Buying the Best Canned Dog Food: Behind WDJ's Approved Wet Dog Food List
What are those long ingredient lists on canned dog food labels really telling you? Are there ANY quality canned foods out there?
[Updated August 3, 2018]
Can you identify with confidence every ingredient listed on the back of your dog's wet food can? We'd be surprised if you can. As a responsible pet food consumer, you want to focus more on whole, natural dog food ingredients rather than highly processed meats, grains and sugars. We have plenty of organic, raw, preservative-free options in stores for our own consumption, and thankfully we do see similar trends in the way dog food is made and marketed.
Looking for a new canned dog food? Whole Dog Journal's Best Foods of 2018 review is here!
That being said, the pet food industry could always be more transparent to the public about their manufacturing policies. More importantly, commerical dog food could always be healthier for dogs to eat. We took an inside look into a small-batch canned dog food manufacturing facility, but that experience was perhaps an example of how things ought to be done, not as they always really are.
So what is the best wet food for dogs? There is no answer to that. Whole Dog Journal could give you a list of what we think are the top 10 best canned dog foods, but that seems so limiting. Instead, each year we give you an exhaustive list of healthy, good canned dog foods, and enough knowledge to make a quality choice for your dog based on your individual needs.
The 5 Traits of a Top-Quality Canned Dog Food
1. A specified meat source listed as the first ingredient. This means the product contains more of that ingredient than any other listed.
2. Specified sources of any animal protein or fat. These will be highly processed substances, but good luck avoiding them entirely. Look for named species when it comes to muscle tissue and organs. Body parts are good as long as they are identified.
3. Whole grains and vegetables.
4. Very limited inclusion of grain, meat, or vegetable byproducts, if any at all.
5. The "complete and balanced" label, awarded by AAFCO.
The following information and all of Whole Dog Journal's dog food evaluations are meant to prepare you with the tools to make educated choices when selecting a new food for your dog. We use a rigid selection criteria to examine hundreds of foods every year. Use our lists of quality dog foods for reference in choosing a food that's acceptable for your dog. Our 2018 review is available now! (Scroll down to see lists from previous years.)
So, you're at the supermarket or pet store. Rover is all out of kibble, and you know from reading WDJ that it's good to switch up his dog food from time to time in order to provide a more balanced array of nutrients. You usually feed standard kibble, but this time you feel like trying a wet food. Perhaps Rover is elderly or underweight and you'd like to spark his appetite a bit. Perhaps you think he would benefit from having less processed meat and more moisture in his diet than dry dog food provides (he would!).
As you gaze down the colorful aisle, with maybe 30 different kinds of wet dog food cans, you might feel overwhelmed. You might jump to a conclusion that all canned dog food must be more or less of equal quality, and grab the one that's cheapest or has the nicest label. If only those assumptions were true! Despite the dubious manufacturing practices of many wet dog foods, there are plenty of benefits of canned food as well. Once you find a canned dog food of top quality, your dog can look forward to minimally processed proteins, MORE protein per meal, and no preservatives.
Since 1998, the Whole Dog Journal has worked to help owners take back control when it comes to choosing a pet food that's right for their dogs. You can find commercial dog foods that are great quality! All you need to do is know what to look for.
Whole Dog Journal contacts the companies on each year's list to ask questions explicitly about nutritional facts, ingredient sourcing and manufacturing policies. And every year, we are astounded by the opacity with which companies shroud their information. For instance, a few companies stated they only release full nutrient analyses to veterinarians, for whatever reason. This is suspicious. Many companies will not disclose full nutritional details of their pet food to anyone. Thus the need arose for WDJ to dig a bit further into what's really going onto the pet food aisle, and into our puppies' bellies.
And so, beginning in 2016, Whole Dog Journal's dog food evaluations now demand that pet food manufacturers prove their foods meet the AAFCO "complete and balanced" standard. Not only must a dog food wear the "complete and balanced" label, but it must also provide WDJ with documented evidence of its meeting AAFCO guidelines. For more on the definition of "complete and balanced", as well as AAFCO's guidelines, follow this link or scroll down to "Must Have Ingredients of Canned Dog Food" below.
Year by Year: Subscribers to Whole Dog Journal can access all of our annual canned dog food reviews online. We'd like to note that the brands included in our reviews are by no means the only acceptable wet dog food brands out there. A food that works perfectly for your dog may not be covered in our lists, and there may even be foods we approve that you could never feed your dog. For this reason, we encourage our readers to share their most successful commercial dog foods in the comment section below! Here are links to our three past years of approved canned dog food:
- 2016 WDJ Approved Canned Dog Food List
- 2015 WDJ Approved Canned Dog Food List
- 2014 WDJ Approved Canned Dog Food List
Whole Dog Journal rates wet dog food and publishes its findings annually in the "Approved" dog food lists according to the following criteria (click here for a separation criteria page):
→ Must-Have Ingredients in Canned Dog Food
Be sure your dog's canned food contains the following elements to ensure you're buying a quality product. No can of commercial dog food is going to be perfect for every dog, but to ensure your dog receives a proper balance of nutrients, the one you feed should meet the WDJ criteria. Your goal in selecting a food is to find the one with the most whole food ingredients, and the least artificial additives.
