This can't be overstated - what you feed your dog is one of the most important decisions you'll make as an owner. Sure it's easy to pick up a bag of dog food that says "All Natural" (and Labs have no shortage of appetite), but the end result may lead to obesity, major health issues, and even some heart break.
The best thing you can do for your dog is make informed purchasing decisions and understand the ingredients.
We'll go through how to read ingredients, what's important to have, and what to completely avoid. Along with our top picks in quality and ingredients (which we go into detail down below).
Just know there is no single best option, and their nutritional needs will change over time. What you'll choose is based on age, activity level, quality ingredients, and any health conditions – such as allergies, diabetes, etc...
At a Glance: Best Dog Food For Labs
*Ratings are based on our personal opinions and research.
Age and Health Conditions
When choosing food, your dog will fall within one of these age groups - Puppy, Adult, & Senior.
Puppy food will contain more calories to accommodate all that growing and playing they need to do. Your dog is considered a puppy until they reach 12 months of age, which you can then transition to Adult food.
Senior food will help control calories, and contain high quality proteins to maintain weight without putting strain on the kidneys. It may also contain glucosamine (among other supplements) to treat arthritis, but it generally doesn’t contain enough to make a difference, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Dogs are generally considered senior at age 7.
Finally, Adult Labradors will be somewhere in between, they still need high quality proteins, essential fatty acids, and a moderate amount of calories to maintain an active lifestyle.
It’s not uncommon for Labs to develop allergies to certain proteins, and you'll find yourself testing several types of food to avoid allergic reactions.
Typically allergies stem from being exposed to the same protein over very long periods of time. So if your Lab has been eating chicken for several years, they may naturally develop an allergy to it.
To avoid this, simply switch up their main protein once every 6 months.
If you suspect your Lab has already developed allergies, look at the symptoms, talk to your Vet so you can treat symptoms, and begin “food trials” and make note of any improvements.
- Itchy, inflammed, and red ears
- Puffy, runny, itchy eyes
- Itchy, red skin
- Excessive scratching
- Patches of hair missing (from scratching)
Discovering The Source of Their Food Allergies
Allergies commonly stem from specific proteins (although they can have allergic reactions to just about anything), so if you suspect they are reacting to their food, then it’s time to switch their protein and go on a strict 6 week food trial.
During this trial you must have absolute 100% control over their diet, no treats, and no switching dog food.
If, for example, your dog has had chicken as their main food protein, then look at switching to something such as Lamb, Fish, or Buffalo. Something they typically wouldn’t have. Furthermore, read the ingredients list carefully to ensure there is no chicken present. Even if it reads: MAY CONTAIN, then move on to the next food, even trace amounts can trigger an allergic reaction.
Your dog can have an allergic response up to 6 weeks after consuming food! That means if your dog even has a sample of chicken you have to restart the food trial all over again. If after six weeks there is no signs of improvement, then switch to the next protein or dog food brand.
Also, they could be allergic to multiple sources, which can be triggered from other ingredients or be environmental.
Avoid switching food immediately, as this will certainly lead to an upset stomach and diarrhea. Make the switch gradually, using a combination of their old dog food with the new dog food over the course of 7 days.
Example of Food Transition:
- Day 1 & 2 - 20% New Food / 80% Old Food
- Day 3 & 4 - 50% New Food / 50% Old Food
- Day 5 & 6 - 80% New Food / 20% Old Food
- Day 7 - 100% New Food
What to look for on the Label
Dog food packaging like to use popular “buzz words” like:
- All Natural
These are basically meaningless, and may not truly represent the ingredients. There may also be a feel-good story on the back about discovering the heart of nature in your canine, aww… Be aware of trendy sell-words and only pay attention to the ingredients list.
Ingredients are ordered by weight, starting with the heaviest - That means your main protein should be listed first on the ingredients label.
Look for the same proteins that are listed on the front. If the front of the bag says Lamb, then the first ingredient should reflect that, and not use words like “Meat,” “Poultry,” or “Animal.”
Ingredients just listed as: ‘Meat’ or 'Meat-Meal' that’s certainly not clear enough – Meat can mean a lot of different things. In that case move on to the next dog food brand.
You may see the word “Meal” used, such as Lamb Meal or Chicken Meal. This refers to the fact that it uses multiple parts of the animals that hold more protein. This is perfectly healthy and still a high quality protein source.
