Is Fancy Dog Food Worth the Cost? The Answer Might Surprise You

How much do you spend on your dog’s food?

Buying groceries for all your two-legged family members might seem like enough of a strain already. And some dog food is expensive — really expensive. You could conceivably pay more to feed Fido than you do to feed yourself.

People have wildly differing opinions about what’s appropriate.

Some pet owners wouldn’t think of feeding their beloved furbaby anything but the buzzwordy best: top-shelf, organic, grain-free, the whole nine yards.

Others take a different tack — closer to the logic of “If he’ll eat it, it’s dog food.”

Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle. Although my greyhound, Odin, doesn’t get to eat Cheetos (unless he’s at my parents’ house — STOP IT, DAD), his dry food is middle-shelf and reasonably priced at about $20 for a 15-pound bag.

But all this begs the question: How much should you spend on dog food?

Is Expensive Dog Food Worth the Money?

Expensive dog food
Odin the Greyhound resting after his morning walk. Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

As Penny Hoarders, we want to spend as little on dog food (and our own) as possible, without compromising safety or quality. After all, living well is the whole point of being frugal, and that goes for our four-legged companions, too.

So how low can you go while still resting assured you’re doing all you can to help Shadow thrive?

“There’s no one easy answer,” said Dr. Susan Wynn of BluePearl Veterinary Partners.

“Just like people, dogs are genetically distinct individuals, so what works for one might not work for another.”

When selecting food for your dog, Wynn recommends checking the label for a statement from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which informs pet owners about the intended use for the food.

“If the label contains the phrase ‘complete and balanced nutrition’ and is appropriate for your dog’s life stage, then it’s probably a reasonable first choice, no matter what the price,” Wynn said.

She also mentioned that, in general, higher-quality — and more expensive — foods tend to be higher in essential fatty acids and other nutrients.

But even well-known, premium brands have had safety recalls.

Kelly Smith, a former intern here at The Penny Hoarder, was feeding her dog Wrigley a highly regarded brand when he became seriously ill. Her vet suggested his food might actually be at least partly to blame — hefty price tag notwithstanding.

If you do a little digging, it’s not that surprising, unfortunately.

Although a massive pet food safety failure in 2007 essentially spawned the birth of the premium pet food industry, even these new, expensive brands — marketed specifically to comfort owners who can afford to pay for the privilege — frequently failed to live up to their promises.

And this problem with pet food safety doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

New brands and businesses are still springing up, aiming to ease worried fur-parents’ concerns. But pet food is ultimately regulated by the FDA, whose underfunding is well-documented. With ongoing safety issues in even human foods in America, it’s hard to imagine pet owners can look forward to any significant peace of mind.

You can use sites like Dog Food Advisor to see the full nutritional information and ingredients of your pet’s food, and to see how many recalls a certain brand and formula has undergone.

That said, since it seems like safety issues in pet — and human — food may not be entirely avoidable right now, it might not be worth shelling out half your paycheck for a bag of kibble.

Wynn suggests that you study your dog, rather than packages and ingredient lists.

“The key is in the coat and skin,” she said. “If the coat is dull, greasy or your dog has dandruff, it’s time for a change.”

But if your pet’s appearance is good and his activities and behaviors haven’t changed, you’re probably in the clear. Even lower-quality dog foods that contain fillers are more nutritious than the junk food we indulge in, she said.

“It’s not like a Twinkie,” Wynn explained. “These foods are still complete and balanced.”

Buy the Best Dog Food You Can — But Don’t Stress If It’s Not Top Shelf

Expensive dog food
Odin the greyhound pauses between bites of his breakfast. Samantha Dunscombe/The Penny Hoarder

Bottom line? Buy the best dog food you can afford, but don’t think a high price point guarantees a quality product.

The industry’s history doesn’t uphold an easy one-to-one correlation of dollars to quality, which is a bummer on one hand, but a blessing on the other. Pet food may present a confusing and fraught decision, but you don’t have to spend a ton to feel like you’re feeding your best friend well!

Of course, keep an eye on your dog and be open to reevaluation. His nutritional needs may change as he ages, according to Wynn.

This part shouldn’t be too hard, since hanging out with your pet is the whole point!

Just pay close attention to his coat, eating habits and level of playfulness, and don’t forget to keep up with those annual vet checkups, which offer a great opportunity to ask your food-related questions.

One thing we can say for certain? You probably do want to keep your dog’s nose out of the garbage — if only to spare yourself the cleanup.

Jamie Cattanach’s writing has also been featured at The Write Life, Word Riot, Nashville Review and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.