Does Your Dog Need Expensive Pet Food?

If you’re buying “premium” dog food, you might be wasting money. Here’s how to figure out if the low-cost dog food at the big-box store contains the nutrients your dog needs.

Americans will spend $55.5 billion on their pets this year – nearly $21.3 billion for food alone, says a recent study by the American Pet Products Association. Dogs are the most popular pets, found in 46.3 million of the 114 million U.S. households.

Makers of dog food know how willing many of us are to spend on our pets, and they fill the marketplace with high-end “premium” brands. But does your dog really need the expensive stuff?

In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson provides some answers. Check it out, then read on for a complete breakdown of the dog food aisle.

The average dog

A Consumer Reports survey found that people pay an average of $36 a month for dog food. “A significant part of the national pet-food bill these days goes for so-called premium and super-premium varieties,” CR says.

But your veterinarian will likely tell you that the average dog doesn’t need pricey food. For healthy adult dogs, a medium-priced kibble will provide good nutrition as long as it carries certain labels.

First, look for “complete and balanced.” That indicates the food provides enough nutrients to be your dog’s only source of food as defined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. Then look for a statement on the bag that says the food meets the AAFCO’s standards.

The association’s website also says:

AAFCO’s nutrient profiles are broken down into two categories (or life stages) — growth and reproduction and adult maintenance. If the pet food meets all of the nutrient requirements of both growth and reproduction AND adult maintenance as listed in the AAFCO nutrient profiles, then that pet food would be considered to be nutritionally adequate for “all life stages.”

If the pet food meets the nutrient requirements of the AAFCO nutrient profiles, the label must bear the following statement:

“(Name of product) is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog (or Cat) Food Nutrient Profiles for ________.” (Blank is to be completed by using the stage or stages of the pet’s life such as gestation, lactation, growth, maintenance, or the words “All Life Stages.”)

Note that there are no special standards for senior dogs. Consumer Reports warns that the “senior” label is a marketing gimmick. Older dogs will do fine on adult maintenance food.

Special needs

If your dog has special needs, a special food may help. For example:

  • Allergies. Dogs can develop allergies to proteins, corn and a whole host of other common dog food ingredients. If your dog has a food allergy, you don’t necessarily need a specialty food, but you should look for a brand that doesn’t contain the allergen. The ASPCA says the only way to determine a food allergy is to feed your dog a prescription diet from your vet for 12 weeks. If you haven’t talked to your vet, start there.
  • Illnesses. If your dog has a chronic illness, a special diet may help. For example, in a column in The Seattle Times, Dr. Annie Chen-Allen recommended Hill’s Prescription Diet b/d (Canine Aging & Alertness Diet) for dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome, a form of dementia. However, talk to your vet before starting your dog on any special diet.
  • Organic diets. An organic diet is more of a lifestyle choice than an actual dietary need for your dog. But if you choose to buy the “organic” brands, Consumer Reports says: “For pet food, there’s no official definition of organic, human-grade, premium, no fillers, or gourmet.”

Ways to save

No matter what brand you buy, there are lots of ways to save. For example:

  • Shop big-box stores. Overall, Consumer Reports found better prices at Target and Walmart than at PetSmart and Petco. Compare prices everywhere before you head to the specialty shops.
  • Buy generic. Store-brand dog food is often cheaper than other brands. Compare the labels on a store brand and a mid-range name brand. If they have the same nutritional content, you’ll save money going generic.
  • Sign up for newsletters. Check your dog food brand’s website. Many offer email or mailed newsletters that contain coupons.
  • Shop sales. Big pet stores like PetSmart and Petco run weekly circulars, but you can also find pet food on sale at big-box stores and grocery stores.
  • Stack deals with bulk buys. Dog food is generally cheaper per ounce when you buy the bigger bags. But to save the most money, wait for your brand to go on sale, and buy the biggest bag possible with a coupon. You’ll stack the per-ounce price with the sale and a coupon discount.
Stacy Johnson

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  • Pulldog

    How simple everything can be seen.

    Organic isn’t just a lifestyle choice. Organic pet foods are healthier (e.g., low or no pesticides, no GMOs, etc) and healthier (more vitamins and minerals) than non-organic foods. Avoiding toxins such as pesticides and GMO ingredients may be a very wise decision if you want to avoid many of the modern diseases of our pets (e.g., allergies and cancer). If you avoid foods that provide nothing much but calories, you shouldn’t be surprised to end up with an overweight, unhealthy pet.

    Most holistic vets will tell you that food is the most important step to help keep your animal healthy. Some might tell you that you can make the best and cheapest!! pet food at home. You choose the ingredients and how you process them (cooked/raw). People have been very able to cook for their families for thousands of years; why would it be so much harder to nourish a pet than a human? We don’t usually eat or feed our children dry foods scooped out of huge bags or the same can food day after day. Why would it be healthful to feed our pets this way? Variety and quality are important. You don’t get this with most ‘balanced’ or ‘complete’ pet foods. At least you shouldn’t expect that your pet will thrive on most of such foods. The pet may survive for sometimes amazingly long times, but its quality of life may be quite bad when it develops chronic health issues. And how long does anybody think a 20lbs bag of food will be nutritious (if it ever was so to begin with). Some vets are very unhappy about the validity of AAFCO nutrient requirements. Testing for nutrient requirements apparently isn’t as great as a consumer might think.

