Dog food ingredients explained: A vet's guide to reading a dog food label

Labrador eating a bowl of dry dog food
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Reading a dog food ingredients list can feel like a bit of a minefield — and trying to compare the labels on the back of two different brands can feel even more overwhelming. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be.

While terms like ‘chicken meal’ and ‘animal derivatives’ can leave you wondering if the best dog food really is as good as it claims to be, rest assured that there are guidelines in place that ensure all wet and dry dog food is nutritionally complete and balanced.

Choosing dog food can seem complicated, especially if you’re like most pet parents and are keen to feed your pup a high-quality diet. But armed with a little expert knowledge, those trips to the grocery store can be a lot less stressful.

With that in mind, we turned to vet Dr. Joanna Woodnutt to get her advice on what you as a dog owner need to know about dog food ingredients. Below, she goes into great depth about what to look out for, how to read a food label and which ingredients are best avoided. Let’s dive in…

What are the main ingredients of dog food?

Firstly, both the best dry dog food and the best wet dog food needs to contain a high-quality protein source, which is usually animal-based. This could be chicken, beef, fish, turkey, or other meat products, or plant-based proteins like oats, peas, or nutritional yeast if you choose vegan dog food.

Carbohydrate is another vital component of dog food and is usually achieved with cereals like maize or wheat.

Dogs also need a source of fat in their diet. These are often at least partly animal-derived if the diet is not vegan or vegetarian. In addition, dog food must contain dietary fiber and the correct balance of vitamins and minerals. 

Ingredients to look for in a good dog food 

dog food

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Don’t be alarmed if you look at the ingredients list of your chosen dog food and find that you’re not sure whether it’s good or bad compared to others. You can look out for a few ingredients, often found in good-quality dog foods. 

Firstly, the most obvious element to look for is meat and ‘meat meal’. Animal-derived protein can be digested and processed efficiently by your dog to give them the amino acids needed to maintain and repair their body. 

Don’t be put off if you see the term ‘meat and animal derivatives’, though. It might not sound as pleasant, but the ingredients are often the same. The term is usually only used to give the manufacturers a little flexibility if their favored ingredient is temporarily unavailable. 

You should also look out for grains and cereals, fats, and oils. All complete dog foods should also contain vitamins and minerals. 

What does 'meat meal' mean?

You may see that a bag of dog food contains the ingredients 'meat meal', 'chicken meal', or 'fish meal'. 

It sounds off-putting and makes you think of ground heads, bones and feet, right? Well, ‘meal’ simply refers to the fact that the protein source (ie. muscle meat or liver) has been dried and heat-treated, then ground to a powder. Don’t worry, meat meal isn’t allowed to include things like hair, bristles, or stomach contents. 

Pet food manufacturers may use meal because it’s cheaper to ship. On a large scale, it’s also homogenous – one cup of it is likely to contain very similar nutrients to the next. This helps manufacturers to create a consistent product, rather than having their nutrition thrown off by the differing fat content in breast meat compared to thigh meat.

What does ‘meat and animal derivatives’ mean?

dog food

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One of the most picked-apart ingredients in your dog’s food is ‘meat and animal derivatives’. You may have heard people say that this is a way of feeding rubbish to your dog or that manufacturers are using the term to ‘hide’ ingredients.

Actually, ‘meat and animal derivatives’ is a term that is legally defined by European law as being “all the fleshy parts of slaughtered warm-blooded land animals, fresh or preserved by appropriate treatment, and all products and derivatives of the processing of the carcass or parts of the carcass of warm-blooded land animals”. 

In addition, ‘meat and animal derivatives’ can only be taken from animals passed as fit for human consumption. In other words, ‘meat and animal derivatives’ are by-products of the human meat trade. And by-products aren’t necessarily bad! 

In fact, the nutritious organ meats (livers, hearts, tripe, and kidneys) aren’t fashionable in all countries, and may be thrown away if not used for the pet food trade.

 ‘Meat and animal derivatives’ can even include muscle meats – including favorites such as steak! This happens when an animal is passed as fit for human consumption, but errors in slaughter or butchery cause unsightly problems that mean they won’t be sold on a supermarket shelf.

Ingredients to avoid in dog food 

Just like there are some ingredients to look out for, there are also ingredients that are best avoided. Additives like colorings, sweeteners, and preservatives are examples of this. 

Propylene glycol is sometimes used as a preservative in pet food and treats, and food dyes are used in some dog kibble brands to make the food more colorful and exciting. These additives are of no health benefit to your dog and are best avoided. 

