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Do you know what ingredients to avoid in dog food? You think you know what you are feeding your dog, but how much do you really know about the ingredients used in that recipe? Do you often check the dog food label whenever you purchase your pup’s meal?
Similar to processed foods for humans, many of the foods made for canines contain dozens of different ingredients, and it isn’t always easy to tell exactly what they are.
When you pick up a package of doggy formula, it is easy to be distracted by pretty pictures and lofty health claims, but the important information is easy to miss.
If you really want to do what is best for your dog, you should learn about his basic nutritional needs and take the time to figure out how to read a dog food label.
Those pet food labels contain all the information that pet parents need to know, from generally recognized ingredients that are healthy to the extremely toxic ones.
Learning to read a pet food label is not something that comes overnight—it is a skill that takes practice and time to develop. If you simply want to know whether the food your dog is eating is good or bad, however, you can start by learning about some of the worst dog food ingredients that you should avoid in your dog’s diet.
You will find a list of the top 10 worst dog food ingredients below as well as tips for choosing a high-quality pet food product.
The Top 10 Ingredients to Avoid in Dog Food
If you spoke to five different veterinarians or animal nutritionists, you would get five different answers in regard to the dog food ingredients that are most important to avoid. This speaks to a major problem within the pet food industry—that there are so many low-quality ingredients used by pet food manufacturers that they can’t all be included in one list.
But why exactly do pet food manufacturers use low-quality or harmful ingredients in their products? The main reason is money—the lower the quality of an ingredient, the lower the price.
That means that the manufacturer can cut their own costs for production while still charging pet owners like you the same price.
So what are the top ten worst dog food ingredients you should be on the lookout for? The list could go on forever, but here are our top choices for ingredients you should avoid in your dog’s food:
1. Corn – Real meat costs a lot, so some manufacturers try to cut on costs by bringing in fillers, like corn, to make your pup feel fuller. However, corn as an ingredient in dog food brings little to no nutritional value for your furry friend. And for many canines, corn has been reported to be one of the most notable causes of allergies.
2. Sugar – Sugar in your pet’s food can do the same thing to canines that it does to humans. For example, sugar is bad for your dog’s teeth, can cause obesity in your pup, or lead to diabetes.
Basically, it’s not good for your dog’s health. And yet, it is often found in many dog treats and foods because it acts as a flavor enhancement.
Several manufacturers hide the sugar in the dog food labels by calling it by other names. Here are other terms for sugar:
- High-fructose corn syrup
Xylitol is not a sugar but a sugar substitute. However, canines who ingest this can potentially experience a severe drop in their blood sugar called hypoglycemia. This can result in collapse, loss of coordination, and seizures. High levels of xylitol can cause kidney and liver damage in pups.
3. Soy – Soy is one of the topmost common allergens for dogs but many pet food manufacturers use it in their products.
It is an inexpensive source of protein. Not only can soy trigger food allergies in dogs, but it also contains chemicals called phytoestrogens that mimic the effects of the hormone estrogen which can cause a variety of health problems in dogs. Soy also contains goitrogens, substances that may inhibit proper thyroid function.
4. Carrageenan – You might think that something derived from seaweed will keep your pet healthy, but carrageenan is a highly controversial ingredient you wouldn’t want to be anywhere near your pup’s grub.
A few studies have found that it is potentially inflammatory and can become toxic in the digestive tract. Yes, even the food-grade type can degrade once eaten.
5. By-Products – The word “by-product” on a pet food ingredients list should immediately send up a red flag. While not all by-products are inherently dangerous, the quality of different by-products varies significantly so you can never really tell what you are getting.
Animal by-products (like chicken by-product meal or poultry by-products) usually consist of the leftovers after the parts of a slaughtered animal that are fit for human consumption are removed. This may include things like feet, undeveloped eggs, bones, and organs (excluding giblets like liver, hearts, and necks).
6. Plant Proteins – Dogs are carnivorous by nature which means that their bodies are biologically adapted to deriving nutrition more efficiently from animal products than plant products.
Plant proteins like pea protein, potato protein, and the natural protein content of beans and legumes are not necessarily bad for your pup, but they are less biologically valuable than animal proteins.
You also have to consider that many low-quality pet food manufacturers use plant proteins in their products to increase the protein content without adding more expensive meat.
7. Coloring Agents – There is simply no good reason to include food dyes in your pup’s food. The only purpose is to make the product look more appealing to humans. Dogs don’t care either way.
Coloring agents you may see in low-quality dog foods include dyes like Red 40, Blue 2, and Yellow 5 as well as titanium dioxide, a white powder often used as a dough conditioner.
Aside from being completely unnecessary, artificial dyes can also be detrimental to your pet’s health because they can also trigger allergies.
8. Artificial Flavors – In the same way that you won’t find artificial colors in high-quality dog foods, neither will you want to find artificial flavors.
These artificial ingredients are only necessary when a product is not palatable enough on its own—many low-quality dog foods rely on artificial flavors to make the product more appealing to dogs.
Artificial flavors may include things like animal digest, glandular meal, and anything that precedes the word “flavor”, except for natural flavors.
9. Artificial Preservatives – Preservatives in dog food are used to extend the shelf life of a product so that products can last longer before being sold and so they won’t go bad immediately after the bag is opened.
Natural preservatives are fine and will extend the shelf life of the product without causing harm to your dog. Unfortunately, low-quality pet foods often use a chemical preservative because it’s cheaper, but the downside is it can be harmful to your dog’s health.
For example, BHA and BHT are known to have a carcinogenic effect on animals and have also been linked to kidney failure and organ damage. Ethoxyquin is another artificial preservative and it has been made illegal for use in human food but continues to be used in pet food.
