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What to Feed Your Dog – Cheap, Healthy Dog Food Brands & Recipes

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Do you ever wonder if you’re choosing the best dog food for your furry friend?

Many owners wrestle with this question. There’s an overwhelming array of options, giving you thousands of choices. Do you buy generic or name-brand? Do you choose dry food, canned food, fresh refrigerated food, homemade food, or raw food?

You also have to consider your dog’s breed, age, activity level, weight, health, and taste preferences. With all these factors to consider, picking a dog food is far from an easy choice.

That’s why it’s essential you understand and compare your options, including the ingredients in manufactured foods and what human foods you can and can’t give your four-legged friend.

Comparing Commercial Dog Foods

Dog Food Dry Wet Raw Meat

People have been living with domesticated dogs for over 16,000 years, and according to the Pet Food Institute, for most of that time, dogs ate whatever their human owners ate. It wasn’t until 1860 that commercial dog food became available. That makes the question of what to feed our dogs a fairly recent phenomenon.

Most people buy commercial dry or wet food for their pets because it’s easy and saves quite a bit of time. Commercial dog food is required by law to be nutritionally balanced and safe for dogs, and according to the American Kennel Club (AKC), regulations require it to have certain ingredients:

  • Protein sources like beef, poultry, fish, and eggs
  • Grains
  • Cereals
  • Vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants

What Ingredients Really Mean

If you’re going to feed your dog kibble or wet food, it’s important to research brands to make sure your dog gets the nutrition it needs. However, keep in mind that while dog food is regulated, manufacturers can be misleading about what’s in their food.

  • Chicken. If the label lists chicken as an ingredient, it means unprocessed chicken.
  • Chicken Meal. Chicken meal means they processed the chicken to remove all the water and fat, usually resulting in powder.
  • Beef. If the label lists beef as an ingredient, it means it must make up 70% or more of the food, including water content.
  • Beef Dinner, Beef Platter, or Beef Entree. If one of these is on the label, regulations only require the food to have 10% beef.
  • With Beef. If you see “with beef” on the label, regulations only require the food to have 3% beef.
  • Beef Flavor. The term “beef flavor” means there is less than 3% beef in the food.

You can find out more information about pet food labeling requirements at the Association of American Feed Control Officials.

The process of choosing a quality dog food becomes easier once you understand what benefits each ingredient provides for your dog. The six most common ingredients on most dog food labels all have different benefits.

  • Proteins build your dog’s muscles, bones, and skin.
  • Carbohydrates provide energy and come from grains, such as rice, corn, barley, and sorghum.
  • Fats are essential for healthy skin and energy. Fish and vegetable oils provide these fats.
  • Fiber is necessary for healthy digestion. In dog food, ingredients like oats, apples, beet pulp, and flaxseed provide fiber.
  • The amounts of vitamins and minerals your dog needs vary depending on their size, but many of the above ingredients provide most if not all their daily requirements.

Usually, it’s worth it to spend more on higher-quality food to keep your dog healthy and out of the vet’s office. However, the keyword here is “usually.” In an interview with Consumer Reports, Dr. Joseph Wakshlag, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, says there is no scientific evidence any one food is better than the next. Higher-priced foods typically have better ingredients or stricter quality controls. However, pets can do well on inexpensive food or get sick from higher-priced brands.

One resource to find quality food that fits your budget is Reviews.com. Each year, the editorial panel tests thousands of dog food blends and talks to dozens of experts to find the best brands. You can also check out the reviews at Dog Food Advisor or Consumer Affairs.

Is Wet or Dry Dog Food Better?

So which is better for your dog: wet food or dry food?

It depends. There are pros and cons to each, and the best choice for your dog depends on its unique needs and your budget.

Wet Dog Food Pros

  • Higher Moisture Content. Wet dog food has a moisture content of 68% to 78%. The extra moisture is essential for dogs who don’t drink enough water on their own.
  • Stronger, Richer Smell. For older, underweight, or sick dogs, the stronger, richer smell can tempt them to eat when kibble can’t.
  • Easier to Chew. For older dogs with missing teeth or who otherwise have difficulty chewing, wet food is more comfortable to eat.
  • Fewer Preservatives. Because of the canning process, wet food also typically has fewer preservatives than dry food and has more natural flavoring since it didn’t get baked at high temperatures.

Wet Food Cons

  • More Expensive. Wet food is more expensive than kibble. While prices vary, one analysis on Pet MD found that wet food is roughly seven times more expensive than dry food. That adds up quickly.
  • Increases Dental Problems. Wet food can cause plaque buildup and dental problems in some dogs.
  • Spoils Quickly. Wet food spoils relatively quickly, which means if your dog doesn’t eat it within a few hours, you must refrigerate it or throw it away.
  • Unpleasant Smell. That rich smell your dog loves will likely waft through your kitchen, and it’s safe to say most humans find the scent of wet dog food unappealing.
  • Messy. Dogs that eat wet food can also make a wet mess on the floor and on their fur, which you’ll have to spend time cleaning up.