Vegetables and Fruits
Typically the next set of ingredients will be vegetables and fruits. Although these aren’t necessary in a dog’s diet, they do add nutritional value with vitamins, minerals, and fiber. However, avoid Corn and Beep Pulp, as these are cheap filler products.
Complex Carbohydrates and Gluten
It’s still wildly debated whether or not carbs should be a part of a dog’s diet. Dogs have no nutritional requirements for carbs, and can live just fine on protein and fat alone, in which case you may opt for a low-carb, protein-rich diet. However, carbs come with certain benefits to you and your dog.
There is no one-size-fits-all dog food, and whether you go low-carb or not is based on your research and dog's dietary needs. So here's some facts to chew on:
What are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are sugars, starches, and fibers, which can be broken down into two classifications: Simple Carbs (sugar found in fruits and vegetables), and Complex Carbs (starch found in grain, wheat, potatoes, corn).
Dogs Don’t Need Carbs
Dogs do not have any nutritional requirement for carbohydrates as part of their diet. If we travel back to visit their ancestors - wolves were predators which hunted and consumed only protein and fat found by hunting animals. Fast forward to current times, and your dogs nutritional needs haven't changed much, and carbs are still not a part of their regular dietary needs.
Why Are Carbs in Dog Food?
1. As a manufacturer carbs are a less expensive energy source to produce and have a longer shelf life, while helping kibble maintain its shape. It also means that dog food sold to the consumer comes at a cheaper price as it can be easily mass produced.
2. It’s still an effective energy source that most active dogs have no issue metabolizing.
Dogs have no issue digesting carbohydrates and using them as an energy source, the extra fiber helps with bowel movements, and it’s considered a high quality, calorie-dense source suitable for active dogs. Furthermore, it’s cheap, and that means you won’t break the bank feeding your dog.
Carbs are broken down into glucose by the dogs small intestine, and that glucose is used as energy for the body while the unused energy is stored in the body for later use. Issues with carbs become apparent with inactive dogs, or diets too rich in carbs, as stored glycogen will then convert into fat and can cause obesity.
This is why you'll need to read the ingredients, research brands, and make fair judgements based on your dog and their dietary needs.
We recommend reading this piece on Carbohydrates and Your Dog.
What are the Best Complex Carb Sources For my Dog?
Brown Rice, Whole Oats, Whole Wheat, Quinoa, Rye, Barley, Buckwheat, and Sweet Potato.
What Carbs Should I Avoid?
Corn, Cornmeal, Corn Gluten, Wheat Gluten, Soy, Sugar, White Flour, White Rice, and Pasta.
Grain Free vs Carb Free
Grain-free dog foods are becoming increasingly popular, but that doesn't always indicate it's low in Carbohydrates. Grain-free food will avoid fibers such as wheat, rice, oats, barley, and rye - ingredients not part of your dogs dietary needs. However, they will still contain alternative carb sources such as potatoes and pea fiber, among other vegetables and fruit. These alternative carbs still hold nutritional value for your dog, including fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Gluten Free Diet
While gluten allergies tend to occur with humans, it’s actually very rare with canines, and they will most commonly develop allergies towards a specific protein. While carbohydrates in a dog’s diet is up for debate, just know that gluten is rarely a cause for concern.
Oils and Fat
Fat is absolutely an essential part of a dogs diet – fats and oils maintain nervous function, skin and coat health, joints, organs, and encourage vitamin absorption. You’ll most commonly find chicken fat, pork fat, or fish oil, or flax seed oil in dog food.
However, you can supplement their food with omega 3 fish oil, or even olive oil for some added benefit if they have a deficiency.
Always discuss with your vet prior to supplementing your dog’s food.
Good Sources of Fatty Acids:
Chicken Fat, Pork Fat, Olive Oil, Flaxseed Oil, Fish Oils.
What Fats Should I Avoid?
Animal Fat, Poultry Fat, Vegetable Oil, Lard.
What to Completely Avoid
Here is the full list of ingredients to avoid – typically found in low quality and cheap dog food.
But here’s the short list:
- Preservatives such as BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin
- Additional “Flavoring”
- Sugar and Sweeteners
Best Dog Food For Labs: Our Picks
Let's dive a little deeper by looking at the ingredients in their original Chicken and Turkey recipe (ingredients listed below).
