Choosing the right cat food or dog food is a challenge for every pet parent. There are plenty of factors to consider, but one thing that all vets agree on is that whichever pet food you select, it needs to be AAFCO-approved.
But what is AAFCO? What does it mean for a pet food to be AAFCO-approved? This guide will break down everything you need to know about AAFCO-approved dog food and cat food and why it’s so important for pet food packages to have an AAFCO statement on them.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is a private, nonprofit, voluntary membership association.
AAFCO is made up of officials that are charged with regulating the sale and distribution of animal feeds (including pet foods) and drug remedies. AAFCO also establishes standard ingredient definitions and nutritional requirements for pet foods. Individual states often use AAFCO’s recommendations to create pet food regulations.
Best dry dog food for puppies
If youre wondering whether your puppy really needs a special food just for younger dogs, the answer is yes! Puppies need more calories, more fat, and a different vitamin and mineral balance to support healthy growth, Shepherd explains. Typically, puppy food is made for dogs under 1 year of age.
Though there arent any official AAFCO nutrient standards specifically for small and large breeds, some puppy foods are made specially for dogs of different sizes. “Balancing the nutrient needs of dogs given their wide size variety and ages is wise and common sense,” says Dodds. For instance, large breed puppies need a special ratio of calcium to phosphorus for their growing big bones, and they can benefit from supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin to help keep their joints healthy, according to Shepherd. On the flip side, puppy foods for smaller breeds often have smaller kibble pieces for smaller mouths. They may also be a bit higher in calories, since smaller breeds can have higher metabolisms.
If you want to make sure a food is appropriate for puppies, check the label for an AAFCO complete and balanced statement that says its intended for growth for all life stages. Some foods might also specifically state that theyre for younger dogs. Keep an eye out for any food that says “maintenance” on the package. These are meant specifically for adult dogs, so they wont be right for a puppy.
Below, youll find three different puppy foods, one for small breeds, one for large breeds, and one for any size breed. Feeding trials have been done on both Wellness Complete Health Small Breed Puppy and Orijen Puppy Large Grain-Free Food.
Our picks for puppy food:
Turkey, chicken meal, and salmon meal are the main proteins in this food that has undergone feeding trials. The list of carbohydrates includes oatmeal, barley, brown rice, carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, blueberries, and apples. It also contains probiotics and omega fatty acids from salmon meal, menhaden fish meal, and salmon oil. The nutritional breakdown is 28% protein, 19% fat, and 4.25% fiber and 489 kcal per cup.
Orijen’s grain-free food for large puppies counts free-run chicken and turkey, whole wild-caught fish and cage-free eggs among its protein sources. Standout carbohydrates include pumpkin, butternut squash, kelp, kale, spinach, carrots, apples, and pears. Omega fatty acids and probiotics are added as healthy extras. This food has undergone feeding trials and contains 38% protein, 16% fat, and 6% fiber and 446 kcal per cup. The FDA continues to investigate a potential link between dogs fed grain-free diets and the development of dilated cardiomyopathy, so talk to your veterinarian before feeding your dog this food.
Chicken and chicken meal are the main protein sources in this recipe. Carbohydrates include brown rice, barley, oatmeal, apples, and carrots and there are healthy extras including omega fatty acids, glucosamine, and chondroitin. It consists of 28% protein, 16% fat, and 3.5% fiber and 406 kcal per cup.
Dry food isnt the only option for puppies. Wet food is another tasty option and offers several advantages for puppies. “Wet food can help puppies transition from a liquid diet (the dams milk) to solid food,” says Shepherd. She adds that this transition, which should begin before a puppy is fully weaned, helps puppies accept solid food and learn how to drink water.
Wet food is also easy for puppies to eat. Without sturdy adult teeth, young puppies can struggle to munch on dry kibble, making wet foods soft and moist texture ideal. In addition, wet food is packed with flavor, providing tasty enticement for a picky or hesitant eater. However, Shepherd recommends consulting your veterinarian if your puppys appetite is poor as there may be an underlying condition.
When reading a label for wet puppy food, look for the AAFCO statement that says the food provides complete and balanced nutrition for growth or all life stages. Also, remember that wet food tends to cost more than kibble and needs to be refrigerated and used within a few days to prevent spoiling.
Wet food certainly has its benefits for puppies, but its not a necessity. “The decision to feed dry versus wet food is very individual, depending on the individual puppys needs and owners desires and resources,” says Shepherd.
The wet foods for puppies we selected all meet the AAFCO standards for growth or all life stages. They also include plenty of vitamins and minerals and other healthy ingredients to support brain development and immune health in puppies.