Dry Dog Food Pros

  • Reduces Dental Problems. Kibble’s rough texture helps clean teeth and reduce plaque while the dog chews.
  • Convenient. Dry dog food is really convenient. You can fill your dog’s bowl in the morning and leave it out all day without worrying about it spoiling. That makes it suitable for days when you work late and when you’re traveling.
  • Less Expensive. According to a 2019 analysis by PetfoodIndustry.com, the average price per pound of dry kibble on Chewy.com ranged from $1.24 per pound to $3.24 per pound.
  • Easy Cleanup. You can quickly sweep up or vacuum spilled kibble.

Dry Dog Food Cons

  • Low Moisture Content. Dry dog food has a moisture content around 10%, which means your dog needs to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. For some dogs, especially older dogs or dogs battling an illness, drinking enough water is challenging.
  • Hard to Eat. Very young dogs, older dogs, or dogs with health problems sometimes find it difficult to eat dry kibble.

Refrigerated Food

You’ve likely seen the tiny refrigerators now installed in the pet food section of supermarkets and retailers ranging from Target to Petco.

These coolers carry refrigerated dog food, like Freshpet, which is fresh blended food that has been cooked and then cooled. Typically, this food comes in rolls, like sausage, which you then portion out according to your dog’s size. Online, you can also buy refrigerated foods like Ollie, which look very much like food you’d make at home. You can serve refrigerated food on its own or mixed with dry dog food.

The most significant benefit to refrigerated food is that it’s a convenient way for pet owners to serve their dog a more “home-cooked” meal without having to spend the time cooking a complete dinner.

But you pay a high price for this convenience. How much depends on the size of your dog and how much they eat in a day.

For example, Freshpet recommends that dogs 40 to 60 pounds eat 1 pound of food per day. While prices vary, each 1-pound roll of Freshpet costs around $3, while the 6-pound roll costs just over $2 per pound.

How to Save Money on Commercial Dog Food

One way to save money is to check out Chewy.com’s deals page, where you can find top brands marked down 30% or more. The site also offers free shipping on orders of $49 or more.

You can also go to the manufacturer’s website to look for coupons. And many brands send periodic coupons if you sign up for their email promotions or newsletter or connect with them on social media.

You can also download the Coupons.com app or check your local supermarket’s weekly deals online or in the Sunday paper. If you’re shopping online, you can shop through Ibotta and earn cash back on your Petco order.


Making Homemade Dog Food

Dog Sitting At Table Eating Food Utensils Bib

One of the biggest benefits of making dog food at home is that it can be more nutritious than highly processed commercial dog food.

Many owners also make homemade dog food because they feel it’s safer. And there is indeed a never-ending list of dog food recalls for a wide variety of reasons, ranging from salmonella to excessive vitamin D or magnesium. You can see an updated list of recalls on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website.

Keep in mind that using human food, like chicken or beef, is just as risky, as human foods are also commonly recalled for concerns such as salmonella, e. Coli, and even metal shaving contamination.

If you have the time, making homemade dog food can be a rewarding and cost-effective choice for your best friend. But you can’t just feed your dog anything you eat.

What You Can Feed Your Dog

Many foods you eat are perfectly safe to feed your dog. The AKC recommends:

  • Meats: Raw eggs, chicken, beef, lamb, pork, venison, turkey, rabbit, fish, bison, and ostrich
  • Vegetables and Grains: Broccoli, carrots, romaine lettuce, cabbage, celery, spinach, summer squash, asparagus, rice, oatmeal, kale, cucumbers, Brussels sprouts, green beans, and peas
  • Dairy: Cottage cheese and plain yogurt
  • Fruit: Bananas, blueberries, oranges, peaches, pears, pineapple, mango, apples, cranberries, cantaloupe, raspberries, strawberries, and watermelon
  • Oils: Olive oil, flaxseed oil, safflower oil, and hemp oil

Catherine Lane, a canine nutrition specialist writing for Bark, recommends dog owners limit the amount of dark, leafy greens they feed their dogs, as these are high in oxalates, which can contribute to bladder stones in breeds prone to them. Other vegetables, like potatoes, contain high levels of solanine, which can contribute to inflammation. Last, some dogs have trouble digesting dairy foods, so while dairy is officially safe, go slow introducing these foods to see how well your dog tolerates it.