First thing you'll notice is deboned chicken, a good source of protein, however most water-rich protein sources lose 80% of it's protein when dried. Next is chicken meal and turkey meal, these contain 300% more protein when dried and are still high quality ingredients. From this we can conclude this Wellness CORE is indeed protein rich.
Next is potatoes as their primary carbohydrate source, although potatoes are only moderately nutritional, it is gluten and grain-free and easily digestible. Further down the line we have peas, tomato pomace, and ground potatoes, these act as filler and additional fiber. Then we get ground flaxseed, and chicken fat, both excellent sources of omega 3 - 6 fatty acids.
Based on these primary ingredients we can conclude this is a high quality, protein-rich food, with no grains, which is more akin to a canines natural diet. There are some filler products in the form of potatoes and peas, however these grain-free carbohydrate sources still contain nutritional value for your dog.
Ingredients - Original Chicken and Turkey
Deboned chicken, chicken meal, turkey meal, potatoes, peas, tomato pomace, dried ground potatoes, ground flaxseed, chicken fat (preserved with mixed tocopherols), natural chicken flavor, pea fiber, potassium chloride, spinach, broccoli, vitamin E supplement, carrots, parsley, apples, blueberries, kale, sweet potatoes, taurine, l-carnitine, mixed tocopherols added to preserve freshness, zinc proteinate, glucosamine hydrochloride, chondroitin sulfate, zinc sulfate, calcium carbonate, niacin, ferrous sulfate, iron proteinate, beta-carotene, vitamin A supplement, copper sulfate, thiamine mononitrate, copper proteinate, manganese proteinate, manganese sulfate, d-calcium pantothenate, sodium selenite, pyridoxine hydrochloride, chicory root extract, Yucca schidigera extract, riboflavin, vitamin D3 supplement, biotin, calcium iodate, vitamin B12 supplement, folic acid, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), dried Lactobacillus plantarum fermentation product, dried Enterococcus faecium fermentation product, dried Lactobacillus casei fermentation product, dried Lactobacillus acidophilus fermentation product, rosemary extract, green tea extract, spearmint extract
Wellness Core is a AAA Dog food brand with premium protein-rich ingredients, no by-products of preservatives, and produced in the USA. They use grain free ingredients,
Blue Wilderness is grain-free dog food brand that focus on natural ingredients your dog would consume out in the wild. Natural ingredients such as wild protein, fat, vegetables, and fruit, without byproducts, grain, or preservatives.
Does it live up to these claims? In short, yes. But let's take a deep dive into the ingredients to better understand the recipe.
First thing we read is Deboned Salmon, a great source of protein, however when salmon is dried it will generally lose 80% of it's weight (due to water mass), and therefore be deprived of protein. The next ingredients are fish meal and chicken meal, a high quality protein source which will contains 300% more protein when dried. Based on this we can conclude Blue Wilderness to be a very high quality protein source.
Also note that this Salmon formula contains chicken, so if your dog is suffering from chicken allergies this can certainly trigger a reaction.
The main carbohydrate source is Potato Starch and Potato, a moderately nutritional carb that also acts as filler. Potatoes are gluten and grain-free and are easily digestible. Peas and Tomato Pomace also act as a nutritional and fibrous filler.
The primary fat content comes from Chicken Fat, and further down the line we see Flax seed, both an excellent source of Omega 3 - 6 essential fatty acids. Then we have Alfalfa Meal, which is a natural vegetable based protein generally used to feed live stock and horses.
From the list of primary ingredients we can conclude this be a very high quality food product, that does meet their claims of ingredients that stays true to a canines dietary requirements.
Ingredients - Salmon Formula
Deboned Salmon, Menhaden Fish Meal (natural source of Omega 3 Fatty Acids), Chicken Meal, Potato Starch, Peas, Chicken Fat (preserved with Natural Mixed Tocopherols and Citric Acid), Potatoes, Tomato Pomace (natural source of Lycopene), Natural Chicken Flavor, Flaxseed (natural source of Omega 3 and 6 Fatty Acids), Alfalfa Meal, Whole Carrots, Whole Sweet Potatoes, Blueberries, Cranberries, Barley Grass, Dried Parsley, Dried Kelp, Taurine, Yucca Shidigera Extract, L-Carnitine, L-Lysine, Turmeric, Oil of Rosemary, Beta Carotene, Vitamin A Supplement, Thiamine Mononitrate (Vitamin B1), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Niacin (Vitamin B3), d-Calcium Pantothenate (Vitamin B5), Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Biotin (Vitamin B7), Folic Acid (Vitamin B9), Vitamin B12 Supplement, Calcium Ascorbate (source of Vitamin C), Vitamin D3 Supplement, Vitamin E Supplement, Iron Amino Acid Chelate, Zinc Amino Acid Chelate, Manganese Amino Acid Chelate, Copper Amino Acid Chelate, Choline Chloride, Sodium Selenite, Calcium Iodate, Salt, Caramel, Potassium Chloride, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bacillus subtilis, Enterococcus faecium.
