As pet parents, we’re forever seeking the healthiest dog food for our floofs, whether that entails researching brands or scanning ingredient lists.
With so many options on the market, it takes time to distinguish the best from the rest, including which dog food brands to avoid entirely.
We’ll try to make the process easier by sharing dog food red flags to watch for and listing a few of the worst dog food brands to avoid below.
What Makes a Food Bad for Dogs?
First, let’s define what we mean by “bad,” as that word has pretty heavy connotations.
In truth, most commercial, US-made dog food, including the “bad dog foods” we’re discussing in this article, are more nutritionally sound than what many dogs eat elsewhere in the world.
Maybe these foods aren’t the healthiest dog food regarding ingredient quality, but as long as a dog food product meets the AAFCO guidelines for your dog’s life stage for complete and balanced nutrition or maintenance, it’s usually OK to feed your pupper.
In fact, most “bad foods” are even better than some foods made with the best intentions, such as homemade diets that a veterinary nutritionist hasn’t formulated.
Today, our “bad” foods of dog food brands to avoid feature red-flag ingredients, a history of recalls, and questionable origins, among other factors.
The main things that warrant a “bad dog food” label are:
- Artificial colors
- Artificial flavors
- Unidentified or poorly identified meat meals
- Unlabeled or poorly identified meat by-products
- Brands lacking a protein at the beginning of the ingredient list
- Concerning ingredients
- Excessive recalls
- Country of origin with poor safety regulations
This isn’t an exhaustive take on how to choose a dog food, but rather a guide on what to avoid in dog food. Spotting problematic practices gives an overall sense of a food’s quality, allowing you to quickly identify dog food brands to avoid and move on to safer eats.
And no, the best dog food doesn’t have to drain your wallet. Several budget-friendly dog foods made with better ingredients and safer methods are available.
What Makes a Dog Food “Good”?
Conversely, you may wonder what deems a particular dog food “good” versus “bad.” The truth is, it varies, as there’s no blanket answer. One pup may thrive on a food another dog can’t tolerate.
Selecting the right dog food for your pooch isn’t a one-size-fits-all process, but you can streamline the task by looking for a product that fits three core rules:
- Meets the AAFCO nutrient profile for your dog’s life stage
- Addresses any health conditions or concerns your dog has
- Is selected in concert with your vet’s input
If a dog food meets those conditions, it’s likely a solid choice for your pup. You can stop your search here if the food is well-tolerated by your woof.
But some pet parents want to narrow things down further, focusing on the individual brand’s manufacturing processes and safety measures. In these cases, answering the following questions can offer added peace of mind.
To break down your options more with second-tier criteria, look for the following:
- A manufacturer with an on-staff canine or veterinary nutritionist
- A manufacturer that performs routine safety checks
- A brand that pasteurizes or cooks all proteins to kill pathogens
- Food made in a Western country (USA, Canada, England, EU members, Australia, or New Zealand)
- Food with ingredients sourced only from Western countries
- A brand that prepares food in their own kitchens
From there, you can dwindle things down to third-tier criteria if you’re stuck between products, including:
- Is a whole protein the primary ingredient?
- Are meat meals or by-products clearly labeled?
- Does the food have any questionable ingredients like ethoxyquin?
- Does the food have any helpful supplements like glucosamine or probiotics?
- Are whole, minimally processed grains included?
- Does the food contain bonus nutrients like omega-3s and antioxidants?
With all these questions answered to your satisfaction, you likely have a “good” dog food fit for your pup as long as it sits fine in his tummy and leaves his taste buds happy.
6 Dog Food Brands to Avoid
Now that we’ve defined the “good” from the “bad,” we can dig into which dog food brands to avoid. These labels generally use low-quality or controversial ingredients that don’t pass the sniff test.
1. Ol’ Roy™
Ol’ Roy™ is a Walmart-exclusive brand manufactured by Doane Pet Food (a Mars Company) in Tennessee.
Named after Walmart founder Sam Walton’s dog Roy, the label contains an assortment of dry dog food, wet dog food, treats, and more, generally at wallet-friendly price points, though ingredient quality is lacking with the brand.
Most Ol’ Roy™ recipes feature a carbohydrate as the primary ingredient, and unidentified animal products like “meat” and “animal fat” are also used.