    Oh Jeeze what happened to Consumer Reports? They continue this now already years old myth which hurts esp. smaller organic pet food manufacturers. I still hope the blog writer misunderstood the consumer report’s article.

    Pet food manufacturers can have their products certfied organic to USDA standards (with the USDA organic seal and all) just like certified organic human food companies. The same requirements are needed to do so.

    If a pet food is certified organic, an unbiased 3rd party actually looks at the books and manufacturing sites to see if the product labels display the truth about the quality of ingredients (sourcing, humangrade, GMO-free, organic status), processing (e.g., raw), etc. The inspection of books and facilities is done by a USDA accredited agency whose existence depends on being thorough. Consumers and manufacturers fortunately, report doubtful companies to the USDA (this can be done easily online) which then researches if the manufacturer’s claims are correct or not. If it turn out that the claims were wrong, the next question is how this could happen and the thoroughness of the inspecting agency is being investigated. If an agency isn’t thorough, they loose their accreditation and cannot inspect for the USDA again. The involved pet food manufacturer is fined and will have a hard/er time getting certified organic (again). This works all exactly the same for pet and human foods.

    I hope the Consumer Reports writers point out why their ‘best buy’ options came from Walmart and Target. If they didn’t mention that these 2 companies can sell stuff dirt cheap because they don’t pay living wages to their employees and leave it up to the tax payers to financially support their workers, I have lost all faith in anything Consumer Reports is saying.

    • jayarby

      Consumer Reports? This is the same bunch that once said Old Milwaukee was the best tasting beer! I’d rather drink dishwater.

  • 2whitedogs

    No wonder there are so few comments. The sign-on wiped my comment. In short, the article is a promo piece for the corn and carbo industry. Why write an article that tells the public to do nothing except respond to mass-market adverts for big bags of food. (in effect.) Blah!

    • Nadine

      About how long does it take for a comment to be moderated? I wrote a pretty extensive comment blasting this article, and am curious as to whether or not it will be published.

      • Nadine, I didn’t see any comments from you come in to the system. Did you receive a message after posting that it was being held for moderation?

    • Dalt Wisney

      It looks like the Consumer Reports article is from 2011. The one thing I look for is food that’s made in America.

  • Julie Syracuse

    Wow… very disappointed in this advice – at least it doesn’t say to buy the cheapest.
    First of all, what is an average dog? I have English Springer Spaniels. Our dogs, do have a job – we hunt with them on regular basis, and train/exercise with them almost everyday. Most importantly – they are members of our family! They have been fed premium dog food all their lives, in addition to sometimes being fed homemade dog food when they have gotten a stomach bug at the boarding kennel. Even our vets are amazed at how healthy they are. You won’t find dogs with healthier or silkier fur and teeth that look like they belong to dogs years younger.

    Our oldest just passed away at 13 1/2. He was happy and healthy all his life, only the last few months was there a slow decline. Actually, he was pretty active until just 24 hours before he passed.

    So is premium dog food worth it? Yes it is!
    It is better for your dogs and when compared to expensive veterinarian treatments, it is better for your bank account too.

    • kappy0405

      Why do you give credit to the premium dog food for your dogs healthy long life? My Aussie/Husky mix is 14 years old, well beyond its life expectancy, still has beautiful hair and teeth, and still goes on mile long walks and plays fetch. It always ate the cheapest dog food I could find. A dog’s health has more to do with the lifestyle you provide for it than anything else. Personally I think the article is spot on.

  • Virginia Fleischman

    I do buy the cheapest nor the most expensive. I look at the ingrediants and have found very expensive brands with the same basic ingrediants and nutrition information as the most expensive. Illnesses occur in dogs as they do in human even with the best diet and so some animals will get ill regardless of food. It is like everything else as often marketing trumps common sense. I had dogs that lived to a ripe old age 12-13+ living on the moderate priced non brand name dog food. Of course I gave them preventive care, exercise, appropriate shelter, love, and water etc-the necessary things for life.I have asked vets and the honest ones agreed with this. Some have told me they have cohorts who get kickbacks etc and the pet food industry is huge and some motivation is more related to greed than the pet’s welfare.

    • Virginia Fleischman

      I meant I do not buy the cheapest or most expensive.

      • Virginia Fleischman

        Typo time. I meant I find moderate priced brands which are almost identical to expensive brands.

  • Pet Lover

    I so disagree with your opinion on pet foods. The labels on pet foods only represent a chemical analysis of the food and not what is actually digestible. The protein in a low cost food may include cow hair, etc. which by definition is protein but is completely undigestible to an animals system. Providing a quality diet usually means using a pet food produced by a company that actually did feeding trials to make sure the animals stayed healthy!!! Cheaper foods also contain the last of the kill floor products known as by-products. If the food does not contain some “meat” (not meat-by-product), it is not going to meet the needs of your pet.

