The ingredients list is your window into the true nature of your dog's diet. Manufacturers cannot lie on the ingredients list, and although there are ways in which the truth can be obscured or embellished, this is usually easy to spot which makes it possible to separate the good foods from the bad.
The most important thing to look for on an ingredients list is clarity. Each ingredient should be named, and the most important ingredients (the 3 or 4 at the top of the list) should ideally be given with a percentage to tell you how much is present.
Broad, umbrella terms like 'cereals' and 'meat and animal derivatives' could refer to a wide range of ingredients of varying quality which makes it impossible to know what your dog is eating. Manufacturers use them either because the recipe regularly changes or, more likely, because naming the ingredients would put customers off. In general, if an ingredients list includes ambiguous terms like these, it is probably best to assume the worst and avoid the food. This is particularly important if your dog is prone to dietary intolerance as identifying and eliminating problem ingredients is not possible unless you know exactly what you are feeding.
What ingredients to look for
Like humans, dogs are omnivores and are capable of digesting and utilising a wide range of foods. Unlike us, however, the dog's digestive system is much more geared-up for meat consumption and benefits from a meat rich diet. Ideally, meat should be the first (and therefore most abundant) ingredient on the list.
Dog food manufacturers use a huge array of ingredients, many of which will be familiar to you, others may not. Our ingredients glossary has plenty of information about the more popular ingredients as well as which ones are worth searching for and which are best avoided.
Smoke and mirrors
All ingredients must be listed in order of how much there is in the food. The first ingredient is, therefore, the largest and most important part of the food. Unfortunately, manufacturers can be quite cunning when it comes to the order of the ingredients so some common tactics to look for include:
Splitting grains: By using several grain sources, the amount of each one is relatively small, placing it further down the ingredients list, but together the cereals may in reality make them the first ingredient.
This can even be done with a single grain - for example, in a maize-rich food, you could simply put 'maize' as the first ingredient, or you could list 'maize flour', 'maize gluten' and 'maize meal' separately. Because the amount of each one is smaller, they appear further down the list making them appear less significant.
Fresh meat in dry foods: In dry dog foods, meat can either be dry (usually called meat meal) or fresh. Both are good quality meat sources but in order to accurately compare them, the water content of the fresh meat must be removed from the equation. Fresh meat is roughly two thirds water while meat meal only contains around 5% water. This means that 20% fresh meat only equates to around 7% dry meat. If fresh meat is the first ingredient, be sure to discount the water and move it down the list accordingly.
'Total meat content': An increasing trend is for dog food manufacturers to list the 'total meat content' rather than the percentage of the individual meat ingredients. This allows the amounts of all of the meat ingredients to be grouped together. For example, instead of:
Dog food is big business and rival companies will always exploit the ingredients list to show their foods in the best possible light, sometimes obscuring the facts completely, but as long as you stay on your toes and demand complete clarity, you can always be confident that you're making the best choice for your best friend.