Dog food 101

When I tell people I am an animal nutritionist, one of the most common questions asked is, “Do pets even need that? Isn’t dog food, just dog food?”

The short answer – NO!

No food is made equal and as pet owners, we are so bewitched by labels and terms like “natural” and “organic” etc. that we fail to flip the bags over and understand what we are putting into our pet’s bodies every single day.

No matter how well-branded, well-funded and “balanced” a product is, what it comes down to (for us – the pet owners and consumers) is that our pet is healthy – so that is what we expect when we are feeding them a trusted brand. But often, these foods are sold at exorbitant prices and the ingredients are sub-par and most certainly do not warrant the price and the claims.

So, what do you do now?

I think the best thing a pet-parent can do, is to familiarize themselves with what the ingredients actually are and what they mean, behind their fancy names and product descriptions so that you can make am informed decision about their wellbeing.

Let us break it down.

What is nutrition really?

Contrary to popular belief, pet food today has risks – ingredients, production, contamination are all standard things in the pet food industry. The foods we have today are highly commercialized, both animal and human, and this does not always mean that the ingredients are great for you.

What we need to understand is that the profit margins on pet food, and human food, are high. This means that the ingredients may not always be the best suited for consumption and sustainability and overall, health.

Let us look at pet food labels and ingredients.

How many of us walk into a pet store and grab a bag of a well-known, well-marketed commercial pet food – without looking at the label and ingredients?

Well, I certainly did before I went into nutrition. Purely because I trusted what they were saying and selling. Surely this is as healthy as you can get. Right?

The most common mistake we make is not investing and understanding what our pet needs – and what they are getting in their food brand.

Dog food ingredients

The most common food ingredients found on commercial pet foods are wheats, cereals, meat/protein meal or animal and animal derivatives, followed by a long list of vitamins, minerals, fibers, additives, and preservatives. Bone meal is also common in pet foods.

You will also find a list of fats and vegetable derivatives on the list, and some more exclusive ranges will have added botanicals too.

But what do they mean?

Here is an ingredient breakdown of the most common food constituents.

Derivatives: This is used more than fresh meat. The word derivative means “derived from”. For example, if the food says, “Chicken Derivatives”, it could refer to any part of the bird – which includes beaks, bones, and feet – so it remains vague for a reason.

Meal: This is a term for ground bones and other non-meat bits from the animal. These are ground into a fine powder and added to pet foods, and the animal sources used may be specified or not.

This helps manufacturers move and source different ingredients without needing to change their labeling and packaging.

Bone meal: This is ground-up bones from unspecified animals. It is there for added calcium benefits but remains unspecified.

Fat: Fat is a necessary part of a dog’s diet. Fat is also really tasty. Manufacturers know this, and know that dogs enjoy fatty foods, and will often spray animal fat onto the finished kibbles to help with palatability.

Unspecified fat is as questionable and suspect as the other ingredients – where does it come from and is it safe? Most fat sources are removed from animal produce. When the animal produce is heated, it floats to the top and is then removed and scraped away from the mixture.

Grains: Grains. Grains. Grains. So many allergies and itches start with this one word – in the kibble industry. Up until recently, manufacturers and producers relied heavily on grain-dense formulas, containing wheat and other grain ingredients, for kibble.

Why? It is because it is cheap, and it can bulk up the food well. It will make the dog eating the food, feel full for a while.

While wheat is still featured in a lot of brands of food, it is linked to one of the more serious waves of allergic reactions in dogs, with rice offering a safer grain alternative.

Remember, a kibble is a processed and dry diet – that can sit on a shelf for 12 months plus. It is not there to have only the best and freshest ingredients but is formulated to offer the minimum requirements for your pet.

A good tip for any pet-parent is to read the labels. The highest ingredients are ranked first and the lowest, towards the end of the list.

The Law with labeling:

Labeling laws for pet food vary slightly from country to country, or region to region.

It basically states that pet food manufacturers have the option to declare the ingredients by category (so this is your section where it says “Animal derivatives” or “Meat and animal derivatives”) and by doing it this way – albeit vague – it allows the manufacturer to accommodate for fluctuations in the availability of raw produce needed for their food range.

So, if they cannot get their hands on the usual ingredients, they can opt for another available sources without disclosing it to their customers.

Another thing to remember is that if the label physically states the percentage of ingredient, i.e "Chicken 20%", they must keep it that way - always - with no fluctuations in sources. If they say “Animal and meat derivatives 20%” then it is open to any source that falls into that category.

Animal products that are not intended for human consumption, are classified as animal by-products. These often find their way into the pet food industry and work out to be quite cheap in comparison to human grade options.