  • Beth Marino

    OMG, I don’t believe this person has any idea what harm can be done to a pet by feeding cheap food full of artificial ingredients, dyes, corn, etc. The money you save in pet food will be spent on vet bills when your pet has arthritis, is overweight, has diabetes, etc. Organic food = healthy food free of pesticides and herbacides. Read the label and see how many foods are full of corn which causes wgt gain and other problems and has no nutritional value. I hate to see advice like this – very uninformed opinion. And, by the way, most vets are about as knowledgeable about good nutrition as most doctors are. Not Very!

  • Tracy

    This Veterinarian did not know what she was talking about. She lumped by products and vegetables together. By products can be beaks, feathers, hooves, bones, any part of an animal. She should not be saying anything as an expert unless she knows what she is talking about! Shame on her…she needs to learn about pet nutrition! Buy products from Walmart??? Are you kidding me???

  • Diana

    Wow, I can’t believe the recommendations in this article! An organic diet for your pet is a lifestyle choice? You get more bang for your buck with organics and if I wouldn’t want to put crappy food in my diet why would I want to put it in my pets? Not only is there a lot less waste produced (think of that the next time you pick up after your dog) overall you’ll be feeding less since they’re getting more nutritional value from the food. I don’t need to be a pet specialist to tell you that. Garbage in garbage out! In my opinion, Consumer Reports got it very very wrong on this one. I’d say do your homework before taking this advice as gospel.

  • jayarby

    She’s a vet, not a nutritionist. Vets get only about 25 hours of nutritional instruction in four years of veterinarian school, if that. Better to buy the good stuff. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive. Wal-mart’s Old Roy? Puhleez! That’s like feeding a steady diet of Big Mac, fries, and a shake for your kids.

  • Michael Growney

    WOW! This article and video is a disgrace to journalism. Did you bother to ask the so called expert “vet” what her profit margins are on the food you were standing in front of, that are over priced and full of bad ingredients? Did she share how Science Diet hooks them up with vet prescribed foods that are way way more expensive then what you find in your local pet store. Did you read one ingredient label? Did you know most pet illness, diabetes, kidney issues, urinary tract issues, and being over weight are all linked to poor diets just like with humans. Shame…shame…shame on you

  • parhiscan

    I suggest this article about the state of our pet food
    When feeding our loved ones, be they human or furbabies cheap is never the way to go. The kind of food Angela is talking about is not fit to feed the rats in the sewer.

  • Brinny

    Are you talking about Hills Science Diet? That food is horrible too. The ingredients are just like any cheap food. Just because it’s more expensive doesn’t make it a 5-star dog food. :/

  • Brinny

    This article depicts most veterinarian’s opinions on dog food. Why? Because most of them know nothing about dog nutrition! They don’t study enough of it to realize harmful ingredients to wholesome ingredients. They wouldn’t know an apple from an orange.

    I personally feed my pup a 5-star dog food. It may not be the best, and it may not be raw or homemade, but I am satisfied with the results it has shown for him.
    My pup is a Border Collie mix that I rescued and he is extremely active. He herds almost all day, and if he’s not doing that, then he’s playing in the pond. I have no choice but to feed him high protein/high fat foods, otherwise I would have to feed him 10 cups a day (he’s roughly 60lbs) to keep him healthy!

    Just because a vet has an opinion about something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right.
    Go to to learn more about dog food!

  • Singleindixie

    I have fed my pets cats/dogs Iams ever since I have had them. I have had cats living as long as 22yrs. and a lab mix I have now is almost 16. I think I’ll stick to Iams.

  • Singleindixie

    I have fed Iams to my cats and dogs as long as I have had them. I do use coupons for the food, too. I have had cats living up to 22yrs. And my lab mix now is almost 16. I think I’ll stick to Iams. They are worth it.

  • aliciathom

    Feeding your dog (all pets really) good food is so important and it will help defray the costs of future health problems.

    I like to buy high quality food at a feed store. They’ll have the same quality foods but at much lower prices. In Texas, there are feed stores everywhere so that’s easy but this may not work for everyone.

  • Bob Clemens

    Did research and found out many supermarket brands may have rendered ingredients meaning processed dead animal parts recovered from dogs and cats that are put down with drugs that killed them. Comments about corn being a filler are so true. No more than one ingredient from the same source, such as chicken. If on the other hand a shorter life and a possible less healthy pet are not as important to you as to some other people, please do not buy into the guilt trip that nay-sayers are putting forth. I had many dogs with a long life and good health using store brands but my current dog is not worth the risk as he really is my best friend. I feed him Blue because cost is not an issue.

  • cattlewrangler .

    I really cannot believe the amount of people on here thinking that expensive pet food equals healthy pets. I know a vet that is selling €500 of pet food per day €50/15 kg bag. I can buy a 15 kg bag of complete dog food for €12 in my local co-op my dog doesn’t complain and is over 4 years and healthy. Amazing how marketing convinces people otherwise.

  • eyeRollz

    It would be interesting to crosscheck this advice against the cancer rate for dogs. It seems like more and more dogs are dying of cancer.

  • cattlewrangler .

    Fools and their money are soon parted. Expensive dog food is a gimmick and yet people still believe they need to spend lots of money on dog food.

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