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The best dry dog food for every life stage, according to veterinarians

Your canine companion deserves the best — shop the best dry dog food of 2024 to keep your dog satisfied and healthy, no matter their size.
Experts say palatability, a complete and balanced recipe, affordability and individual nutritional needs are key when choosing the best dry dog food.
Experts say palatability, a complete and balanced recipe, affordability and individual nutritional needs are key when choosing the best dry dog food.Eva Blanco / Getty Images

When choosing between wet and dry dog food, you and your pup’s personal preferences play a big role. Both dry and wet food options can be good nutritional choices for your dog, but each comes with pros and cons, says Dr. Dottie Laflamme, an independent animal nutrition consultant. Dry dog food is convenient, cost effective and can benefit oral health when formulated for dental care. However, canned food provides significantly more moisture than dry food, so talk with your veterinarian if your dog has any conditions that might benefit from a moisture-rich diet.

While ingredient lists are informative, the quality of your dog’s kibble is primarily determined by four factors, according to Laflamme: palatability, a complete and balanced recipe, affordability and whether the food meets your veterinarian’s approval based on your dog’s nutritional needs.

To help narrow down the list of quality dry foods for your dog, we spoke with veterinarians about choosing the most appropriate dry food for your dog and identifying a complete and balanced recipe. Plus, we rounded up foods recommended by the experts we spoke to.

SKIP AHEAD Best dry dog food to consider this year | How to shop for the best dry dog food

Selected.Our top picks

How we picked the best dry dog food

While comparing dry food for dogs offered on the market today, our experts recommend keeping the following factors in mind:

  • Breed size: To ensure your dog gets the nutrients they need, it’s important to purchase the appropriate food for their life stage and breed size, which can be categorized into three stages: growth, all life stages and adult maintenance.
  • AAFCO statement: If your dog’s dry food is labeled with a statement saying it meets the Association of Animal Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) recommendations through formulation or food-trial testing, it means that it contains all the necessary nutrients for your dog’s life stage and ensures a complete and balanced diet, says Dr. Anna Kaufman, a veterinarian at Bond Vet, which has locations across the United States.
  • Nutritional guidance: A recipe created with the guidance of a board-certified veterinary nutritionist is more likely to provide the appropriate nutrients for your dog’s age and breed size rather than relying on marketing tactics. Key ingredients to look for include an animal protein source, whole grains or high-quality carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables and healthy fats, says Dr. Nicole Savageau, a veterinarian with The Vets, which offers mobile vet visits across the United States.

Price: “Dry dog food tends to be more cost-effective compared to wet dog food, primarily due to factors such as production costs, packaging, and shelf life,” says Savageau. If budget is a concern, dry dog food can be a more economical choice.” Given this, we considered a range of quality options at various price points.

Best dry dog food to consider this year

The following highly rated dry food share two important considerations: They meet or exceed the nutritional recommendations set by AAFCO and are formulated with the oversight of a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. These factors ensure that your dog is getting the right nutrients for their age and breed size. However, you should always check with your dog’s veterinarian first about your dog’s specific dietary needs in conjunction with age to get an expert read on any dietary needs or restrictions.

Best dry dog food for small-breed puppies: Hill's

Hill’s Science Diet Puppy

Puppies require more calories per pound of body weight than adult dogs to fuel their growth and active lifestyles. AAFCO recommends that puppy food include 22% protein and 8% fat, and other important vitamins and nutrients for growth.

According to both Laflamme and Kaufman, Hill’s is a trustworthy brand that delivers quality pet food to pet parents and their pups, and Hill’s Science Diet’s dry dog food for puppies is no exception. It’s packed with the nutrients your puppy needs for a healthy start to life, like calcium and phosphorus to help build strong bones and teeth, and the omega fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) to support healthy brain and eye development. The formula contains antioxidants and vitamins E and C to support your puppy’s developing immune system, according to the brand.

