There is a bit of an art to looking at the ingredient label on a can or bag of dog food. Dog food makers aren’t always so forthcoming with what exactly is in their product, or in which proportions, which partly has to do with how ingredient labels are regulated. Savvy pet caregivers must read between the lines, so to speak, to really know what’s in there.
One thing is certain though: the first ingredient listed in any high quality dog food is going to be protein. And not just any protein, but one that comes from meat is likely best.
How to Read an Ingredients List
There is one basic rule of thumb to use when looking at the ingredients list for any food, whether that be for human consumption or for dogs. By federal law, the most plentiful ingredient must be listed first, the second most plentiful ingredient listed second, and so on.
Obviously then, if an ingredient is way down on the list, in position 10 or 11, there isn’t going to be a whole lot of it in the dog food. If carrots, for example, fall this far in the list then it may simply be that the food maker wants to impress you with this ingredient when very little carrot is actually present.
Here’s a useful trick: look for salt or potassium chloride on the label and if an ingredient is listed after this, it is probably 1% or less of the overall constitution of that diet.
You should note, however, that this applies mostly to looking for whole food ingredients and not so much to things like added vitamins and minerals. Typically, only very small amounts of these nutrients relative to other ingredients are necessary for them to do their job.
The Importance of Whole Proteins
Okay, so we now know how to read the dog food label. Why should whole proteins be listed first? And what exactly is a whole protein?
To stay healthy and active and to fight off disease, dogs require 20 different amino acids. Dogs can synthesize 10 of these amino acids, but they must acquire the other 10 from their diet. And where do amino acids come from? They come from protein.
This is why protein is a necessary part of a dog’s diet. Without it, dogs will not thrive. But there is another factor involved -- the dog’s ability to use this protein. A dog needs to be able to digest a protein in order to utilize all those amino acids.
Protein may be found in soybeans, and protein may be found in animal by-products like hair and hooves. While soybeans are rather digestible, hooves and hair aren’t very digestible and don’t have the appropriate amino acids. Bone meal is similarly unhelpful. Whole meats like chicken, lamb, and beef, on the other hand, have a very high biological value. This means that the amino acids in these ingredients can be easily digested, and well-used by your dog.
It may seem simple right? Well, beware one more thing. Manufacturers may claim that chicken is the number one ingredient, which seems great and most likely is, but it may pay off to look a bit deeper. Ingredients like chicken and beef are wet, containing as much as 60% water, while chicken meal or chicken byproduct have little to no water. These are more concentrated sources of protein.
If you see chicken as the number one ingredient, look at the next ingredient. If it’s a carbohydrate, you may have a problem. The carbohydrate is dry, so if you were to take the water out of the chicken, it would actually probably fall down on the ingredient list to 4th or 5th.
What to do? Look for animal based proteins in the top three ingredients. If you see chicken or beef as the number one ingredient, look for a “meal” or “byproduct meal” as the second or third ingredient. If you’re feeling like breaking out the calculator, the guaranteed analysis will tell you the overall protein content of the food.
The Bottom Line?
A quality dog food is one whose first ingredients are meat, meat meal, or byproduct meal, of an animal based, usable, digestible protein.
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This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian. It has however been reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Joe, a board certified veterinary nutritionist and graduate of Cornell University's program for Veterinary Medicine.