Your pet is part of your family, but that doesn’t mean his food needs to cost as much as yours — even if you’re trying to feed him high-quality food.
However, the range of choices in pet food may make this seem like a daunting task. You can’t ask your furry friends which foods they like best, either. (You could, but you may not get a satisfactory answer.)
That’s why we spoke to veterinarians and nutritionists to find out how you can identify the healthiest, most nutritious pet food options that’ll fit your budget.
Before you purchase your pet food, speak with your vet about the best options for your pet, especially if your furry friend has special dietary needs.
Find Generic Brands From Well-Known Companies
Stephanie Mantilla, a positive animal trainer and enrichment specialist with Curiosity Trained, always looks for expensive brands disguised as generics. For example, Whole Earth Farms is made by Merrick but costs a fraction of the price, Mantilla says.
The easiest way to find high-quality generic brands is to look at the food brands you don’t recognize in the same section of the store as the high-quality pet food, Mantilla says.
“It’ll be Merrick, Wellness, Instinct and Taste of the Wild brands near one another,” she said. “Then, if you see another brand you aren’t familiar with but is at a lower price, it likely is one of the generic brands.”
Another way to find these generic brands is to search online, Mantilla says. If you have a brand of pet food you like, search for “generic XX food.”
“Sometimes, you’ll find exact match generic brands or recommendations for a similar brand if that company doesn’t make a generic version,” Mantilla said.
Look for Whole Meat Products
With dog food, whole meat products — rather than by-products — should be the first ingredients on the list.
“Dogs are omnivores, but a food whose first ingredient is grains may not contain enough protein for them,” Mantilla says.
Brands that meet this criteria include Purina Pro-plan, Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand and Blue Buffalo, according to Sakura Davis, a veterinary consultant and technician.
Grain-Free Food Isn’t Necessarily the Best
Grain-free food is typically more expensive than the alternatives, but that doesn’t mean that it’s better than the alternatives (unless your dog needs to be grain-free for medical reasons).
In fact, while some humans feel better on a grain-free diet, that doesn’t necessarily hold true for your pets, especially dogs. The FDA found there may be a link between the development of canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs that eat grain-free pet food, many of which contain peas, lentils, legume seeds and potatoes as the main ingredients.
Look for “Nutritionally Complete” Labels
Even if you can’t identify the odd-sounding ingredients in your pet’s food, there’s one way to quickly see if the bag of kibble or can of food is nutritionally complete: Look at the label.
Pet food labels should have a Nutritional Adequacy statement, which may also be referred to as the AAFCO statement. You can find this on the back of the bag or can, or on the side in the fold. It should convey the following: whether the food contains all the essential nutrients your pet needs; how this was determined; and what age or stage of life this food was designed to serve.
If you see that the product was intended for intermittent and supplemental feeding only, then you should avoid using it for meals. Use it for treats instead.
Dry Pet Food Is OK
A study published in BMJ’s Vet Record found that just 13% of dogs and 33% of cats exclusively eat conventional pet food like kibble. While people may be concerned that the kibble is boring or unhealthy for their pets, that’s actually not the case.
“What they don’t see are the nutrients in that kibble they don’t see the decades of research behind it,” Sarah Dodd, veterinarian and lead author of the study, told Supermarket News.
If you buy wet food, try to avoid brands that use carrageenan, Mantilla says. It’s a derivative of seaweed often used as a thickening agent. It bulks up wet food so it looks like there’s more of the food, but you’re getting fewer calories per serving.
“Premium“ Is a Marketing Term — Ignore It
The word “premium” is just a marketing term, according to researchers at the Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University. As with the word “natural,” any company can add the word “premium” onto its pet food packaging without justification.
This term is a favorite of brands because many consumers believe the product is better quality when they see it on the packaging, and will thus be inclined to pay more for it. A 2007 study by the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University found that when people are told that they’re tasting an expensive product, they’ll be more likely to believe it tastes better than the inexpensive option.
Pet parents aren’t immune from this. The premium pet food market accounted for 44% of pet food sales in 2001, but that percentage jumped to 61% by 2015. You can save yourself some cash by opting not to buy pet food labeled as “premium.”
Change How You Think of the Cost
Instead of looking at the price per bag or even the price per pound, look at the price per kilocalorie, according to Tuft University’s Clinical Nutrition Service. Pet foods pack in kilocalories differently, and as a result, two bags of dry food that weigh the same may differ when it comes to calorie content. A bag with more kilocalories may cost more, but you’ll also need to feed your pets less per feeding.
Here’s how to figure out the price per kilocalorie for pet food. First, determine how much your pet eats each day. Measure the amount of each food your pet eats and multiply that by the number of calories per cup/gram/can of food. (Not sure how to do this? These calorie calculators can help.)
Once you know how many kilocalories your pet needs to eat, then find out how many kilocalories are in the food, which you can find on the label, and how much the bag or can of food cost.
Then scroll to the bottom of this page and plug in those numbers, and the calculator will tell you how much it costs to feed your pet each day. This will give you a better sense of what it would actually cost to feed your pet the food in question than you can get from only looking at price per bag or price per pound.
Make Your Own Pet Food
The most inexpensive way to feed your dog a very high quality meal is to make the food yourself, says Emma Bowdrey, an ISCP-trained dog trainer in Easterton, United Kingdom.
Include proteins, carbs and nutritious vegetables, and avoid onions, garlic and chives. Bowdrey recommends going to the butcher for internal organs, such as liver, kidneys and heart.
“These are rich in proteins, fats, Vitamins A, B and iron, and are fairly inexpensive, so you get a lot of nutritious bang for your buck,” Bowdrey says.
Combine these with other good quality muscle meat, potatoes and vegetables to create a well-balanced and tasty meal for your dog. Turmeric and ginger, which are anti-inflammatories that can improve gut health, can be added during the prep process, Bowdrey says.
Raw bones are also a great addition to keep teeth clean and remove tartar, but avoid cooked bone, as these are prone to splintering. For extra variety, foods such as apples, sardines and strawberries make a great snack.
Danielle Braff is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder.
This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, a personal finance website that empowers millions of readers nationwide to make smart decisions with their money through actionable and inspirational advice, and resources about how to make, save and manage money.