Best dry dog food for adult small breeds: Royal Canin

Royal Canin Small Breed Adult Dry Dog Food

Royal Canin is a favorite among our experts for the brand’s peer-reviewed research, owned facilities and well-regarded reputation among pet parents and veterinarians. Both Select updates editor Mili Godio and manager of editorial operations Shari Uyehara are fans of Royal Canin, too. Uyehara says her pup Loki, a 1-year-old cavalier King Charles spaniel, has been eating this dry food since he was just a few months old after her breeder recommended it. Royal Canin increases palatability by sourcing ingredients that dogs crave, like chicken and chicken fat, according to the brand.

Best dry dog food for large-breed puppies: Wellness

Wellness Complete Large Breed Puppy

When allowed to overeat, large-breed puppies tend to grow too quickly, and their bones might not be able to keep up, says Laflamme. This puts them at risk of developing orthopedic or skeletal issues. “One of the best ways to prevent this is by keeping your puppy lean, limiting the amount of food they’re allowed to have and feeding them a diet specifically formulated for growing large breed puppies,” she says.

Large-breed formulas that meet AAFCO’s nutritional adequacy recommendations have all the protein and minerals your puppy needs, but with fewer calories. This Wellness formula has just 367 calories per cup, which includes protein from deboned chicken and chicken meal, as well as energy-rich carbohydrates like brown rice and oats, according to the brand. The formula also has glucosamine, which helps maintain joint health and is particularly beneficial for large-breed dogs, according to Wellness.

Best dry dog food for adult large breeds: Merrick

Merrick Healthy Grains Large Breed

Most large-breed dogs are no longer considered puppies when they reach about two years of age. However, this can vary depending on the individual dog and when they stop growing. During this period, Laflamme recommends two options for transitioning your dog to a formula suitable for adult dogs: either switch to an all life stages food that provides nutrients for both puppies and adults, or consider an adult formula that’s not suitable for a growing puppy.

This adult formula from Merrick is made in small batches in Merrick’s Hereford, Texas kitchen. It’s packed with omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which means it’s specially formulated with glucosamine and chondroitin to support healthy hips and joints, according to the brand. It also contains L-Carnitine, a supplement that helps to keep your gentle giant lean, according to Merrick.

Best dry dog food for weight management: Purina

Purina ONE + Plus

The feeding instructions on the back of the kibble bag are merely a guide — your veterinarian is the best resource for determining the appropriate number of calories your dog should eat, says Laflamme. Between veterinarian visits, you should monitor your dog’s body condition using the nine-point scale based on observation and physical touch, she says. You can do this by standing above your dog, putting your thumbs over the backbone and fingers over the ribs. Gently move your hands from front to back. If you can easily count and feel your dog’s ribs, they are likely a healthy weight.

If you and your veterinarian determine your dog is overweight, your veterinarian may suggest a reduction in calories or a weight management diet, such as this Purina ONE Weight Control formula. It’s the recipe Laflamme feeds her own dogs and is part of Purina’s budget line. However, if pet owners want to add probiotics and more natural ingredients to their dog’s diet, a slightly pricier alternative is available from Purina, Purina Pro Plan Weight Management. While it may cost a bit more, Select’s associate updates editor Zoe Malin says her 100-pound yellow lab, Chance, is both healthy and happy eating this formula.

Best dry dog food for sensitive stomachs: Instinct

Instinct Original Grain-Free Recipe with Real Rabbit

Many pet food diets are touted as grain-free, meaning they don’t contain common carbohydrate grains, like wheat, rice and barley. But unless your pup has a gluten intolerance, grain-free diets aren’t known to provide additional benefits when compared to other complete and balanced foods, according to our experts. Unlike their gray wolf ancestors, there’s evidence that domestic dogs are perfectly able to digest carbohydrates, says Dr. Jonathan Stockman, assistant professor of clinical veterinary sciences at Long Island University College of Veterinary Medicine.

