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Admit it: You didn’t know dog food has an expiration date. It’s not like the dog food sits around for months—your four-legged, speed-eating champ makes sure of that—so does the expiration date really matter? 

“It’s important for pet owners to note the expiration date on their dog food package to prevent feeding expired or soiled food to their dog,” explains Dr. Megan McCarthy, a veterinarian at the Best Friends Animal Society Lifesaving Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. “Expired dog food may have a loss in nutritional quality and may cause illness.”  

Despite the importance of heeding the expiration date, more than 10 percent of pet owners never check the expiration dates on pet food packaging and 7 percent admitted to feeding their pets expired kibble, according to 2021 research (1). 

Does Dog Food Expire?

Read the fine print: The expiration date on your dog food label is meant to be taken seriously.

The expiration date, which is often printed near the barcode on dog food packaging, is different from the “best by” or “sell by” dates, according to Dr. Oscar Chavez, a veterinarian and former leader of the Canine Nutrition Team at JustFoodForDogs.

“[The] expiration date is the date the manufacturer recommends discarding the product,” he explains. “[The ‘best by’ and ‘sell by’ dates indicate] when the manufacturer recommends the food be sold and used by. This doesn’t ensure the food is fresh, only that it can still be sold and should not be spoiled.”

Different kinds of dog food have different expiration dates: Dr. Chavez notes that conventional kibble and wet dog foods can have a shelf life of up to two years; fresh frozen pet foods will last a few months in the freezer; and fresh ultra-processed pet foods will expire in a few weeks. All dog foods will spoil more quickly after the packaging is open, he adds.

Does Dry Dog Food Expire?

Dry dog food does expire. Unopened, a bag of dry dog food can last up to two years, says Dr. Chavez. Once the bag is opened, it should be used within 4-6 weeks.

“Kibble is ultra-processed pet food and contains preservatives designed to give it a longer shelf life,” Dr. Chavez says. “Most dry pet food will go bad at home well before its sell by date due to fats going rancid, bad handling and exposure to the elements. Assume a bag of dry food will go bad in a few weeks after it’s opened no matter what the expiration date is.” 

Does Wet Dog Food Expire?

Wet (canned) dog food also has an expiration date. An unopened can could have a shelf life as long as two years, depending on the manufacturer, but, once the top is popped, Dr. McCarthy notes that, even in the refrigerator, it will go bad quickly.

“After opening a can [of wet dog food], it should be stored in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator for up to three days,” she says. “If it’s left at room temperature, canned food should be disposed of after two hours.”

Moisture, heat and exposure to air can cause wet food to go rancid or allow bacteria and mold to grow. When wet food goes bad, it may have a foul odor, change in color or obvious mold growth—but Dr. McCarthy notes that those signs may not always be present, adding, “that is why it’s important to dispose of any opened canned food if not used within three days and any unopened canned food if past its expiration date.”  

Is Expired Dog Food Safe?

You might not need to look at the expiration date to know that a pet food is past its prime. Expired pet foods often smell off, leading your dog to turn up his nose at the food bowl—but he might be too food motivated to notice, so it’s important for the humans to pay attention. 

“Just like our food, fresh food smells like food and bad food smells off,” Dr. Chavez says. “Dogs may notice before we do because they are more sensitive, so if your dog rejects his favorite meal, it might be bad.”

Expired foods are not only unappetizing, they could cause health issues, according to Dr. Chavez.

“Just like us, [dogs] can get sick [from eating expired dog food],” he explains. “In more severe cases, they can have vomiting, diarrhea and stop eating altogether.” 

If you accidentally fed your hungry hound expired food, Dr. McCarthy suggests contacting your veterinarian

“If your pet recently consumed (within the last hour), your veterinarian may induce vomiting to prevent any issues with the expired food,” she says. “You can also monitor your dog for any signs of illness or stomach upset like vomiting and diarrhea, and contact your veterinarian if any concerns arise.”  

What to Do with Expired Dog Food

The best thing to do with expired food is toss it in the trash. Put it in a trash bag and and toss that bag in a covered trash can or receptacle to prevent wildlife or outdoor pets from accessing it, Dr. McCarthy advises. 

“Some local waste disposal or recycle programs may also use compost programs for expired foods and pet foods, so you can also reach out to your local waste management program,” she adds.

How to Keep Dog Food Fresh

Since kibble, wet food, fresh ultra-processed and fresh frozen dog foods all go bad quickly once the packaging is open, it’s important to take steps to extend the shelf life and preserve the quality.

Shop more often: Almost one-quarter of pet parents purchased two packages of pet food at a time even though 64 percent of pets took at least four weeks to consume one bag of food, according to research (1). Buying several packages might save on extra trips to the store but could increase the odds that your dog food expires before your pooch polishes off the entire bag. 

Make space in the freezer: Storing fresh, frozen foods in the freezer can extend their shelf life—but Dr. Chavez offers one caveat. 

“If it’s been exposed to heat or previously frozen and thawed above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, freezing is not recommended,” he says. 

Practice safe storage: Leaving dry dog food unsealed, pouring kibble into plastic containers or leaving food out too long are among the most common dog food storage mistakes to avoid. Instead, Dr. Chavez suggests leaving dog food in its original packaging and storing it in a cool, dry spot with limited exposure to heat and light.

Paying attention to the expiration on your dog’s food ensures that your furry friend is benefiting from all of the flavor and nutrients her dog food should provide and protecting her from potential illness.