraCycle to create the very first pet food bag recycling program.

Advance

Advance Advance's super premium, Australian made pet food is produced alongside Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition; a principal authority in the latest pet food research. Advance makes all their food in Australia, between their two sites at Albury-Wodonga and Bathurst, and design their recipes with the Aussie climate in mind. Advance has recently had a complete facelift with new packaging, improved formulas, and exciting new lines including a breed specific formula for Terriers such as staffies.

Ivory Coat

Ivory Coat is highly premium and Australian-made. The food is high in protein (but not too high!), and always contains meat or specified meat meal as the first ingredient. Their formulas are free from artificial nasties and often contain beneficial ingredients such as coconut oil, flaxseed, fibre sources and prebiotics. Their seafood dry dog variety has a strong reputation as being a 'miracle' for dogs with skin issues.

Savourlife

Savourlife has a reputation for their dedication to rescue dogs, with 10% of all profits donated to shelter dogs. But goodwill aside, their food is also seriously great quality. With single-protein formulas - which are great for dogs with suspect food allergies - they are also Made in Australia, high in protein and completely balanced. Their formulas are free from artificial nasties and often contain beneficial ingredients such as coconut oil, flaxseed, and prebiotics.

Canidae

Canidae pet foods contain high quality ingredients, and in particular most of their 'Pure' range lists meat or animal protein as their first three ingredients. Free from artificial preservatives, colours, flavours, and sweeteners, and fully in line with nutritional guidelines for different lifestages, Canidae definitely exceeds all criteria.

Hill's Science Diet

Hill's Science Diet is known for its research in the field of pet nutrition, and has always been a leader in the therapeutic diet space. Produced with high quality ingredients (and with animal protein usually coming first in the ingredients list!), Hills food is completely balanced and stringently tested to ensure quality. Hills focuses on purposeful nutrition, which means they produce diets to specifically help certain aspects of your pet's health, without compromising on the ingredients.


All in all, choosing a dog food is a personal choice. If you can equip yourself with a keen eye and the ability to read a label, you can help take the guesswork out of which pet food is best for your pet.

Further Reading

Premium pet food: Is it worth it?

Does your dog have a food allergy?

How diet can help your senior pet

What's in your pet's food?

How to read the label on a bag of pet food

Exploring Grain-Free Pet Food

Ethically-Made and Sustainable Pet Food

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