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Dog Food Ingredients: The Basics

Dog Food Ingredients: The Basics

Many myths circulate concerning dog food, and with so many opinions, discerning between fact and fiction can be hard. Did you know, for example, that grain isn’t as harmful as its nefarious reputation would lead you to believe? In fact, only 1% of dogs suffer from grain allergies, and grain, while potentially harmful if it’s not cooked, can be very beneficial to your dog when cooked properly. And then there are the scary ingredients you can’t pronounce. You definitely don’t want those pouring into Bingo’s bowl, right? Not necessarily. Many of those hard-to-pronounce names belong to vitamins and minerals your dog needs. Food companies are simply required to use the chemical name, likely unfamiliar to the public, on their labels.

And what about fillers and by-products? No self-respecting pet parent would ever feed her pooch a food containing ingredients like that, right? Well, maybe she wouldn’t, but if her pet is a dog, maybe she should. While not ideal for cats, who thrive on nearly all-protein diets, fillers can actually be nutritious for your dog, who’s an omnivore. By-products, too, can benefit Bingo, as they include meat from organs like the spleen, heart, lungs, and intestines, which can provide nutrients.

What You Need to Know

Before we move on, let’s bust one more myth. Though humans benefit from consuming whole, unprocessed foods, our dogs can often reap more benefits from a food that has been ground up, blended up, or cooked, than a food that is raw or unprocessed. For example, ground or blended up vegetables release many of their nutrients, potentially making it easier for Rufus’s body to absorb and use them.

But what nutrients should your dog’s food really provide, and in what ratios? Less than 10% of dog dads and moms know the answer. Are you one of them?

And how can you tell if a dog food is adequate to meet your dog’s nutritional needs? Let’s look at the basics. All dog foods should contain the following:

  • Protein
  • Carbohydrates
  • Fats
  • Vitamins and minerals.

While most commercial dog foods do indeed contain these four fundamental components, it’s important to consider their source, the quality of their source, and their proportions.


Essential for the “growth, maintenance, reproduction, and repair of damaged tissues,” protein is one of the most important nutrients to provide your dog. In fact, the protein level of your dog’s food should meet or exceed 30% of the guaranteed analysis. However, a large percentage doesn’t necessarily mean your dog will reap all the benefits protein has to offer. Just as important as the guaranteed analysis of the protein in any given food, is the source of the protein.

Many sources of protein exist, from fresh meat to meat meal to by-products. Even grains, vegetables, corn meal, wheat gluten meal, and textured soy protein can be adequate sources of protein, though it’s important to consider how various protein sources work together or affect each other. For example, alone, neither corn nor soybean meal are optimal sources of protein, but in tandem, they can become a quality source.

Many veterinarians feel an animal-sourced protein is the highest-quality, healthiest option. Some vets recommend chicken as one of the most effective ingredients for providing protein, and advise it or another meat be the first ingredient listed on your dog food’s label. Here, though, labels can get a little confusing, and at times, even misleading. While meat as the foremost ingredient in a dehydrated, raw, or wet food likely refers to actual meat, and that’s a good thing, dry foods are less likely to be able to list meat as a first ingredient, instead listing a meat meal. Don’t be discouraged by the inclusion of chicken meal instead of chicken, or salmon meal instead of salmon. While meat is one of the best vehicles for protein available to your dog, meat meal is simply meat without its water–and remains an excellent source of protein for Fido.

dogs playing


While dogs have not always needed (or even preferred) carbohydrates, and some veterinarians and canine nutritionists recommend  minimizing their place on Fido’s plate, they have managed to secure a stable spot in the diet of the modern dog. Though there is no daily requirement for carbohydrates in a dog’s diet, and the optimal amount remains a point of contention, typically, 30-70% of a dry kibble is composed of carbohydrates, which separate into two categories: soluble and insoluble.

Dietary soluble carbohydrates can play an important role in Dingo’s diet, providing his body with the energy it needs not only to function, but also to walk, play, and take care of other demanding doggy business. Some common sources of these digestible carbohydrates in commercial dog food brands include pearled barley, oats or whole oats, brown rice, whole wheat, potato, sweet potato, and millet. Other sources can include beans, rice, soy, and corn. The quality of carbohydrates these sources provide, though, varies. For example, brown rice packs a powerful punch, but wheat gluten, rice gluten, and corn are less nutritious.

Perhaps surprisingly, as we commonly consider starchy foods such as pasta and bread to be carbohydrates in the human world, vegetables are another source–and can be one of the best carbohydrate providers for your pooch. Considering the quality of your dog food’s carbohydrate source is important. For example, while corn does provide carbohydrates, brown rice is a higher quality source of the same nutrient.

Dietary insoluble carbohydrates provide fiber for Fido, helping his digestive system function properly. One of the most common sources of fiber is beet pulp.

Doberman in flower field


While fat generally suffers from a poor reputation, it actually is a necessary component of a balanced diet, and can be an excellent source of energy for Rover. In fact, fat is not the problem; an overabundance–or even a lack–of fat is. Fat should comprise 10-15% of your dog’s diet, and in the right amounts, can not only improve the flavor of Fido’s food, but can also improve the health of his skin and coat. Fats also help Bingo’s body absorb some vitamins it needs to function. In fact, if Fido doesn’t get enough fat in his diet, he can develop heart disease or diabetes. Some common sources of fat can include chicken or pork fat, cottonseed oil, fish oil, safflower seed oil, soybean oil, and vegetable oil. One of the determining factors of a source’s quality is its provision of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Fish oils from cold water fish, canola oil, and flaxseed are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, while omega-6 fatty acids abound in poultry fat, sunflower oil, safflower oil, and vegetable oils. One low-quality source of fat to avoid is lard.

Vitamins and Minerals

Because many natural vitamins and minerals are destroyed when dog food is processed, many commercial manufacturers supplement their product with vitamins and minerals, adding them as powders or liquids. Vitamins and minerals are necessary to Clifford’s health, as they support the immune system and help with metabolism and digestion, in addition to supporting nerve and blood cell health. Many vitamins, such as E and C, can not only act as antioxidants for your dog, but can also help preserve the dog food to which they are added. Biotin, pyridoxine, beta-carotene, thiamin, and riboflavin are all B vitamins that can also play both the role of antioxidant and preservative. Vitamins A, D, and K are often included in dog food, as well.

Some minerals to look for in your canine companion’s meal include phosphorus, zinc, sodium, and calcium.

Fancy Dog Eating

Bon Appetit, Bingo!

Next time you put dinner down for your dog, you can feel confident that you are providing him with high-quality sources of all the nutrients he needs: protein, carbohydrates, fats, and vitamins and minerals. Just keep in mind the following desirable sources for each nutrient below.


  • Chicken
  • Chicken meal
  • Salmon
  • Salmon meal

In general, any meat or meat meal will serve as a quality source of protein for your dog.


  • Brown rice
  • Beet pulp
  • Millet
  • Oats

While controversy does exist over whether or not carbohydrates play a necessary role in the canine diet, there is little disagreement that ingredients such as corn, wheat gluten, and rice gluten are poor substitutes for higher quality carbohydrates like the ones listed above.


  • Poultry fat
  • Safflower oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Fish oils
  • Canola oil
  • Flaxseed
  • Vegetable oils

While dogs need a significant amount of fat in their diets, be sure to avoid low-quality fats like lard.

Vitamins and Minerals