Dog food research by

Taiga News & Opinions 16 Comments

Only 6% of 2,223 researched formulas can be named safe and healthy for your dog!

Research carried out and originally posted by

Why does this matter?

In early 2015, the law firm of Morgan and Morgan filed a class action lawsuit against Purina over ingredients found in its line of Beneful dog food. Despite this lawsuit — and the thousands of complaints of kidney failure that led to it — the products remain available to purchase at a store near you.

Of the pet owners surveyed, 70 percent admitted that they didn’t know all of the ingredients in their dog’s food — including the very ingredients at the heart of the Purina lawsuit. All dog foods claim to be “premium” and “all natural,” but with very few regulations on what it takes to meet these qualifications, many of these claims are no more than flashy marketing gimmicks and false advertising. So, the team dug behind the label to sort out which ingredients make an excellent dog food and which ones should be avoided.

At the end of the work, they settled on 134 quality formulas across 28 approved brands (out of of 2,223 formulas from 115 brands – that’s only 6%!).

Selected Brands and Formulas

About the research

Ten people on team dedicated full-time work to this project, investing over 1,400 hours into this single page:

  • Built a list of over 11,000 people with connections to the dog food industry and narrowed it down to the best.
  • Over 20 experts contributed their valuable time to our work, including veterinarians, dog trainers, animal behaviorists, university researchers, and authors.
  • Surveyed 300 dog owners and asked them if they knew what was in their dog’s food.
  • Gathered a list of over 8,000 search queries to find out what matters most to dog owners.
  • Read and analyzed 72 of the most popular articles and studies on dog food.
  • Compiled a list of 2,223 formulas from 115 brands and reviewed their ingredients.

Bad ingredients make dog food unsafe and unhealthy

Safety has always been the biggest concern for pet owners — and one of the hardest challenges for dog food manufacturers to meet. Since the 2007 recalls on Chinese-sourced food, many consumers have started reading labels to see where their food was coming from, but even ingredients sourced in the US can be unsafe.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) sets and maintains standards for the proper levels of ingredients in pet food, but it’s the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that determines the quality. FDA regulations, however, don’t guarantee that all ingredients will be safe.

Ingredients from rendering facilities, for instance, should be avoided. You’ll recognize these ingredients on the label under generic terms like “meat” and “meat meal.” In California, manufacturers have given them the appetizing name of “dry rendered tankage.” So why avoid them? It’s almost impossible to tell what’s being rendered: It can be roadkill, zoo animals, and sometimes even spoiled meat from the grocery store that’s still wrapped in plastic.

Bad Ingredients, Poor Health

Just verifying all the ingredients in your food are “safe” doesn’t mean they are optimal or even healthy for your best friend. Dogs need the right combination of protein, fat, moisture, fiber, and nutrients to live healthy, happy lives. The wrong ingredients in the wrong combinations can lead to a host of health problems, both physical and mental.

Digestive problems, including bloat and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), are symptomatic of poor ingredients that don’t contain enough whole, unprocessed foods. Food allergies can also lead to digestive issues — many of the participating experts have seen evidence that dogs are sensitive to wheat and corn, both popular fillers.

Obesity is on the rise in dogs. One main reason for this is overfeeding, but many of the experts were quick to point out that poor grain-based ingredients are also to blame.

Physical problems are only half of it. There was a unanimous consensus among participating trainers and behaviorists that poor diet causes mental health issues in dogs, including poor temperament and lack of focus.

Dog Food Ingredients Guide

However, many ingredients can’t simply be divided into “good” or “bad.” Some are downright controversial. Beet pulp, for instance, is a common binding agent found in many dog foods, but many conscientious consumers avoid it over concerns of digestive health issues. There is no scientific research as of yet to back this up, but the experts unanimously agreed: It’s best to avoid it.

Not only do ingredients matter, but also having the right combinations and ratios of ingredients matters. There’s an oft-quoted statistic that claims good dog foods contain 30 percent protein and 18 percent fat, with enough side nutritional content — omega-3s, vitamins, and fiber — to round out your dog’s diet. The participating experts disagree. To them, it’s really what’s best for your individual dog. “Protein is very important for your dog, but there are instances, such as old age or liver issues, where your dog should be on a lower-protein diet,” says Dog Files creator Kenn Bell. “Make sure you have a conversation with your veterinarian.”

Dog Food Types

When team made their picks for the best dog foods, they looked at all varieties: dry, wet, homemade, dehydrated, and frozen raw varieties. No matter the type of food, the most important determining factor is still the ingredients. After all, what matters is what’s best for you and your dog.

