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How do we assess the foods?

Choosing a good dry pet food isn’t that easy. If you’ve ever read the ingredient label on a pet food, you’ll notice that there is one crucial bit of information missing: how much of each ingredient is in the food. That really is crucial information. As we’ve already noted, most dry pet foods are based on grains or other plant material. But the animals we’re feeding them to are carnivores and should be eating a diet that is mainly made up of meat…

You’ll see the crude fat and crude protein content of the food listed on the labelling, but that alone does not tell us very much. Grains contain protein too – but it’s far less bioavailable protein for a carnivore that lacks the digestive enzymes needed to digest plants. Protein derived from meat represents a far higher quality and species-appropriate diet for a carnivore than plant proteins ever can be. What’s the point of a protein if it cannot be properly digested?

Fortunately, it is possible to make an educated guess as to the quality of a pet food. Until or unless the percentages of the ingredients are required to be shown on the ingredient lists or manufacturers disclose that information voluntarily, it can only ever be an educated guess or assessment, based on the knowledge that we do have. But that is far better than relying on the advertising hype.

What we look for in pet foods:

Meat, meat and more meat products. Cats and dogs are carnivores, and a species appropriate diet for these animals must be based on meat. They have no evolved need of carbohydrates in their diet. Grains are in pet food because they’re cheaper than meat products, and are needed to hold the kibble bits together. Not because they’re species-appropriate nutrition for a carnivorous mammal.

Meat and fat products that are identified by species. If the species cannot be identified, neither can the quality. We suggest avoiding any products that use unidentified “meat”, “animal” or “poultry” products in their foods.

Where grains are used, we look for good quality whole grains. Avoid those products that make prolific use of grain fragments (think floor sweepings) in their foods – these are nutritionless fillers.

Whole fruits and vegetables are appreciated, especially where these replace grains in the foods.

Organic ingredients are appreciated – but note above about the need for a food to contain a high proportion of meat. Organic grains are very nice where grains must be used, but they are no substitute for meat content.

What we avoid:

Foods containing any form of by-products, most especially those of indeterminate origin (“animal”, “poultry”, etc). 

Artificial colours, flavours, sweeteners or preservatives – especially those believed to be carcinogenic or that are banned from use in the human food chain. In dog food, principally these are BHT, BHA, Ethoxyquin, Propyl Gallate. NOTE: Some ingredients, usually fish products, may contain artificial preservatives that are not disclosed on the ingredient list; if they are not added by the manufacturer, they are not required to be listed. We therefore look for assurances by manufacturers using ocean fish products that their foods do NOT contain any artificial preservatives.

Meats and fats that are not identified by species. These could literally be anything, and are almost certainly of very low quality.

Practices and ingredients to be aware of:


Splitting is a common practice on dog food labels and it pays to be aware. Ingredients in dog food are listed in order of their weight – so the heaviest ingredients, those that make up the largest portion of the food, are listed first. 

Splitting is when a manufacturer lists different components of the same ingredient as separate items. For example, chicken and chicken meal are both chicken products. Brown rice, white rice, rice, rice bran, rice gluten and rice flour are all parts of the same ingredient – rice. Yes, there is a difference in the nutritional aspects of the different forms of rice – brown rice is more nutritious than white rice, and grain fragments are far lower quality and less nutritious than whole grains. But the issue around splitting is in determining quantity.

The reason for the practice of “splitting” is essentially to make the ingredient list look better. As an example, when there are large quantities of rice in the food, a manufacturer might choose to list the component parts separately. That way, although the total rice products may make up, say, 55% of the food and meat only 25%, it is possible to list the meat product first and then three or four individual rice products that each separately weigh less than the meat product. Combined, however, rice makes up more than double the chicken content.

Manufacturers don’t disclose the quantity of ingredients on the labelling though. So you have to make the best assessment you can from the rest of the information given. Thus, while seeing the component parts of rice (or any other ingredient) is useful for determining the quality of ingredients used, when you’re trying to assess quantity you should always mentally add those component parts together.

Splitting can also serve to increase the level of confidence one has in the quantity of particular ingredients used. When you see two forms of the same meat ingredient, chicken for example, at the head of an ingredient list that can help you come to the reasonable conclusion that there is indeed a reasonable amount of chicken in the food.

The ingredient “chicken” means fresh chicken which is inclusive of its water content. Now water content is of course removed in the process of making dry dog food. It is thus likely that the true position of that ingredient (sans water) should be much further down the ingredient list than is stated. But if that were the first ingredient in a food, and the next ingredient is “chicken meal” then the practice of splitting can tell us that there was sufficient chicken meal in the food for it to be rated ahead of the first grain despite a portion of the ingredient split off. This serves to increase our confidence that the true first ingredient is that named – a form of chicken (meat product).

Be careful though ;) That would not necessarily be the case if the grains behind it were also split, or if there are a lot of different grain products in the food.

Some examples:

Example 1:
Chicken, chicken meal, turkey, turkey meal, brown rice, chicken fat….

That looks excellent. There are “four” meat ingredients at the head of the ingredient list. And only one grain. Once we factor in the removal of water content (which is about 80%) from the ingredients “chicken” and “turkey” then it is likely that these would be more accurately placed somewhat further down the ingredient list. A more likely “true” ingredient list here is thus: chicken meal, turkey meal, brown rice, chicken fat, chicken (sans water), turkey (sans water).

So how does it look now? Actually, still very good. The first two ingredients are still meat products, and there are two further meat products in the food. There is only one grain ahead of the fat content. We could have a very high level of confidence that there really was a decent quantity of meat products in the food.

Example 2:
Chicken meal, brown rice, white rice, rice bran, rice gluten meal, barley, chicken fat…

At first glance, that also looks fairly good. The first ingredient in the food is a meat product – in meal form too, so we don’t have to factor in the effects of water removal. But is it really the first ingredient? Actually, we can’t be confident that it is. Once we add all the different forms of rice together, they may well outweigh the chicken meal. And in fact they probably do, by a significant margin. Note that there’s another grain right behind the rice products in the ingredient list too. In short, it is impossible to be confident that the food contains an adequate amount of meat.

While not strictly an example of splitting, you should also take note of foods that use a lot of different grain products, and mentally add all those grains together to compare against all meat products. 

For example: 
Chicken meal, brown rice, barley, oat groats, ground corn, chicken fat, wheat flour, corn gluten meal, fish meal, millet…

No splitting going on there, so we can read that as a true list. But we should look carefully at the overall meat versus grain content. The first ingredient may be meat, but in this case it is followed immediately by four different grains ahead of the fat content, and three more grains after that. There is one further meat product (a meal) but it’s 9th on the ingredient list. It is likely that the combined grain products outweigh the total meat products by a large margin. This too is a grain heavy food.

The manufacturers won’t tell us the exact proportions of the ingredients that go into the products, so it is really a case of making an assessment based on the information you do have. And when it comes to dog food, it is wiser to err on the side of scepticism than of blind trust.

What DFA does NOT do:

The ratings and reviews on this site are based solely on the ingredients the manufacturers state they use in the foods and other information given. We make no assessment of their ethics, involvement in food recalls, animal testing, phenobarbitol 'scandals' or other practices, believing this to be a matter for the individual consumer. If you wish to include such considerations in your food purchase decision, we would encourage you to research widely prior to purchase.

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