How to Read and Understand Dog Food Labels
Decoding Your Dog's Diet
As a responsible dog owner you'll be keen to make sure your canine companion gets a full, balanced, healthy, and nutritious diet. But have you ever picked up a can or sack of dog food to read the nutrition table and list of ingredients only to find that you're none the wiser after you've read it? Then this article is for you!
Your dog's diet is the foundation of his health and happiness. It is essential to choose the right dog food to give him all the nutrients he needs. Most commercially produced foods have nutritional information printed on the packaging.
But decoding these labels can be tricky if you don't understand the terminology and abbreviations. The following guidelines should help you know the nutritional value of dog foods, so you make the best choice for your pet.
How to Understand the List of Ingredients
Dog food labels must have a list of ingredients. The ingredients, listed by volume, begin with the heaviest at the top and the lightest at the bottom. But if meat is at the top, it doesn't necessarily mean there's more protein than anything else in the food.
Up to 75% of the mass of meat can be water and fat. The meat content, sometimes listed in the form of "meat meal," "bone meal" or "chicken meal," indicates that most of the water and fat content were removed to form concentrated animal-derived protein.
List of Common Dog Food Ingredients
Ground whole corn
Ground whole wheat
Meat and bone meal
Corn and gluten meal
Are "By-Products" Harmful to My Dog?
All dog foods certified by the Association of American Feed Controls as complete and balanced should provide all your dog's nutritional needs. They should be safe for him to eat. But some dog owners are alarmed when they see "by-products" listed in the ingredients.
However, the animal-derived by-products in dog food include only pig, cattle, and buffalo liver, heart, blood, brain, intestines, the esophagus, stomach lining, and udders. There should be no hard or indigestible parts such as horns, hooves, teeth or hair. By law, all by-products included in food must come from healthy, disease-free animals under a given age.
They are labeled as by-products only because many people don't want to eat them, but your dog won't mind at all!
Are the Chemicals in Dog Food Harmful?
As with many foods designed for human consumption, dog food also has added chemicals such as preservatives, emulsifiers, colorings, and stabilizers. All these ingredients are tested and passed as safe for use by the Food and Drug Administration Federal Agency. Manufacturers are obliged by law to list all added ingredients on the label.
Controversy about including butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and ethoxyquin preservatives in food has caused alarm among the public. The chemicals help to stop fat becoming rancid and keep food fresh for longer. But after obliging manufacturers to reduce the amounts they use, health and safety officials say the small quantities now present in dog foods are harmless to pets.
If you're still not happy, look for vitamins E and C, and plant-derived preservatives listed on the label. While these natural preservatives won't keep the food as fresh for as long, they work in the short-term and are harmless. Always check the "best before" date on dog food packaging before feeding your dog.
Common Additives in Dog Food and What They Do
What It Does
Stop foods from deteriorating due to oxidation
Help protect dog food from harmful bacteria
Ensure full nutrition for optimum health
Help avoid nutritional deficiencies which could lead to ill-health
Naturally derived colors make the food more attractive even after processing
Enhance the appeal of processed and packaged food
Which Dog Foods Are Complete and Balanced?
The Association of American Feed Control has official guidelines for the nutrients in dog food needed for a diet to be considered "complete and balanced." The guidelines are based on extensive research and testing and approved by veterinarians. Manufacturers who follow the guidelines display the AAFC certification on their packaging.
What Does "Guaranteed Analysis" Mean on Dog Food Labels?
The "guaranteed analysis" part of a dog food label shows the relative percentages of different ingredients and nutrients in the food, often including micro-nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Manufacturers may include or exclude specific elements from the label, but by law, they must show how much protein, fat, fiber, and moisture the food contains.
Vets recommend that your dog's diet should include at least 10% protein and 6% fat. The rest of the contents comprise carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals from grains, vegetables, and fruit. But as dogs don't digest everything they eat, the quantities of commercially produced food are higher to make sure they get enough nutrition.
Are "Natural," "Organic," "Holistic," and "Premium" Dog Foods Better?
While any food labeled "natural" might have fewer synthetic ingredients, no official guidelines exist to decide what is and isn't "natural" in dog food. The same applies to "organic." "Holistic" and "premium" are also meaningless terms used solely as marketing tactics. Other specifications you might find on labeling such as "human-grade" and "USDA inspected" are unregulated and do not mean much regarding the quality and nutritional value of the food the packaging contains.
Making Sense of Dog Food Labeling
With so many dog foods to choose from, it's essential you understand what the different brands have in them to make sure your dog gets a proper diet including all the calories and nutrients he needs for a healthy and happy life. While the information on dog food packaging isn't always crystal clear, these guidelines should help you understand it. If in doubt, always look for the manufacturer's statement that the food complies with the official nutritional recommendations of the AAFCO.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2018 Amanda Littlejohn