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Making vs. Buying Dog Food: Our 2023 In-Depth Comparison

Chris Dinesen Rogers

By Chris Dinesen Rogers

man buying pet food

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Dr. Maxbetter Vizelberg Photo

Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Maxbetter Vizelberg

DVM (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Americans love their pets. About 70% of US households1 have at least one, including 69 million that have dogs. The single largest annual expense for our pets is food, accounting for nearly $50 billion2 in 2021. The pet industry is no different than others that have felt the pinch of skyrocketing inflation and supply chain issues. That may leave some wondering if they’re better off making dog food versus buying it.

We understand the confusion you may feel when trying to pick the best commercial dog food for your pet, too. After all, we all want the best for our canine companions. We did a deep dive into the decision of making versus buying dog food. We weighed the pros and cons to come up with the definitive answer for the healthiest option for your pup. The answer may have some surprising twists.

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A Sneak Peek at the Winner: Buying Dog Food

Buying commercial dog food is the best choice for your pet. It’s hard to beat the convenience of scooping out the recommended amount or opening the right number of cans to ensure optimal nutrition. Some of our favorite brands include Royal Canin for its line of breed-specific diets. We also like Hill’s Science Diet for its products for pets with special dietary needs.

However, a lot more goes into choosing the pet food for your pup. Our in-depth guide will give you the lowdown on why buying dog food is a better choice than making it. Convenience isn’t the only reason you should opt for this choice.

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About Making Dog Food

The pet industry and owners’ attitudes about their animal companions have evolved over the years. Some people view their cats and dogs as household helpers for controlling rodents or retrieving game. Others see them as family members. The latter has led advertising to appeal to these emotions with products labeled natural or human-grade. The latter is only a marketing term meant to appeal to consumers.

raw dog food
Image Credit: stockcreations, Shutterstock

The Wild Side

Another school of thought has pushed the idea of raw diets or homemade foods as a closer representation of a canine’s diet in the wild. It’s essential to explore this argument further to see if it has any credence. Research suggests that dogs diverged from ancient wolves about 27,000 years ago. New evidence points to eastern Eurasia as a possible origin of where domestication occurred, but it likely happened more than once in history.

Scientists theorize that wolves fed on scraps they found or were given by early humans. Remember that these animals were competitors, with people hunting for food. Over time, the wolves that became more docile opened the door to domestication. That event had profound implications for canine biology, including their dietary needs.

Being a Carnivore

We know that wolves are carnivores or meat-eaters. Dogs have short intestines, a trait they share with cats that are obligate carnivores, meaning their diets contain 70% or more animal protein. However, our dogs have three genes that help them digest starch, which can help them metabolize plant materials. Their bodies have adapted over time to eat different foods than wolves. That means that the so-called natural or wild diet doesn’t exist anymore with our pets.

raw dog food
Image Credit: stockcreations, Shutterstock

Homemade Options

An internet search will turn up dozens of homemade dog food options. A common theme we saw was some type of ground meat with rice for bulk and vegetables to round out the nutrient profile. Of course, you shouldn’t use ingredients that are toxic to dogs, such as onions and garlic. Many include foodstuffs you’d find at the grocery store, which adds to the convenience.

Some pet owners take it one step further and provide their dog’s raw diets. Again, the thinking is that it is a natural option for canines and offers more health benefits. However, scientific evidence doesn’t support these claims. Many organizations, such as the FDA, CDC, American College of Veterinary Nutritionists (ACVN), and American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), caution against owners offering these diets to their pets.

The primary concern is foodborne illnesses, such as Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes. That risk isn’t limited to your pet, either. It also applies to anyone who prepares or handles the food. It exists with homemade recipes, too, if they are undercooked. It’s imperative to prepare DIY dog food to the same minimum temperatures as you would meals you’re making for your family.

  • Risk of foodborne illnesses
  • Time-consuming to make
  • Questionable nutritional value
  • Expensive

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About Buying Dog Food

Of course, both humans and their canine companions existed on foods they found in the wild for thousands of years before the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. Our diets and that of our dogs evolved to include different ingredients. Historical records trace back prepared foods for our pets going back to 2000 BC. The first commercially prepared products hit the scene in about 1860. The rest, as they say, is history.

woman buying dog food in pet store
Image Credit: BearFotos, Shutterstock

Varying Nutritional Needs

Scientists have researched animal nutrition through the decades, bringing us to our current understanding of what our pets need. Humans and dogs share about 84% of our DNA. The devil is in the details. We know about the toxic foods that our pets shouldn’t eat. However, there are other subtle differences. For example, humans must get vitamin C from their diets. Dogs and cats can synthesize it in their bodies.