A novel protein or limited-ingredient diet may relieve your dog’s symptoms if they have a food intolerance or a true food allergy. This option from Instinct uses rabbit as its protein source and leaves out any ingredients that include corn, wheat and soy, according to the brand. Additionally, probiotics and omega-3 and -6 fatty acids soothe the digestive tract, skin and any lingering inflammation.

Best budget-friendly dry dog food: IAMS

IAMS Adult Minichunks

When it comes to kibble, there is often a wide range of options available to pet parents at varying price points. For those on a budget, certain dry dog foods may include byproducts that help keep the cost down. “Byproducts are ingredients that are not typically used for human consumption,” says Stockman. It’s not because the ingredients aren’t nutritious, but it might include meat that isn’t visually appealing or internal organs that aren’t culturally accepted as a food source. Byproducts are a great source of vitamins and minerals for dogs, and from a sustainability standpoint, using byproducts also helps to reduce food waste, says Stockman.

IAMS’ recipe offerings are diverse, and IAMS Adult Minichunks is a standout choice due to its high-quality protein sources, such as lamb, chicken and whole-grain barley. The recipe also contains a blend of fibers and prebiotics to promote a healthy digestive system, according to the brand.

How to shop for the best dry dog food

There’s a lot to consider when buying the best food for your dog, and most come down to you and your dog’s personal preferences, as well as your dog’s life stage and breed size, experts told us.

  • Ensure your dog’s food meets AAFCO standards. AAFCO is a non-profit group that establishes nutritional guidelines for pet food based on life stages. Although AAFCO doesn’t approve or regulate pet food formulas, pet food companies that include an AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement conduct thorough testing to ensure their food meets AAFCO nutritional standards for safety and quality.
  • Consider your dog’s life stage. Dry dog food is typically labeled as growth, which is specifically formulated for growing puppies or all life stages, which means it meets the minimum AAFCO nutritional requirements for both puppies and adult dogs. Food for puppies must include a minimum of 22% protein and 8% fat, in addition to other important vitamins and nutrients, like DHA, calcium and phosphorus, according to our experts. Adult dogs, on the other hand, require food formulated for maintenance, or they can eat food labeled as all life stages. Maintenance dry food must include a minimum of 18% protein and 5% fat.
  • Make sure it’s made for your dog’s breed size. Our experts suggested feeding according to breed size to meet the unique growth patterns and health needs of small- and large-breed puppies and adult dogs.
  • Ensure the brand consults veterinary nutritionists. A recipe developed with the guidance of a board-certified veterinary nutritionist ensures the recipe has been formulated with the necessary nutrients for your dog’s age and breed size.
  • Keep in mind, price doesn’t always equal quality. You should consider a range of quality options across various price points that meet AAFCO standards and are suitable for your dog’s breed, size and life stage.

Meet our experts

At NBC Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and without undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.

  • Dr. Dottie Laflamme is a veterinarian and an independent consultant of animal nutrition. She formerly worked for Purina’s Research and Development team until her retirement in 2015.
  • Dr. Jonathan Stockman is a veterinarian and an assistant professor of clinical veterinary sciences at Long Island University College of Veterinary Medicine. He is also a veterinary consultant for Petco but does not receive financial compensation to recommend any brands.
  • Dr. Nicole Savageau is a veterinarian with The Vets in Austin, Texas. 
  • Dr. Anna Kaufman is a veterinarian at Bond Vet, which has locations across the United States.

Why trust NBC Select?

Janelle Leeson is a Portland-based freelance writer who holds a bachelor of science degree in biology. Her approach to pet-care writing and reporting is rooted in scientific principles that consider a pet’s biological need for play, proper nutrition and environmental enrichment.For this piece, Janelle interviewed two experts who specialize in veterinary nutrition. She also researched dozens of dry dog foods on the market that met criteria based on our experts’ insights. She included dry dog foods recommended by experts, along with those that are highly rated and meet expert shopping guidance.

Bethany Heitman is a contributor at NBC Select and a journalist who regularly covers topics like beauty, home and lifestyle.

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