In an ideal world, every pet parent would be able to afford a custom diet for their dog delivered right to their door. Fresh pet food is certainly among the highest quality when it comes to nutrition. Unfortunately, dog food delivery services are not cheap, and they are way over the budget for many.
The thing you need to realize as a dog owner is that good dog food brands are not dirt cheap, but there are some affordable options out there. You need to know what you are looking for and what you want to avoid, but with time and effort, you can weed out the good from the bad to make a smart (and healthy) choice for your canine companion.
In this article, we’ll explore the subject of commercial pet food in greater depth to help you learn everything you need to know about dog food so you can make a smart choice for your dog. We’ll also teach you about the correlation between price and quality, and how to tell the good from the bad when you’re ready to start shopping. You’ll also see our top 10 picks for the best cheap dog food brands.
What Do You Need to Know About Commercial Dog Food?
The pet food industry is a business like anything else. This means that you can’t necessarily trust what you read on pet food packages to be entirely true. There are certain rules and regulations in place which pet food manufacturers must follow, but there are also a lot of loopholes. Just remember that the endgame is for the company to make money on sales – it is your job as a dog owner to see through all of the marketing schemes and to evaluate the information that’s really there on the label to make a choice.
So, what do you need to be on the lookout for?
When shopping for dog food, your dog’s nutritional needs should be the top priority. As long as the food you choose meets those needs through the use of healthy ingredients, you can feel good about doing your job as a dog owner. You don’t necessarily need to spend a small fortune on a bag of dog food to provide for your dog’s nutritional requirements.
Here are some important things you need to know about your dog’s nutritional needs:
- Dogs are primarily carnivorous animals, so the majority of their nutrition needs to come from animal sources (think proteins and fats) – limited carbohydrate content can provide supplemental energy as well as fiber and essential nutrients.
- Protein is the most important nutrient for dogs – puppies need at least 22% protein and adults at least 18%. It should come from animal sources (like meat, poultry, and fish) as much as possible with some plant oils for omega-3/omega-6 balance.
- Healthy fats provide a concentrated source of energy for dogs as well as support for skin and coat – puppies need at least 8% and adult dogs at least 5%.
- Your dog needs a blend of essential vitamins and minerals for a balanced diet – most dog foods contain vitamin and mineral supplements to ensure that requirement is met.
These requirements seem fairly simple, right? They are! There are hundreds upon hundreds of dog food recipes out there, but as long as you keep these simple things in mind, you’ll be able to quickly sort through the options and find a healthy dog food that fits your budget.
Is Expensive Dog Food Always the Best?
There is certainly a correlation between price and quality when it comes to dog food. The top-shelf brands that get 5-star ratings are some of the most expensive dog foods on the market. This doesn’t mean, however, that all of the best dog foods cost a fortune. In fact, there are plenty of relatively cheap dog food brands that provide an ideal balance between price and quality.
When evaluating the quality of an expensive dog food versus a cheap dog food, there are a few simple things to look for:
- First five ingredients. Pet food ingredients lists are ordered by volume with the highest-volume ingredients at the top. This means that the first five ingredients are the ones that make up the majority of the product, so the quality of these five ingredients matters greatly.
- Main source of protein. As you’ve already learned, protein is the most important nutrient for dogs and, as carnivores, animal proteins are more biologically valuable than plant proteins. An animal source of protein should be the first ingredient in your dog’s food – no question.
- Type and quality of fats. Fat provides your dog with a concentrated source of energy as well as essential fatty acids. Most of it should come from animal sources, ideally named sources like salmon oil vs. fish oil. Some plant oils are okay to balance the omega-3 and omega-6 content.
- Carbohydrate content and type. Dogs have a limited ability to digest carbohydrates, so any that are in your dog’s food need to be nutritious and highly digestible. Do not buy a dog food with a carbohydrate as the first ingredient and avoid low-quality grains like corn and wheat.
- Vitamins and minerals. Your dog needs certain vitamins and minerals in specific amounts for balanced nutrition. As long as the dog food carries an AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy, it means that the product is formulated to meet those minimum requirements. Chelated minerals are the highest quality mineral supplements because they are easiest to absorb.
- Additives and preservatives. High-quality dog food is made from wholesome, natural ingredients with no artificial additives, by-products, or fillers.
