A dog and a cat eating out of food bowls next to each other on the floor.

Nutrients and Ingredients: Not Necessarily the Same

Like many pet owners, you care about what you feed your four-legged family members. And, like many other dog and cat owners, you may think that ingredients are the most important thing to consider when choosing pet food. That’s why you scrutinize the ingredients list — for what is and isn’t included — on the pet food bag. The truth, however, is a bit more complicated.

The emphasis placed on ingredients versus nutrients can be confusing for some pet owners. Here, we’ll explain the difference between nutrients and ingredients and how they work paw-in-glove to provide your BFF (best furry friend) with complete and balanced nutrition.

What are nutrients?

Would it surprise you to learn that dogs and cats require about 40 essential nutrients to live happy and healthy lives? It’s true. Essential nutrients are those nutrients that can’t be made by your pet’s body at a rate that meets its needs and so must be obtained from food. These nutrients also must be provided in the right form and in the right amount.

But what are nutrients?

Nutrients are components of food that the body must have to support life. Nutrients fall into one of six categories, which are listed in the accompanying chart along with their benefits to your pet’s health and well-being.

An interior graphic listing common nutrients and the key functions that they serve in pets.

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What are ingredients?

Ingredients are the raw materials used in pet foods to supply the nutrients your pet requires. In other words, ingredients are nutrient delivery vehicles. Unfortunately, reading the ingredient list can’t tell you if a pet food is right for your pet (unless your dog or cat has a true food allergy). That’s because appropriate amounts of specific nutrients are just as important as ingredients — and you won’t find that information as part of current pet food labels.

One reason pet food manufacturers emphasize ingredients is because ingredients are easier to talk about to pet owners than nutrients are — especially when some of the ingredients used in pet foods are the same as those we eat. Unless you’re really into your own nutrition, you shop for meat, vegetables, poultry, fruits, fish and dairy products. Very few people head to the grocery store to buy protein, carbs, fats, minerals and vitamins.

Both nutrients and ingredients are important

Ingredients and nutrients are both important when it comes to dog and cat foods. No single ingredient can provide all of the nutrients in the correct proportion for your dog or cat. But each ingredient used in your pet’s food brings a unique set of nutrients to the food so that the combination of ingredients provides complete and balanced nutrition. Since each ingredient is necessary for a balanced and complete pet food, no single ingredient is more important than another. A pet food is the sum of its ingredients (parts).

Here’s something else to keep in mind: Once an ingredient is digested and its nutrients are being absorbed through the lining of your pet’s intestines, the original source of the nutrients no longer matters. That’s why veterinarians and animal nutritionists say it’s important to focus on the nutrients provided by the ingredients in your pet’s food, not just on the ingredients themselves.

If you have any questions about the food you’re feeding your furry friend, be sure to talk with your veterinarian. Your veterinarian can help you determine what food and feeding plan works best for your pet.

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.


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