The brand also doesn’t shy away from using artificial dyes and other controversial ingredients. In addition, a 2018 recall of some of the brand’s products was due to the potential presence of a euthanasia drug.
Let’s look at the ingredient list of Ol’ Roy™ Complete Nutrition Roasted Chicken & Rice for a sample of what you DON’T want in dog food:
Ground Whole Grain Corn, Meat and Bone Meal, Soybean Meal, Animal Fat (Preserved with BHA and Citric Acid), Corn Gluten Meal...,
- Ground Whole Grain Corn: Corn’s an ingredient people love to hate, but it’s a source of carbohydrates and some nutrition. However, that doesn’t mean it should be a primary ingredient over a labeled protein.
- Meat and Bone Meal: What kind of meat and bone? Are we talking cow, chicken, pork, or something else entirely? All proteins must be identified. Poor labeling is something to watch closely for if your dog has known protein allergies.
- Animal Fat: Again, what kind of animal did this fat come from? While we appreciate the flavoring and potential boost of fatty acids, we’d like to know what animal it’s from.
- BHA: Short for butylated hydroxyanisole, this chemical may be carcinogenic and disrupt hormones. Yikes!
- Corn Gluten Meal: This by-product of milling corn is a cheap protein source in pet food, though it’s not as digestible as whole corn. A higher quality, whole carbohydrate is a better option.
- Red 40/Blue 2/Yellow 5: Artificial dyes are often sprayed on dog kibble after the high temperatures of cooking strip away a palatable hue. Quality dog food doesn’t need to rely on fake dyes, instead using nutritious coloring like vegetable juice. And your dog doesn’t care what color her food is anyway.
- Menadione Sodium Bisulfite Complex: This synthetic form of vitamin K is controversial since dogs don’t need much vitamin K to get by. A natural source of the vitamin, like green leafy vegetables, would be a better source.
2. Purina® Dog Chow
Nestlé Purina® is a powerhouse of a pet food manufacturer, but the Purina® Dog Chow line of dry kibble leaves much to be desired in the ingredient department.
While affordable, the brand uses poorly labeled proteins, artificial dyes, and other controversial ingredients while lacking fresh foods like vegetables and whole proteins in other budget-friendly options.
The Purina® Dog Chow line doesn’t have a long list of recalls, but some owners are on alert after a recent uptick in Purina® recalls for dog foods under other labels, like Purina® Pro Plan.
Recalls aren’t inherently bad (especially if they’re voluntary versus mandatory), though excessive recalls may indicate poor manufacturing or sourcing processes.
The ingredient list of Purina® Dog Chow Complete Adult Chicken Flavor Dry Dog Food has several red flags:
Whole Grain Corn, Meat And Bone Meal, Corn Gluten Meal, Beef Fat Preserved With Mixed Tocopherols, Soybean Meal...,
- Whole Grain Corn: A labeled protein like chicken would be the primary ingredient in a higher-quality food, not a carbohydrate. Unfortunately, it’s relatively common for budget-friendly dog food to feature cheaper carbs as the top ingredient.
- Meat and Bone Meal: Unlabeled mystery meat and meals are unacceptable in modern dog food, including bone-based products. Ingredient transparency is vital.
- Corn Gluten Meal: This corn processing by-product is a familiar face in the ingredient lists of dog food brands to avoid. It’s cheap, but there are better options, like whole corn, rice, or barley.
- Menadione Sodium Bisulfite Complex: More controversial than outright terrible, this synthetic form of vitamin K leaves room for improvement. Natural sources like spinach would be a better addition to this kibble, which is already severely lacking in fruits and vegetables.
- Yellow 6/Yellow 5/Red 40/Blue 2: A natural source of color like carrot juice is far better than artificial dyes. These are made using petroleum, which isn’t something I’d like to picture in my pup’s bowl. How about you?
- Garlic Oil: Garlic is a toxic food for dogs, which, like onions, can cause hemolytic anemia. Such a small amount likely won’t do any harm, but it’s better to go without it.
3. Gravy Train®
Gravy Train® is a brand under the J.M. Smucker Company that produces dry dog food, wet dog food, and treats.