Every dog food is different, and even the various cheap dog food recipes offered by a single brand can vary greatly in quality. The more you understand about your dog’s needs and the way pet food is made, the better you’ll be able to make an educated decision for your dog’s benefit.
Before getting into the details of what to look for in an affordable dog food, we want to mention a simple way to save money on pet food, no matter what brand you buy. While you can certainly find sales at big pet stores like Petco and PetSmart, the cheapest way to buy pet food is often online. Cheap dog food online retailers like Chewy provide a wide variety of options, and it’s very easy to make direct comparisons between products. Once you find a product you like, you can even set up automatic shipments for a discount on every order.
What to Look for in a Cheap Dog Food
Now that you have a better understanding of your dog’s nutritional needs and how they are likely to be met by commercial dog foods let’s take a closer look at the specific things you should be looking for when you shop for cheap dog food online or in the store.
Here are some things to look for in cheap dog food:
- Quality animal protein. The first ingredient in your dog’s food should be a high-quality animal protein. Chicken is one of the most affordable proteins for dog food, though many cheap dog food brands use multiple proteins in their recipes to keep things affordable.
- Low to moderate fat content. The fat content of your dog’s food is correlated with the calorie content, so keep an eye on that. You should also make sure the fat comes from high-quality and nutritious sources – avoid things like tallow, lard, and unnamed animal fats.
- Digestible carbohydrates and fiber. Again, the carb content of your dog’s food should be limited, and the ingredients themselves should be highly digestible. Whole grains are very nutritious, though some dogs have trouble tolerating them.
- Complete and balanced. Affordable dog food may rely more heavily on synthetic supplements, but it’s good to find a dog food that does contain some fresh fruits and vegetables to provide natural sources for key nutrients. Chelated minerals are a bonus as well.
- Limited list of ingredients. Generally speaking, the shorter the list of ingredients, the more nutritious the ingredients on the list are going to be. Most dog foods contain vitamins and mineral supplements at the end, which adds to the length, but the main ingredients should number 10 to 12, not 15 to 20.
Before getting into our top picks, we want to mention another way to shop for pet food – at big box stores and discount clubs. Many stores like Walmart, Sam’s Club, and Costco have their own in-store brands for pet food.
The problem with discount pet food is that the formula is subject to change based on the availability of ingredients and their affordability. Major pet food brands are more committed to a single formula, though adjustments may be made from time to time. It can also be difficult to find detailed information about discount pet foods online – the best way to shop for them is in-store when you can actually pick up the package and read the information on the label.
When shopping for pet food, cheap is not always going to be good. As long as you keep that in mind and know what to look for, however, you can easily find a cheap dog food that is healthy for your dog.
The 10 Best Cheap Dog Foods
When it comes to cheap dog food, you need to strike the ideal balance between quality and affordability. You should always buy the highest quality dog food you can consistently afford, whatever price point that puts you at. It is important to find a cheap dog food that is healthy, so take a look at some of our top picks to get started. Here’s our top pick for the best cheap dog food:
Overall Best Cheap Dog Food: Diamond Naturals Chicken & Rice Formula All Life Stages Dry Food
If you’re looking for cheap dog food, you should be prepared to make a few compromises. It is important that you still find a recipe that features real animal protein and digestible carbohydrates, however, and balanced nutrition is essential as well. This Diamond Naturals Chicken & Rice Formula All Life Stages Dry Food is a good option because it is priced well under $1 per pound but still utilizes decent-quality ingredients. This recipe features real cage-free chicken as the main ingredient and single source of protein, plus it contains whole-grain carbohydrates for maximum digestibility. This recipe contains whole-grain brown rice, cracked pearled barley, and flaxseed to provide a balance of carbohydrate nutrition with plenty of fiber for healthy energy. It contains an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables as well which provide natural sources for key nutrients, with chelated minerals for optimal nutrient absorption. Overall, it provides 26% protein and 16% fat with 3% fiber at 368 kcal/cup.
