What Should I Feed My Dog? (The Real Costs of Low Quality Food)

Clients frequently ask me what I recommend they feed their dog. I love the subject of nutrition and enjoy working with clients to find the best match between available food choices and the patient. But if you are hoping to find here a blanket recommendation of my particularly favorite type of food, you will likely be disappointed. My recommendations involve a combination of several factors. I like to get an idea of the overall nutrient and calorie needs of a patient, what foods are locally available, and uncover any personal preferences from the client themselves (are they vegetarian? Do they have any religious requirements for ingredients? Do they prefer to avoid corn or wheat?). There is, however, one thing I do tell every single client when asked about what they should feed their dog:

Feed the best food that fits in your budget. Period.

I realize that this is far from groundbreaking information. And how do you know what makes a food a good one? Price is usually a reliable indicator to a point, yes. But I have seen some fairly mediocre foods (from a nutrition standpoint) come with a hefty price tag. I prefer to think at the opposite end of the food spectrum:

If the food is cheap, it’s highly unlikely that it is a healthy choice for your dog.

You can save money, in some cases significant amounts of money, by choosing a cheaper brand of dog food. For example, one of the nation’s largest big box store chain sells a brand of dry dog food that sells for $0.37 per pound. That price is hard to beat! But let’s dig deeper:

1. Lower quality diets have lower quality ingredients; regardless of the television advertisement you may see.

2. The protein sources often can’t be fully broken down and digested, leading to dietary imbalances of macronutrients.

3. Mineral deficiencies can cause abnormal bone growth and maintenance, potentially resulting in early development of arthritis.

4. Low quality fatty acids in poor diets cause brittle hair coats and abnormal nail/claw growth.

5. Unbalanced amino acids can lead to loss of muscle mass, intestinal problems, and in cats can even cause a type of heart disease!

How does this translate to veterinary care? Chronic skin disease means frequent vet visits, antibiotics, steroids and/or similar skin anti-inflammatory medication. Arthritis medications and supplements for large breed dogs can cost hundreds per month. Dietary deficiencies can be hard to detect and require many extensive (and pricey) tests to diagnose. Any patient on long-term medications needs regular re-evaluations and bloodwork to assess overall health. That sure is a lot of trips back and forth to the vet.

That cheap dog food doesn’t seem so cheap anymore, does it?

Did you ever watch the movie Supersize Me? The director/creator ate nothing but McDonald’s fast food for one month. His physician ran a complete battery of tests before and after the experiment. In that one month, his weight and blood pressure climbed sharply. His energy level plummeted. Moreover, his quality of life diminished greatly. I realize that comparing this experiment to dog food involves some serious extrapolation and anthropomorphizing, but I do liken the cheapest tier of store-brand dog foods to frequent eating of fast food cheeseburgers. Yes, it tastes good. Most dogs will readily eat these diets. But I consequently see far more dogs with chronic disease on poor-quality diets.

Please understand that I am in no way asserting that feeding a premium diet for the entire life of a dog will prevent all disease. I am positing that you will save money (and likely very significant amounts!) in veterinary care if you spend a little more per bag on your dog’s food.

A quick note on the expensive stuff:

Custom-made, freeze-dried or “boutique” style foods made with human grade pastured meats and organic exotic fruits and vegetables can cost upwards of $20/lb. for dry kibble. Are these significantly healthier for this price? Possibly, but possibly not. Be aware that smaller food producers do have a higher rate of recalls as well--there is less money in their budget for veterinary nutritionists (to ensure the diet is properly balanced) and quality control.

Pet food stores have incredible varieties of food these days. It can be dizzying to choose what will be best for your dog. When in doubt, get your veterinarian’s opinion on what to choose, and what to potentially stay away from. You don’t have to blow the bank to keep your dog healthy by purchasing the priciest food in the store. Just stay away from the cheap stuff. Your dog will thank you for it.


Dr. JenJennifer Deming, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian and member of the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition. She strives to improve her patients' wellness through nutrition counseling and preventative medicine. Dr. Deming lives, works, and plays in the beautiful community of Durango, Colorado.