“Dogs don’t digest corn well, if at all. Wheat, Soy, and Beet Pulp should also be avoided.”Darlene Arden, Author and Lecturer
“Corn — not appropriate for a carnivore. It is an incomplete protein, contains gluten, and is one of the more allergenic food substances, especially since pretty much all of it is GMO. Wheat — similar reasons as corn.”Dr. Elisa Katz, Veterinarian
“Certain popular pet food brands on the market contain extra colorings, additives, and E numbers that, in my opinion, can affect behavior, leading to hyperactivity and difficulty with training.”Marc Abraham, Veterinary Surgeon, Author, Animal Welfare Campaigner
“Certainly ingredients matter, particularly when you look at the quality and specific amino acid make-up of the protein, but I’m actually concerned that the pendulum has swung too far towards ingredients and away from nutrients in some owner’s minds (we survive space travel using packets of liquefied nutrition that doesn’t resemble any of the ingredients I put on the dinner table!).”Craig Webb, Associate Professor, Head of Small Animal Medicine Section, Colorado State University, Veterinary Teaching Hospital
Dog Food Type Comparison

Life Stages

Your dog’s life stage should factor into his or her diet. Puppies and seniors both have specific dietary needs. Large-breed puppies can develop developmental orthopedic disease (DOD) if they eat too much calcium — the maximum amount of calcium listed in their food should be no more than 1.5 percent. Senior dogs often require less protein because they are less active. And if they suffer from arthritis, many formulas contain glucosamine and chondroitin, both of which alleviate joint pain.

Breed-Specific Diets

According to the interviewed experts, there’s no indication that specific breeds need specific diets. What you feed your dog is dependent on his or her size and activity level. Foods formulated specially for small dogs, for example, are beneficial because the smaller pieces of kibble are easier for them to eat and digest.

Dog owners need to be as careful as ever

After putting in 1,400 hours of research and analyzing over 2,223 formulas, the team discovered, that even some of the most popular brands still make food with unhealthy or unsafe ingredients. Of the 2,223 formulas they looked at, only 134 met the standard of approval — only about 6 percent overall. With so many choices on the market, it’s as important as ever to read labels and make informed decisions.

The good news? There are 134 great formulas to choose from, and they represent the best of what the industry has to offer.

Why 2,089 Dog Food Formulas Didn’t Make the Cut

The Decision Funnel

  1. Removing products where the first ingredient is not a meat of any kind (194 disqualified)
  2. Removing products containing corn, soy, wheat, grain, or flour (578 disqualified)
  3. Removing products containing beet pulp or sugar (146 disqualified)
  4. Removing products that contained by-products or sauces (44 disqualified)
  5. Reviewing brands for recalls, ingredient sources, history, and customer dissatisfaction (957 disqualified)
  6. Reviewing the remaining formulas based on the best ratio of protein, fat, and carbs, as well as the source of protein (166 disqualified)

Formulas and Ingredients

Ingredients matter most, so the researchers started by eliminating formulas with ingredients they determined to be unhealthy, unsafe, or unfavorable. It was important that each formula have a meat protein listed first — 194 dog food formulas were removed based on this criteria. They next removed 578 additional formulas that had corn, soy, wheat, grain, or flour in any part of the ingredient list. Overall, this eliminated 772 formulas, taking them from 2,223 to 1,447.

Next, they took out all formulas containing beet pulp or sugar, eliminating 146 more and further reducing the number from 1,447 to 1,301. Formulas that contained by-products and sauces led to 44 additional cuts, narrowing the choices from 1,301 to 1,257.

The 1,257 dog food formulas left did not have any ingredients they wouldn’t feed their own dogs. This was too large a number, however, so their next step was to review the brands themselves and return to formulas later.

Brands and Recalls

The original 2,223 dog food formulas they analyzed comprised of 115 brands. But after reducing the number of formulas to 1,257, the number of brands dropped to 93.

Brands That Were Cut Because of Their Ingredients:

  • Cesar
  • Chicken Soup
  • Eukanuba
  • Fruitables
  • HI-TOR
  • Hill’s Prescription Diet
  • Hill’s Science Diet
  • Iams Veterinary Formula
  • Nummy Tum-Tum
  • Nutro
  • Nutro Ultra
  • Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets
  • Royal Canin
  • NRG
  • Breeder’s Choice
  • Natural Planet
  • Now Fresh
  • Nutro Natural
  • Indigo
  • Pet Naturals of Vermont
  • Himalayan Dog Chew

Of the 93 brands left, researchers went straight to their recall history to look for any major recalls, any significant controversies, and unusually high numbers of customer complaints and reports.

Next, they took out brands that had been sold to large companies and, as a result, may be changing or have changed their formulas in a manner that compromises integrity. Just as in human food, often, acquisitions and changes in ownership can lead to changes in formulas and manufacturing processes. In dog food, that can mean dramatically different ingredients that pet owners may not even notice.

For this reason, they eliminated dog food brands that had recently been acquired by large companies like Procter & Gamble (P&G), because there’s no guarantee that the data available on them, or the ingredients listed, were up-to-date and reliable.