Pros: Cage-free chicken main ingredient, digestible whole-grain carbohydrates, under $1/pound, highly digestible, fresh fruits and vegetables, probiotics and chelated minerals, moderate fat and calories
Cons: Not a grain-free recipe (some dogs may be sensitive)
Most Popular Cheap Dog Food: Taste of the Wild High Prairie Grain-Free Dry Food
When you’re shopping for dog food and you don’t know where to start, a popular brand like Taste of the Wild is always a good choice. It may not be the cheapest dog food on the list, but it is still very affordable for the level of quality it provides. This Taste of the Wild High Prairie Grain-Free Dry Food features real buffalo as the first ingredient as well as an assortment of roasted meats to ensure protein-rich nutrition for dogs in all life stages. It contains highly digestible grain-free carbohydrates including sweet potatoes and peas with no wheat, corn, or fillers. It is rich in natural sources of key nutrients thanks to an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables with vitamin supplements and chelated minerals to ensure nutritional balance. This recipe contains prebiotic fibers as well as probiotics and supplemental fiber to ensure healthy digestion as well. Overall, it provides a full 32% protein with 18% fat and 4% fiber at just 370 calories per cup.
Pros: Real buffalo first ingredient, several roasted meats, digestible grain-free carbohydrates, fresh fruits and vegetables, rich in omega fatty acids, high in protein (32%), prebiotics and probiotics
Cons: Contains some plant proteins (pea and potato proteins)
Best Cheap Wet Dog Food: American Journey Chicken & Vegetable Stew
Shopping for wet food can be a little trickier than shopping for dry food because the nutrient content is calculated differently. You can find dry matter calculators online, however, to help you make a direct comparison between dry food and wet food products. Our top pick for the best cheap wet dog food is American Journey Chicken & Vegetable Stew. This wet food features real chicken as the first ingredient with both chicken broth and beef broth for moisture as well as natural flavor. It contains a limited number of grain-free carbohydrates including fresh carrots, peas, and potatoes which provide carbohydrate energy as well as supplemental fiber for healthy digestion. This recipe is balanced in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which is good for your dog’s skin and coat, plus it is supplemented with vitamins and chelated minerals to ensure optimal nutrient absorption. Overall, it is an excellent option if you prefer to feed your dog canned food over dry food.
Pros: Real chicken first ingredient, rich in moisture and healthy fats, limited digestible grain-free carbohydrates, balance of omega fatty acids, rich in fiber for digestion, chelated minerals
Cons: Contains an unnamed animal fat (fish oil)
Best Cheap Dog Food for Puppies: Blue Buffalo Life Protection Formula Puppy Chicken & Brown Rice Recipe Dry Food
Your puppy requires a healthy, balanced diet to support his growth and development. He will grow most quickly during the first six months, so if you are able to afford a higher quality pet food for just a few months, it may be worth it. This Blue Buffalo Life Protection Formula Puppy Chicken & Brown Rice Recipe is a great option because it delivers wholesome, high-quality nutrition at an affordable price point. This recipe features fresh chicken as the main ingredient with chicken meal as a concentrated source of supplemental protein as well as a natural source of joint-supporting glucosamine and chondroitin. This recipe also contains an ideal balance of calcium and phosphorus for bone support with DHA for healthy brain and vision development. You’ll find plenty of digestible whole-grain carbohydrates in this formula for carbohydrate energy and fiber with supplemental fiber and probiotics to ensure healthy and regular digestion. This recipe also contains chelated minerals.
Pros: Real chicken first ingredient, digestible whole-grain carbohydrates, supports bone and joint health, bite-sized kibbles for puppies, complete and balanced nutrition, chelated minerals, rich in fiber
Cons: Contains some plant protein (pea protein)
Best Cheap Dog Food for Seniors: Nature’s Recipe Senior Lamb Meal & Rice Recipe Dry Food
As your dog gets older, his metabolism and his body will slow down. He’ll still need plenty of protein in his diet to maintain lean muscle mass, but the fat and calorie content of his food doesn’t need to be as high. One of the best cheap dog foods for seniors is Nature’s Recipe Senior Lamb Meal & Rice Recipe Dry Food. This formula features real lamb as the first ingredient, and it is completely free from corn, wheat, and artificial flavors and colors. This recipe lists lamb meal first, which is a concentrated source of animal protein and the recipe as a whole provides 19%. It contains just 8% fat with 304 calories per cup, making it a low-fat and low-calorie option for aging dogs. It still contains chelated minerals for optimal nutrient absorption, and it is formulated to meet the nutritional needs of older dogs.
