You love your dog, and you want them to be healthy. And a big part of that, you know, means giving them the highest-quality dog food you can.
Unfortunately, that’s not quite as simple as it should be!
See, some unscrupulous food manufacturers will do whatever they can to make you think their food is healthier than it really is—allowing them to save money by including cheap filler ingredients that are no good for your dog.
That’s why we wrote this post to help arm you with the knowledge you need to make the best choice of dog food for your pet. But before we get to the list, there’s one important point you must keep in mind when looking at the ingredients list on your dog food…
Ingredients Are Listed By Weight
When reading the ingredients on the label of your dog food, it’s important to realize that they’re listed in order by weight. That means that the ingredients at the top of the list make up a higher percentage of the dog food’s weight than the ingredients at the bottom.
So if a dog food lists “chicken” as the 12th ingredient on the label, that means that the food doesn’t contain much actual chicken. In many cases, the manufacturer only included it because they want to be able to say “Contains chicken!” on the label.
Here’s a quick trick: look for “salt” or “potassium chloride” on the label. If a dog food includes these ingredients, they will typically constitute 1% or less of the formula. Once you find this ingredient, you’ll know that everything that comes after it in the ingredients list is present in very small quantities (less than 1%). That’s to be expected for very small ingredients (like vitamins & minerals), but you don’t want to see any “whole food”-type ingredients that far down on the label.
Keep in mind, however, that some ingredients have more water weight than others, which can bump them up the ingredients list. For example, “whole chicken” is made of 70% water. Compare that to “chicken meal,” on the other hand, which is only 10% water.
Because chicken meal is a more concentrated source of protein, that means that “chicken meal” as the 3rd or 4th ingredient might actually contain more protein than “whole chicken” as the 1st ingredient. (Chicken meal is actually the #1 ingredient in our Bully Max High Performance Dog Food, so you know it’s an ultra-high source of quality protein for your dog.)
Now, let’s go over some of the specific ingredients you should look for—and some you should avoid—when evaluating dog foods.
What Ingredients To Look For in dog food (Good Ingredients)
Here are some healthy ingredients that your dog food should contain:
A Named Animal Protein As The First Ingredient
The first ingredient in any high-quality dog food should be a protein source that names a specific animal. Ingredients like “animal meat” or “meat meal” are a no-no. Instead, make sure your protein source specifies the animal it comes from—chicken, beef, venison, duck, etc.
And remember, dogs are carnivores—which means that eating meat is important. For that reason, the animal protein should always be the #1 ingredient in any dog food.
As you’ll learn below, meat “by-products” are an ingredient you want to avoid. However meat “meals” are actually a lot healthier than you think and are a great source of protein for dogs. In fact, when choosing a dry food, meat meal is actually a better choice than fresh or frozen meat!
That’s because fresh or frozen meats contain 65-75% water and only 15-25% protein, which means they don’t have enough protein to be the only protein source in a dry food. But meat meal is a better choice, with 300% more protein than fresh meat.
If you want to learn more about meat meal, click here to read our article, “The Truth About ‘Meat Meal’ In Your Dog Food.”
Cheap dog foods often contain unhealthy synthetic preservatives. What should you look for instead? The best options are natural antioxidant preservatives like vitamins C and E. These can appear on the ingredient list under several names:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
- Mixed Tocopherols
- Ascorbic Acid
Made in the USA
Manufacturing standards vary by country. To ensure your dog food meets the highest standards of excellence & quality, look for dog foods that are made in the U.S.A.
Added Vitamins & Minerals
Just like humans, dogs require a wide variety of vitamins & minerals to maintain ideal health. Here are some of the most important nutrients to look for in a dog food:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin E (Mixed Tocopherols)
- Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid)
- Vitamin D3
- D-Calcium Pantothenate
- Vitamin B12
- Thiamine Mononitrate
- Pyridoxine Hydrochloride
- Folic Acid
- Sodium Selenite (Selenium)
Just like humans, dogs need fat for hormone production and optimal functioning. But you’ll want to make sure those fats are coming from healthy sources that include some essential omega 3 fatty acids.
Some healthy fats to look for on the label include:
- Named animal fats (like chicken fat, beef fat, etc.)
- Flaxseed (a good source of omega 3s)
- Fish oil (a good source of omega 3s)
Whole Vegetables & Grains
Ideally, your dog food will contain whole, unprocessed vegetables & grains. It’s OK if your food has a couple food “fractions” (part of an ingredient, like “rice bran”), but near the top of the label it should contain whole food ingredients like:
- Rice or Brown Rice
- Beet Pulp
Note: Mushrooms, garlic, and onions are highly toxic to dogs. Make sure they are NOT on the ingredient list, and never feed these foods to your dog from the table!
Finding a dog food with human-grade ingredients can be hard to do, since it’s rare to find a manufacturer who goes to this expense to create exceptionally high-quality dog food. But it’s definitely a huge plus if and when you can find it.
“All Life Stages” Formula
Finally, your dog food will contain what’s called an adequacy statement. The most nutritionally complete foods will say something like: “This food is complete and balanced for all life stages.”
Ingredients you don’t want in dog food (Ingredients to avoid)
Now here are some unhealthy ingredients you should avoid at all costs:
Meat Products From Unnamed Animals
Many dog foods contain protein from generic, unnamed animals such as “animal protein” or “meat by-products.” If a dog food doesn’t tell you what kind of animal its meat comes from, that’s a BAD sign. That’s why you should make sure your dog food includes a named protein source.
Meat by-products are something of a mystery ingredient. They’re the leftovers after an animal is slaughtered and all the best parts are removed for consumption by humans.
Dog Food Advisor has an article on meat by-products that all pet owners should read. By-products can contain all sorts of waste materials including feet, brains, intestines, and so on.
In short, meat by-products are an unhealthy choice. So why do so many dog food manufacturers use them? Simply because they’re cheap.
Corn, Wheat, & Soy
You will often see one of these in the top 5 ingredients of many commercial dog foods. Unfortunately they’re cheap and unhealthy food choices that are not easily digested by dogs.
A Generic Fat Source
Just as your protein source should specify which animal it comes from, so should your fat sources. If you see an ingredient such as “animal fat,” which does not tell you what kind of animal it comes from, put that food back on the shelf. “Animal fat” could come from anything—including used restaurant grease and fats that come from roadkill. “Poultry fat” is better, but ideally you should look for something even more specific like “chicken fat” or “duck fat.”
Artificial Colors, Flavors, or Preservatives
These are never good ingredients for anyone—human, dog, or anything else. Some examples of artificial ingredients to avoid include:
- BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole)
- BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene)
- Food Dyes (Blue 2, Red 40, Yellow 5 and 6, 4-MIE)
Food dyes are as especially head-scratching choice. After all, how many dogs ever cared about the color of their food? Look for food that with natural preservatives and ingredients instead.
And keep in mind that natural preservatives do not preserve foods as long as unnatural preservatives do, so when choosing a food with natural preservatives it’s a good idea to pay attention to the “Best By” date.
Try Bully Max 30/20 High-Performance Dog Food
Now that you know what to look for in dog food ingredients, you have 2 choices:
You can take what you’ve learned in this blog post and start inspecting every dog food label you see. You’ll need to pay close attention to every new food you come across, and be on the constant lookout against shady manufacturers who try to sneak cheap, unhealthy ingredients into their dog foods.
Or, you can choose the easy option—the smart option—and go with the one dog food you KNOW is full of ONLY super-high-quality ingredients: Bully Max 30/20 High Performance Dog Food. We use only the highest quality human-grade ingredients, with none of the unhealthy stuff you find in lower-quality dog foods.