Dogs have greater nutritional needs for vitamin K, which is reflected in the content of commercial diets. Canines also have different protein needs. Amino acids are the building blocks of these nutrients. Of the 22 known to exist, humans and dogs use 20 of them. We can synthesize some but not all of these amino acids, making them essential components of our diets. Humans need nine, whereas dogs must get 10 from their food.

Remember that the nutritional needs of our pets have evolved with domestication. That’s reflected in the foods that people offer their dogs. History tells us that it included items such as whey, bread, and barley. Over time, dogs evolved to digest these foods better. However, that doesn’t mean our pets metabolize things as we do. The takeaway is that our food doesn’t necessarily fulfill everything our pets’ need, at least not in the same way.

Food Safety

One of the strongest arguments in favor of buying dog food is its regulatory oversight. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) develops its nutritional profiles with the input of the FDA, which enforces them. When you buy a product, you have a reasonable expectation that it’s healthy for your dog. Voluntary and involuntary food recalls are the safety nets protecting you and your pet.

While the same type of regulation exists with the ingredients in homemade food, that assurance stops once you bring the items home. You’re responsible for the proper storage and preparation of your pup’s diet. The onus is on you to make sure it’s not undercooked.

woman feeding her dog
Image Credit: RossHelen, Shutterstock
  • Nutritionally complete
  • Regulatory oversight
  • Convenient
  • Tailored diets
  • Questionable food options, such as grain-free diets
  • Proper storage

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Popular Homemade Dog Food Recipes

We looked at several options for homemade dog foods. It was hard to narrow it down to just a few. However, many start with some type of meat, often ground turkey or chicken, because of their lower fat content. Brown rice is a better choice than white because it has more nutrients and will keep your pup feeling sated longer. Other protein options include beef, lamb, and eggs. Remember our advice about food allergies.

Other ingredients in homemade run the gamut, from fruits to vegetables. We strongly urge you to avoid peas and legumes for the reasons we’ve discussed. Also, remember that dogs don’t need vitamin C. Foods rich in the B vitamins are excellent choices since they are water soluble. Dogs, like humans, don’t store these nutrients and must get them every day.

We also suggest limiting organ meats, such as liver. Vitamin A is a fat-soluble nutrient that can build up to unsafe levels. Fruit and vegetable additions that provide some health value include pumpkin, cranberries, apples, broccoli, and carrots. You should avoid recipes that contain tomatoes, grapes, and avocados.

lamb dog food in a bowl
Image Credit: Louella938, Shutterstock
  • Satisfaction of knowing what is in your pet’s food
  • Time-consuming preparation
  • Necessary nutrition knowledge

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Popular Commercial Dog Food Recipes

The three biggest companies for dry dog food in the United States are Nestle, Mars, and JM Smucker, not the brands we’d normally associate with these products. Globally, Hill’s Pet Nutrition usurps the number three spot. Some of Mars’ product lines include Iams, Pedigree, and Royal Canin. The most popular ones use familiar protein sources, such as beef, chicken, and turkey. Other options include fish and seafood.

Many products contain various grain, fruit, and vegetable additions, like barley, rice, and beets. They fulfill these nutrient requirements. Their value differs. Dry and wet foods are the most popular options for pet owners. You’ll likely find that many diets exceed the recommended amount of the essential nutrients. They are also catered to the weight and life stage of the pet, with varying kibble sizes to make them easier to chew.

There are hundreds of brands and diets, making it difficult to choose. Our primary consideration is that they are complete and balanced. Palatability, price, and storage options are other valid concerns. The overriding advantage is that you have choices.

wet dog food in a yellow bowl
Image Credit: New Africa, Shutterstock
  • Variety of protein types
  • Special formulas for differing dietary needs
  • Diets for various life stages
  • Affordable
  • Overwhelming choices

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Making Dog Food vs. Buying Dog Food

The humanization of the pet industry plays a significant role in dog food. You can see it in labeling that includes words such as “human-grade,” which we’ve already debunked. It’s also led to alternative sources, such as raw diets and homemade preparations. As more people view their pets as family members, the industry has responded by including ingredients that appeal to owners for commercial products.

Homemade dog food sounds good in theory. You know exactly what’s going into it, although concerns about preservatives are largely unfounded. Preparation is probably the biggest stumbling block, especially if you have a large dog. It’s another meal to make every day if you are already doing a lot of home cooking. Commercial diets offer convenience, but storage is an issue for it to stay fresh, particularly with dry foods.

