What Should I Look for in Dog Food Ingredients? Decoding the Ingredients in Your Dog Food Choices

What Should I Look for in Dog Food Ingredients?
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vet verified Dr. Joseph J. Wakshlag, DVM Associate Professor of Clinical Nutrition

Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Ithaca, NY

Thumbnail of Wellness Canned Dog Food for Adult Dogs 95% Beef

Wellness Canned Dog Food for Adult Dogs 95% Beef

Wet Food
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You wouldn't feed your children a bowl of random food stuffs, so why would you give it to your dog twice a day? Take a closer look at what it is your dog has been eating and learn what is best to give your hungry puppy.

There is an art to looking at the ingredient labels on dog food brands like Royal Canin Dog Food. Dog food brands 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 – the first ingredient listed in any high-quality dog food will 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 when looking at the ingredients list for any food, whether 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.

If an ingredient is way down on the list, in position 10 or 11, there isn’t going to be much of it in the dog food. If carrots, for example, fall this far in the list, 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 trick – look for salt or potassium chloride on the label. 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 to looking for whole food ingredients and not so much to things like added vitamins and minerals. Typically, only small amounts of these nutrients relative to other ingredients are necessary 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. However, another factor involved is the dog’s ability to use this protein. A dog needs to be able to digest a protein to utilize all those amino acids.

Protein may be found in soybeans, and protein may be found in animal byproducts like hair and hooves. While soybeans are rather digestible, hooves and hair aren’t. They don’t have the appropriate amino acids. A bone meal is similarly unhelpful. Whole meats like chicken in Nutro Chicken Brown Rice Sweet Potato, 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, but it may pay off to look a bit deeper. Ingredients like chicken and beef are seen mostly in wet dog food, like the Purina Pro Plan Dog Foodcontaining as much as 60% water, while chicken meal or chicken byproducts 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 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 “by-product 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.

Are Soy and Corn in Dog Food Okay?

There is a good deal of confusion and controversy regarding corn and soy products in dog foods. Some claim that these products should never be used to feed dogs, while many experts believe they are fine. Many prescription dog food like the Royal Canin Urinary So Small Dry Dog Food contains corn.

So, what’s the answer? Are corn and soy healthy for dogs or not? You may have to decide for yourself. First, learn the basic arguments for and against using these ingredients in commercial pet food brands.

The Argument Against Soy and Corn in Dog Foods

The modern dog isn’t that far removed from their ancestors – wolves and wild dogs who spent their time hunting in the forests and on the plains.

Because our canine pets still have the same basic digestive systems as their ancestors, the argument goes, the “natural,” and thus, most healthy diet for dogs is meat and internal organs. Meat and meat by-products are what dogs have eaten over thousands and even millions of years, and thus, the dog’s body is well adapted to this diet. Grains and soy, however, were not part of the original canine diet. So, they cannot be properly processed by the dog’s digestive tract.

Many dogs have allergic reactions to soy and corn, which is evidence of this claim. Dogs that are allergic to these products can develop different skin problems.

Why are soy and corn part of so many dog foods? The voters against soy and corn say it’s because they are cheap protein and energy sources. The dog food maker can utilize these protein sources cheaply, and people in this camp suggest that corn and soy are “fillers” that are largely useless to dogs as usable protein.

The Yea Vote

Those who are fine with feeding dogs corn and soy admit these products aren’t the best type of protein for your pet but that they do the job as an added source. Meat is the most balanced form of protein, but small amounts of soy or corn gluten in dog foods can help balance essential amino acids and, in general, are digestible as meat-based proteins.

In addition, soy and corn give your dog things that meat can’t – fiber and carbohydrates, which will satisfy a dog’s appetite with fewer calories and provide energy in a form that the body uses well. People with this view often point out that dogs are actually omnivores, eaters of both plants and animals, and thus can do quite well with a partially plant-based diet. Our dog’s wolf-like ancestor frequently ate the contents of the digestive tract of their kills, which would have been full of carbohydrates and fiber.

Corn and soy can indeed cause allergies, but the percentage of dogs with allergies to them is small when compared to the number of dogs allergic to beef, dairy, or chicken. Soy and corn do not even make the top 10 list. As long as your dog has no problem in this department, the yea vote says corn and soy are fine.

As for the ancient ancestors' argument, those who have no issue with corn and soy might also say that dogs have long lived off table scraps. Whatever humans eat is often what their canine companions eat. Since humans eat more corn and soy products than ever, dogs should have no problems adapting, as they’ve always done.

The Verdict?

As in most things that have to do with your family pet, the decision comes down to you, the dog’s owner, and the caregiver.

Certainly, your dog’s food should start with high-quality meat as its primary source of protein. Whether you buy foods that also use corn and soy should depend on your dog’s particular health needs, the views of your vet, your budget, and your own thoughts on the matter.

Back to Your Dog Food Questions Answered
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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.

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