If you’re the human caretaker for a small dog, you’re undoubtedly aware of some of the special challenges that small dogs present. Despite their many wonderful attributes, small dogs tend to have more health problems than medium and large breed dogs, and they may be more prone to injuries simply because they’re so small. They also have more dental issues and have a tendency to put on excess weight, which is hard to take off.
Small dogs like this Yorkie need optimal nutrition to stay healthy and strong.
For all of these reasons, it’s particularly important to feed your small dog a healthy diet. But with the amazing number of choices available today, it can be a challenge to figure out exactly what that should be. Even asking your vet isn’t always all that helpful, since most vets get the bulk of their knowledge about pet nutrition from representatives of the dog food industry (whose job is — you guessed it — to sell pet food.) A pet nutritionist is your best bet, but they are often hard to find.
So it’s not surprising that a lot of dog owners find it challenging to figure out what the best dog food for small dogs truly is. That’s why we’ve done the research for you and are here to offer you tips on finding the best food for your little dog.
First: The Basics
When life is confusing, the best strategy I’ve found is to start with the basics. And when it comes to dog nutrition, the basic question you need answered is, “What nutrients does my dog really need?” Fortunately, here in the U.S. we have two organizations that work together to determine the nutritional adequacy and safety of the foods our dogs are fed: The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Here is a quick explanation of what each agency is and what they do.
- AAFCO is a nonprofit, voluntary organization charged with regulating the sale and distribution of animal feeds (including pet foods) and drugs. It is responsible for establishing standard ingredient definitions ( e.g., what is a “by-product”) and nutritional requirements for pet foods. It is also responsible for ensuring that pet-food manufacturers list the ingredients in the food (e.g. crude protein, moisture, and crude fat). Contrary to most people’s belief, however, the AAFCO does not “certify” pet food or guarantee that they meet the guidelines the organization has set. AAFCO determines what nutrients dogs need at two specific life stages: adult dogs over one year of age, and puppies and pregnant or lactating females. (Notably, there is no AAFCO standard for senior dogs or cats.) It is up to individual pet food manufacturers to perform feeding trials and laboratory testing to ensure that their food meets or exceeds those guidelines. If they do, the food label will carry the statement “(Name of food) is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO (Dog/Cat) Food Nutrient Profiles for (life stage).”
The AAFCO and FDA help ensure that dog foods sold in the U.S. are nutritionally sound and safe.
- FDA — Most of us know what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does: It is the federal regulatory agency tasked with ensuring that the foods we eat and the drugs we take are safe and effective. It performs a similar function in the regulation of pet foods. The FDA also investigates adverse events associated with pet foods and pet treats. For example, the agency investigated thousands of complaints between 2007 and 2015 regarding the sudden onset of a usually rare disease called Fanconi’s syndrome in previously healthy dogs who had consumed chicken jerky treats sourced in China. The agency is also currently investigating the possible connection between “boutique, exotic and grain free” dog foods and dilated cardiomyopathy, a severe and sometimes fatal heart disease.
Both agencies work together to ensure that dog and cat foods sold in the U.S. are nutritionally sound and safe. So, as a dog lover, you can take comfort in the fact that virtually any dog food purchased here that meets AAFCO standards will meet the basic nutritional needs of your small dog.
Special Nutritional Needs of Small Dogs
The AAFCO does not differentiate between breed sizes in its recommendations for pet food. It’s standards for “adult maintenance” foods are the same for any dog over 1 year of age. Still, if you take a quick look at pet store shelves, you’ll see many bags of dog food labeled “Small Breed.”
Why is that, we asked? And is it true that these are really the best foods for a small dog? Let’s take a look at some of the features of these foods to find out..
- Kibble Size: One obvious feature of small breed kibble is that the pieces are usually smaller than food made for large and medium-sized dogs.This is generally a good thing, especially for tiny dogs like Chihuahuas and Yorkies, who can choke on kibble that’s made for larger dogs.