What You Can’t Feed Your Dog

While dogs can eat many of the same foods we eat, some are potentially poisonous to them:

  • Avocado
  • Asparagus
  • Tomatoes
  • Chocolate
  • Grapes and raisins
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Mushrooms
  • Onions
  • Apple seeds
  • Cherries
  • Walnuts
  • Potato leaves and stems (any green parts)
  • Alcohol or alcoholic beverages

Before giving your dog any new food, always check to see if it’s safe for canine consumption. You can ask your vet or look to online resources like Can Dogs Eat This.

Can Dogs Eat Garlic?

There is some controversy surrounding garlic and whether it is or isn’t toxic to dogs. According to Pet Poison Helpline, garlic is highly toxic to dogs, being five times more potent than onions and leeks. However, the Merck Veterinary Manual says that while garlic is toxic, it’s less toxic to dogs than onion. A 2009 study published in the journal Interdisciplinary Toxicology included garlic as one of the food ingredients it tested for toxicity.

The AKC says that in small doses, garlic might be safe for most dogs. However, it still advises against feeding garlic or garlic supplements to dogs due to the known risks.

Raw Food Diets

Many owners go with a raw food diet, or the BARF diet. It sounds gross, but BARF stands for “biologically appropriate raw food.” When you stop and think about it, practically 100% of what you feed your dogs is processed food. Most people understand that when it comes to the food you eat, fresh, locally grown food is more nutritious and delicious than food you cook out of a box. And the same holds for your dog.

Dogs didn’t evolve eating processed or cooked foods. They evolved eating raw foods. According to Fetch, WebMD’s pet health website, feeding your pet a BARF diet might lead to a shinier coat, healthier skin, cleaner teeth, more energy, and fewer stools. It might also reduce your vet bills because your pets are now getting a more well-rounded diet.

That said, the American Veterinary Medical Association officially discourages the feeding of raw food to dogs and cats due to the risk of illness from pathogens. They advise pet owners to thoroughly cook all meat to eliminate the risk.

Providing Well-Rounded Meals

Making homemade dog food, whether raw or cooked, means you have complete control over what’s in your dog’s diet. However, you must ensure the homemade recipes you serve throughout the week meet your dog’s unique nutritional needs. It’s important to know what nutrients your dog needs and how much in each category to ensure your dog stays healthy and strong.

According to a report created by the National Resources Council of the National Academies, adult dogs weighing an average of 33 pounds need the following:

  • Crude Protein: 25 grams
  • Total fat: 14 grams
  • Phosphorus: 0.75 grams
  • Magnesium: 150 milligrams
  • Sodium: 200 milligrams
  • Potassium: 1 gram
  • Chlorine: 300 milligrams
  • Iron: 7.5 milligrams
  • Copper: 1.5 milligrams
  • Zinc: 15 milligrams
  • Vitamin K: 0.41 milligrams
  • Vitamin B1: 0.56 milligrams

Calcium is also an essential component of a healthy diet. Few dog owners realize dogs require at least 1 gram of calcium per day. Lane suggests baking eggshells for 10 minutes at 300 degrees Fahrenheit, then crushing the eggshell into a fine powder to add to your dog’s food. One teaspoon of eggshell powder contains 2,200 milligrams of calcium. You can also buy calcium supplement powder if you feel your dog isn’t getting enough in their diet.

There are also plenty of other supplements your dog can benefit from. For example, a salmon oil supplement can improve your dog’s skin and coat, while a probiotic supplement can boost their immune system.

But that’s not all. You can see the full list of canine nutritional requirements in the National Resources Council report.

When making homemade meals, counting calories is also important. Calorically high meals can lead to weight gain, while meals lacking the essential vitamins and minerals can lead to lethargy, increased risk of illness, and weight loss. Your dog’s caloric needs depend on their age and activity level.

For example, the National Resources Council report recommends that an active 50-pound adult dog consume 1,353 calories, while an inactive dog in the same weight classification only needs 989 calories.

Talk with your vet or a veterinary nutritionist about which vitamins, minerals, and proteins your dog needs daily and weekly to stay healthy.

How to Save Money on Homemade Dog Food

Making homemade dog food can give dog owners peace of mind and the satisfaction of cooking a healthy meal for someone they love. However, homemade dog food isn’t always cheaper than dry dog food. Some recipes cost more than others, especially those containing beef.

To save money on homemade dog food, buy meat when it’s on sale or at a reduced price for quick turnover. You can always freeze it for later.

You can also save money on fruits and vegetables if you buy whatever’s in season. Better yet, start a home garden to grow your own fruits and vegetables.

Before heading to the grocery store to purchase food, make sure you download the Fetch Rewards app. Simply scan your grocery receipts and start earning rewards that can be redeemed for gift cards.

Last, don’t overlook produce that’s marked down because it’s bruised or near the expiration date, Buying less-than-perfect produce can cost significantly less money than picture-perfect produce, and your dog doesn’t mind if it’s battered or bruised. You can also freeze many marked-down fruits and vegetables like bananas or celery.

