Let’s face it - picking the right dog food for your furry family member is tricky. There are so many brands, flavors, specialties and recommendations it can get overwhelming. You know there are ingredients you should avoid but aren’t clear on exactly what they are. Plus, when you look at the nutrition labels it looks like another language!

That’s why we got together with our Puppo nutrition team to create a comprehensive dog food ingredients guide so all pup parents can make informed decisions. With over 37 years of combined experience working with dogs, these experts have it down when it comes to doggie meal time. 

While reading an ingredients label you should make sure meat is the first ingredient. That’s because the label is actually written in order of ingredient amount - so you want to make sure your pup is getting the real stuff first and skipping the fillers. This is also why you see a ton of vitamins and minerals at the end. Upon first glance you might think “woah! That's a lot of pink” but this is because dog food contains a smaller amount of many vitamins/minerals. Check out our breakdown of a nutrition label and detailed information about why each aspect is important below!

Protein

Of course, dogs and humans alike need protein! Of the 20 amino acids that make up proteins, over half of them are essential, meaning they can’t be produced by the dog’s body, so they must come from their diet. This makes sure your pup can build strong organs, muscles, and tissues as well as produce antibodies to fight disease. Plus protein keeps fur strong and healthy. In dog food (just like human food) there are many different sources of protein to choose from. Let’s break them down:

Chicken

Chicken is the most common source of lean protein in dog food and it’s generally an excellent source! However, it’s not uncommon for dogs to have an allergy or sensitivity given how common it is in dog food products. If you notice your dog seeming extra itchy or has frequent stomach upset  it might be time to try a different protein source to see if the chicken is the culprit. Of course, there are plenty of other reasons dogs experience these symptoms so always check with your vet. If your pup is enjoying their chicken without symptoms, this is a great fit for your pup!

Duck and Venison

These are both what we call “novel proteins” because dogs are less likely to have experienced eating it (unlike chicken) and therefore less likely to have a sensitivity to it. Plus, they are very lean and low in fat and cholesterol. If you’re noticing the itching while feeding food with chicken and your vet think it’s an allergy, these are an excellent alternative.

Salmon

Salmon is very high in Omega-3s and Omega-6s which nourish your pup’s skin and coat. These healthy oils and fats also boost immunity. As a bonus, dogs typically love the taste! So while it may be a little smellier than other proteins, it’s certainly worth a try - maybe plug your nose when you pour!

Fats

Fats are one of the most important parts of your dog’s food. They provide twice as much energy as proteins and carbs while also making the meal extra tasty! Having the proper amount of fat in your dog’s diet helps them regulate their body temperature, control inflammation, and ensures their blood can properly clot. Without an adequate amount of fat, your dog’s growth could be stunted and they can develop skin problems like “hot spots”. The building blocks of fats are called fatty acids. Let’s check them out:

    • Omega-3s group (ALA, EPA, DHA) which is present in ingredients like trout, sardines, anchovies, flaxseed oil, sunflower seed oil, soybean oil, and cottonseed oil
    • Linoleic/Omega-6 which is present in veggie/seed oils and animal fats

Carbohydrates

Surprise! Dogs don’t actually need carbs because they can synthesize blood glucose from amino acids. However, they can be beneficial by providing a readily available source of energy and balancing gut health. Let’s explore some common ones:

Corn, Brown Rice, Wheat

These are all commonly used grains in dog food and they are controversial (did you ever think corn would be such a hot topic?!). That’s because there are opposing viewpoints in the dog food community. While some people believe them to be just fine to use as a high-quality source of carbs and fiber, others see them as “fillers” which are less nutrient rich sources of simple carbohydrates. So what’s a pup lover to do? Talk to your vet! You and your vet know your dog best so it’s important to make this decision together and get their perspective. 

Sweet Potato

Sweet potatoes are a source of complex carbohydrates that offer an alternative to traditional choices for pets that may have food allergies or other sensitivities. Sweet potatoes are also a unique non-grain carbohydrate and an excellent source of protein, and fiber. Plus, it promotes a healthy gut to keep potty breaks less *ahem* messy.

Pumpkin

Pumpkin is great for more than just pies! It’s a moisture-rich starch full of vitamin A (beta-carotene) and potassium that also promotes gut health. It’s even been known to help dogs who are having sensitive tummy time when used as a snack! Just make sure the can you grab is pure pumpkin and not pumpkin pie filling because while you might enjoy that sweet treat your dog’s gut will not. 

Chickpeas

So many pet parents are curious about chickpeas! So can dogs eat chickpeas? Yes! According to Laura Duclos, Product Development Scientist at Puppo “Chickpeas are a legume and a component of grain-free diets.  Aside from being a source of fiber, carbs, and protein, it is an eco-friendly plant known for helping to improve the soil when used in crop rotation.”

 

Vitamins

Fat-soluble vitamins

Vitamin A, or retinol is essential for healthy vision, especially in darkness. Dogs are able to synthesize vitamin A from beta carotene (found in foods like carrots). Too much or too little vitamin A can cause eye problems, dry skin, reproductive, pulmonary and joint issues, and a weakened immune system.