The brand’s low product price point is a sweet spot for pinching pennies, but they use several subpar ingredients in recipes, like unlabeled proteins, artificial dyes, and artificial flavors.
More worrying is a 2018 recall for food possibly containing pentobarbital, a drug used in euthanasia. It’s also important to note that while the food is made in the USA, the brand is not transparent about where ingredients are sourced from.
Higher quality brands tend to publish a FAQ list to browse, explicitly noting ingredients are not sourced from China.
If we study Gravy Train® Beefy Classic, we can spot several standout problem ingredients:
Corn, Soybean Meal, Meat & Bone Meal, Wheat Middlings, Animal Fat (preserved With Mixed Tocopherols)...,
- Corn: Corn is a controversial carbohydrate source, but that’s not the main issue. The fact of the matter is it shouldn’t be the primary ingredient over a labeled protein.
- Soybean Meal: Some dogs have soy intolerance or allergies, but the primary problem with its appearance in this recipe is that it’s more prevalent than a labeled animal protein. Some dogs also have soybean allergies or intolerance, so many higher-end foods shun the ingredient.
- Meat & Bone Meal: Cleary labeling and identifying proteins isn’t much to ask of a manufacturer. You wouldn’t eat mystery meat, right?
- Wheat Middlings: This whimsically named product is a by-product of making cereal grain. There are higher-quality, whole carbohydrate sources available, like rice.
- Animal Fat: While dogs appreciate the flavoring, unlabeled animal products aren’t acceptable. We have no idea what type of animal this is from.
- Animal Digest: More unlabeled animal products? This one’s especially controversial, too, as this heavily processed by-product is used as flavoring over dry kibble to improve the taste.
- Artificial Beef Flavor: Why not use real beef? No one wants to eat something made to taste like something else, right?
- Caramel Color/Red 40/Yellow 5/Yellow 6/Blue 2: This quartet of artificial dyes is what we call a “no thank you.” Stick with carrot or beet juice for pops of color instead of petroleum-based dyes.
- BHA: Hold the potential carcinogens, please. Need we say more?
Cesar® is a brand by Mars Petcare that began as a canned dog food called Kal Kan in the 1930s.
The brand is cheap and readily available in many department stores. You can find dry kibble, treats, and convenient wet options packed in ready-to-serve trays under the label.
Cesar® recipes are at the lower end of the quality scale regarding ingredients, using many of the usual suspects found in dog food brands to avoid, like unlabeled proteins and artificial dyes.
It also had a splash of scandal in 2017 after reports of roaches, plastic, and other foreign debris appearing in dog food products.
Problematic ingredients of Cesar® Filet Mignon Flavor & Spring Vegetables Garnish Small Breed Dry Dog Food include:
Beef, Ground Wheat, Meat and Bone Meal, Whole Grain Corn, Brewers Rice...,
- Meat and Bone Meal: Meat and bone meals are made of cooked-down leftovers of animal processing, aside from hooves, hair, manure, and stomach contents. When labeled, they’re a great source of protein, but unidentified, they’re a sign of poor quality dog food.
- BHA: Ditching this ingredient for better preservatives is justified by its potential risk of causing cancer. It’s tricky with lower-cost dog foods, but finding those that use natural options like mixed tocopherols is possible.
- Sugar: Sugar causes a spike in glucose, which isn’t just a problem for diabetic doggos. It’s always best to stick to a gradual rise and fall in glucose to avoid unnecessary stress on the body, achieved by feeding natural, quality ingredients.
- Corn Gluten Meal: Often deemed a “filler,” this by-product of processing corn is a cheap form of plant-based protein. A labeled animal-based protein would be a better option for canines.
- Yellow 6/Red 40/Yellow 5/Blue 2: Natural-based products are always preferred over petroleum-sourced dyes. Higher-quality foods use fresh produce and juices to improve coloring.
5. Kibbles ‘n Bits®
The J.M. Smucker Company owns Kibbles ‘n Bits®, a dry dog food line recognizable by its multicolored kibble of varying shapes and sizes.
It’s a shelf staple in grocery and department stores, and as with other dog food brands to avoid on our list, it’s wallet-friendly but leaves room for improvement in ingredient quality, from a lack of labeled proteins to its inclusion of BHA.
Kibbles n’ Bits® was also involved in the 2018 recall regarding potential pentobarbital contamination.