Pros: Real lamb as the first ingredient, formulated to meet the needs of senior dogs, no corn or wheat, free from artificial flavors and colors, contains chelated minerals
Cons: Contains some unnamed ingredients (ex: poultry fat), could be higher in protein
Best Cheap Dog Food for Sensitive Stomach: Rachael Ray Nutrish Just 6 Lamb Meal & Brown Rice Limited Ingredient Recipe
If your dog has a sensitive stomach or suffers from food allergies, you may want to switch him to an elimination diet or a diet made with a limited number of main ingredients. This Rachael Ray Nutrish Just 6 Lamb Meal & Brown Rice Limited Ingredient Recipe is a cheap option that still offers decent quality. As the name implies, this formula is made with just 6 main ingredients along with added vitamins and minerals. It features lamb meal as the first ingredient, which is a concentrated source of animal protein. It also contains brown rice for digestible carbohydrates and ground rice for supplemental fiber. The main source of fat is chicken fat, a highly nutritious and animal-based fat, which provides a minimum of 13% fat. The protein content of this recipe is 20%, which more than meets your dog’s minimum requirements, and the calorie content is still fairly low at 321 calories per cup. You’ll also be glad to know that the recipe contains chelated minerals to ensure optimal nutrient absorption.
Pros: Just 6 main ingredients, lamb meal first ingredient, digestible brown rice, nutritious chicken fat, chelated minerals, no artificial flavors or colors, no fillers
Cons: Could be higher in protein
4 More Top-Rated Cheap Dog Foods
If the six cheap dog food recipes reviewed above don’t seem like the right fit, you’ll be glad to know that there are still plenty of other options available. Here are four more top-rated cheap dog food brands we recommend:
If you’re looking for an affordable option in dry dog food formulated for all life stages, this may be a good choice. Canidae All Life Stages Multi-Protein Formula Dry Food features chicken meal, turkey meal, lamb meal, and ocean fish meal as premium sources of animal protein. This recipe contains digestible whole grains like brown rice, oatmeal, and cracked pearled barley as well. Overall, it is a healthy source of balanced nutrition for all dogs. This recipe also includes Canidae’s HealthPLUS Solutions which feature a trio of probiotics, antioxidants, and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids for strong immunity and healthy skin and coat. It is free from common allergens like corn, wheat, and soy, plus it contains added vitamins and chelated minerals to ensure complete and balanced nutrition. This recipe contains a total of 24% protein and 14.5% fat with 4% fiber and 468 calories per cup. This makes it fairly high in calorie content, so be sure to follow the feeding recommendations careful to avoid accidentally overfeeding your dog.
Pros: Several sources of premium animal protein, digestible whole-grain carbohydrates, fresh fruits and vegetables, chelated minerals, probiotics, contains HealthPLUS solutions, balanced nutrition
Cons: High in calories compared to other recipes
Though not the cheapest dog food on this list, this Wellness Complete Health Adult Deboned Chicken & Oatmeal Recipe is still fairly affordable for being a high-quality source of balanced nutrition for adult dogs. This recipe features deboned chicken as the primary ingredient with chicken meal as a concentrated source of supplemental protein – it is also a natural source of joint-supporting glucosamine and chondroitin. This recipe contains digestible whole-grain carbohydrates like oatmeal, barley, and brown rice which are also rich in fiber and essential nutrients. Your dog will love the natural chicken flavor in this formula, and you’ll love that it is rich in protein with moderate fat content. It is a little high in calories at 434 calories per cup but provides a high-quality source of nutrition. In addition to vitamin and chelated mineral supplements, it also contains fresh fruits and veggies.
Pros: Real chicken first ingredient, digestible whole-grain carbohydrates, fresh fruits and vegetables, rich in fiber, probiotics, chelated minerals, blend of omega fatty acids, rich in natural flavor
Cons: Somewhat more expensive than others on the list
Many dog foods formulated for active breeds are at the higher end of the price scale, but this Victor Hi-Pro Plus Formula Dry Dog Food is an affordable option. This recipe is made with 88% protein from animal sources and is supplemented for balanced nutrition and high digestibility. It is made with beef, chicken, pork, and fish as the primary proteins, providing a total of 30% protein which is high even for a mid-priced or higher-priced dog food. This recipe contains whole grain carbohydrates like sorghum and millet as well as supplemental sources of fiber plus probiotics to support healthy digestion. Overall, this recipe provides a balanced source of omega fatty acids with increased fat and calorie content to support the higher demands of active and working breeds. It is also nutrient-dense enough for growing puppies as well as pregnant and lactating females.
