Well, here's the story of my own dog. He actually used to be my brother's, and while he was getting divorced and living out of state I took care of the dog. He wound up with a massive ear infection that my sister-in-law attempted to treat using ear mite drops. And he was itchy... so itchy, in fact, that several times he would lie on my bed and lick his paws until there was a giant wet spot on the mattress. And skinny... gosh, was he skinny! When the guardianship of the dog finally passed to me, my first step was to take him to the vet, who said I should consider switching foods. I had already planned on this, because as somebody who took basic veterinary science classes I have absolutely always hated Paws. I switched him to a different food (which I won't mention because I don't want to be a brand-endorser).
You don't have to switch to the best dog food you can find if you can't afford to, but there are some things you should look for when you're choosing a food for your dog so that you can gauge what the best out of the varieties you can afford are. Here are some of those things:
- Choose a food that actually has feeding directions.
Again, using Paws as an example of awful food, one of the things that stuck out was that there are no feeding directions. On the website it says to give your dog only as much as they will eat in a half hour period. If you search elsewhere you find that I need to give my dog five cups of Paws a day to give him adequate nutrition. Cheap brands count on you not knowing how much food your dog needs... that's what makes them look so inexpensive.
On Ike's current food he only needs 2.5 cups a day. So although it's still more expensive, it's not nearly as much more expensive as it looks.
- Actually follow the directions.
Directions go by weight and in America at least are usually shown in cups. Don't feed your dog trough-style. I've known many a family with obese pets who just let them eat whenever they want and wonder how they got so fat.
This goes both ways, though. Even if your dog is maintaining a proper weight, it's possible to be underfeeding them because there's more to dog food than just keeping the ribs from showing.
- Choose a food for which the first ingredient is meat... preferably the first two or three.
Don't use that vegetarian dog food, first of all. Dogs are pretty hardy creatures when it comes to food because they have been bred by people to eat our scraps, so there are many people who do raise their dogs on vegan diets... but dogs aren't herbivores, and so you are intentionally giving them inferior food. If you're raising a cat vegan, Gods have mercy on your soul.
Cheap dog food will usually have corn, soy, wheat (especially wheat middlings), or rice as the first ingredient. Paws is mostly corn, but it hits the motherload of crappy ingredients, including soy and wheat as well. Feeding your dog Paws is like if you were to subsist off of wheat crackers with multivitamin powder in them.
In Ike's food, the first three ingredients will be meat-based, and it is entirely grain free. Do you have to go entirely grain-free? I think it's a good idea, but you can use your discretion. Avoid foods that contain wheat, corn, and/or soy especially. Rice is an OK compromise, but it's still best to avoid it because it's a filler food. Corn and wheat are often the source of itchy allergic reactions.
- Read the rest of the ingredients, too.
Look for anything suspicious and Google it. You might find a lot of filler, or you might find that it's just supplemented. Most quality dog foods will have at least some sort of supplement in them, so don't be too alarmed, just be aware.
- Follow the same rules for your dog treats.
Don't go through all this effort to get a nice low-grain, low-filler dry dog food only to give him fifty dog cookies. Stick to mostly-meat treats, like jerkies, bully sticks (which are just bull penises), or yam-based treats. Avoid treats that are mostly wheat, corn, or soy... just like the dog food.
- Keep abreast of dog food recalls and complaints.
When my dog was still my brother's, his wife bought him a chew treat that wound up breaking into lovely shards that could easily have harmed him. On the Internet I found that these had been responsible for killing a lot of dogs. Recently several chicken and duck jerky treats were recalled for making dogs sick... a bag of them was on my shelf. Just as you should pay attention to make sure food you eat isn't a health hazard, the same discretion should be used for your dog.