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Making sense of pet food labels

43% of owners never read information on pet food labels.  This is according to the latest Pet Food Manufacturers Association (PFMA) Pet Population Report and it infers that 57% of people do read them.  As more and more people are trying to better understand pet food ingredients and their benefits here we explain what certain terminology and ingredients mean – helping you to better understand what it is you’re putting into your dog’s food bowl.

We live at a time when the humanisation of pet food lends itself to marvellous claims and an introduction of new and seemingly healthy ingredients, some more believable than others.  But if we really want to know what’s in the food we’re feeding to our dogs we need to get a little more familiar with the information on the back of our dog food bag.

Pet food production is regulated by law to ensure that it’s safe and nutritious. Recent research showed that 70% of owners and 85% of vets agreed that commercially prepared pet food provides optimum nutrition and almost 60% of owners and 95% vets would go as far as to say pets are living longer as a result of advanced nutrition. This all points to the notion that the food we’re feeding our pets is supporting health and longevity.

The all telling label.

It’s worth mentioning that while packed with useful information pet food labels do have limitations.  For example a label can’t tell you about the quality or digestibility of each ingredient. 

If you see an ingredient you don’t fully recognise or understand on any packaging contact the company’s customer care line ask for further information.  

 ‘Ingredients’ is the general term used for raw materials and additives in pet foods but to find these ingredients you’ll need to look for a list titled “composition list.”  

Typical pet food ingredients include protein sources such as poultry, chicken and fish plus cereals, or starch sources including wheat, corn, sorghum or barley etc… and of course fats including linseed, fish oil or even beef tallow.  Vitamins and minerals are also combined according to recipes designed by vets and or nutritionists to create a balanced diet.

Complete or Complementary.  They’re not the same. 

Some pet foods, like Eukanuba diets are ‘complete’.  This means the food must contain all the nutrients your pet needs to support daily life. 

Some diets are ‘complementary’ and are not complete.  Complementary foods must be added to in order to provide nutritional balance. Mixer biscuits, treats but also some wet foods can be complementary. Keep an eye out for this, especially if you’re only feeding wet food to your dog.

Ingredients are listed in weight order.

Ingredients must be listed in descending order according to their pre-processing weight.

For example the 1st ingredient in Eukanuba is “Dried Chicken and Turkey”; this means the predominant ingredient in Eukanuba is nutritious dried chicken and turkey. 

Top tip: Always look for pet foods with an animal protein as the number one ingredient.   Although dogs are omnivores they thrive on a diet enriched with animal protein, so unless your dog has special nutritional needs, such as kidney damage or obesity, they will do very well on a diet containing animal protein as the predominant ingredient.


What is Dried Chicken and Turkey?

Dried Chicken and Turkey is an excellent source of animal protein supplying all the essential amino acids dogs need and thrive on. 

It is simply a dried form (meaning the moisture has been removed) of the chicken, including clean flesh, skin, carcass, smooth muscle and some bone as a source of calcium.

Moisture is heavy and so it takes a massive 5 tons of fresh chicken to provide just 1 tonne of dried chicken.  This is important to understand as it’s the pre-processing weight which is used in pet foods.  By incorporating dried chicken and turkey manufacturers have to use a lot of it if it is to be the predominant ingredient.


Suitable for human consumption?

All ingredients used for pet food has to be fit for human consumption according to EU requirements.  This of course includes the meat so rest assured that all the animal protein sources in pet foods have to be inspected and passed as suitable for human consumption.


Category listing

You may have already noticed that not all composition lists look the same.  Some ingredients are grouped together using descriptions such as – “cereals” or “meat and animal derivatives.” This is known as category listing and can be a sign of an open formula.  For example:

Composition: Cereals, Meat and animal derivatives, Vegetable  protein extracts, Derivatives of vegetable origin,
Oils and Fats, Various sugars, Minerals.


Other composition lists individually list each ingredient separately.  For example Eukanuba Adult Small Breed contains:


Dried Chicken and Turkey: 32% (chicken: 19%), wheat, maize, animal fat, sorghum, rice, barley, hydrolysed animal proteins, dried beet pulp (2.8%), dried whole egg, fish oil, potassium chloride, linseed, sodium chloride, sodium hexametaphosphate, fructooligosaccharides (0.28%), calcium carbonate.


Products individually listing ingredients are more likely to use a “fixed formula” which means that regardless of when you buy it, every single bag of that dog food contains exactly the same ingredients every time. 

An ‘open formula’ is when a manufacturer can adjust the ingredients between batches based upon the availability and cost. The manufacturer will use category listing of the ingredients and will have developed the composition list so these changes will not alter the sequence of the list.  Ultimately this means you as the dog owner will be unaware that anything in the food has changed.


Why do pet food labels say the food contains ash?

Ash is a legal requirement which manufacturers have to include on a pet food label. It’s not something which is added in as an ingredient!  Don’t worry pet food manufacturers are not including the ash left over from the barbecue into your pet’s food. 

The term “ash” is often criticised, and understandably so – lets face it, it doesn’t sound appealing at all.  Ash actually refers to the mineral content of the food and is determined chemically by the burning of the product - hence the name ash!

Pet food labelling falls under EU legislation for animal feed. It doesn’t have its own set of rules and it doesn’t fall under the rules for human food either. Strangely some of the terms are more tailored to the farmer than the pet owner.


3 steps to finding your perfect pet food.


  1. Read the pet food label.It can tell you lots of useful information.
  2. Look at the food itself. Is the size and colour uniform?Does it crumble easily?Does it smell good or bad?
  3. Feed the food to your pet and monitor any changes.Firm stools? Shiny coat?

It can take up to 6-8 weeks to see the effect of a diet if your dog enjoys their daily meals, and has bright eyes, a shiny coat and a muscular, sleek body, then this is an indication that you’re feeding a diet that suits them well.

The next time you’re buying your dog’s food turn the bag over and take a look at the composition list.  If you have questions contact the manufacturer. 

It’s part of their job to keep you informed and educated about the food they’re helping you feed to your dog morning, noon and night.

Making sense of pet food labels
Making sense of pet food labels
Spectrum Brands (UK) Limited Regent Mill | Fir Street, Failsworth, Manchester | M35 0HS | United Kingdom +44 (0) 161 947 3000 +44 (0) 161 682 1708