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Complete Guide To Commercially Prepared Dog Food Diets

on November 19, 2020

The good, the bad and the ugly

Pet Food: Convenience vs Nutrition

For years, many veterinary professionals have recommended complete dry and wet food diets for the nation’s pets. Their merits of providing an easy, convenient and balanced pet food have made it a safe and reliable referral.

With a flick of a tin opener or a swift scoop in the bag, a dog’s calorific intake, vitamin, mineral, protein, fat and carbohydrate requirements are met without a single consideration. But perhaps this is a little too easy? Have we as a profession, encouraged a blinkered mindset borne out of ease and reliability rather than education?

When we consider what to feed our family, we are more aware than ever of what constitutes a healthy diet and the implications of a bad one. Consequently, time and effort are put into planning out family meals and considering the ingredients, their source and quality. As a valued member of our family should we not also spend the same time considering our dog’s diet?

Why are pet food product labels so hard to read?

Manufacturers often make evaluating diets deliberately disorientating and confusing. Brand claims on the front of packets and misleading advertisements leave most owners daunted, not knowing how or where to start.

Subsequently, many resign themselves to defeat or considering an alternative method of feeding such as home cooking or raw foods. Nevertheless, these options are certainly not to be taken on without the necessary support and advice. Recent studies have shown that over 80% of home-prepared diets for your dog’s food are deficient in multiple nutrients.

It only takes some simple rules and a small amount of knowledge to sort out the good, the bad and the downright ugly. 

Nutrition is a very complex science; providing a daily balanced diet at home is extremely involved and not without its pitfalls and challenges. Hence why the safe and reliable option of a commercially prepared dog food diet has its advantages for many; an experienced nutritionist has done the complicated number crunching for you.
There are though, numerous commercially prepared diets available to choose from, from grain fee, wheat free and hypo-allergenic dog foods and they vary vastly in quality of ingredients, analytical constituents and cost per day. So, the secret is to become a savvy owner when it comes to assessing the packet.

How do you read the labels on pet food products?

Like most things in life, the truth can only be established by reading the small print, most often found in the most inconspicuous location - the back of the pack. It only takes some simple rules and a small amount of knowledge to sort out the good, the bad and the downright ugly. The key areas of information you need to scrutinise are the composition list and the analytical constituents; these tell you what’s in the diet and the nutritional break down of food, respectively.

What are analytical constituents?

The analytical constituents provide a guide to the proportions of nutrients within a diet. Legally the percentage of crude protein, fat, fibre and ash have to be displayed on the packaging. There are standards set defining the legally allowed minimum nutrients for each life stage (see the table below).

All commercial pet food will meet these standards. Nonetheless, these standards are defined to prevent clinical disease from malnutrition, not to promote better health.

Analytical Constituent


Early growth (<14wk) and lactation

Late Growth (>14wk)

Crude Protein




Crude Fat




(F.E.D.I.A.F nutritional guidelines for complete and complementary pet food for dogs and cats 2012)

The phrase ‘crude’ means the total amount of a nutrient, regardless of how digestible it is or available for the body to use. This provides the only way of directly cross comparing diets as the percentages are calculated once all of the moisture is removed i.e., per 100g of dry matter.

Diet ingredients vary greatly in moisture content and therefore weight. These percentages are essential knowledge when you then move further down the ingredients list as using the two together will tell you all you need to know about the quality of the diet.

A higher quality diet will have a meat-based source of protein as the first ingredient on the list. 

Commercially prepared Dog Food, Photo by Mathew Coulton on Unsplash

High quality pet food has a balanced protein and carbohydrate profile

Like all food labelling, the composition or ingredients are listed in order of weight in descending order. A higher quality diet will have a meat-based source of protein as the first ingredient on the list. Through human domestication, dogs have evolved to be omnivores and are capable of metabolising protein, carbohydrate and fat in their diets like humans. Nonetheless, given the choice most dogs would choose steak over boiled rice.
Therefore, diets with high levels of protein are more palatable. Moreover, high protein diets help stabilise blood sugar levels during the day. Fluctuations in blood sugar increase hunger and potentially a predisposition to weight gain and in some cases diabetes. Additionally, high protein, low carbohydrate diets have been found to promote the metabolism of fat and encourages/preserve lean muscle mass.

Does all pet food protein come from meat products?

Protein can also be found in plants; ingredients such as soya are very high in vegetable source protein. And this is where using the analytical constituent list together with the ingredients list is the most enlightening. If the diet has relatively high levels of protein but meat is not the first listed ingredient there is likely to be a vegetable source you need to identify.

A diet can achieve adequate levels of protein with very little meat-derived protein. Similarly, fat can be of vegetable or animal origin. Although vegetable sourced molecules are not going to do any harm, they are vastly different from their animal sourced equivalents, which are more bio-available, easier for the body to utilise and provide essential fatty and amino acids that promote health.

Further nutritional breakdown of pet food:

Vague nutritional detail = More potential issues with your pet’s long-term health

What is concerning about a vague description is not only the quality of the ingredients going into the food but that the composition of these ingredients can differ significantly from bag to bag and tin to tin. This can then be hugely problematic for dogs that have dietary intolerances or skin sensitivities. So often in life the devil’s in the detail, however, in this case it is in the absence of detail. The more specific and clear the ingredients read in the composition list the higher quality the diet will be.
The source of protein should be clearly identifiable and of one source so not generic ‘meat’ or a loose ‘poultry’ but preferably ‘chicken’ or ‘duck’. Additionally, as mentioned above, the source of fat and oil should be from not only an animal source but a singularly identified species.

Carbohydrate content – why are cereals in dog food products?

Likewise, the carbohydrate sources should be clear and not just lumped into the phrase ‘cereals. There’s a lot of controversy currently surrounding the inclusion of cereals in dog food and a new generation of grain free food has started appearing on the shelves. Diets have often been high in carbohydrate as it is more economical than protein.
Certain cereals have therefore become known as ‘cheap fillers’ such as wheat, corn and maize. A lot of the perceived problems associated with these diets are likely to come from the quality of the cereals being included. However, there are also concerns over the levels of gluten within ingredients, causing intolerances. So, diets that have lower gluten cereals such as rice or oats should be chosen over their cereal counter parts and diets with potato or sweet potato may be even better for those dogs with sensitive constitutions.

Vitamins and minerals in pet food products

As you get passed the top eight ingredients you will reach the smaller contributors on the list such as vitamins and minerals to ensure the diet is balanced. Amongst these will potentially also be colourings and preservatives. The affects that artificial colourings and additives can have on concentration and behaviour in humans have been well documented.
So, it’s a logical assumption that the same is likely to be true for dogs. Subsequently, diets concerned with promoting health will certainly have natural preservatives and no colours. A good rule of thumb is that dog food naturally is only one colour - brown, and if it is anything else it’s been artificially added to.

There are however some naturally active substances that occur in some high quality pet food products that are health boosting additives for pets such as glucosamine and chondroitin for healthy joints, nucleotides for supporting the immune system, seaweed for brain development, cranberries for urinary tract health and many more besides.

What next...

I urge you to stop reading the front of the packet and start with the back. Nutrition has such an impact on our health and well-being it’s only logical it has the same impact on our cherished canine companions. The general awareness and promotion of canine nutrition is lacking, and education and research is decades behind the human field. So, start spreading the word.

Most vets are resigned to the disheartening fact that only 5% of the advice given gets remembered or acted upon; so, make sure you read, digest and act upon this advice when selecting your pet’s food to ensure they are getting the right nutrients for the health and protection of your cherished pet.