Sources: Liver, fish and fish oil, carrots, eggs and pumpkin are all good sources of vitamin A.

Vitamin D is used by the body to optimize the metabolism and absorption of calcium and phosphorus, and ossify it into bone. Just like in humans, Vitamin D deficiency can lead to rickets (although this is rare in dogs), as well as joint and muscle pain or fractures. However, unlike humans, dogs can’t synthesize Vitamin D from sunlight, so it must be provided by their diet.

Excessive vitamin D can cause bone abnormalities and soft tissue calcification, especially in young dogs and puppies.

Sources: The best sources are cod liver oil, oily fish like tuna or sardines, egg yolks, dairy products, and beef  liver.

Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant which helps to protect cells from free radical damage. It helps to strengthen the immune system and promotes healthy eyes and skin. Vitamin E deficiency can cause muscle weakness, and eye and reproductive issues. Excess vitamin E can inhibit blood clotting, but it’s generally the least toxic of the fat-soluble vitamins.

Sources: Vitamin E is most abundantly found in plant oils and plants such as vegetable oil, spinach and other leafy greens, whole grains, bran, and seeds (such as chia seeds). It can also be found in animal products like liver and eggs.

Vitamin K is essential for blood coagulation (clotting). It also plays a role in metabolizing protein, and assists in incorporating calcium into bone. Dogs are able to synthesize their own vitamin K thanks to intestinal bacteria, though this may not always provide sufficient amounts, so a dietary source is important too. Side effects of vitamin K deficiency include inadequate blood clotting, hemorrhaging, and anemia.

Sources: Liver, meat, leafy green vegetables including cabbage and spinach, kelp, alfalfa, fish, and milk.

Water-soluble vitamins

Vitamin C acts in the body as an antioxidant and supports a healthy immune system. Healthy dogs synthesize sufficient vitamin C in the liver, so it’s generally not necessary to supplement.

While unlikely, vitamin C deficiency can lead to slower healing and increased susceptibility to illness.

Sources: Citrus fruits, many other fruits and vegetables, including kale, green beans, zucchini, strawberries and more.

B Vitamins

Vitamin B1 (thiamin) is essential for a healthy nervous system where it plays a role in synthesizing important neurotransmitters. Symptoms of deficiency and excess thiamin include fatigue, slower reflexes, loss of nerve control, muscle weakness, vision problems, seizures, and even death.

Sources: The best sources of thiamin include yeast and wheat germ. Other good sources include seeds and nuts,  beans, bran, meat, and milk.  

Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) supports skin and coat health and energy production. Deficiencies may lead to skin changes, and eye abnormalities. (is the heart affected?)

Sources: B2 is abundant in organ meats, including liver, yeast, dairy products, and eggs.

Vitamin B3 (niacin) helps to keep skin healthy and prevent dryness and dermatitis. Dogs are able to synthesize some B2 from the amino acid tryptophan but a dietary source is needed too.

Sources: Niacin is abundant in meat and fish.  

Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic acid) is prevalent in many types of food, so deficiencies are rare. It’s involved in most metabolic processes and also helps to protect the skin by aiding in synthesizing skin fats.

Sources: Meat, dairy products, eggs, vegetables.

Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine) supports multiple functions in the body and promotes healthy metabolic functions. Signs of deficiency can include skin abnormalities, anemia, nerve issues and poor growth.

Sources: Found in many foods including meat, wheat germ, and yeast.

Vitamin B7 (biotin) supports a healthy nervous system and is involved in breaking down of glucose as well as  synthesizing fatty acids. It’s also essential vitamins for healthy skin and a shiny coat. Dogs’ intestinal bacteria produce biotin, so dietary sources aren’t usually needed.

Sources: Biotin is found in organ meats like liver and kidneys, cooked eggs and yeasts.

Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin) is only found in animal products and is important for synthesizing proteins and producing red blood cells. Absorption of B12 can be reduced by aging, certain digestive diseases, vegetarian diets, and cancers which can cause anemia.

Sources: Meat, organ meats (liver, kidney, heart, lung) and fish.

Minerals

Calcium plays an important role in healthy bone growth. Dietary calcium must be balanced with another mineral, phosphorus - together these minerals are responsible for making teeth and bones rigid. It also supports the nervous system by assisting in the transmission of information and nerve impulses. Too much calcium can cause bone weakness and deformities, while too little can impede growth. Adequate  calcium, carefully balanced with the correct ratio of phosphorus, is especially important for puppies and lactating mothers who may require up to twice calcium as much as adult dogs.

Sources: Calcium is often added to dog food as bone meal. Dairy products, as well as vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage are good sources of calcium. It may also be added to dog foods as the mineral salts calcium carbonate, calcium sulphate and calcium phosphate.

Phosphorus, in addition to working with calcium in bone growth and maintenance, is also an important for cells and energy production. It’s a component in the structure of cell membranes, as well as in DNA and RNA, the molecules responsible for carrying the genetic code of a cell.  