The research team has also removed anything that is manufactured in countries that don’t have strong food-quality regulations, that were known to include lesser-quality ingredients, or do not have enough available information:

  • Against the Grain: Not enough information
  • Artemis: Manufactured by Diamond
  • Blue Buffalo: False label claims, bad customer reviews, and outsourced foods
  • Canidae: Many negative customer reviews, manufactured by Diamond
  • Canine Caviar: Not enough information
  • Dave’s Pet Food: Not enough information
  • Dogswell: Some ingredients come from China
  • Evanger’s: Many consumer complaints and false labeling
  • EVO: Sold to P&G and also lost a class-action suit over false labeling
  • Farmina: Not enough information
  • Go!: Lesser-quality ingredients and issues with upset stomachs
  • Great Life: Mediocre reviews and not enough information
  • Holistic Select: Holistic Select’s parent company, WellPet, no longer has any ties to Diamond. However, Holistic Select has still received customer complaints of gas and loose stool in pets.
  • Innova: Bought by P&G
  • Merrick: History of recalls
  • Nature’s Recipe: Manufactured by Del Monte
  • Nature’s Variety: Many recent recalls
  • Newman’s Own Organics: Some products made in Uruguay
  • Nulo: Not enough information
  • Nutrisca: Contains ingredients from China
  • Pioneer Naturals: Not enough information
  • Premium Edge: Too many recalls
  • Solid Gold: Customer complaints of packaging and ingredient changes
  • Taste of the Wild: Manufactured by Diamond
  • Tiki Dog: Manufactured in Thailand
  • TruDog: Not enough information
  • Vital Essentials: Not enough information
  • Wellness: Was associated with Diamond’s 2012 massive recall, but has since cut ties with Diamond. We’ll revisit Wellness in the future.
  • Weruva: Some of their products are made in Thailand.
  • Wild Calling: Food is manufactured and packed by Evanger’s.

The Stance On Recalls

The acknowledge that their methodology might not be perfect, but they continue to evaluate it each day, especially when it comes to recalls. They took a hard stance on not including brands that had a history of multiple recalls.

Though recalls happen, not all companies respond as swiftly, carefully, and transparently as everyone would like. Which means that even after a problem is corrected, they may continue to cut corners, which could lead to future safety concerns.

So while a recall in and of itself isn’t necessarily the last straw for a dog food company, a slow or sloppy response is. In their research, the team didn’t initially look at recall response, but adjusted their judgments on a case-by-case basis.

That doesn’t mean the products from eliminated brands are worse than the products from brands on the recommended list. Many of these products pass all of the tests when it comes to assessing quality ingredients. Some of the recalls were created proactively by the brands themselves, meaning there were no incidents reported. Still, the line had to be drawn somewhere, but plans to continue modifying and improving their methodology over time.

On that note, the research team also removed any and all products that had previously been associated with Diamond brand dog foods. Diamond pet foods have a history of recalls, including one extremely large and dangerous incident in 2012, which impacted many of its smaller labels. Dog foods that appear to be of higher quality, like Taste of the Wild, Canidae, and Solid Gold, were all involved at the time, though many consumers were unaware that these particular labels were associated, and several brands have since separated from Diamond and its manufacturers. The researchers did not feel that Diamond was transparent or diligent enough in its response to meet the criteria.

For this reason, dog foods that were owned or manufactured in Diamond’s factories were initially excluded, because their ongoing safety just could not be assured. However, those brands that have severed the ties and found new manufacturing locations are reconsidered on a case-by-case basis, based on the visible work the brand has demonstrated. The research team will continue to consider these brands moving forward, but maintain their hard stance on recalls.

The Final Choices

This left the research team with 300 remaining formulas. The final step was to determine if they had the proper ratio of protein, fat, and carbs based on the research. And making sure that the largest source of protein came from an animal.

After reviewing all 2,223 formulas, the research team ended up selecting 134 dog food formulas — manufactured by 28 brands — which can be confidently recommended:

Comments 16

  1. Kirkland salmon and sweet potato?
    Any research done? How about any of the Kirkland foods?
    Thx 🙂

    1. Post

      Hi, Christina, thanks for your comment!
      We haven’t come across any of the Kirkland foods, but the composition doesn’t look that bad, yet isn’t special. It’s most energy comes from carbs, so we try to avoid such foods for malamutes, as historically their diet was based upon protein/fats.
      PS. Sorry for a super late reply.

    2. Kirkland Dog foods are manufactured by Diamond, but I personally think that for the price range the ingredients composition is above average. Certainly I would recommend this food if budget was of utmost concern.

