Melissa holds a Bachelor's Degree in Biology and is a plant and animal enthusiast with multiple pets.
“What type of dog food should I feed?” That is probably the number one health-related question pet owners ask of not only veterinarians, but fellow owners on online forums, breeders, and pet “gurus”.
In fact, if you do an online search for the “best” dog food brands, you will more than likely be overwhelmed with the number of choices available and the seemingly little agreement between these entities on what the best option is for your dog.
There are literally hundreds of dog food brands, and many of them also have options for different breeds, activity levels, age, and some claim to keep teeth clean.
To make matters more complicated, homemade diets for dogs are now all the rage, with an emphasis on raw diets which are considered to be a “natural” and therefore a superior option. What should a dog owner do? The answer is both complex and simple.
Dog Food Advisor and Veterinarians
- Why You Should Never Trust Dog Food Advisor
Please be advised that the popular website Dog Food Advisor (DFA) was not created, nor recommended by veterinarians.
Veterinary Advice and Nutrition
The first person you might take this question to is your dog’s veterinarian, and with good reason. Unlike laypeople, vets have dedicated many years of their life to becoming educated on the topic of pet health and wellness.
Dogs also have the privilege of being one of the most popular pets in the United States and perhaps the world, so there has been much research dedicated to them and we know a lot more about them compared to other species.
Most importantly, a vet can assist in choosing the best diet for your individual pet. However, in recent times, vets have come under scrutiny. While we easily trust them with most of our dog’s medical conditions, including even surgical procedures, it has been said that vets know little about nutrition .
To make matters worse, it has also been claimed that the education vets do receive is presented by pet food companies, creating a conflict of interest. To those who are concerned about a vet’s apparent lack of nutritional knowledge, there is an easy solution. There are veterinarians who actually specialize in nutrition; they are board-certified veterinary nutritionists. You are in luck if you can access a specialist like this in your area, but if not, their useful information can still be found online.
In most cases, general veterinarians will advocate for the same foods (or methods of selection) that these nutrition experts do.
What Is the Best Vet-Recommended Dog Food?
Most vets, including board-certified veterinary nutritionists, will only recommend the following brands:
- Purina Pro Plan
- Royal Canin
. . . and this may come as a shock to some people, considering which brands are promoted by online blogs, forums, and websites like The Spruce Pets, the latter which claims to "independently research, test, and recommend the best products."
The reason for this is that there are many unverified health claims that haunt the internet that have become very mainstream recently. Claims touting the benefits of grain-free food, “natural” diets, raw or BARF diets , high protein, and ensuring the first ingredients in your dog’s food contain “meat”  are some examples that are not supported by evidence and most vets will disagree with them.
But Don’t Vets Get "Kickbacks"?
This is a claim that is understandably very insulting to veterinarians. Many vets have stated when asked this question that the closest thing resembling a kickback in their schooling are “lunch and learn” sessions about nutrition science presented by companies that give out free pizza or sandwiches and a bag of chips.
Sometimes pet food companies also distribute pens and other freebies. As vets care about animals just like pet owners (and often are pet owners themselves) and have pursued their profession due to this (it generally pays far less than human medicine), it defies logic that a free lunch would prompt them to distribute information that would harm their clients.
Not All Vets Agree
There is something that makes this topic even more confusing; the fact that there are vets who will endorse some of the very things I’ve stated most vets are against—why?
Unfortunately, even the esteemed achievement of earning a DVM degree doesn't make an individual impervious to cognitive biases and unsubstantiated beliefs that stem from their values and sense of identity. This is true of any professional, including human doctors and scientists, which is why the consensus of experts is so important.
In fact, there are some veterinarians who distinguish themselves from those who abide by evidence-based medicine; they are often referred to as holistic vets, who practice "alternative", "complementary" or "integrative" medicine. Although surprisingly, even "conventional" veterinarians will offer controversial therapies and diet recommendations.
What Are WSAVA guidelines?
Those who are truly interested in “doing their own research” should follow these guidelines which are recommended by certified veterinary nutritionists . WSAVA stands for World Small Animal Veterinary Association and it is “a cooperative of veterinary associations from 113 different countries around the world.”
In order to establish if a pet food brand has been extensively tested and developed with the highest standards, one may inquire if the company consults with a certified nutritionist, where the food is manufactured, if feeding trials have been conducted, and the other criteria listed here. So far, the only brands that meet these guidelines are those listed above.