Homemade Dog Food Recipes

  • Bow-Wow Brunch. Developed by veterinarian Dr. Richard H. Pitcairn, protein-rich bow-wow brunch is dairy-heavy. So if you haven’t given your dog milk products before, start slowly. The recipe combines cooked oatmeal, active-culture plain yogurt, cottage cheese, banana, apple or pear, and mango. Find the full recipe on Bark.
  • Chicken Casserole. This comfort-food recipe contains savory ingredients like chicken, brown rice, peas, carrots, apples, and pumpkin. Find the full recipe on The Honest Kitchen.
  • Thank Your Dog Casserole. This doggy casserole dish will leave your house smelling like Thanksgiving Day. It combines ground turkey, peas, carrots, bread cubes, butter, flour, and chicken stock, and you cook it entirely on the stovetop. Find the full recipe on Rachael Ray’s online magazine.
  • Slow Cooker Dog Dinner. If you find yourself short on time, try a slow cooker recipe like this one, which contains ground chicken, carrots, kidney beans, peas, green beans, and white rice. Find the full recipe on A Fork’s Tale.
  • Damn Delicious Dog Food. This homemade recipe gets rave reviews from pet parents. It includes ground chicken or turkey, peas, carrots, zucchini, spinach, and brown rice. Find the full recipe on Damn Delicious.

If you’re looking for more variety, there are plenty of pet food recipe books to help you create healthy, well-balanced meals for your dog. If your local public library doesn’t have one in stock, ask if they can order it for you.

  • Feed Your Best Friend Better by Rick Woodford is chock-full of recipes and has excellent reviews on Amazon. Woodford does use garlic in some recipes, so if you’ve chosen to forego garlic, you can just omit it.
  • Home Cooking for Your Dog by Christine Filardi focuses on holistic meals. Her book has a mix of cooked and raw food recipes.
  • Proud Dog Chef by Melissa and Donna Gunderson focuses entirely on healthy homemade treats like jerky, veggie chips, and “pupcakes.”

Do Dogs Need a Grain-Free Diet?

Dog Bone Treat Home Made Treat Snack Baked

Many dog owners wonder if it’s safe and healthy to feed a dog foods that contain grains. After all, don’t grains cause food allergies?

It’s a controversial question, and there’s no definitive answer because just like people, every dog is different. However, some research suggests that grains are far less likely to cause food allergies in dogs than other ingredients, especially beef.

For example, research cited by Pet MD in 2011 found that out of 278 food allergy cases in which the problem ingredient was clearly identified, beef was overwhelmingly the culprit, with 95 cases. Dairy was the second-most common allergen, resulting in 55 cases, and wheat came in third with 42 cases. Soy and corn accounted for a minimal number of cases.

Another problem adding to the confusion is that storage mites commonly contaminate dry dog food, and these mites can also cause allergies in dogs. A 2008 study published in Veterinary Dermatology found that when opened dry dog food sat for five weeks, 9 out of 10 brands tested had storage mites. So in many cases, it’s not the food causing an allergic reaction in dogs, but the mites contaminating the food.

Some dog owners believe that dogs don’t need grains because they’re carnivores. However, dogs are omnivores, and grains serve a vital function in a dog’s diet. Carbohydrates provide quick energy, fiber helps digestion, and grains contain linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid dogs need.

A 2014 study conducted at the University of Maine found that the high protein counts found in grain-free dog food might contribute to kidney disease in some dogs. The FDA is also investigating the link between grain-free dog food and canine dilated cardiomyopathy, a type of canine heart disease. The grain-free dog foods under investigation are those with lentils, peas, and potatoes listed as the main ingredients.

That said, some research shows that a grain-free diet can be beneficial for some dogs. A 2019 study published in Animal Nutrition analyzed the effects of a grain-free diet compared to a grain and protein diet on working Labrador retrievers. After 84 days, researchers determined the group of Labs eating the grain-free diet were better able to utilize the nutrition in the food and had fewer stools than the Labs on the regular diet.

The best way to decide if your dog should eat grains or not is to talk to your veterinarian.


Final Word

Your pet needs a balanced diet to stay healthy and active, and it can be challenging to find the “perfect” food. One brand causes an allergic reaction, while another makes your dog turn up its nose in disgust. The boutique blend with bison meat or salmon sprinkles might be way outside your budget, but you’d rather cook a four-course meal for your fur baby than serve generic kibble.

That’s why it’s crucial to research your dog’s nutritional needs based on their breed, age, and activity level. And always consult a veterinarian or canine nutritionist before making a significant change to your dog’s diet.

What do you serve your dog for dinner each night? If you cook meals for your dog or have them on a BARF diet, what ingredients do you use?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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