- First Ingredient is Salmon and Fish meal.
- Excellent source of Omega 3 - 6 Fatty Acids
- Fiber Rich
- Ingredients are not sourced from China
- Typically more expensive than other brands.
- Potato and Potato starch as primary carb source, moderately nutritional, however it's still gluten and grain free and easily digestible.
Blue Wilderness claims it was inspired by the diet of wolves, and it certainly holds true to that claim. All the ingredients follow a true omnivore diet of protein, essential fats, fruits, and vegetables. The primary carbs are fibrous and easily digestible, and the protein is high value. Our main concern with the salmon recipe is it contains chicken meal, which could be an issue for Labradors with food allergies.
First ingredient is Chicken meal, a common and high-quality source of protein. Followed by Tapioca, a carbohydrate source extracted from the root of cassava plants. Although this starch is gluten and grain free, it holds low nutritional value and is high-glycemic, and is generally used as a 'binder' for the kibble.
Third ingredient is Chicken Fat, a good source of omega 3 essential fatty acids. Followed by Pumpkin Seeds, a very good source of fiber, fatty acids, and natural defense to tape worms. We then have fish meal, another solid source of protein, and Alfalfa Meal, a vegetable protein often used to feed livestock and horses.
Next we have Montmorillonite Clay, a natural anti-caking agent, but also a natural detoxifier sometimes used by vets. Also, it's been known to improve immune system and strengthen bones.
Based on their primary ingredients we can say this is a very good source of protein, and a good balance of protein, carbs, and fat - which is suitable for a dogs more carnivorous nature.
Chicken Meal, Tapioca, Chicken Fat, Pumpkinseeds, Menhaden Fish Meal, Sun-Cured Alfalfa Meal, Montmorillonite Clay, Natural Chicken Flavor, Vitamins (Choline Chloride, Vitamin E Supplement, Ascorbic Acid, Biotin, Niacin Supplement, Vitamin A Acetate, d-Calcium Pantothenate, Riboflavin Supplement, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Thiamine Mononitrate, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Carotene, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Folic Acid), Minerals (Zinc Proteinate, Iron Proteinate, Manganese Proteinate, Copper Proteinate, Sodium Selenite, Ethylenediamine Dihydriodide), Sea Salt, Dried Kelp, Direct-Fed Microorganisms (Saccharomyces Cerevisiae Yeast Culture, Dried Enterococcus Faecium Fermentation Product, Dried Lactobacillus Acidophilus Fermentation Product, Dried Aspergillus Niger Fermentation Extract, Dried Trichoderma Longibrachiatum Fermentation Extract, Dried Bacillus Subtilis Fermentation Extract), Inulin, Flaxseed Oil, Apples, Carrots, Peas, Cottage Cheese, Chicken Eggs, Mixed Tocopherols with Citric Acid (a natural preservative), Rosemary Extract, Freeze Dried Chicken, Freeze Dried Turkey, Freeze Dried Turkey Liver, Freeze Dried Turkey Heart, Ground Chicken Bone, Butternut Squash, Broccoli, Lettuce, Spinach, Salmon Oil, Apple Cider Vinegar, Parsley, Honey, Blueberries, Alfalfa Sprouts, Persimmons, Olive Oil, Duck Eggs, Pheasant Eggs, Quail Eggs, Rosemary, Sage, Clove.
- Multiple sources of high quality protein (Chicken, Fish, Alfalfa)
- A large assortment of extra vitamins and minerals
- Tapioca as primary starch. Although it has no negative effects, it contains very little nutritional value and is high glycemic.
Natures Variety Instinct is a very good source of high quality protein, and makes use of supplemental vitamins and minerals. They are more in balance with your dogs natural carnivorous diet. However, their primary starch pick doesn't hold much nutritional value, and it's considered high-glycemic.