Our picks for wet puppy food:
Chicken and salmon are the main protein sources in this food. The salmon provides omega fatty acids for proper brain development. Other healthy ingredients include ground flaxseed, sweet potatoes, apples, and bananas. The nutritional breakdown is 39% protein, 27% fat, 2% fiber, and 434 kcal per 12.5 oz. can, or about 35 calories per ounce.
Chicken is the main protein source for this food. Healthy carbohydrate sources include peas, sweet potatoes, and brown rice. This food also contains plenty of other wholesome ingredients, including oatmeal, blueberries, and flaxseed. This food’s nutritional breakdown consists of 39% protein, 30% fat, and 3% fiber, with 422 kcal per 12.5 oz can, or about 34 calories per ounce.
This puppy food has chicken and pork as the main protein sources. Brewers rice flour and beet pulp provide carbohydrates. Other healthy ingredients include antioxidants and vitamin E to support immune health. It also contains pork and chicken byproducts, which may sound unappealing, but these are what is left over after initial food processing and are safe and nutritious. The nutrient profile for this food is 35% protein, 8.94% fat, and 21.36% fiber, with 417 kcal per 12.5 oz. can, or about 31 calories per ounce.
What we’re looking for:
Meets AAFCO nutritional standards: It’s important to look at a brand’s recall history and to locate an official nutritional-adequacy statement from the Association of American Feed Control Officials on the bag, box, or can. The AAFCO statement is a sign that the food is nutritionally complete and balanced, explains Dr. Zay Satchu, the co-founder and chief veterinary officer at Bond Vet. All of the dog food recommended below meets or exceeds AAFCO standards.
Made with high-quality ingredients: While ensuring that your dog’s food meets AAFCO standards is a good starting point for your research, when you’re shopping for dog food, you can definitely dig deeper. “I personally prefer to only select companies that employ a full-time board-certified veterinary nutritionist on staff and don’t just consult with one,” says Texas-based integrative veterinary expert Dr. Hunter Finn. Veterinarian Dr. Shelly Zacharias, a vice-president of medical affairs for Gallant, also stresses that dog-food ingredients lists should name the exact type of meat included (instead of “meat” or “meat by-products”) and should not contain white flour, preservatives such as BHA or BHT, propylene glycol, or rendered fat.
If your standards are higher than knowing just what kind of meat is in your dog’s food, Dr. Jamie Richardson, the chief of staff at Small Door Veterinary in New York City, says a growing number of the pet owners she sees are interested in human-grade or fresh pet foods. As this is a relatively new concept in the pet-food world, definitions vary a bit by brand, but, generally speaking, something labeled “fresh pet food” is minimally processed, does not contain preservatives, and is gently cooked to retain nutrients and reduce the risk of harmful bacteria present in some raw diets. These foods look a lot more like human food than traditional kibble or canned wet food. They usually come frozen and need to be thawed before each meal. If you would rather cook your own dog food, Finn pointed us to the handy online tool Balance IT, which will help you put together a nutritionally balanced menu.
We should also note that the FDA has put out a warning about certain grain-free foods, which the agency thinks may be linked to an increase in dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs. According to veterinarian Dr. Sara Ochoa, “Large and giant-breed dogs are predisposed to this disease.” The majority of the vets we spoke with explained that the correlation doesn’t stem from the lack of grains in these foods but rather from the legumes or peas that have been added as a replacement. Veterinarian Dr. Angie Krause says, “When a dog’s diet gets so high in legumes as a protein source, it may change their uptake of certain amino acids.” Since every dog is unique, if you’re thinking about changing your dog’s diet, it’s a good idea to consult with your veterinarian before doing so.
Tastes good: Veterinarian Dr. Stephanie Liff of Pure Paws Veterinary Care explains that palatability is a vital part of deciding what to feed a dog. “I want my patients to like eating it,” says Liff, who feeds her three-year-old Labradoodle a combination of human-grade and air-dried raw food as well as kibble. One way you know your dog is eating the right food, according to Liff, is if it produces “good-quality (easy to pick up) stool.” And if you’re wondering whether your dog likes the taste of its food, it should be obvious enough: If your dog enjoys the food, it will probably eat it in one sitting. “Dogs do not necessarily love to just leave food in the bowl until the next time they’re feeling hungry,” says Finn. With all the choices available today, you should have no problem finding food your dog loves.
Breed size: The main difference in foods formulated for small and toy dog breeds, according to Richardson, is that these are made in smaller chunks. Because little dogs have smaller mouths and teeth, you want to give them something that’s easy for them to bite and chew. And because they don’t eat as much as large or giant-breed dogs, you may have more financial wiggle room when it comes to choosing their food.