10. Unnamed Meat Ingredients – Unnamed meat ingredients are those where it’s not clear what kind of animal was used to make up that meal you’re serving to your pet. This includes terms like “meat meal or meat meals,” “bone meal,” “fish oil,” “poultry fat,” or “animal fat.”
In the pet food industry, a generic meat meal can come from virtually any kind of animal. Roadkill, diseased farm stock, dead animals, and even euthanized animals. And it’s all perfectly legal.
It becomes even more problematic when your pup is food sensitive. You won’t know exactly what animal was included in the mixture, and if it was one your pup is allergic to.
What About Common Allergens in Dog Foods?
Dogs can be affected by food allergies just as much as people can, and the foods that cause these allergies frequently overlap. Theoretically, your canine can develop an allergy to any food that he eats frequently but the most common food allergens for dogs include the following:
Does this mean that you shouldn’t buy a dog food that contains one of these ingredients? Not necessarily. If your dog has an allergy or a sensitivity to one of these ingredients, by all means, you should avoid it.
But if he doesn’t, there may not be any reason for you to buy a limited ingredient diet or a dog food made with an expensive protein source.
Before you go out and buy a new diet for your pet, take a little time to confirm that he does, in fact, have a food allergy and that his problems are not being caused by something unrelated.
What many dog owners do not realize is that food allergies often present with different symptoms in dogs than they do in humans. If your pup eats something he is allergic to, it may not cause an immediate gastrointestinal symptom.
The most common symptoms of food allergies in dogs are skin-related. If your dog has dry, itchy, inflamed skin, or recurrent ear infections, it could be a sign of a food allergy or intolerance. You should talk to your vet to have other potential causes ruled out and then put your dog on an elimination diet until all traces of the allergy have disappeared.
At that point, you can keep your dog on that diet or reintroduce potential allergens until you identify the culprit and then avoid it from then on.
What To Look For In The Label of Pet Foods
When selecting what to feed your pup, it’s best to look at the label. Here are the stuff you should carefully consider:
1. Meat First Ingredient – The label organizes the ingredients in a descending order based on volume. So the first listed ingredient will always be the one that makes up the most weight. But be careful! Some may list an animal meat source as a first ingredient but the next few ones will be made up of low-quality fillers.
Also, fresh meat is a premium kind of meat ingredient but it’s made up of 75% water. Without that water weight, that meat will probably be far down the list. Unless, the brand specifically states that the meat makes up a big percentage of the diet, or the fresh meat is followed by other meats.
A named meat meal (like chicken meal or lamb meal) which has more concentrated protein is a good animal ingredient. As long as the animal the meat comes from is identified in the label, then it should be fine.
2. Nutritional Value – The guaranteed analysis section of your dog’s food states the calculated values of each guaranteed nutrient in the recipe. This is where you can see the levels of protein, moisture, fat, and so on that the recipe contains.
Choose a formulation that provides the amount of protein your pup needs for his specific lifestyle. For example, performance canines will need a high amount of protein compared to non-active pups.
3. Natural Preservatives – Go for dry dog food recipes that state “no artificial ingredients included.” Often, high-quality recipes use natural preservatives like Vitamin C (ascorbic acid), Vitamin E (mixed tocopherols), or plant extracts (rosemary) to prevent the fats in it from becoming rancid.
Canned dog food goes through a canning process that eliminates the need for preservatives (the canning process is the preservative), but it can still include artificial flavors, so watch out for those.
4. Life Stage And Breed Appropriate – While some recipes are designed to meet the nutritional needs of all life stages and breeds of canines, many others are focused on each specific life stage or breed. Make sure that the formula you select is appropriate for the age and breed size of your pooch.
What Are the Best Dog Food Ingredients?
A good rule of thumb to follow when it comes to the ingredients in your dog’s food is that if you don’t know what it is, it probably isn’t good for him.
If the ingredients list starts with something you haven’t heard of or if you have any reason to question whether it is a high-quality ingredient, you are better off choosing something else.
An easier way to look at it is, if a high-quality source of animal protein isn’t at the top of the list, don’t buy it. Dogs need a lot of protein in their diet because they are primarily carnivorous animals—their bodies simply aren’t biologically adapted to digesting plant foods.
Unless your dog has a specific allergy, any kind of animal protein like meat, poultry, or fish makes for an excellent first ingredient. And don’t worry if the protein name is followed by the word “meal”—this simply means that the fresh meat has been cooked to remove moisture and it means that the ingredient is a very highly-concentrated source of protein.
In addition to plenty of high-quality proteins, healthy animal-based fats are also valuable additions to a high-quality diet. Fat provides your dog with a concentrated source of energy as well as omega fatty acids for skin and coat health.
Just like proteins, most of the fats in your dog’s diet should come from animal sources – that includes things like salmon oil and chicken fat as well as fish proteins like fresh tuna or menhaden fish meal. Digestible carbohydrates like whole grains are quality ingredients for most dogs unless your dog is allergic or sensitive to grains.
In that case, look for starchy vegetables like white potatoes or sweet potatoes and other gluten-free, grain-free options like beans and legumes. It is also good to see beneficial additives included—things like chelated minerals, prebiotic fibers, and dried fermentation products for probiotic support.
Lastly, if you really want to go for premium recipes, you might want to check out formulations made with human-grade ingredients or organic ones. These are some of the safest and healthiest you can feed your pooch.
Your dog can’t go to the pet store and pick out his own food, so it is up to you to make a smart and healthy choice on his behalf. The diet you choose for your dog will have a significant impact on his total health and wellness, so it is not a decision that should be taken lightly.
When shopping for dog food, make sure to avoid the bad ingredients listed above and look for a product that includes some of the best ingredients listed. As long as you do your best to choose a product that will meet your dog’s nutritional needs in a healthy way, you should be good to go.