How useful is the ingredients list on your pet’s food?

wet dog food

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Your dog food ingredients list has a few limitations in helping you to choose a good food for your dog. 

Firstly, producers can choose whether to list the individual ingredients, or just ingredient categories, which allows them to change the formulation slightly if the chosen ingredient is not available without changing the label. 

Secondly, there is no way to determine the quality of an ingredient from the dog food ingredient list. One producer’s ‘beef meal’ may be more nutritious than the next. However, manufacturers may use phrases like ‘human grade’ or ‘fresh’ to make you think their ingredients are higher quality than their competitors. 

Thirdly, the composition section of your dog’s food lists the ingredients in order of weight, leading some pet owners to assume that it’s also in order of the amount of nutrition your pet gains from the product.

How to choose the best dog food 

best dog food

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This is all very well, but you’re probably wondering how to compare pet foods to find a good dog food if you shouldn’t be solely relying on the ingredients list. The single most important thing is to find a brand that meets the WSAVA guidelines.

If following the guidelines and contacting the manufacturer sounds like hard work, the good news is that the Pet Nutrition Alliance did some of the initial research for you. After that, look for a diet that contains an AAFCO or FEDIAF ‘complete and balanced’ label claim – these show that the product contains all the nutrients your pet needs, in the right ratios, according to the body of scientific evidence.

It’s important to note that there is no one dog food that is 'best' for every dog. Just like a person, your dog has unique needs, and what works for one dog may not always be the best option for another. 

However, there are a few things you should keep in mind:

  • Breed
  • Age
  • Weight and body condition score
  • Health status
  • Lifestyle and activity level
  • Any chronic health issues or risk factors
  • Your dog’s taste and texture preferences
  • Your budget

It is also important to consider the calorie content of the food you choose and how this will affect your dog’s portion sizes. Just like the foods we eat, every dog food will have a different calorie content per serving.

Look under the nutritional information to find the calorie content per cup of food.  Your veterinarian can calculate your dog’s required daily calorie intake to help you determine how many calories your dog should consume at each meal.  Don’t use the feeding guide on the back of the bag – you’ll likely be feeding your dog too much, especially if your dog is already overweight!

For further guidance, be sure to read our vet's guide on choosing which dog food is best for your canine companion. 

What types of dog food are there? 

Until reasonably recently, there were broadly three types of dog food – dry dog food, wet dog food, and raw dog food. Commercial dry and wet foods could be further split into puppy, adult, and senior foods. 

Of course, these types of dog food still exist, but there are even more subcategories! For instance, if your dog is a pedigree, there are breed-specific dog foods. If your dog is a working dog, there are specially formulated diets containing lots of carbohydrates and protein to keep their energy levels up and their muscles healthy. 

There are even dog foods designed for neutered and unneutered pets and diets for specific health issues like urinary disease, allergies, obesity, diabetes, and dental disease. 

More recently, additional types have been developed that are in keeping with our desire as humans to be healthier. These include natural diets, grain-free dog food, gluten-free diets, and even vegan diets. Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? 

Well, the critical thing to remember about any doggy diet is that it must be nutritionally balanced and ‘complete’, containing all the nutrients they need.

Understanding a dog food label 

When you’re looking for the perfect dog food, it can be hard to decide what’s fact and what’s good marketing. The world of dog food is full of brands claiming to be the best; after all, that’s how they sell their product. But with so many vague terms and unsubstantiated claims, how can you make the right choice? 

Well, firstly, you should always look at the ingredients label rather than skimming the rest of the packaging. Although laws regulate the pet food industry, some loopholes allow manufacturers to be a little deceptive. 

For example, a dog food might claim to contain ‘added’ or ‘extra’ ingredients, but they only have to add a tiny amount of them to make this statement true. The small amount is unlikely to make any difference to either the taste of the food or your dog’s health. 

So, check the actual ingredients list, and remember that ingredients are listed in order of weight, with the heaviest first. 

How do you read dog food labels? 

dog food ingredients

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When reading a dog food ingredient label, you should remember that the ingredients are listed in order of weight, with the heaviest first. However, this can be a bit confusing and misleading.

You might expect the meat to appear first on the list because protein should be the main component of dog food. So, you might understandably discount any dog foods where the meat appears second or even third on the list. Don’t be fooled, though; if the meat source is dehydrated, it may not be as heavy as other ingredients, even if it contains a large amount of protein. 

How much protein should a good dog food contain?

The recommended crude protein in adult dog food is no less than 18 per cent, according to the Association of American Feed Control Officials, but for puppies, it should be around 22.5 per cent.

