Is the First Ingredient a Good Judge of a Dog Food

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One of the most common rules that pet owners use to choose a food is the 1st ingredient rule. The 1st ingredient rule simply means that the 1st ingredient in the ingredient list should be a meat or fish. At its core, this rule makes sense because dogs are carnivores and their food should contain animal or fish as the primary protein source. However, like many simple rules of thumb, relying solely on this quick analysis can lead to questionable choices.


There are two main reasons using the first ingredient analysis can lead a dog owner to sub optimal food choices: 1) there is a possibility that many of the secondary and tertiary ingredients that follow in the recipe might be inappropriate or even harmful to the dog, and 2) ingredient manipulation can be used to make a dog food look like its primary ingredient is a real meat when, in fact, this might not be entirely correct.

Secondary Ingredients in Dog Food Matter

Because dog foods are formulated to be complete and balanced meals, they contain many ingredients. In fact, the average dog food contains over 40 ingredients. Thus, looking at the first ingredient only means ignoring, on average, the remaining 40 ingredients. Foods with meat first could also contain a whole host of fillers, artificial colors or preservatives, and added sugars. The only way to know for sure us to check out the entire ingredient list.


Dog Food Ingredient Manipulation

First some background on why the first position on the ingredient list is so important. Pet food manufacturers are required to list the ingredients in the order of predominance by weight. Thus, the ingredients in the top of the list contribute more, by weight, to the recipe than do ingredients further down. The first position is important because it means that the first ingredient, which for dogs should be a named meat or fish, is the primary ingredient in the recipe. So far, so good.


However, pet food companies are well aware that many pet owners look only at the first ingredient when making their dog food choices. As a result, they are incented to find ways to make lower quality recipes appear as if their predominant ingredient is a meat when in fact, it might not actually be so. By breaking apart or splitting up inferior ingredients, food brands can essentially move the meat or fish protein up the ingredient list while making it appear that less stellar ingredients are lower down on the list. An example can clarify.


Here are the first several ingredients of an actual dog food:

Chicken Meal, Ground Whole Wheat, Wheat Flour, Corn Gluten Meal, Ground Rice, Rice Bran, Chicken Fat.


Although Chicken meal is the 1st ingredient, notice that a form of wheat is the 2nd and 3rd ingredient, and a form of rice is the 5th and 6th ingredient. It is quite possible that if you added the wheat and rice ingredients together, that the food list might look a little different.

If not split, he ingredients might really look like:

Wheat, Rice, Chicken Meal, Corn Gluten Meal, Chicken Fat.


Not quite the same story is it? If you still aren’t convinced to look beyond the first ingredient, consider that we did a study a few months ago and found that one out of every 3 dog foods had split ingredients in their recipes. Relying solely on the first ingredient means that you have a 33% chance of serving your pet a food whose main ingredient is, in reality, not a named meat or fish protein.


The bottom line is that while the first ingredient of a dog food should be a named meat or fish protein source, the rest of the ingredients matter as well and should be examined before choosing a food for your dog.

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  1. Whenever I’m judging a food or treat for our dogs, I look at the first 5-10 ingredients, because I worry about allergies too. Rodrigo is allergic to beef, chicken, and pea fiber and these are found in many foods.

    If he has minimal exposure, he doesn’t have trouble, but when it becomes part of his main diet, then we have issues. He’s the reason all the dogs eat raw.

    There are a lot of single-ingredient dog treats out there today, which is so great for us. And more and more dry brands are coming out with great foods and we can talk to the company to learn more. We live in a great time.
    Kimberly Gauthier recently posted…Why Not All Canned Cat Foods are Created EqualMy Profile

  2. Oh yes, I read them all! I like knowing what exactly my pups are eating, and being able to know what the ingredient is for allergy reasons.
    DZ Dogs recently posted…Ball Game!My Profile

  3. Good tips! It’s important to look carefully.
    Clowie recently posted…Public ExaminationMy Profile

  4. It’s very sad that so many pet food companies are trying to manipulate their customers and don’t care about our pets’ health. I’m so glad that we made the switch to dehydrated/air-dried/raw dog food ~ it’s a lot easier to track what our pups actually eat these days. Thank you for your continued efforts to educate us pet parents!!
    Barbara Rivers recently posted…What’s poop got to do with it ~ understanding Coprophagia!My Profile

  5. When I’m considering a new brand of dog food or treats, I usually look at the first 5 or 6 ingredients and then I get kind of lazy. For the most part, I typically buy brands that I know and trust, but this post is a good reminder for when I’m considering brands I haven’t tried before. Heck, I should be looking closely at the ingredients in my own food too!
    Lindsay recently posted…Win a Free Assisi Loop for Pain Management in Dogs and CatsMy Profile

  6. I read all of the ingredients now before feeding the boys. I’m avoiding chicken and companies put some form of chicken in everything! LOL!
    M. K. Clinton recently posted…A Dog Sing AlongMy Profile

  7. I was under the impression that the first few ingredients were telling me the quality of the food, but now I’ll look further. How can companies get away with being so deceitful?
    Sharon Seltzer recently posted…Review: I and Love and You SupaBoost Joint Stix Dog TreatsMy Profile

  8. Great info, thanks! It’s so important to look at all the ingredients!
    ღ husky hugz ღ frum our pack at Love is being owned by a husky!
    Jenna,Mark “HuskyCrazed” Drady recently posted…Siberian Husky Graphic CreationsMy Profile

  9. It’s human nature to cheat the system. Not nice to do as so many people have no clue about what food to buy, and they follow tips without really understanding the point of the tips.
    Emma recently posted…Words I Live ByMy Profile

  10. great post! companies know how to “trick” people.
    Sand Spring Chesapeakes recently posted…3rd Master Hunter Pass~Wordless WednesdayMy Profile

  11. We feed raw so I don’t typically look at dog food, BUT when I am looking at treats, I read every single ingredient. I have put back many a treat because of what I consider to be something I wouldn’t feed my dogs.
    Jodi recently posted…I Know Why They’re Called BugsMy Profile

  12. I read everything because I feel as if I’m still learning how to detect the good ingredients from the bad.
    Groovy Goldendoodles recently posted…TAIL WAGGIN TUTORSMy Profile

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