Nutritional Value

The nutritional value of your pet’s food is probably your greatest concern. It’s an excellent way to make sure your pup stays healthy. Commercial foods get the nod on this score. Bear in mind that these companies have one or more nutritionists on staff determining the formulations. That’s particularly true with the more popular brands like Purina.

Canine needs differ from those of humans. It’s not enough to whip something together. You should also research the nutritional value of any homemade recipe. The dietary requirements of your pet also vary with its life stage. For example, according to the National Research Council (NRC), a puppy needs at least 45 grams of protein per 1,000 kcal of metabolizable energy a day, whereas an adult should get at least 20 grams.

canned dog food on the table
Image Credit: Jiri Hera, Shutterstock

Commercial dog foods that meet the nutritional standards of the AAFCO will state that they are complete and balanced. That means they include everything your pup needs in the right amount. You’re undoubtedly familiar with the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamins and minerals for people. Dogs have an additional need based on the ratio of calcium to phosphorus.

Both are essential minerals. However, proper absorption of either one depends on the correct ratio between these nutrients. The AAFCO recommends rations between 1:1 to 2.1:1. As you can see, we’re getting into some heavy-duty nutrition science. That’s why we recommend consulting your veterinarian instead of using a recipe published on a blog.


Safety is a concern no matter what diet you offer your pet. That’s why the FDA regulates commercial diets. The problem is that something bad has to happen first before the agency puts out a recall. However, that’s the same case with homemade foods where your pet showing symptoms alert you that something is wrong.

The other concern is foodborne illnesses as we stressed with making sure that the foods are cooked properly to the right temperature. The problem with some conditions like Salmonella is that your pup may not show symptoms yet continue to pose a risk to you and your family. However, that caution also applies to commercial foods, particularly wet or semi-moist diets. In any case, you should pick up your dog’s food 30 minutes after putting it down for them to eat in order to avoid contamination.

Again, commercial foods win on this score because of the rigorous regulations in place to protect you and your pup. Other than food recalls you don’t have that same oversight with the recipes you make at home. It requires the same precautions and common sense that you’d use to prepare foods for your family.

senior beagle dog eating food from the bowl
Image Credit: Przemek Iciak, Shutterstock


One complaint that you’ll often see with a commercial diet is the list of unpronounceable ingredients that make them sound like they were produced in chemical warehouses. It’s essential to understand that manufacturers often use the scientific name for the nutrients instead of the word. That doesn’t detract from their dietary value.

Another criticism you may read is the use of animal by-products or meals. These foods are not inferior ingredients. Manufacturers have to adhere to the same quality standards with those items as whole meats. The AAFCO attests to their safety. It’s essential to put this matter in context. When you look at the ingredient list on a pet food label, they are listed in order of weight.

However, whole poultry contains a lot of water versus concentrated fish meal. The latter may offer superior nutritional value because of its form. It’s worth noting that it’s not a bad thing if the pet food industry uses the entire animal, either. It’s an environmentally sound practice in the long run.

That doesn’t mean that commercial foods are off the hook. We have two concerns. First, many manufacturers produce so-called grain-free products that are supposedly better for your pet. Unfortunately, this is not true. Even dogs need grains in their diet if just for their fiber content. It’s unnecessary to produce foods without their ingredients because of health concerns. Your pup is more likely to have an allergy to animal protein than wheat.

Second, many manufacturers also use peas and legumes in their diets in lieu of traditional grains. The FDA is currently investigating a possible link between these foodstuffs and canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). The concern rests mainly with the so-called boutique products that often are also grain-free.

It’s an unfortunate consequence of the humanization of the pet food industry that labeling is more about appealing to the owner’s appetite than what may or may not be the best choice for your dog. We strongly urge you to look at the nutritional value and the AAFCO’s Nutritional Adequacy Statement rather than whether the food contains blueberries or carrots.

At the end of the day, we still have to give this round to commercially-produced diets with the caveat that many are not grain-free and do not contain ingredients associated with DCM.

French Bulldog is busy with his meal eating
Image Credit: Tienuskin, Shutterstock

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It’s hard to overestimate the importance of feeding your dog a healthy diet. After all, you want the best for your pup. We also understand the mindset of food-is-love and wanting to prepare your pet’s food. However, it’s a better option to leave nutrition to the experts. The manufacturers have the knowledge, experience, and expertise behind them.

Your veterinarian can give you specific recommendations on a product for your dog based on its health, activity level, and life stage. If you want to go the homemade route, we suggest consulting your vet or a canine nutritionist for the right recipe for your best friend.


Featured Image Credit: BearFotos, Shutterstock

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