    3. Post

      Hi Rachel,
      Haven’t tried Kirkland Dog, don’t think it’s actually available in Europe. Here, if budget is a serious concern, there is a brand “Brit” (heard, that it’s a Czech copy of Acana), but when you count grams per calories – there’s not so many savings left. We always recommend buying the best food you can afford, as it’s not going to be much more expensive in the end.

  2. Hi, I have a 1 year old malamute in need of grain-free large breed, preferably holistic… are you aware if any that meet this criteria that has passed the test?

    1. Post

      Hi Nicole,
      There are quite many suitable foods for your malamute, no need to search specifically for large breed versions, as only the size of the kibble will be different.

  3. Is there an updated list as a result of the concerns over peas, legumes, lentils, and potato being connected to heart disease?

    1. Post

      Dear Steve,
      The research doesn’t update automatically when it gets updated at the source (yet, we are working on that), but there is some information about that in the linked website. We were really concerned about this issue ourselves, but the publicly available data is really scarce and doesn’t look very trustworthy yet. FDA report is also quite inconclusive and doesn’t tackle any specifics. Discussions with a few veterinarians have led to a few theories why such things could happen, but medically it would be possible only if these ingredients would compose the majority of the kibble formula and the dog would be severely obese and with negligent activity levels.
      Therefore, for now, we are calm and keep eating what we eat. But, of course, we follow this issue and will post an update once it unfolds.
      Thanks for your concern and a great comment!

  4. I haven’t dug into more yet, but the first i looked up AvoDerm Chicken and Brown Rice puppy formula has avocado as an ingredient, but your other listing for malamute feeding says do not ever let your dog eat avocado.
    Do you mean dont let them eat a whole avocado because of the pit or what?

    1. Post

      Hello Matthew! And thanks for a very good question – we will need to clarify this part. The avocado is generally safe for dogs and cats, as they don’t seem to react to the poisonous acid persin (which is deadly to birds and large cattle). Yet, the dogs definitely cannot chew on the whole avocado, as the pit can be deadly both due to intestinal obstruction and as it contains little amounts of cyanide. Also, we personally would not give the bark of avocado to the dog – while it is not reported as poisonous, it contains many more acids like persin and other chemicals used during its growth and transportation – so the common sense would be to avoid it.
      Formulas with avocados are actually helpful to dogs with skin/hair problems.


    With all the dog food that Costco sell under their Kirkland brand, I would sure be interested in your evaluation for are most wonderful girl, ice, a 95 lb Malamute. We’ve had Mals for more than 20 years and though we’ve had other dogs would never consider another breed, because they’re the best.

    1. Post

      I can’t say anything about Kirkland foods from Costco, as we have no Costco in Europe 🙂 But I’ll try to put it this way: it’s a mainstream supermarket level food, so there should be much better choices available to you. From the top of my head, you could try Fromm, Acana, Orijen (for more active mals), Welness Core, etc. We feed Annamaet and love it, but supplement it with meat from time to time, as nordic dogs need more protein and, especially, fat in their diet than carbohydrates. We’ll post an extended article soon about the nutrition requirements of the malamutes and other nordic sled dog breeds, so keep visiting!

  6. There was just an article posted about certain dog foods that were causing heart failure. Our 17 month old male Malamute has been on nutrisource large breed puppy thenarge breed lamb. He is a picky but very active dog. Nutrisource showed up on this list for heart failure. It was recently recommended to me that we use Royal Canin breed specific. Problem is corn is the number one ingredient. I’m just trying to find the right brand. This is so controversial. Grain free, is this really necessary? My previous Malamute ate Iams her entire almost 13 years. Any advice for me?

    1. Post

      Hi, Kim,
      First of all, sorry for a very late answer. Regarding the articles on certain dog foods causing heart failures – one year later, do you still hear any of them? We couldn’t find any follow ups on this issue, even though each loud statement was followed by an explanation, that further data would be required to make a conclusion.
      Due to your very well explained reasons we will always run away from RC or any other ill-reputed brand and will never feed our malamutes anything containing any kind of grains – it is unnatural (and useless) for them.

  7. Hi, I have a three year old Alaskan Malamute that has been through a difficult feeding process since it took us a while to realize that he was actually allergic to chicken. We only add frozen beef and salmon to his diet now and we have cut any kibble that contains grains or chicken from his diet. And he has done well since then. We even recently added dried frozen beef liver to his diet. So we have switched to this new brand called Performatrin Ultra specifically the sweet potato and fish one. It hasn’t caused any problems but is it a brand you would recommend?

    1. Post

      You have a very similar experience as we did with Taiga (allergic to chicken and doesn’t tolerate grains). Good that you’ve found what works and you should stick with it if it does 🙂 We don’t have experience with Performatrin foods, but the ingredients seem fine, nutritional value is high, so there shouldn’t be any problems. It seems a bit high in protein (>35%), but if the stools are solid and the dog is living an active life – there shouldn’t be a problem with that either. Best wishes!

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