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What’s really in dog food?

Approx. 10 minutes read

With such a great focus being placed on your dog’s diet as the cornerstone to her health, it’s time to shine the spotlight on dog food and find out what your furry friend is really eating. We’ll compare various dog food diets, cover the worst dog food ingredients and help our pet heroes to understand what is in dog food – fur real!

But first…

A ruff history of dog kibble

If dogs have been domesticated over the last few thousand years, yet dog kibble is only a little over 100 years old, what were dogs fed before kibble was available? A look at the history of commercial dog diets and pet ownership in general will shed some light on why dog food is what it is today.

2000 BC

Dogs became companion animals to humans about 30,000 years ago (or more – the science is still out on the exact date), eating what our ancestors ate and developing a symbiotic relationship that has lasted through the ages. In about 2000 BC, the Roman philosopher Marcus Terentius Varro wrote about feeding dogs meat, bones, and milk-soaked barley. It was already recognised back then that our furry friends needed protein from meat, minerals from bones, dairy and grains to form a balanced diet!

14th Century

Dogs and cats as companion animals were rare during the Middle Ages – rather, they served as hunters, guardians and drovers. Where animals were kept as pets, they were seen as a frivolous luxury and their courtly owners were criticised for wasting food on their pets – food that should rather have been given to the poor. Gaston III, Count of Foix in France, wrote guidelines for keeping dogs (since he had owned more than a thousand hunting greyhounds): their meals were to comprise bran bread, some meat as a reward from each hunt, as well as eggs, bean broth and goat’s milk, to restore their health if they were ailing.

Unfortunately, there were no pet nutritionists around at the time to determine the exact nutritional ratios the dogs required, but people did their best with the knowledge they had.

Pre-industrial era

Dog diets weren’t thought of as very different to people diets, since dogs would eat the off-cuts of whatever their humans were eating. Their diets varied and consisted of meat, bones, vegetables and bread. In larger villages and cities, horses were a common form of transport, and when the horses died, their carcases could be used to feed domestic animals. Horse meat became a staple food for companion animals.

In the late 19th century, as the middle class was growing and more people could afford to keep dogs as pets rather than simply as working animals, the need for a conveniently available pet food arose. This was also the era of dog breed development and shows, which meant dogs were literally placed on a pedestal as companion animals. James Spratt, an English businessman, saw a gap in the market for convenient pet food and his ‘fibrine dog cake’ formula was born. It consisted of wheat meal, a mix of vegetables, and beef blood – becoming an instant hit with English sportsmen who needed a convenient feeding solution for their hunting dogs.

In 1890, dog kibble production began to spread around the UK and the USA, and the first canned (wet) dog food was produced in 1922 under the name Ken-L-Ration, with horsemeat being first on the ingredients list. It’s no secret that horses were being bred simply to meet the demand for the burgeoning pet food industry. Thankfully that has changed along with humans’ greater appreciation for horses as companion animals.

1950s and 1960s

As dog ownership developed, so too did the methods of dog food production. In 1956, commercial pet food production began to use the process of extrusion to sterilise and preserve the large amounts of kibble being produced, making it ‘shelf stable’. It was also in the 1960s that pet nutrition science recognised that puppies have unique nutritional needs, and so life stage diets were born.

1968 saw the advent of veterinary diets – scientifically formulated dog food to help manage kidney and liver disease. This idea came about when French veterinary surgeon Jean Cathary developed his own recipes to help dogs with kidney and liver problems, and these foods formed the basis for the Royal Canin brand. Hill’s Science Diet would follow suit shortly after, later expanding their offering to include weight management, skin health and joint protection formulas.

1980s and beyond

The science of dog nutrition has radically expanded to nurture good health in our pets, and to make pet pawrents a lot more aware of what dogs really need to meet their individual nutritional requirements.

This awareness has led pet heroes to ask the important question: what’s really in the pet food we are feeding our dogs?