While one recall a few years back isn’t the worst, the nature of the recall raises eyebrows.
Check out Kibbles ‘n Bits® Original Savory Beef & Chicken Flavors food for examples of the label’s subpar ingredients:
Corn, Soybean Meal, Beef & Bone Meal, Whole Wheat, Animal Fat (BHA Used As Preservative)...,
- Corn: Protein should always be the top ingredient. Corn is also a controversial ingredient, but it’s a carbohydrate source many dogs tolerate without issue.
- Soybean Meal: This food also relies on soy as a form of plant-based protein ahead of a properly labeled meat like chicken or beef. Identified meat (ideally in whole form) should always be the primary ingredient.
- Beef & Bone Meal: While we appreciate the identified beef meal, we’d love to know what animals the “bone” portion came from. Is it all beef? Pork? Chicken? This is need-to-know information for those of use with allergy-prone pups.
- Animal Fat: Labeling all animal products is essential. Higher quality foods always have these identified, whether it’s beef fat or chicken fat for flavoring and omega fatty acids.
- BHA: This potential carcinogen is a recurring red flag in dog food brands to avoid. Look for foods using a natural preservative like mixed tocopherols in its place.
- Wheat Middlings: Whole carbohydrate sources like rice and barley are hallmarks of quality dog food, while grain processing by-products like wheat middlings are cheaper and less beneficial. If a brand is cutting corners here, what other lackluster ingredients are they using?
- Animal Digest: This animal-based product isn’t unidentified, so we’re not sure what animal it’s made of. Furthermore, animal digest is used as a cheap flavoring over kibble, made by treating the scraps of the meat harvesting process with heat, enzymes, or acids.
- Titanium Dioxide/Caramel Color/Yellow 5/Yellow 6/Red 40/Blue 1: The kaleidoscope of colors featured in Kibbles n’ Bits® is obtained through several artificial dyes. With dyes not adding flavor, it’s best to opt for natural sources of color like carrot juice instead of manmade products containing chemicals.
The sunny yellow packaging of Pedigree® is easy to spot on store shelves.
This brand falls under the Mars Petcare label and features kibble, wet food, and treats at a relatively low price point.
It’s also widely available in many big-box stores like Walmart.
Unfortunately, Pedigree® uses several problematic ingredients, plus it had a string of recalls ending roughly a decade ago that have left many pet parents leery.
Simply put, there are better dog food brands out there.
To better understand the brand’s “bad” label, let’s examine the ingredients for PEDIGREE® Dry Dog Food Adult Roasted Chicken, Rice & Vegetable:
Ground Whole Grain Corn, Meat And Bone Meal, Corn Gluten Meal, Animal Fat (Source Of Omega 6 Fatty Acids (Preserved With BHA & Citric Acid), Soybean Meal...,
- Ground Whole Grain Corn: Protein should be the top ingredient, not a carbohydrate. While not everyone’s favorite ingredient, corn’s acceptable, just not ahead of an identified protein source.
- Meat and Bone Meal: Ladies and gentlemen, we have another unlabeled protein. This time it’s the “bone” part of the meal, at least, with the beef being adequately identified.
- Corn Gluten Meal: We can’t seem to escape this by-product of corn processing in the dog food brands to avoid, can we? While it isn’t the worst ingredient, it definitely leaves room to be desired and is a red flag for other potential problem ingredients to watch for.
- Animal Fat: This fat could come from any animal, technically: pig, cow, chicken, or other. You don’t want to roll the dice on this when feeding your floof, particularly if he has any protein sensitivities.
- BHA: We can’t seem to escape this potential carcinogen in lower-quality food, can we? Citric acid or rosemary oil would be a better natural preservative.
- Yellow 5/Yellow 6/Blue 2: This trio of artificial dyes helps give food a more eye-pleasing look, but these dyes are made of petroleum. Wouldn’t you rather have fruit or vegetable sources of color in your dog’s diet?
The goal here isn’t to pick on anyone or bash certain foods. We aim to help you make an informed decision when selecting your pup’s food by highlighting problematic ingredients and manufacturing processes. If you wander the dog food aisle and start flipping over bags to check nutrient labels, you’ll likely find more dog food brands to avoid than those discussed today.