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Cheap Dog Food Buying Guide

AvoDerm, with formulas like Chicken Meal & Brown Rice (starting at 9 cents/ounce), lays claim to the best cheap dry dog food mantle. This lesser-known brand garners almost perfect scores from pet owners and experts largely due to the taste, beneficial effect on dogs' health, and high-quality "natural" ingredients, including chicken and avocado.

Fromm Classic Adult (starting at 10 cents/ounce) is the runner-up in the kibble category and hails from a small family-owned business that produces a lineup of dog- (and cat-) food products; its Adult Classic earns commendations for flavor and quality components, such as chicken, whole grains, and cheese.

The two cheap wet/canned dog food brands we lapped up include Canidae, with products like All Life Stages Lamb and Rice formula (starting at 15 cents/ounce), and Natural Balance Ultra (starting at 17 cents/ounce). As with their dry counterparts, both win high praise for keeping dogs happy and healthy, largely due to their taste and roll of nutritious ingredients.

Two cheap dog foods we researched failed to measure up. Purina Dog Chow Complete & Balanced (starting at 4 cents/ounce) kibble and Pedigree canned formulas, such as Beef, Bacon, & Cheese (starting at 10 cents/ounce), are heavy on ingredients that prompt experts to turn up their noses, such as fillers and meat by-products. Reviews posted by pet owners, however, reveal that budget prices and good taste often trump the unimpressive inputs.

What We Looked For in the Ingredients

A Natural, High-Quality Protein Source Listed at the Top.

Ingredients are listed on the product label in order of relative weight. Dogs are natural hunters, so ideally, assert some experts, two of the top three ingredients should be animal protein. Chicken and chicken meal headline Fromm Classic Adult, for example, and chicken meal is input No. 1 in AvoDerm's Chicken Meal & Brown Rice recipe. By contrast, whole grain corn is first in the Purina kibble formula we researched. Chicken and chicken liver are listed second and third in Natural Balance Original Ultra canned formula, and lamb and lamb liver claim the first and third spots in cans of All Life Stages Lamb and Rice from Canidae. (Water or broth is often the primary ingredient in wet dog foods.)

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Meat and/or Meat Meal, not Meat Byproducts.

Meat is a perfect source of protein that takes several forms in processed food. If the label simply lists chicken, lamb, or beef, count on it being the real thing. Meat meal is at least as good as, if not better than, whole meat because it's more protein-dense. The Dog Food Project recommends a kibble diet with at least one source of meat meal, like the offerings from AvoDerm, whose top input for most of its dry formulas is chicken meal.

The appearance of meat by-product of any type on the ingredients list is a signal to take a pass. Dog Food Advisor notes that meat by-product is what humans rarely eat: the remains of the source animal after the most nutritious parts have been removed. Chicken by-product is the first solid ingredient in the Pedigree canned meal with generic "meat" by-products as the third (chicken is second). The absence of any animal by-products in Canidae's Life Stages wet dog food lineup is one reason for very strong reviews at Chewy.

Minimal Carbohydrates/Fillers.

The presence of carbs in dog food is the source of some controversy. Some animal experts disdain carbs as mere filler and empty calories. Most others, such as Pet MD, take a more nuanced view, pointing out that quality carbohydrates are an important source of energy, dietary fiber, and feelings of fullness. Commercial dog foods inevitably contain carbs of some sort, but do choose a brand with the right kind -- e.g., oats, barley, brown rice, millet, peas, and sweet potatoes -- and spurn products with the wrong kind -- e.g., grain by-products, cereal food, starch, and soybean meal.

Corn and gluten also show up on many taboo lists, the former believed by some to be associated with allergies and the latter an elastic leftover once starch from the grain has been removed. Purina Dog Chow contains an assortment of lesser-quality carbs, including whole grain corn and soybean meal, as well as corn gluten meal, a protein sometimes used in weed control; the Pedigree canned dinner we researched contains wheat gluten and corn gluten meal. Our top picks have been spared such inputs.

No Artificial Ingredients.

Animal experts also rail against artificial ingredients like coloring and flavors, preservatives, and fillers, especially if they aren't approved for human consumption. Dog Health cautions against products with BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin, sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, and FD&C Red #3.

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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap Dog Food
  2. Dog Food Reviews, Wet vs. Dry Dog Food
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