What is in dog food?

The food we eat determines the level of our health. The same applies to our beloved four-legged companions, and it’s crucial that they get the right nutrients for their daily needs from the very beginning. We always encourage our pet heroes to read the label on your dog’s bag of dog food. Even if your vet recommends a certain brand or variety of dog food, take the time to familiarise yourself with what is actually in the bag by reading the ingredients list and understanding the nutrient ratios.

Dog food ingredients are listed by weight in descending order. The heaviest ingredients are listed first, but this doesn’t mean these ingredients are the most nutrient dense. The best dog food ingredients are those you should expect to see near the top of the list. They should include the proteins, fats and carbohydrates that give our pups the essential amino acids, energy and nutrients they need for healthy digestion, muscle maintenance and daily oomph for all their doggy activities.

The following are ingredients you can expect to see in the best dog food brands and varieties:


All dog foods will have a variety of protein sources in the ingredients list. The highest quality dog foods will have fresh meat listed near the top of the ingredients list, and may also include fresh organ meat (such as heart, liver and kidney). Most affordable dog food types include nutrient-dense meat meal or dehydrated protein, which is the ground up and processed meat, organs, and some bone of the beef, chicken, turkey, pork or game protein being used in the kibble. The meal will be listed by the protein origin used, such as chicken meal, turkey meal, beef meal, pork meal, etc.

The benefit of using meal in dog kibble is that all of the water content of the meat and organs has been removed, leaving only a highly concentrated, nutrient-rich powder that contains most (if not all) of the amino acids necessary for dogs’ daily lives. It also makes preserving dog kibble a lot easier and renders the dog food ‘shelf stable’ – long enough for your furry friend to get the most out of his bag of dog food that may have travelled a distance from the food factory into your pantry.

When dog food manufacturers take into consideration that some dogs have food allergies, they will put their proteins through the process of hydrolysis, which breaks down the proteins into the smallest possible amino acids that can be absorbed without triggering the dog’s immune system. In these cases, you’ll see protein sources listed as hydrolysed animal protein or protein hydrolysate.


For some reason, carbohydrates in pet foods have been given a bad rap. All mammals need carbohydrates for energy and fibre, which help to promote good digestion. High-quality carbohydrates in the form of barley, oats, brown rice, and a variety of fruits and vegetables provide dogs with healthy sources of energy, and complex carbs for good digestion. Carbohydrates like maize, wheat and rice also have their place in dog foods, but in some instances, dogs can thrive better without them.

Read our articles on What not to feed dogs with epilepsy and diabetes as well as the Q&A on designer diets for dogs – for a better understanding of when pet owners should be discerning when it comes to their dogs’ diets.


Fats – necessary for energy, skin and fur health, and brain and organ care – are listed as animal fat, coconut oil, omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, and may also include seed and soy-based oils. It’s impawtant to balance the protein and fat content in dog foods, to avoid obesity – especially in puppies, who grow very quickly and whose joints and bones need to grow optimally without carrying any extra weight. Mature and senior dogs also need their food fats managed carefully, to prevent weight gain and to protect their joints from strain as they age and require less energy.

Minerals, vitamins and antioxidants

All dogs need certain amounts of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in their daily diet. The antioxidants not only provide vitamins A, E and C, as well as appropriate levels of minerals like zinc, copper and selenium, but also act as natural preservatives to prevent the dog kibble from going rancid in the bag.

There are some synthetic antioxidants used as preservatives, but these are ingredients you do not want to see in your dog’s food!

Added amino acids

Where some dogs need additional help in their daily diet, these amino acids can be added to fortify the food and deliver a boost of whatever is missing from their make-up. Added amino acids can include:

  • taurine – for heart health
  • L-arginine – for improved blood circulation
  • cysteine & L-lysine – for skin and coat health
  • methionine – for kidney/urinary health

What should not be in dog food?

