Skip to main content

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? 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, ingredients should be listed in order of weight, with the heaviest ingredients first (this may be under the term ‘composition’). Some terms also have a legal definition, including ‘meat and animal derivatives’ or ‘minerals’. 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. For instance, 'super premium' and ‘holistic’ don’t have a legal definition; these are marketing terms that are added to encourage you to buy. In addition, many ingredients are simply added (in tiny proportions) to make them sound tasty, 'with fresh herbs' or 'plus blueberries and coconut', or even to insinuate a health benefit: 'with turmeric'. 

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.

Secondly, your dog food ingredient list gives no indication as to the quality of the products included. One producer’s ‘beef meal’ may be more nutritious than someone else’s. There’s no way to tell the quality of the ingredients from the packet, but manufacturers will try to trick you into thinking you can by using terms like ‘human grade’ or ‘fresh’ to make their product stand out.

Thirdly, the composition section of your dog’s food lists the ingredients in order of weight, leading many people to assume that it’s also in order of importance and amount of nutrition from the product. This is why people say you should have protein as the first ingredient in your pet’s food. But moisture adds a lot of weight! Therefore, a ‘wet’ ingredient may have to appear before a dry ingredient in the list, but actually has less nutrition. Using dried 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. 'Chicken' by weight is likely to come before “chicken meal” (a dried version) but that doesn’t mean that there is any less nutrition in the chicken meal, and there may, in fact, be more.

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 byproducts of the human meat trade. And byproducts 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. You probably don’t think of prime fillet steaks when you think of meat and animal derivatives, but muscle meat is also included, especially if the 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 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. It’s not allowed to include things like hair, bristles, or stomach/intestinal 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. In contrast to a skinless chicken breast compared to a chicken thigh, it means it’s easier to keep the nutrients the same throughout.

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. About 1 in 100 dogs are thought to be allergic to ingredients in their diet. 

The most common protein for dogs to react to is thought to be beef, but other ingredients such as pork, chicken, and fish can also cause allergies 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 – it’s not enough to list, but it’s enough to set off an 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 your dog’s diet needs to be nutritionally balanced, and that requires a certain number of ingredients. If your pet food doesn’t list much under ‘composition’, you should look for the ‘complete and balanced’ statement. If it doesn’t have one, it’s not a suitable main diet for your pet and should be considered a treat or topper. Even if a food contains this statement, you should be cautious if it contains too few ingredients as minor changes in the quality of the supply to the manufacturer can change the nutrient profile and cause major problems to 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. These are written to help owners dig deeper into their pet’s food and decide if they can trust the brand. 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.

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.