Understanding Ingredients in Dog Food

Chicken & Rice in Scoop - Pet Wants GVL
  • 26 August 2020
  • bcox

A major difference in the appearance of Pet Wants food is the packaging. Our food doesn’t come in colorful bags that proclaim all sorts of key phrases – Grain-Free!, No Fillers! Protein is the First Ingredient! These marketing techniques look good and sell customers, but have you ever turned the bag over and really read the ingredients? Have you understood what each individual ingredient means to your pet?

Why avoid certain ingredients and seek out others?

Dogs have a similar digestive system to ours; one stomach, small & large intestine, digestive enzymes that break down food. It doesn’t function in the exact same way, but it is close enough to compare. Being facultative (opportunistic) carnivores, they require a mixture in the types of food they utilize for energy.

What is the difference in whole foods vs. meals vs. by-products?

Picture a chicken. Because all dry pet food goes through processing, let’s break it down. The chicken is now in manageable pieces, with its major parts getting ready to be cooked into kibble – breast, legs, meaty parts. What has been left behind are organs, entrails, bones, and feathers. These pieces make up by-products, those that have not been used in the major process of rendering meat for general consumption or “slaughterhouse waste” (

Whole food meat contains a high amount (75%) of moisture and around 20% protein, 5% carbohydrates. Using whole meat in dry foods by adding them to the rest of the ingredients means that most of what is being mixed in is moisture, and much of the nutrition becomes less potent because it is essentially watered-down.

Meal is made by dehydrating the flesh & skin derived from whole carcasses, without the feathers, feet, head & entrails prior to its’ addition to the rest of the ingredients (pre-production). Meal is the most potent way to utilize the meat because it becomes a concentrate. (Like adding a bouillon cube to a soup vs. liquid stock).

Understanding Grains

Grain-free diets came into fashion several years ago, said to provide nutrition closer to wolves in the wild. In truth, a small percentage of dogs require grain-free because of an allergy or sensitivity. This can be thought of the way a small minority of people actually require a gluten-free diet, although it is marketed across the board of a healthy diet. Dogs can digest grain in the same way as humans, because of the similarity in digestive enzymes and digestive tract.

The types of grains used in pet foods vary wildly in their quality and processing. Much of the news surrounding grains in dog food refers to low-quality grains or fillers, as opposed to grains that contain fiber and nutritional value.

Dogs (like people) lack the digestive enzymes to break down plant materials (cellulose). Plants are a source of fiber, either soluble or insoluble. Both types have their benefits, mainly for satiety, to move food efficiently through the digestive tract and for a healthy colon and bowels, but do not have a major nutritional value since they cannot be broken down. A major issue in dog food is when the ratio of cellulose is too high compared to nutritious, digestible ingredients.

All carbohydrates become energy when digested. Complex carbohydrates take longer for the body to break down, therefore regulating energy release during the digestive process, providing stamina and a feeling of fullness. Simple carbohydrates, by comparison, break down quickly and lead to sugar crashes, because the energy is quickly spent by the body. Brown Rice, Millet, Oats, Barley and Sweet Potatoes are examples of complex carbohydrates, while White Rice and Brewer’s Rice (small pieces of white rice) are classified as simple carbs. If this sounds familiar, it is. People are advised to eat in the same way for weight management, diabetes, and general dietary health.

Fruits, Vegetables, Vitamins & Minerals

Fruits and vegetables are important to dogs because they provide a natural source of vitamins, just as they do in humans. They (in addition to the added vitamins and minerals) make the food into a balanced, nutritional meal.

How to Read an Ingredient Panel

When looking at a list of ingredients, they are listed in order of their abundance in the food. For dogs, it is intuitive. Healthy sources of protein and carbohydrates should be most abundant, while ingredients that do not provide a major contribution to nutrition should be farther down, or ideally, not there at all.

Below are ingredient panels from 3 major pet food brands and 1 from Pet Wants. Unfortunately, price is not a factor in determining the value of ingredients, one of the three is a prescription formula. It is clear which food provides the best nutrition based on ingredients alone.

Other factors to consider when choosing food is to know who makes it (that includes a parent company, if applicable), when it was made, and how it was made.

We welcome any questions or concerns when determining the right food for a healthy, happy pet!