On the other hand, you don’t want to give your dog too much protein, especially if they are older or have kidney problems. So, what protein to fat ratio is best for dogs? Well, it really depends on your dog’s age, activity levels, and health status, so speak to your veterinarian.

What does the law say?

dog food ingredients: what is your dog food and how to read a dog food label

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There are lots of laws that cover the ingredients in dog food and how they are named on the packet. For instance, a packet of dog food must list the ingredients in order of weight, with the heaviest ingredients first. Some terms also have a legal definition, including ‘meat and animal derivatives’ or ‘minerals’ – these must be strictly adhered to. 

There are also specific requirements for whether a label can claim 'with fish', 'rich in fish', or 'fish dinner', depending on the amount of fish in the product. In the UK, these laws are laid down by the EU, while in America the FDA and USDA have labeling laws. The American Association of Food Control Officials (AAFCO) and FEDIAF (European Pet Food Industry) also lay down regulations and guidelines for members. 

But despite all the laws, lots of things are not covered, and manufacturers can use these loopholes to turn their ingredients label into a marketing tool. For instance, 'super premium' and ‘holistic’ don’t have a legal definition; manufacturers use them to sway you into purchasing their product rather than the next one on the shelf.

In addition, many ingredients are simply added (in tiny proportions) to make them sound tasty or to insinuate a health benefit, such as 'with fresh herbs' or 'plus blueberries and coconut' – it’s likely these don’t change the taste of the food, but they sound like something we would buy for ourselves. 

Which dog food ingredients cause allergies?

An allergy happens when the body mounts an immune response to something that it shouldn’t need to. In dogs, this can be to the environment, pollen, insects, or food. Although food gets blamed for a lot of allergies, only about 1 in 100 dogs are thought to be allergic to ingredients in their diet. 

Dogs are usually allergic to proteins – beef is the most common allergen, but pork, fish, and chicken are also known allergens in dogs. Gluten allergies in dogs are not as common as the gluten-free marketing companies would have you believe, with corn allergy affecting around 1 in 1,000 dogs, and the other cereals less. You can read more in our article: four common allergies in dogs and what you can do about them.

You should also take care, as ‘hypoallergenic’ doesn’t have a legal definition in pet food and manufacturers like to apply it as a marketing ploy. In addition, just because a product lists ‘beef and fish’ as the proteins in the ingredients list doesn’t mean it doesn’t have microscopic amounts of other proteins. 

These tiny amounts are enough to set off your dog’s allergy, so it’s important to only use a well-respected brand if your pet has allergies. If your pup is having a reaction to a particular protein or other ingredient, speak to your vet about whether it's worth switching them over to the best dog food for allergies.

Are fewer ingredients better in dog foods?

It’s easy to see how people make the connection between fewer ingredients and a more ‘natural’ approach. But balancing a diet correctly requires a certain number of ingredients. If your chosen pet food doesn’t list much under ‘composition’, you should check whether it is ‘complete and balanced’. 

If it doesn’t say this on the packet, or says ‘complementary’ instead, this diet is not a suitable main diet for your pet and should be given as a treat or topper. Even if a food claims to be complete, too few ingredients is still a red flag - minor changes in the quality of the supply to the manufacturer can change the nutrient profile and cause major problems for your pet.

It can be confusing to read ingredients from dog food labels, but it’s worth knowing what you’re feeding to your canine companion. After all, if they have any health issues, there could be a dog food out there that suits their needs better. However, if your dog is healthy, is a good weight, and enjoys eating their current diet, there’s probably no need to make a switch. If you do decide to do this, check out our guide to changing dog food for tips on how to transition dog food safely.

Dr Joanna Woodnutt BVM BVS BVMedSci MRCVS
Dr. Joanna Woodnutt

Dr Joanna Woodnutt graduated as a veterinarian from the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom in 2016 and went on to practice companion animal medicine in the Midlands. She quickly developed a love of consulting and helping clients with medical problems such as dermatology, behavior, and nutrition. Dr Woodnutt now lives in the Channel Islands with her husband Ian, their daughter, and their terrier Pixie.

Dr Joanna Woodnutt MRCVS

After graduating as a veterinarian from the University of Nottingham, Dr Joanna Woodnutt went on to practice companion animal medicine in the Midlands. She quickly developed a love of consulting and helping clients with medical problems such as dermatology, behaviour and nutrition - anything that involved helping clients understand their pets better. Jo started writing about pet health in 2017, realising that it meant she could help even more pet parents. Since then, she has written for countless online and print publications and is a regular contributor for Edition Dog Magazine. Jo now lives in the Channel Islands with her husband Ian and terrier Pixie, and they are expecting their first child very soon.