How to read a dog food label

Many pet owners want their dogs to have the best quality food available.  How do you choose what is right for your pet?  Pet food labels are confusing at best and misleading at times.  This article will show you how to make sense of the claims on dog food labels.

The guidelines for dog food in the United States are set by AAFCO,The Association of American Feed Control Officials.  AAFCO guidelines are used to make sure that the food has enough nutrients to maintain life.  It is not a standard that means that the nutrients are high quality.  Most testing for dog foods are done for 6 months.  If the dogs are still healthy (defined as no dog losing more than 15% of his body weight) after eating the food for that long, it passes the trial.  No research is required on long term feeding.

For a dog food to be named with a specific ingredient, such as "Lamb Dog Food", it must contain 95% of that ingredient on a dry matter basis.  That means that if the water in the food is taken out, then 95% of the remaining material is that ingredient. 

If the food label contains a modifier like "lamb nuggets" or "lamb dinner" that means that just 25% of the food needs to be lamb.  If the food is called "lamb and rice nuggets" then the lamb and rice together only need to make up 25% of the diet.

Another marketing tool to look out for is the use of the term "with".  Consider this example - "Super Dog Food with Lamb".  That means at only 3% of the food is required to be lamb.  The term "flavored" is even worse.  "Super Lamb-flavored Dog Food" is only required to have enough lamb flavoring to be detected. 

Ignore the hype and marketing on the label of dog food.  Look at the ingredient list.  Meat should be the major ingredient of dog food.  However, many foods contain mostly grains because they are less expensive.  It is also best to have recognizable meat on the label.  "Chicken" is a preferable ingredient to "chicken by-product" or "chicken meal".  By-products are defined as ground parts from poultry carcasses such as feet, heads, feathers, intestines, necks and undeveloped eggs and can included any rendered material.  Chicken meal is defined as the dry rendered product from a combination of clean chicken flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from whole carcasses of chicken, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails. 

Even if the meat is listed first make sure that the grains are not listed in a deceiving way.  Because each ingredient is listed separately an ingredient list might include small amounts of "corn flour, ground corn, corn gluten", etc.  That adds up to a lot of corn in the food.  It may be more than the total amount of meat. 

If you can look past the pretty pictures of fresh meat and vegetables on the front of the bag and concentrate instead on the ingredient list, you can ensure that your dog gets the best quality food.