The above risk-rating and grading of produce does mean, though, that the sources may not be from diseased or dying animals, which goes against a lot of opinions on the quality of produce.

For pets, the main risk associated with these assessments when setting the maximum permitted levels for undesirable substances, will generally be to the extent which the pet can tolerate and handle them.

Pet food manufacturers may use key words like “balanced” and “healthy” on their pet food if it meets the basic requirements to sustain life. This means that if your pet can eat that food every day, and not be in too much of a deficit and if their organs function as intended on it, that they can use the above terms in their marketing campaigns.

But what do we do now? We are so busy, and we trust our dog’s food?

While there is much debate around the right diet and the right supplement routine for your beloved Fido, it is also better to be informed.

If you are terrified of feeding a raw diet, perhaps consider an Enrichment or Mixed diet instead.

This means that to your pet’s kibbles, you add extra goodness in the form of fresh fruits, vegetables, and proteins – some added fish oils too – and offer that in the week.

This will ensure that your pet is not lacking in the nutrient side and has access to alternative and fresher options.

Here are some great things to add to your pet’s existing kibbles to enrich their diets and give them what their dry kibble diets are lacking.

Blueberries – Blueberries are an antioxidant superfood! Adding a couple blueberries to your pet’s diet will only benefit them. Blueberries are jam-packed with antioxidants and phytoflavinoids as well as Vitamin C and Potassium. They are also linked to reducing inflammation.

Warm water – This is odd, Fido drinks water. Well, yes, but adding a bit of warm water over dry kibble helps when it comes time for digestion and breaking food down in the tummy. It also rehydrates those dry kibbles.

Flaxseed powder – We love fiber! Fiber helps with everything and is needed in the diet to help regulate the gut and gut processes. Basically, Fido needs it to poop! A little goes a long way and making this a regular add to your pet's diet will only benefit them.

Meat and Bone (chicken, beef, ostrich) – By adding a whole source of protein, you really do help meet those protein requirements in your pet’s diet. On average, a dog needs a large portion of their diet to be pure animal protein (meat, non-weight baring bones and cartilage included). Do not prepare it the way you would your own though. Boil the meat partially or feed it raw. Try not to break down the nutrient values of the protein.

Bone content is easy too. Chicken or turkey necks fed raw are great for overall health and even helps clean those gorgeous teeth. Raw bones retain elasticity, which means that they can bend. It is very important to not feed weight-baring bones or cooked bones. These slinter and once cooked, are not safe to feed. We always have fresh meaty bones and turkey necks in the freezer for easy doggo snacking.

Veggies – Vegetable pack in important minerals and other phytonutrients. Good veggies to add are carrots, green beans, kale, spinach, broccoli, beets, celery, butternut, and sweet potato in moderation. These are best steamed or blanched. A fun way to add these is to puree them and freeze them in ice cube trays. That way you can pop a cube or two into their food bowls when it’s meal time!

Plain, unflavoured yoghurt – This is rife with pro and pre-biotics! Make sure you opt for cultured plain yoghurt with no sweeteners or sugars, and no flavours. A spoon full of this over their kibbles will not go unnoticed!

Omega oil – Omega oil is one of my personal favourites. I opt for fish sourced oil. Omega 3, 6 and 9 is great for joint health and support and encourages regeneration. It is also a brilliant aid for skin and coat health and should be included in your pet’s daily diet. This is great for all juvenile and adult life-stages.

We use The Real Thing - Mega Omega Fish Oil at home.

An organic form of Omega oils would be whole sardines. This is a staple in our house – be it as is or dehydrated into a treat. We love oily fish options here!

Bone broth – Man oh man is this a favourite in our house too. Bone broth packs a punch with extra Glucosamine, Chondroitin, Collagen and all the other great oils and components found in those weight-baring and joint bones often discarded! You can enrich the bone broth by adding vegetables and spices like Turmeric and Black Pepper (great for anti-inflammatory responses).

A good thing to remember is that not all pet foods are equal, and you should truly feed the best option possible. There are great local brands that are sold by agents, with less profit margins, that are better that that bag on special at your local retailer.

You should, as a pet-parent, make a conscious effort to feed the very best that you can afford to feed and ensure that you are well-educated on the ingredients.

If you are feeding a lower quality kibble, consider adding some of the enrichment foods mentioned – and hey, you might actually end up clearing that skin allergy or flaking skin condition after-all.

There IS that saying... "You are what you eat!" and so are your pets.

If you have any questions about your pet's dietary needs, feel free to email us on - we love helping pets find the right eating plan!

These suggestions are broad-spectrum. Please make sure that you consult with your animal nutritionist or veterinary nutritionist if your pet has allergies, allergy-prone conditions or chronic diseases.

Author: Megan

BSc Animal Science

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