Cheap vs Expensive Dog Foods – You Get What You Pay For?

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According to numerous news articles, the Millennial generation is so devoted to their dogs that they are ruining the pet food industry. Legacy brands like Nestle Purina, Mars Pedigree, and others have seen sagging sales as Millennials try to feed their pets like children. Thousands of new pet food products are entering the market as companies try to attract customers. And spending on dog food has skyrocketed in the last few years. But, are dogs really eating healthier? Are you really getting what you pay for if you buy the most expensive dog foods versus cheaper dog foods?

Cheap Versus Expensive Dog Foods

Commercial dog foods have only been around since the 1870s For many years there were only a few brands. Canned dog food (usually horse meat) was popular with many dog owners for decades. It was only in the 1950s that dog food companies began making the kind of extruded pet foods (kibbles) that are familiar to us today.

Many things can determine the price of dog food. Here are a few points that make a difference in cost:

  • Brand name
  • Research and development for formulas
  • Qualified staff such as veterinary nutritionists
  • Food trials to meet AAFCO guidelines
  • Quality control
  • Manufacturing costs (Does a company own their own plant or do they have to hire others to make and package their foods?)
  • Advertising/marketing
  • The volume of food produced and sold
  • Last but not least, the ingredients

You might be surprised where some companies put their resources and where they see a return on investment. Some of the most expensive dog foods today have been around for less than 20 years. Some have been around for less than 10 years. These companies might be pouring money into advertising/marketing, manufacturing costs if they don’t have their own plants, and in some cases ingredients that are termed “human grade.” In some cases they are less likely to spend money on food trials, which tend to be expensive. They opt instead for nutritional profiles to meet AAFCO guidelines. They do not usually have a large staff of veterinary nutritionists.

Older, more established companies often produce a lot of dog food. Many of these companies have a range of foods from “cheap” or inexpensive brands to high quality foods. Since they do produce lots of food they can usually buy ingredients in large quantities, saving money. They usually own their own manufacturing facilities. Companies like Mars, Purina, and Eukanuba have large staffs of veterinary nutritionists which not only formulate their recipes but work on research and development for canine nutrition. These companies usually have good quality control. Even if they have an occasional recall it needs to be measured against the millions of bags/cans of food they sell each year. Most foods from these companies cost less than the newer, holistic dog foods, although these companies do produce some more “natural” dog foods.

Do You Get What You Pay for with Dog Food?

The answer to this question depends on what you want in your dog’s food. The cost of dog food has increased from $1.71 per pound in 2011 to $2.51 per pound in 2017. There isn’t much sign that the price will be going down. If owners want more meat protein in their dog’s food, this price will likely climb higher.

It doesn’t usually pay to buy the cheapest dog food but no one likes to feel like a company is cheating them either.

There are some warning signs that you might not be getting what you pay for with some dog foods. If you are buying a dog food that is supposed to be for “carnivores” and it leads you to believe that it has plenty of meat protein, it’s a good idea to read the ingredient list to see how many of the first several ingredients are peas, lentils, and other legumes. Some expensive dog foods that used to contain lots of meat protein have slowly scaled back on the meat and now add a lot more plant-based protein. If you know much about dogs then you know that dogs do not digest plant-based protein as easily as meat-based protein. Plus, you are getting ripped off. There is no good reason to pay $90 for a bag of dog food that has a majority of plant-based proteins in the first several ingredients, especially if the food claims to provide lots of meat protein. Plant-based proteins are simply a way for dog food companies to add protein to dog foods without the expense of using meat. Frankly, dogs were better off when foods contained corn.

If you want your dog to have “human grade” dog food that really contains meat protein and organic vegetables, for example, and you are willing to pay the higher price for these foods, then you are probably getting what you pay for. There are a few good companies that make these foods. They are expensive but some people don’t mind. “Human grade” is a slippery term in the dog food world so do make sure that you thoroughly read the company’s web site so you know that you both understand the same thing by the term. Technically, as soon as any ingredient enters a dog food facility it can no longer be called “human grade.” That means that any dog food that is marketed as “human grade” has to be made in a human food facility. Some companies try to get around this technicality by stating that they use “human grade” ingredients – even though their dog food is not “human grade.” Those are completely different things.

You will also pay more for organic ingredients though the price of the food can depend on the percentage that is organic. The higher the percentage of organic ingredients, the higher the cost. If this is important to you and your dog, it may be worth the extra cost. It is becoming more common to find dog foods that contain some organic ingredients but it’s still hard to find dog foods that are mostly organic.

Many dog foods are GMO-free, if this is important to you. If you prefer a grain free dog food, many of these foods are also GMO-free. Although dog foods often advertise that they are GMO-free, this is so common that you really shouldn’t have to pay extra for it.

Many foods are also free of corn, wheat, and/or soy. Again these foods are very common. It’s reached the point now that you should not expect these foods to cost more than other dog foods.

Grain free dog foods are so common today that it can actually be harder to find good grain-inclusive dog foods. Contrary to what some people or companies might tell you, there is no particular reason to feed your dog a grain free diet unless he has a diagnosed grain allergy for intolerance. Dog food allergies are not as common as many people believe. Some dogs can have seasonal allergies, flea bite allergies, or contact allergies to something in the environment that might be causing your dog’s symptoms. For dogs that have food allergies, the most common allergens are beef (by a wide margin), dairy, and chicken; followed by wheat, soy, lamb, corn, eggs, and pork.

There are some very good grain-inclusive dog foods available today. They can contain named meats and meat meals just like grain free dog foods. Some of them contain starches such as oatmeal or barley while others use different forms of corn. Lest you scoff at corn, keep in mind that corn contains the precursor amino acids that your dog needs to make taurine in his body. Many veterinary cardiologists have advised dog owners worried about dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) to take their dogs off grain free foods that contain lots of peas, lentils, and legumes and switch them to grain-inclusive foods. Most good grain-inclusive dog foods are moderately priced but the price can depend on other factors such as the kind of meat protein and other ingredients.


We probably all wish that dog food cost less but since that’s not likely to happen the best we can do is try to choose the best, healthiest food for our dogs. Choosing the best food often depends on our own values and beliefs. I might be unwilling to pay more for “human grade” or organic ingredients but good meat protein would be important to me. You might have different priorities. Food trials might be something I care about while you care more about where the food is made. What really matters is keeping your dog healthy and happy. Feed your dog a good food and watch his condition. Bone Appétit!



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