Pros: Real animal proteins, whole-grain carbohydrates, rich in omega fatty acids, dried fruits and vegetables, probiotics for digestion, chelated minerals for optimal nutrient absorption
Cons: Several mid-quality ingredients and potential allergens
High-quality, natural ingredients are not cheap, but this Nutro Wholesome Essentials Adult Farm Raised Chicken, Brown Rice & Sweet Potato Recipe includes an abundance of them at an affordable price point. This recipe features farm-raised chicken as the main ingredient with digestible whole-grain and grain-free carbohydrates for nutritional support. It is rich in omega fatty acids for healthy skin and coat as well as antioxidants for healthy immunity and probiotics for digestion. This recipe contains 22% protein and 14% fat with 343 calories per cup, making it ideal for most adult dogs. It is complete and nutritionally balanced and it is loaded with natural chicken flavor as well.
Pros: Farm-raised chicken first ingredient, digestible whole grain carbohydrates, rich in antioxidants, blend of omega fatty acids, rich in fiber, chelated minerals, moderate fat and calories
Cons: Contains some mid-quality ingredients (brewers rice, rice bran, etc.)
Frequently Asked Questions
- How much should I feed my dog?
There is no exact answer to this question that applies to all dogs because various factors are involved. The best way to determine how much to feed your dog is to calculate his calorie needs based on age, weight, and activity level. Keep in mind, however, that small breeds burn calories at a higher rate than large breeds. You also need to remember that all pet foods have different caloric content. The easiest solution is to choose a dog food formulated for your dog’s breed size and age then follow the feeding recommendations. You’ll need to keep an eye on your dog’s body weight and condition, making adjustments as needed to maintain a healthy body weight.
- How often should I feed my dog?
Most adult dogs do fine with two meals per day. The thing you need to remember is that small-breed dogs have very fast metabolisms and burn through calories more quickly than larger breeds. This being the case, small breeds may need 3 smaller meals divided up over the course of the day while large breeds do best with two meals. Ask your vet if you’re not sure what’s best for your dog.
- What about dog food allergies?
Dogs can develop allergies to food ingredients just like humans can, though the problem is not as common as many pet food companies would have you believe. A dog must be exposed to an ingredient in order to develop an allergy to it, and it can take time for that to happen. Most dog food allergies develop in the second year of life, though it is possible for it to happen sooner. Many dogs with food allergies display digestive symptoms or recurrent skin issues, so report these symptoms to your veterinarian and consider putting your dog on an elimination diet to confirm the suspicion of allergies.
- When should I switch my puppy to adult food?
Most veterinarians will recommend keeping a puppy on puppy food until he is about 12 months old. The thing to remember is that small breed puppies may reach their full size before 12 months while large and giant breed puppies might not be fully mature until 18 to 24 months of age. You should definitely keep your puppy on puppy food for the first 6 months and at least until his growth starts to slow down. At that point, you can consider making the switch but don’t change too soon – your puppy should be about 80% of his expected adult size before you change.
- Is a grain-free diet good for dogs?
There is a lot of controversy surrounding grain-free dog food, especially lately. The FDA has received numerous reports linking grain-free diets to dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs. DCM is a hereditary heart condition that often affects large and giant breeds, though many of the latest FDA reports are in smaller breeds or breeds not genetically predisposed to the disease. The fact remains that grain-free diets are not inherently healthier for dogs and the long-term effects of dog food high in legumes and other grain-free alternatives are still being determined. Suffice it to say that your dog doesn’t need grain-free food unless your vet confirms an allergy or sensitivity to grains.
If you want to buy premium pet food cheap, you might be out of luck. The fact is that the highest quality dog foods are also the most expensive. This doesn’t mean, however, that can’t find a decent pet food at an affordable price. The key is to know exactly what you’re looking for (and what you’re NOT looking for) so you can eliminate the bad and keep the good.
If you’re still not sure where to even start looking for cheap pet food that is healthy, don’t worry – we’ve got you covered. Just try one of the top 10 picks we’ve reviewed above. Good luck!
Cheap Dog Food