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Dog food ingredients explained – a vet’s guide to what's really in your dog’s dinner

dog food ingredients
(Image credit: Getty Images)

You’ve probably noticed how complicated dog food ingredients can seem if you have ever tried to compare the back of two packs of food in the supermarket. Even if you’ve researched the best dog food some confusing questions can still remain. What does ‘chicken meal’ mean? And what is in ‘meat and animal derivatives’? How can you find the best dog food for your beloved pet? Don’t worry – although these terms can seem worrying, we’ve got it all covered. The most important thing to recognize is that the ingredients list doesn’t necessarily tell you if the dog food will suit your four-legged friend. We’ll explain why.

Dog food ingredients: The law

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, 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. Other ingredients are added in tiny amounts to insinuate a health benefit – you might find a senior diet described as 'with turmeric'. Ignoring the lack of evidence that turmeric benefits joints, the tiny amount of turmeric included in these diets is unlikely to make any difference to your dog’s health.

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

Your dog food ingredient 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. ‘Meat and animal derivatives’ is one such category. While some producers would prefer to include each individual ingredient ('chicken breast', 'pork liver'), others prefer to use a category, as it allows them to change the formulation slightly if the chosen ingredient is not available without changing the label. This means that the diet containing ‘meat and animal derivatives’ could actually contain the same ingredients as the next diet on the shelf – but it doesn’t sound as good!

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. People then say that you should have protein as the first ingredient in your pet’s food. But moisture adds a lot of weight, meaning that a ‘wet’ ingredient may have to appear before a dry ingredient in the list, even if it has less nutrition. Using dried meals or freeze-dried ingredients can be a good way of adding concentrated nutrients to food, but these ingredients may appear further down the list, as they aren’t including water weight. 

What does ‘meat and animal derivatives’ mean?

One of the most picked-apart ingredients in your dog’s food is ‘meat and animal derivatives’. If you’ve come here because you’re researching what this means, you’ve probably already read lots of people that say 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. The definition is “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 favourites 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.

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.

dog food ingredients

(Image credit: Getty)

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.

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.

How can I find a good pet food?

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 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.

Final thoughts on dog food

We’ve learned a lot about dog food ingredients, but the important thing to remember is that every dog is different. If your dog is happy and healthy, slim, and with a shiny coat then don’t be in a rush to change his food. Talk to your vet or veterinary nurse/tech if you need any further information; they’re there to help.

Dr Joanna Woodnutt MRCVS

Dr Joanna Woodnutt is an experienced vet with an interest in companion animals. She recently left full-time practice to work as a relief vet and write articles about pets.