Inadequate dietary phosphorus may cause bone abnormalities, slow growth and decreased appetite.

Sources: Like calcium, phosphorus is often found in dog food as bone meal. It’s also prevalent in meat, eggs, and fish.

Potassium is fundamental in keeping cells functioning correctly and works together with sodium to control the body’s acid base balance. It’s also important for the transmission of nerve impulses and energy metabolism. Potassium deficiency is uncommon. However, dehydration from diarrhea depletes potassium levels, and if left untreated over time can result in deficiency, causing paralysis and muscle weakness.

Sources: Potassium is plentiful in meat, fruits, vegetables, fish, and eggs. It may also be added to dog food as potassium bicarbonate, potassium chloride, or potassium sulphate.

Sodium is a positively charged ion which, along with potassium, maintains the body’s acid base balance. It’s also important in energy metabolism, nerve impulse transmission, and regulation of water in the body. Sodium deficiency is uncommon, but may cause vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, dullness and seizures. Excess sodium can cause salt poisoning, which causes vomiting, dehydration and can even be life-threatening.

Sources: Table salt, or sodium chloride, is one of the most common sources of sodium. It’s also found naturally in unprocessed meats and may be added to food as the mineral salts sodium phosphate and sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate and sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP).

Magnesium is important for energy production, and DNA and RNA stability. It also supports protein synthesis, healthy muscle and nerve function, and is a component of bones and teeth.

Inadequate magnesium can cause joint problems and issues with the nervous system, including ataxia and irregular heart beat.

Sources: Magnesium is naturally found in bones and may be added to food as bone meal.

Chloride is a negatively charged ion, which works in conjunction with sodium to maintain the acid base balance inside and outside of cells. It also helps in producing stomach acid.

Chloride deficiency can cause weakness, slow growth, and weakness or muscle paralysis.  Excess chloride can affect blood levels of calcium and potassium, leading to metabolic acidosis.

Sources: Chloride isn’t found in large amounts in most foods, so it’s nearly always added to food as sodium chloride (table salt).

Iron is a crucial component of the molecules responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the body in red blood cells (hemoglobin) and in muscle (myoglobin). It also supports the immune system and the production of energy in the body. Iron deficiency can cause anemia, diarrhea, and abnormal growth and development. Excess iron can cause vomiting and diarrhea as well as an imbalance with other minerals, including manganese, copper and zinc.

Sources: Liver, red meat, fish, eggs, legumes and vegetables like broccoli and spinach are rich sources of iron.

Zinc plays an important role in transporting vitamin A throughout the body, reproduction, and a strong immune system. It’s also essential for healthy coat, skin and wound healing because of its crucial role in synthesizing collagen and keratin. Poor growth and skin lesions on the foot pads are common symptoms of zinc deficiency. Excess zinc can cause imbalances or deficiencies in the body’s copper and iron levels.  

Sources: Whole grains, brewer’s yeast, and meats like pork, liver, and lamb are good sources of naturally occurring zinc. It may also be supplemented in food with the addition of the mineral salts zinc sulphate or zinc oxide.

Copper is involved in many of the body’s functions, playing a role in the process of absorbing iron and incorporating it into hemoglobin, in synthesizing collagen and the hair pigment melanin, and in reducing free radical damage. Inadequate copper can cause anemia, loss of hair pigmentation, limb hyperextension. Excess copper has been known to rarely cause toxicity in certain breeds.

Sources: Meat, including pork, lamb and duck, peas, lentils and soy are rich sources of copper. The mineral salt copper oxide is sometimes also added to pet food.

Manganese is involved in the formation of cartilage and bone, reproduction and in the function of mitochondria, which produce energy in the cell. In puppies, manganese deficiency can cause skeletal abnormalities, and lameness and joint issues in adult dogs. It can also affect the reproductive system. Excess manganese may result in loss of respiratory, cardiac, muscle and nervous system function.

Sources: Grains and mineral salts are good sources of manganese.

Iodine is essential for healthy functioning of the thyroid, which impacts growth and development and the metabolism. Iodine deficiency can cause goiters (swelling in the neck), hair loss and weight gain.

Sources: Iodine is found in sea salt, fish, and seaweed.

Selenium is an antioxidant, helping to reduce free radical damage to cells and working with vitamin E to support the immune system. Deficiency can result in poor appetite, depression, breathing problems and even coma. Excess selenium can also cause nervous system disorders and stomach disorders.

Sources: Common sources of selenium include fish and mineral salts, as well as meat, organ meats, and brown rice.

Ingredients to skip

So now you know some of the best ingredients but what should you avoid? This can get tricky because all pet foods on the market meet AAFCO guidelines. Duclos recommends looking into the company rather than the ingredients here. Find out:

  • Do they own their facilities?  
  • Do they have a nutritionist on staff?  
  • Do they have supplier audits to ensure ingredient quality?  
  • Do they make a better world for pets or just want that $$$?  
  • If you call them, do you actually get a reply?

This is a great way to ensure you get your dog the best food from the best company!