- Nutritional profile: Many small breed dog foods are more “nutrient dense” than other foods, meaning they have more protein, fat, carbohydrates, micronutrients and calories per measure than foods created for larger dogs. This is based on the belief that smaller dogs are more active and have a higher metabolic rate than larger dogs and, therefore, need to take in more calories per pound of body weight. And while this is sometimes true, it’s important to factor in the breed and activity level of your dog before feeding them a nutrient dense food. Quite a few small breed dogs (think pugs and Pekingese for starters) are couch potatoes who quickly gain weight. So while a small-breed food may be okay to feed them, you need to be careful not to feed them too much!
Some small dogs may gain weight on “small breed” dog food unless you carefully monitor the amount of food they eat.
- A higher concentration of carbohydrates: Very small “teacup” dogs, and small-breed puppies often have trouble regulating their blood sugar and can develop hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) quite easily. For that reason, many pet food manufacturers add more carbs (which metabolize more quickly than proteins or fats) to their small breed foods. These carbs are usually in the form of grains such as corn, rice, oats, barley, wheat, rye, and/or sorghum. Whether these added carbs are better for small dogs is a matter for debate. Many vets simply recommend feeding small puppies and very small dogs three or four times a day to keep their blood sugar up.
It appears, then, that the only consistent benefit to feeding a small dog “small breed” food is the smaller kibble size. If you prefer to use a standard adult dog food, a simple workaround is just to add a little water or bone broth to the kibble so your little dog can chew and swallow it more easily.
With that being said, if you want to feed a small-breed food, choose a well-established brand with high-quality protein and appropriate amounts of fat and carbs. Some top-notch foods in this category include the following:
Royal Canin Small Breed Adult Dog Food
Backed by extensive feeding trials and laboratory testing, Royal Canin is a brand the vast majority of veterinarians trust. Its small-breed food contains 25% protein, mostly in the form of chicken-by-product meal, and 14% fat. It also contains a fair amount of carbohydrates in the form of corn, wheat gluten, brown and brewers rice. The company also adds L-carnitine, an amino acid that aids in fat metabolism and has been shown in some studies to help prevent obesity in dogs.
Blue Buffalo Life Protection Formula Small Breed Adult Chicken and Brown Rice Recipe
Blue Buffalo’s small breed formula is made from high-quality ingredients, including whole deboned chicken, chicken meal, brown rice, oatmeal, barley and fish meal (a source of omega 3 fatty acids).It contains no poultry by-products, corn, wheat or soy, which, while not exactly bad for dogs, are less species appropriate than other proteins and grains. Blue Buffalo also fortifies its food with its proprietary blend of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants known as Lifesource bits, which contain, among other things, blueberries, alfalfa, barley grass, flaxseed, omega 3 and 6 fatty acids and vitamin B, vitamin C and vitamin D. The food also contains glucosamine to support joint health, and a total of 26% protein and 15% fat.
Wellness Complete Health Dry Dog Food Adult Small Breed with Turkey and Oatmeal
Wellness Pet Foods has been a respected provider of nutritionally sound dog foods since it’s inception nearly 25 years ago. Launched in 1997 by a team of veterinarians, food scientists and animal nutritionists, it has earned a solid reputation as a leader in the pet food industry, and is a brand many pet owners and veterinarians trust. Now part of the Wellness Pet Company, it offers a wide array of dog foods for large, small and medium breeds alike.
Wellness Complete Health Dry Dog Food Adult Small Breed with Turkey and Oatmeal is a high-protein (28%) formula made especially for small dogs. It contains no meat by-products and is sourced from deboned turkey, salmon meal and chicken meal, as well as healthy grains like barley, sorghum, and oats. It contains a balanced mix of antioxidants and omega fatty acids to support your small dog’s immune system, skin and coat, and glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health.
Note: If your small dog is a bit on the chubby side, try Wellness Complete Health Dry Dog Food with Turkey and Brown Rice. It’s got a similar nutritional profile, but with a lower fat content (10% vs 16%) and fewer calories (341kcal/cup versus 408 kcal/cup.)
Alternatively, you may choose to feed your small dog a high quality food that is not formulated specifically for small dogs. Again, there’s very little difference between adult food and “small breed” food other than kibble size. So if you live in a multi-dog household and don’t want to buy several different types of food, feeding your small dog standard adult kibble is perfectly fine. You can run it through a food processor to make the bites smaller, and/or add a small amount of no-added-salt beef, chicken or bone broth to make it easier to chew.