Wet versus dry food: The decision to feed your dog wet food rather than dry often comes down to convenience, personal preference, and price. But if you have a dog that’s reluctant to drink enough water, serving it wet food can be a sneaky way to help it stay hydrated. In addition to wet dog foods that come in a can, fresh and human-grade dog foods should be considered wet foods since their cooking process helps retain the food’s original moisture.
First ingredients are brewer’s rice, chicken by-product meal, and wheat | Medium breeds | Dry food
Of the 13 veterinarians we spoke to, nine said Royal Canin dog food is their top pick for their own pets and the dogs they treat at work. Dr. Gregory Gstrein, a staff veterinarian at a VCA Animal Hospital in California, says, “The best foods are backed by actual research and feeding trials, and Royal Canin does the extensive work needed to prove their foods yield excellent real-world results.” Dr. Catriona Love, an associate veterinarian at Heart of Chelsea Veterinary Group, feeds Royal Canin to her five-pound, 12-year-old Chihuahua rescue and says that of the three dog-food brands she recommends to her patients, Royal Canin is the most palatable. “I think the animals tend to like it more,” she says.
First ingredients are water, pork by-products, and pork liver | All breed sizes | Wet food
Veterinarian Dr. Jeff Werber says he likes Royal Canin because the brand has a positive track record and a trusted name, and its products are readily available. He told us he has always been a fan of mixed feeding, meaning providing a little of both dry and wet foods. Werber explains that because a lot of dogs don’t drink enough water, adding moist canned food (which has fewer carbs and more flavor) to their dry food is a win-win. He says his dogs “love with a capital L” Royal Canin’s low-fat canned dog food.
First ingredients are turkey with ground bone, turkey liver, and turkey gizzard | All breed sizes | Dry dehydrated raw food
When it comes to raw-food diets for dogs, there are some strong opinions in the veterinary community. Unsurprisingly, many vets feel that feeding your pet raw food can lead to potential health risks for both the dog and the humans who live with it. “I am not an advocate for any raw food at this time, as there is a very real risk for contamination to other household members, including people,” says Finn. “If the research comes out years down the road and suggests that raw food is indeed better for pets and can improve their lives, then I will be the first person to switch my dogs over immediately. Unfortunately, the research is lacking at this point in time.”
Others, including Krause, Liff, and veterinarian Dr. Marty Goldstein (who literally wrote the book on holistic medicine for pets and has his own line of dog food), explain that extra hygienic precautions need to be taken with raw foods, but they believe those precautions are worth the added nutritional benefits, such as improved digestion and immune-system functioning as well as less inflammation and fewer allergies. Liff says she has patients that do well on raw diets, but she always has “a lengthy discussion with owners about food handling to prevent foodborne illness.”
According to Goldstein, freeze-dried raw foods have less risk of foodborne illnesses and can be stored without refrigeration. Krause says that if her own dog didn’t have specific food sensitivities, she would feed it a raw diet — specifically, these Stella & Chewy’s dehydrated raw turkey patties. They meet AAFCO standards and can be served dry or mixed with a little warm water to rehydrate them. Krause told us she’s a fan of literally everything the brand makes, saying, “Stella & Chewy has never put out anything I haven’t liked.”
First ingredients are ground beef, russet potatoes, and eggs | All breed sizes | Frozen wet food
Fresh or human-grade dog food is more appealing to many dog owners who appreciate that it looks more like something they would eat. “If health and wellness are a priority, I absolutely recommend human-grade fresh food,” says Satchu, who feeds fresh-cooked dog food to his own pets. However, he stresses that whatever food you pick (especially some of the newer, designer-label foods) must be nutritionally balanced. The AAFCO stamp of approval helps to make this easy to differentiate. When we spoke to veterinarians about the best food for puppies, Richardson recommended the direct-to-consumer subscription brand Nom Nom. According to her, the brand works directly with a veterinary nutritionist to create diets specific to your pet that conform to AAFCO standards. “There are not a lot of other companies who do that,” she told us.
Nom Nom says its plans start at around $3 a day for the smallest dogs with few dietary restrictions. To determine a meal plan (and an actual price), the company asks you to fill out a survey about your pet’s breed, age, activity level, and weight goals. If you want Fido to try before you buy, you can order a variety pack with four of the brand’s foods for a flat $15.
Does AAFCO Test Pet Foods or Regulate Pet Food Ingredients?
AAFCO does NOT directly test, regulate, approve, or certify pet foods to make sure that they meet the standard requirements. Instead, they establish guidelines for ingredient definitions, product labels, feeding trials, and laboratory analyses of the nutrients that go into pet foods.
Pet food companies then use third-party testing agencies to analyze their foods according to the AAFCO guidelines.
AAFCO guidelines for pet food labels include:
Is Purina dog food AAFCO approved?
Is Royal Canin an AAFCO?
What dog food is most recommended by veterinarians?