Ingredients You Do and Do Not Want to See for Your Dog's Meals

March 5th, 2021

Is the food we feed our furry friends really what it claims to be? Kristie Bradfield shines a light on the labels.

We all live busy, busy lives. We have jobs to think about, bills to worry about, families to raise. We are living in fast forward and sometimes that means we get a little lazy with the everyday stuff.

The downside is that this laziness often creeps into every aspect of family life, including how we nourish our pets. Reaching for the tried and true, the one with pretty packaging and vague claims, becomes routine — but routine can become complacency and that’s not a good thing.

We’re so busy we often don’t stop and take time to understand what it is we’re actually feeding our dogs — and some of it is downright dangerous.

We all want our dogs to live long, happy lives and nutrition plays a big part in that. Understanding dog food labels and educating our families about dog nutrition make for a great start.

What to feed your dog

The nutritional requirements of every dog are different. How much and what they eat are based on many different factors, from breed to activity level, which makes it difficult to find one meal to suit them all.

As a general idea, the RSPCA suggests that the best diet has the foundation of a high-quality, balanced, premium dog food. This food needs to be appropriate to the life stage and health status of your pet: a puppy with boundless energy shouldn’t be fed a diet suitable for an older, more sedentary dog, and vice versa.

Natural foods like raw meat and raw bones are excellent sources of protein provided that the meat is fresh, human-grade raw meat. Choosing other meat products, like some pre-packaged pet mince or cooked manufactured meats, can be dangerous because these products can contain harmful sulphites, which are bad news for dogs.

An industry standard

While ordinarily we may not pay too much attention to them, labels can help us choose products that are right for our dogs. Everything you need to know about what’s inside the bag or tin is written on the label, thanks to an industry standard.

The Pet Food Industry Association of Australia (PFIAA), in consultation with the Australian Veterinary Association, the RSPCA and state and federal governments, has developed an industry standard for prepared pet food in Australia. For pet food to meet this standard it must adhere to guidelines relating to its labelling, marketing, nutritional design and claims.

Under the Australian Standard AS5812, manufacturers of prepared pet food products must provide labels that include the nutritional guidelines of the product. The nutritional guidelines of Australian pet food have been designed in line with global nutritional recommendations set by major bodies including the Association of American Feed Control Officials.

However, it must be pointed out that, while AS5812 provides a benchmark, compliant manufacturers only need to meet minimal nutritional requirements.

The standard requires that compliant dog food products:

  • Must be labelled as pet food only.
  • Must display a list of ingredients, nutrition information panel, nutritional adequacy statement, feeding guide and “best before” date.
  • Must have a name that reflects the content and variety of the food.

Check the label

The ingredients list on dog food can look daunting but for the health and wellbeing of your furry friend it’s important to read and understand them.

In Australia, all major pet food manufacturers compliant with the industry standard must display all ingredients of the product, including food additives like flavours, colours, preservatives, vitamins and minerals.

All ingredients must appear in order of descending weight, so the heaviest item is listed first, but this can sometimes be deceiving. The word “chicken” may appear emblazoned across the packaging and chicken may be the first listed ingredient, but what many people don’t realise is that the manufacturer uses the weight of the chicken before it is processed. Chicken, like other meats, contains around 60 to 70 per cent water, so when the moisture is removed the composition of the ingredient changes. We may choose the product because it appears to be predominantly chicken, but this isn’t necessarily the case at all.

Domesticated dogs can be omnivores — they can survive eating a balanced plant and meat diet. But in order for them to thrive, experts suggest that they should be consuming rich sources of protein, which is why we look for specific whole animal proteins like chicken, lamb, beef and fish to appear first on the list of ingredients. It’s even better if the first three or four ingredients are meat based.

Dogs have short digestive tracts which aren’t designed to process a lot of carbohydrates, yet grains and legumes tend to make up the bulk of commercial dog food. While dogs will eat them happily, experts say that the amounts of carbohydrates in some dog food are beyond what is species appropriate.

Splitting hairs

We know that those first few ingredients listed on a label tell us a lot about what is inside a product because ingredient labels are listed by weight.

It’s handy for dog owners because we can pick and choose the best food for our dogs but it’s tricky for manufacturers who may want to hide a low-value ingredient. For example, a product may include more corn than animal protein, but splitting corn into corn meal, ground corn and corn flour allows the manufacturer to put the meat protein in the coveted first space.

Ingredients you don’t want to see

We know what we want to find at the top of the list of ingredients — but what do we want to steer clear of?

Sulphur dioxide and sodium and potassium sulphite preservatives, often found in commercial fresh “pet meat” or processed/manufactured pet food rolls, can lead to thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiencies in dogs, which can be fatal.

The RSPCA suggests being wary of sulphur dioxide 220, sodium sulphite 221, sodium bisulphite 222, sodium metabisulphite 223, potassium metabisulphite 224, potassium sulphite 225 and potassium bisulphite 228.

Meat by-products can include things like beaks, feathers, hair, hooves, entrails and other unsavoury ingredients. Look for ingredients lists that name specific types of meat, like chicken, beef or lamb. An exception to this rule would be if the by-products derived from human-grade meat.

We’d like to think that all dog food manufacturers care about the wellbeing of our dogs and choose to use high-quality ingredients to produce balanced and complete products. Unfortunately, that’s not the way business works. It’s our responsibility as dog owners to know exactly what we’re feeding our dogs, which means we have to take some time to stop and read the labels.


Label 101

  • Always take a close look at the label.
  • Spend time identifying and understanding the ingredients contained in a product. If you don’t know what an ingredient is, ask your vet.
  • It’s always better to see a named meat like chicken, fish or beef in the ingredient list. Meat by-products can include things like beaks, feet and hooves.
  • Speak to your vet about the best way to introduce more variety into your dog’s diet.


Listen to the experts

Not sure what to feed your dog? While information abounds online, it’s important to remember that all websites are created equal in the eyes of Google. If you have questions about what to feed your dog, have a chat with your vet.

Make sure your furry friend is always looked after at our DOGSLife Directory

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