How to Pick Your Dog Food
Don’t just take the veterinary community consensus’ word for it; there are many ways a layperson can determine who they should trust with their pet’s health and nutrition. This is accomplished by assessing which group, individual vet, organization, or pet owner who is making claims can remain logically consistent.
When it comes to “doing your own research”, the critical thinking pet owner should recognize the limitations of their own knowledge, and stray from applying what they think they understand about the infinitely complex subject of nutrition. What is within our realm of understanding however is contradictory double standards or even hypocritical claims. Here are some examples of red flags you should watch for:
- Someone tells you to defy your general vet’s recommendations because they have little training in nutrition, yet they, while also lacking formal nutritional training, are making claims that defy the recommendations of board-certified vets who are specially trained in nutrition.
- A person who denigrates scientific research when it doesn’t support their belief, but when they feel a study does support their beliefs, they tout it as proof they were right all along.
- A website claims that “conventional” veterinarians want to suppress the best health information to make money, then the website aggressively markets their own health advice and/or products, supplements, etc.
- Someone claims that dogs should eat “natural” food, but suggests animal by-products, a “natural” source of meat that just happens to be unappealing to most American pallets , are a “bad” ingredient.
- The use of testimonials and personal experience (anecdotal evidence)  to proclaim the benefits of a food type while rejecting the testimonials and experiences that point to the success of the "bad" diet or dog food (which is why this form of evidence is unreliable).
- Claiming something is better because it is "natural".
Furthermore, if you are suspicious of a vet’s supposed conflict of interest or capacity to think beyond their education from supposed dubious pet food companies, you may want to consider:
- What does the vet feed their own pets?
- Why would we trust vets to perform surgery on our pets if they were supposedly lying (or too inept to resist a “kickback” of free pizza) about nutrition?
- Why would most veterinarians, despite having the intelligence to give medical care to dogs, cats, and sometimes numerous species of animals, lack the mental sophistication to make simplistic conclusions about nutrition?
As for veterinarians who make claims that go against the consensus of other vets, it may be helpful to do a background check on them. Using Dr. Andrew Jones DVM as an example, he has posted on the website DogsNaturally.com (the name of that website is another red flag) making claims that vets know little about nutrition and that the pet food industry is unethical. He also advocates going against general veterinary advice. This vet had received several warnings from the veterinary medical licensing authorities in Canada where he practiced for making false claims, leading to the eventual forfeiture of his medical license.
Finally, last but not least, it is extremely important to follow the advice of professionals and communities who have the capacity to change their minds in the face of new, credible evidence. Understandably, it might seem like everyone does this, but those who truly follow the scientific method do not.
Please understand, this does not apply anecdotal evidence, which is so heavily prone to bias, it is not reliable (after all, you can find just as much praise for kibble as you can for raw dog food), nor does it apply to smaller studies that challenge the scientific consensus despite being determined to have poor methodology, small sample size, and other compromising factors.
The gold standard of scientific study is that a conclusion is consistently supported by high-quality research, and that is why skeptics will challenge a small study that purports a different theory. It is always a red flag when not only does someone make a health claim that goes against the consensus of experts, but that they have a rock-solid belief in that conclusion and will allow no evidence to even have them consider otherwise.
References and More Information
- Clinical Nutrition Team. Don’t be bothered by by-products. May 31, 2016. Cummings Veterinary Medical Center.
- Freeman, Lisa. Questions You Should Be Asking about Your Pet’s Food. December 19, 2016.
- Freeman, Lisa. Stop reading your pet food ingredient list!. March 01, 2019
- Novella, Stephen. The Role of Anecdotes in Science-Based Medicine. January 30, 2008.
- Ohio State University. Myths and Misconceptions Surrounding Pet Foods.
- Skeptvet. Are Unconventional and Raw Pet Diets Becoming More Popular?. June 28, 2020
- Skeptvet. Don’t Believe Your Eyes (or Your Brain). February 22, 2015.
- Skeptvet. Testimonials Lie: More Evidence for Why You Can’t Trust Anecdotes or Personal Internet Reviews of Medical Treatments. August 31, 2014
- Skeptvet. What do Veterinarians Know About Nutrition?. July 8, 2012
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2020 Melissa A Smith