Decode the ingredients list on your dog food label

Dog food label

The most important information to look for on your dog food label in my opinion is the ingredients list.

Most, if not all, of the regulations or standards require pet food labels to list the ingredients (with the exception of water) in descending order (by weight), much the same as our human food.

What to look for in the ingredients list on your dog food label

Assuming your dog is a healthy adult dog with no special considerations, below are the key things that I think you should take into account based on the extensive research I did for my book Eat, Play, Love Your Dog and from my studies in pet food nutrition.

Protein should top the ingredients list on your dog food label

Proteins are the building blocks of cell, tissue and muscle growth, maintenance and repair. Proteins are made up of twenty amino acids and while dogs produce about half of these amino acids internally, the other half need to be provided by the diet and are termed essential amino acids.

Protein is found in meats, eggs, and dairy products, as well as some grains and legumes. Your dog’s body can’t store up protein like it can fat and other nutrients, so this nutrient has to be supplied in its daily diet.

Protein from real meat is generally the highest quality and the least processed form of protein. Look for a named meat within the first three ingredients on the list, but ideally as the top ingredient.

If the first five ingredients contain at least three meat sources, you’re in good shape…well your dog should be at least!

The role of fats

Fats provide the most concentrated source of energy in the diet. They are made up of fatty acids and, like protein’s essential amino acids, there are certain fatty acids that dogs require in their diet because the body cannot make them.

These are known as essential fatty acids and are divided into two groups called the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

Fats provide energy, as well as taste and flavour, and encourage the absorption of vitamin A, E, D and K.

Fat provided by his diet at the right level will also help your dog maintain healthy skin and a shiny, healthy coat. My book outlines this in more detail.

Should you see grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables on your dog food label?

When looking at the list of ingredients on dog food labels you might see grains such as barley, corn, oats, rice, wheat, rye and sorghum included for energy, fibre, vitamins and minerals. Whole grains are unprocessed and tend to be viewed as healthier because their nutrients are not degraded by processing.

There can be a differing of opinions on how much carbohydrate should make up a dog’s diet and whether or not grains should be included.

Some owners may mistakenly think that by purchasing a grain-free diet they are reducing the amount of carbohydrates, but generally the replacement is high-starch ingredients such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, lentils and peas so high levels of carbs will still be found. If you are feeding your dog a dry dog food, carbohydrates are a key part of the manufacturing process so can’t be avoided.

We are also seeing an increased use of legumes and other plant-based protein sources including soybeans and green peas to replace animal proteins as a cheaper and/or more sustainable alternative.

It’s important to note that plant protein alone does not supply those essential amino acids dogs need in their daily diet, so you are likely to find that synthetic essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals have been added where there is not enough meat product to supply the required amounts.

So, while we know that dogs are able to consume carbohydrates from grains, fruit and vegetables and protein from grains and legumes, ideally these would be found in lower levels when looking at the ingredients list and high-quality animal proteins still leading the way.

Preservatives and additives

Food additives can include nutritional additives which improve the nutritional value of the diet, emulsifiers and stabilisers which prevent different ingredients from separating, sensory additives to enhance digestibility or even flavour of the ingredients, and preservatives which are added in order to extend the shelf-life of a product.

Chemical additives such as preservatives and colourings can become problematic for some dogs depending on their genetic make-up and physical condition, which can result in some animals being less tolerant to preservatives in foods than others.

Symptoms may not be seen straight away, only occurring once the animal has been on the same food for a period of time.

You can read more about the additives and preservatives found in your pet’s food in my book Eat, Play, Love Your Dog.

Check out the Big Dog Pet Foods raw food diet ingredients list on their website as an example healthy diet.


About the Author: Lara Shannon is a NDTF certified dog behaviourist and trainer, petfood nutritionist and Executive Producer and Host of Pooches at Play on Channel 10. Lara also runs her own dog training and boarding business in Melbourne’s Bayside area and is the Author of Eat, Play, Love Your Dog.

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