As with small breed dog foods, choose a high quality food from a respected manufacturer. In addition to the labels mentioned above, some well-respected adult dog foods include:
Merrick Classic Healthy Grains Dog Food with Real Meat
Founded in 1988 by Garth Merrick of Hereford, Texas, Merrick dog food is known for its high-quality ingredients and excellent nutritional profile. It’s available in a vast number of formulas (most of which are made with chicken, beef or pork as the main protein source), including limited-ingredient diets, grain free diets and diets to maintain a healthy weight. (They also make a variety of canned foods). Merrick’s formulas contain a good balance of antioxidants as well as L-carnitine to support heart health, glucosamine and chondroitin for healthy joints, and omega 3 and 6 fatty acids for your dog’s skin and coat. Additionally, the Healthy Grains formula contains a blend of brown rice, barley, quinoa, oatmeal and flaxseed to provide an optimal amount of fiber to keep your dog feeling full without adding a lot of calories.
Open Farm Homestead Turkey and Ancient Grains Dog Food
If you’re a staunch animal welfare advocate who is also committed to environmental sustainability, you may want to give the Open Farm brand a try. The company thoroughly vets its suppliers to ensure that the animals used in its food are pasture-raised on certified-humane family farms and fed an antibiotic-free vegetarian diet, or, in the case of fish, are wild caught rather than farmed. It also is taking steps to reduce its carbon emissions over the next 10 years and engages in a carbon offset program by supporting conservation programs throughout North America. Open Farm also partners with Terracycle to ensure that its packaging is actually recycled and doesn’t wind up in the landfill. (Consumers must sign up to participate).
Open Farms dog food contains a blend of nutritious ingredients sourced from pasture-raised turkey, sustainable fish and organic fruits and vegetables
As to Open Farm’s food, a good example of their nutritional profile is the Ancient Grains and Turkey blend. Formulated from 100% humanely raised turkey and healthy grains like oats, sorghum and quinoa, it also includes chia seeds as a source of omega 3 fatty acids, fiber, iron and calcium, and pumpkin and apples as a source of beta carotene and vitamin C. It contains no fillers or artificial preservatives, and is quite reasonably priced. And if you’d like to branch out from kibble, Open Farms offers an array of wet, freeze dried raw and gently cooked foods to choose from as well.
Orijen Original High Protein Dog Food
Another respected maker of high-quality pet foods, Orjen (now a division of Champion Pet Foods) has been making quality dog food for nearly 30 years. It’s Original formula contains 38% protein, 85% of which come from animal sources such as chicken, turkey and fish. It’s also available in several other flavors (red meat and fish-based) and raw freeze-dried formulas as well as recently added formulas with grains.
Orjen’s high-protein dog food is a good choice for a small dog with lots of energy, like a papillon or toy poodle. Keep in mind, however, that excess protein may be harmful to senior dogs, especially those with kidney disease. What’s more, protein is calorie dense, so excess protein can easily contribute to weight gain in a less active pup. Although dogs’ nutritional needs vary a great deal, most dogs need about 18%-25% protein in their diet to maintain healthy muscle mass and optimal energy.
Note: All of the above dog food manufacturers also offer “wet” or canned food for dogs. If you prefer not to feed your dog kibble, any one of the many formulas they offer can be fed instead. Or you can add a little wet food to kibble (which is what I do) to make it softer and a little more palatable.
“Human Grade” Diets for Small Dogs
Over the past five or six years, a number of dog food manufacturers have sprung up across the U.S. who offer “human grade” or “human quality” food for dogs. These companies claim to use only “edible” ingredients (ingredients that the USDA has determined are fit for human consumption) in their food. Unfortunately, there is virtually no regulatory oversight of this nascent industry, so there’s really no way for consumers to know if these claims are true. The only way to ensure that any dog food is truly “human grade” is to buy from a company that prepares its food in a USDA inspected and approved kitchen, and those are few and far between. What’s more (and perhaps more importantly) there’s no guarantee that human grade ingredients are any better for our dogs than the kibble and wet food we’ve been feeding them for years.
Despite their soaring popularity, human grade foods have not been shown to be better for dogs than traditional dog food.