PROTEIN: The protein source should be #1 on the ingredient list, and it should always name a specific animal, such as chicken, lamb, beef, etc.
GRAINS: Repeat after us: whole, and unprocessed. Although grains and starches are not necessary in canned dog food, you will almost always encounter them in some form. Go for brown rice or wild rice. Avoid wheat gluten, which is used as a binder and often one of the first ingredients in wet dog food, as well as corn starch. Avoid white rice if you can.
VEGGIES: Potato and sweet potato are common thickeners in canned dog food. These are acceptable so long as they are listed as the sixth or seventh ingredient, versus the third or fourth. The same rule goes for other vegetable products, such as tomato paste and potato starch. If you happen to find a dog food with whole non-starch veggies like carrots, alfalfa, or apples, bravo! This is an excellent indication of a good pet food.
COMPLETE AND BALANCED: A "complete and balanced" dog food has either passed an AAFCO feeding trial, met its Nutrient Profiles criteria, or belongs to a line of products that has previously gained its AAFCO approval. As stated above, it is not enough to just sport the "complete and balanced" label to earn WDJ approval. Dog food companies must prove to WDJ that their products have been conclusively tested. For a full profile of the "complete and balanced" label, see "Complete and Balanced Dog Food".
→ Avoid Canned Dog Food with These Ingredients
BYPRODUCTS: As pet owners, we have a frustratingly little amount of control over the byproducts that are in our dogs' food. They come in every kind of food group - meat, grains, vegetables, and on top of that there are all those preservatives and god-knows-what unpronouncable chemicals, which we cover below. Lower-quality foods will flat out list "meat by-product" as one of the main ingredients of their foods, but these highly processed, low nutrient foodstuffs appear under many names. Beware of things like "modified beef".
NON-SPECIFIC OR UNNAMED ANIMAL SOURCES: If a food lists unspecified organs as a primary meat source, we would not feed it. Common examples are "liver," "heart" and "tripe", with no indication of what animal those parts came from. The same goes for unidentified "poultry".
FOOD BINDERS: We mentioned these above. In foods that contain highly processed meat sources, binders are needed to hold the meat-stuff together so that it more closely resembles natural "chunks". Wheat gluten and various gums that you find in human foods (like guar and carrageenan) should be at the bottom of the ingredient list, if there at all.
SUGAR/SWEETENERS: There should be no artificial sweeteners in dog food, but lower quality foods will add them for the simple reason that it makes the food taste better. Sugar and molasses are common. Never buy a food with corn syrup in it.
ARTIFICIAL COLORING/EXCESS PRESERVATIVES: For the full scoop on preservatives, see "Problems With Artificial Preservatives in Dog Food". Luckily, preservatives are not common in wet dog foods because the canning process prevents rancidity.
For a quick list of what to look for and what to avoid, see "Hallmarks of Quality Dog Food".
YOUR DOG’S UNIQUE DIET AND NUTRITION NEEDS
Keep in mind that even the most highly regarded dog food on earth could never be right for every dog. Your dog's body is unique; it comes with quirks and sensitivities just like humans' bodies do. Whole Dog Journal seeks to provide you with the strongest foundation possible for finding the best wet dog food, but you know your dog best. Some factors to consider are:
- A dog who might be prone to urinary tract infections would be better off with a food lower in pH (less acidic).
- If your dog is lean and active, you might look for a higher-fat, higher-protein brand.
- If your dog is older and less active, you might want food with a higher percentage of lean protein.
You must also be realistic about availability. Online shopping eliminates this problem for the most part. Just don't rely on any old commercial pet store to carry artisan, independent pet food lines.
Equally important are the price points for higher quality dog food. Buy the best dog food you can find, but choose one within your comfortable means. Wet dog food is more expensive than dry food, and if you happen to be shopping for, say, two Mastiffs and a Pit Bull, top quality canned food could be downright unaffordable. Decide what is an appropriate amount to spend on pet food each month, and prioritize the aspects of your dogs' food that is most important.
See these Whole Dog Journal articles for more in depth examples of some dogs' dietary needs: "Special Diets for Dogs With Cancer", "Managing Diabetes in Dogs", "Healthy Low-Fat Diets For Dogs With Special Dietary Needs".
To access Whole Dog Journal's canned dog food reviews online, click the links below or become a subscriber.
- 2017/2018 WDJ-Approved Best Canned Dog Food Review
- 2016 WDJ-Approved Best Canned Dog Food Review
- 2015 WDJ-Approved Best Canned Dog Food Review
- 2014 WDJ-Approved Best Canned Dog Food Review
- 2013 WDJ-Approved Best Canned Dog Food Review
- 2012 WDJ-Approved Best Canned Dog Food Review
Happy dog food hunting!