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Confused? 5 Tips for Understanding Dog Food Labels

Unfortunately, as with so many other products, the majority of what we find on a label of dog food is pure, unadulterated marketing. Marketing designed specifically to get the consumer, you, to shell out 60 bucks on that bag of food. From the picture of a regal Labrador whose coat is shimmering in the sunshine as he keeps watch over a picturesque landscape, to the colorful images of fresh choice-cut steaks and veggies gracing the bag, there’s no end to the feel good, fresh images that companies will shove in your face. Just remember that these images are more photo-shopped than a Kardashian and about as useful to you as an umbrella in a hurricane!

So how do you separate the fluff from the information you should actually care about? Easy, ignore the vast majority of the bag except for a few key pieces of information.  Here’s what we care about:

#1: Name/Flavor

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The name on the front of the package will tell you a lot about its contents. For example, listing the main ingredient without any modifiers means that the ingredient makes up at least 95% of that food.  So if Fluffy’s can of dog food says chicken you can bet that the vast majority of that food is actually chicken (remember though, this in no way guarantees the quality of this ingredient).  Now compare this to a food that says chicken dinner or chicken entrée, or chicken platter, etc. This means that the aforementioned ingredient accounts for only 25% of that food. And if you see the word “with” as in “with chicken”; 3% of that food is actually chicken. My personal favorite is foods that are flavored, reading “chicken flavor” on that can of dog food means that the chicken must be recognizable by the pet. Are you willing to take a taste to see if the chicken is “recognizable”? I’m sure not.


#2: Guaranteed Analysis

This is a rough estimate of the most important nutrients contained in the food. Manufacturers are required to include maximum percentages of fiber and moisture as well as minimum percentages of proteins and fat. Some companies also include moisture and ash contents in this section. It is important to recognize that these values are not the exact amount of each nutrient that your pet will receive but an estimate of the worst case scenario so to speak. The true nutrient content of the food as well its Calorie content is available from the company that makes these foods, and most will provide this information readily when requested.

#3: AFFCO Claim

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The Association of American Feed Control Officials is a regulatory agency designed to keep pet food makers honest about their claims. Every bag of dog food must provide a nutritional adequacy statement that will contain 3 importance pieces of information:

      A. Lifestage for which it was formulated.

For example, is this particular food ok for growing puppies? What about lactating females? Or is it only appropriate for healthy adults? Just like people, animals have different nutritional needs at different stages of their lives. It is vital that we adjust our nutritional approach based on these factors.

      B. Purpose of the diet.

Is this particular diet formulated for everyday maintenance feeding or just for intermittent “treat” type feeding? It seems obvious, but you may be surprised at the answer.

    C. Formulation versus food trial.

The third piece of information is slightly more complicated. It will tell you if the recipe for the food was formulated or designed to meet certain nutritional standards set by AAFCO versus actually being fed to real dogs through a strict feeding trial.  The latter is considered preferable because it proves that dogs will get the nutrition they need from a particular food over time. The formulated diets are not necessarily bad, but they were drawn up on a piece of paper in a lab. i.e. if we add these ingredients in these proportions, then the protein levels in this food will be X and X is considered acceptable by AAFCO standards.

#4: Recommended Feeding Volume Chart

This chart gives you the recommended volume of feeding for your pet. Seems simple right? Not really. This is one of the most commonly misunderstood pieces of information on a food package. It is a great place to start, but it is important to recognize that this value is just a rough estimation. It does not take into account several key factors such as activity level, predisposition for obesity, or spay/neuter status; all of which greatly affect the energy requirements of a pet. Also, this recommendation is designed to maintain a pet at a particular weight. So, if Fluffy is slightly rotund, then the volume of food suggested on the bag will keep him that way.

#5: Ingredient List

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Now we get to the meat and potatoes so to speak of the food bag. The vast majority of misconceptions, myths, and plain good ol’ fashion lies about pet food involve the ingredients. Here are a few that you have probably heard at some point:

  1. Corn is “filler” and provides absolutely zero nutritional value

  2. By-products include feathers, beaks, feet and other ungodly, disgusting ingredients that we must avoid at all cost

  3. Grain is the devil

Order of Ingredients

The ingredients on the bag appear listed in order of weight. The sooner each ingredient appears in the list, the more of it there is in the food. Most people are aware that we want a protein source (i.e. meat) as the first ingredient. BUT…yes there is always a but…before you start buying stock in those companies that boast a meat source as the first ingredient, consider this; when you go to the grocery store and buy a package of fresh chicken breast and a bag of rice, which weighs more? How much volume of rice would you have to buy to have an equivalent weight between the two? Typically all protein sources are going to contain large amounts of water and naturally weigh more compared to a dehydrated product such as rice, corn or whatever the second ingredient of the food.

First Ingredient

In fact, I would argue that having meat as the first ingredient is really not that much of an accomplishment. What is important is the QUALITY of the meat, and unfortunately other than using a trusted, time-tested, and well-known company or contacting a manufacturer to inquire as to the source of their ingredients (good luck with that), there is no way of actually knowing. This is why boutique, specialty food brands must be assessed thoroughly. Please do not just assume “you get what you pay for”, I promise you that you don’t have to spend $70.00 on a bag of food to give your pet a high-quality food that will help keep him or her healthy.

Second Ingredient

The second ingredient on the list is usually a secondary protein source such as a “meal” or by-product, or a carbohydrate source such as rice, corn or other grains. Slightly further down the list will be a fat source usually listed as beef fat, pork fat, or chicken fat. The current trend in pet food is to include other ingredients that sound appealing to us as humans but hold no real nutritional value for your pet. For instance, many foods have replaced corn and rice with potatoes as the primary carbohydrate source. While our first instincts may be to assume that potatoes would be a healthier choice, research has shown that potatoes are poorly digested by dogs. Remember dogs are not small humans; they have completely different metabolic enzymes and digestive systems than you and I. Thus, you may want to rethink that expensive food that’s grain free, contains potatoes and blueberries. Trust me your dog will thank you.

Last Ingredient

The last of the ingredient list usually contains the long, complicated chemical names of compounds used mostly as preservatives or sources or micro-nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Again, although these ingredients may not sound appetizing to us, many of these compounds actually are necessary. For example, most of us stock up on dog food, buying a large enough bag to last a month or so at a time. These ingredients keep the kibble fresh and stabilize the nutrients to ensure they will be available for absorption. Otherwise, we would face the dangerous consequences of a food going bad or losing all nutrient value before the pet eats it.

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5 tips for understanding dog food labels

About the Author Andy

When not writing about himself in the third person, Andy spends many an hour walking his dog Mr Wox, aka Soxy Woxy, a mischievous, mixed breed rescue. A leading authority on dog-related topics, Andy is highly respected, deeply appreciated and widely admired.

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