With that being said, many consumers are anxious to give these new, fresh, human-quality foods a try. If you’re in that group, here are a couple of companies who appear to be doing a good job.
Evermore Pet Foods
Based in Brooklyn, New York, Evermore Pet Foods is a woman-owned company founded in 2009. Their food is prepared in USDA-inspected kitchens located in California and is sourced from grass-fed, pasture-raised beef and lamb; pasture raised turkey; and fish certified by the Marine Stewardship Council as sustainable. The company uses only organic produce (except for wild Maine blueberries) and virtually no additives other than those needed to meet AAFCO standards (for instance, vitamins and minerals). It offers four flavors: chicken, beef, lamb and turkey, the latter two of which are grain free. The food is cooked slowly over low heat, cooled and then ground to a fine consistency, so it’s easy for even a tiny dog to eat.
Evermore Pet Foods are shipped frozen directly to the consumer. Like most human grade foods, they are far less nutrient dense than kibble, containing an average of about 12% protein and 6%-10% fat and 30-40 calories per ounce. As a result, you’ll probably need to give your dog a larger volume of food to meet his caloric and metabolic needs.
Founded in 2016 by New Yorkers Alex Douzet, Gabby Slome and Randy Jimenez, Ollie is headquartered in New York but prepares its food in USDA-inspected kitchens located in New Jersey. The company offers four formulas, all grain free and based on a single protein source, either beef, chicken, lamb or turkey. It uses fresh fruits and vegetables such as carrots, spinach and sweet potatoes, and no additives other than those necessary to make the formulas nutritionally complete. Like the offerings from Evermore Pets, the foods are not particularly nutrient dense, containing an average of 9% to 11% protein and about 7% fat. The food is cooked at low temperatures and then frozen in individual portions based on the size, breed, activity level and age of your dog.
One additional note: Be prepared for a bit of sticker shock if you decide to go this route. I’ve asked for quotes from both companies and several not listed here, and the average cost of their food for my 15-pound dog is around $120-$130 per month.
Raw Food for Small Dogs
Raw food (or freeze-dried raw food) is yet another choice for pet owners who want to move away from traditional kibble into a more “natural” way to feed their dog. Yet while those who promote these foods claim they are preferable to extruded kibble or “human grade” cooked diets for dogs, there have been no studies that demonstrate any long-term health benefits of raw diets, says Jennifer A. Larsen, DVM, head of the nutrition service at UC Davis’ Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital in a statement to Insider in 2021. Further, the American Veterinary Medical Association strongly discourages the use of “any animal-source protein that has not first been subjected to a process to eliminate pathogens [microbes capable of causing disease] because of the risk of illness to cats and dogs as well as humans.” That means any uncooked meat, fish or eggs or unpasteurized milk products should not be fed to dogs or cats. Freeze drying slows microbial activity, but does not kill bacteria or viruses; they simply “go dormant” and can easily become active and dangerous when the food reaches room temperature.
Although some pet owners, and even some veterinarians, believe strongly in raw food diets, because of these warnings by experts in the field, I do not recommend feeding any raw or freeze dried raw food to your small dog.
The Bottom Line
As you can see, deciding which is the best dog food for a small dog is not as simple as it would seem. With so many companies in the pet food space today, it’s hard to know what claims to believe and which are just marketing hype. That’s one reason why it’s best to stick with dog foods that have a proven track record of safety and reliability and rely on the advice of your vet or a pet nutritionist to help you find the best food for your dog.
Jen Jones is a professional dog trainer and behavior specialist with more than 25 years of experience. As the founder of ‘Your Dog Advisor’ and the ‘Canine Connection’ rehabilitation center, she applies a holistic, empathetic approach, aiming to address root causes rather than merely treating symptoms.
Well known for her intuitive and compassionate approach, Jen adopts scientifically-proven, reward-based methods, encouraging positive reinforcement over punishment. Jen specializes in obedience training, behavior modification, and puppy socialization. Her innovative methods, particularly in addressing anxiety and aggression issues, have been widely recognized. Jen has worked with many of the world’s leading dog behaviorists and in her free time volunteers with local animal shelters and rescue groups.