There are some dog foods that are still cheaply made, whose recipes are based on being as economic as possible and not centred on the overall long-term health of your dog. The worst dog food ingredients are those that contain synthetic additives and flavourants, are not labelled very specifically, and contain synthetic ingredients to make the food tastier, take on a specific texture or be preserved for longer.

The ingredients to avoid in dog foods include:

Synthetic preservatives

The advantages of natural antioxidant preservatives are numerous, but some pet food manufacturers still use chemical preservatives such as:

  • butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
  • butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
  • ethoxyquin

BHA is used widely as a preservative, but while it’s been banned as a preservative in human food, it’s still considered safe in small quantities in pet foods. BHT is another chemical preservative, which has been linked to cancer and other serious health conditions.

Artificial food colouring/dyes

Dog kibble is usually brown, right? Do our dogs really care what colour their food is when the important part is that it should smell scrumptious and taste delicious? Read your dog’s food label to ensure there is no food colouring in the ingredients list. These would be listed as:

  • Blue 2 (Brilliant blue FCF)
  • Red 40 (Allura Red AC)
  • Yellow 5 (tartrazine)
  • Yellow 6 (Sunset yellow FCF)

Artificial colourants can cause allergic reactions and other health concerns in humans and dogs. As artificial chemicals, it’s safer to not bring them anywhere near food!

Artificial flavours

Additives like MSG (monosodium glutamate) are allergenic in dog food. As mentioned in this article, ingredients containing glutamate can trigger seizures in dogs with epilepsy, so it’s best to avoid it. Ingredients labelled as flavour enhancers or palatability enhancers should be as far down the ingredients list as possible… or not on it altogether. If food doesn’t taste good to your dog, what is she even eating?!

Propylene glycol

Also found in antifreeze (along with its chemical cousin, ethylene glycol), propylene glycol is a chemical compound used as a preservative and water absorber. It is used in some semi-moist treats to prevent them from drying out, as well as in some highly processed human foods. As with most chemical preservatives, there is an approved minimum amount that is deemed safe, but anything that may cause harm should be carefully regarded.

Added sugars

Dogs, like humans, should not endure giant spikes in their blood sugar, so it’s totally unnecessary to add sugar to their dog foods or to their treats. Avoid dog food ingredients that include things like corn syrup or any other sugar substitutes.

A note on wheat and grains

It’s becoming a popular myth that dogs should revert to their ‘ancestral’ diet of proteins and fats only; that wheat and grains cause the same allergies and intolerances in dogs that they do in humans. The truth is that most dog allergies are caused by proteins in chicken, beef, eggs, and dairy – less so by wheat and soy. Many grains offer a good source of digestive fibre, complex carbohydrates and some protein. However, if your vet recommends a diet for your dog that is low in grains and higher in animal proteins and fats, only then should you consider putting her on a grain-free diet.

How to find the best dog food for your dog

Aside from getting a health check-up and asking your vet to recommend the best affordable dog food for your dog, the only way to know whether she’s going to thrive on the food you feed her is to do a dog food comparison. The rule of thumb about what to feed your dog is to buy the highest quality dog food you can afford. Choose the ones your vet recommends, compare their ingredients and buy the dog food you think is best for your furry friend. Feed it to her for at least three months (granted she presents with healthy digestion and doesn’t have any allergies to the food). If she appears to thrive, her eyes are shiny and her skin and coat are healthy, she is full of energy, and she drops healthy-looking lawn ornaments, then it’s a good bet this is the right dog food for her!

To reiterate: Take any concerns about your dog’s food to your vet. Ask the vet about ingredients and ratios you are concerned about and ask for a recommended dog food.

As a pet hero, you have a huge responsibility towards your pet(s). We’re here to suppawt you with that responsibility, so sign up to the Pet Hero newsletter and receive the latest in pet care information, promotions, specials, sales and giveaways – delivered straight to your inbox!

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