Have you ever turned a bag of dog food around and looked at the label? If so, you may have felt you needed a degree in nutrition to decipher the ingredients! The terms are vague and confusing. While the ingredients in human meals and farm animal feeds legally need to be individually listed, pet food makers are not required to spell out the exact contents of their dog dishes. For example, a food can be advertised as a beef dish as long as it comprises at least 4% beef. Legally, the other 96% could be a combination of pork, rabbit or fish.

Here is a guide to understanding pet food labels. Warning, some of it isn’t very appetising.

The term ​Complete​ is a legal definition set by the European Pet Food Industry Federation. Complete means that the product contains all the nutrients your pet needs to support its daily life. ​

Complementary ​pet foods are also available. A complementary food means that other food must be added in order to provide nutritional balance.

Most pet foods are made from a recipe using several ingredients. These ingredients will be listed under ​Composition,​ in descending order of weight per moisture content.
E.g. If corn is listed first and poultry second, there is more corn in the food than poultry. Many processed dogs foods will not list a single named meat on the back of the package, despite what may advertised on the front. This is because the meat is usually a combination of animals. This falls under the loose terms animal derivatives or meat and bone meal.

Meat and animal derivatives​ describes animal based ingredients which are by-products of the human food industry. They are the parts of an animal not classed as ‘flesh’ or ‘meat’, and can include internal organs, beaks, feet and egg manufacturing waste.

Meat or bone meal ​are animal by-products that include organs inedible to humans (eg lung), tendons, carcass remains, feathers and bones. These are treated to high temperatures, dried and ground to a powder format. This protein powder is then added into the dog food mixture.

Cereals or grains are a group of ingredients that contain carbohydrates and are used in pet foods, including rice, wheat, barley, sorghum and corn (maize). When used as a collective term the cereal used can vary from batch to batch. This can allow some manufacturers to take advantage of market prices, using the cereal that is cheapest at the time.

Crude ash or inorganic matter​ are also legal definitions which are understandably confusing. They are not added as an ingredients but are phrases that refer to the mineral content of the food.

A product can only be labelled as ​Organic​ if at least 95% of the ingredients are organic. Organic standards, which apply to both human and pet food ingredients include:
• Cleaning materials and pest control methods are restricted
• Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are strictly prohibited
• Flavourings must be either naturally or organically produced

The term ​Natural ​should be used only to describe those pet food ingredients to which nothing has been added and which have been subjected only to such physical processing as to make them suitable for pet food production and maintaining the natural composition. Additionally all pet foods marketed as natural must not contain any chemically synthesised ingredients.

The term ​Various sugars ​is a category description which may refer to sucrose (cane sugar), fructose and glucose, or even honey, all of which are natural products.

Additives​ which can be used in pet foods may include vitamins, flavourings, preservatives, antioxidants and colours.

Antioxidants must be added to meat meal during its production in order to prevent it from becoming rancid. These antioxidants can be natural (such as polyphenols and Vitamin E from from vegetables and herbs) or artificial. Artificial preservatives give food a longer shelf life than natural antioxidants. However the most commonly used artificial preservatives in meat and bone meal food stuffs are the controversial and potentially harmful chemicals BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole or E320) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene or E321). By adding an artificial antioxidant to meat meal before it is processed, a manufacturer does not need to declare them on the label.

A dog food can contain any number of ingredients that have been pre-treated with additives by the ingredient supplier (eg meats sprayed with preservatives at an abattoir) and can still legally say that their food has ‘no added artificial additives’ as long as they don’t add any more themselves! For this reason it’s always important to look for foods that are guaranteed ‘free from artificial additives’ rather than ‘free from added artificial ingredients’.

It’s worth noting, there are differences between pet food legislation in Europe (including the UK) and the US. If reading online, it’s important to check that the source of information is relevant to the country you are based.

As many of you know, nutrition is a subject I have a huge interest in. But it doesn’t have to be complicated. The best dog food is the one your dog enjoys, that suits their digestion, is complete and balanced and the highest   quality ingredients you can afford. This is often not one in the same. Some dog parents may wish to feed only the finest organic beef and bone marrow but their dog and their tummy might have other ideas!

​Keeping dogs healthy together isn’t just a tagline, it’s something we really believe in. Balanced nutrition and healthy treats can see our dogs live longer, fuller and happier lives. We are proud to partner with dog food companies businesses share our vision.

The dog foods we recommend will never contain meat meal or animal derivatives, such as pigs hooves or chicken feathers. Many are organic and grain-free, source human-grade ingredients and use free-range or wild roaming animals where possible. We have visited kitchens, seen the certifications and listened to our biggest critics – our own dogs! If it doesn’t pass their Paws of Approval, it just doesn’t make the final cut.

If you would like to learn learn more about other dog foods, check out the independent review site All About Dog Food which analyses hundreds of different brands.

Warm woofs and wishes,

Dr Ciara