When it comes to keeping your dog healthy, the most important thing you must do is to provide him with a high-quality diet. Choosing a dog food can be difficult because there are so many options to choose from. Walking down the pet food aisle at your local pet store will reveal not only dozens of different brands, but several different formulas from each brand – so how do you know which dog food is the best for your dog. In this article you will learn the basics about how to read and interpret the information on a dog food label so you can separate the high-quality from the low-quality foods.
Basic Things to Look For
Looking at a dog food label you need to understand that the label is designed to make the product more appealing to consumers. Pet food is subject to certain regulations enforced by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but these restrictions and regulations generally only apply to the identification of the product, the manufacturer’s name and address, the net quantity statement, and the listing of ingredients. Pet food manufacturers have a great deal of freedom when it comes to the labels for their products – they use a variety of different marketing schemes to give themselves a leg up over the competition.
When you are examining a dog food label there are a few things you should look for right off the bat to weed out the low-quality foods from the pack. The first thing to look for is the AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy. AAFCO is the American Association of Feed Control Officials and it is a group of local, state, and federal agencies which monitor and regulate the production and sale of animal feeds and animal drugs – this includes pet foods. If a pet food product meets the minimum nutritional requirements set forth by AAFCO, it will carry a statement like the following:
“[Product Name] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles” or “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that [Product Name] provides complete and balanced nutrition for maintenance of adult dogs”
If a pet food product carries the AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy it doesn’t necessarily mean that the food is of high-quality – this statement simply means that the product meets the minimum nutritional requirements for dogs as set forth by the agency. You will still need to look at the ingredients list and the guaranteed analysis to determine whether the product is of high or low quality.
Product Name Labeling Requirements
In addition to looking for an AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy you should also take a look at the name of the product as well as other information give on the label. The name of the product will tell you a lot about its quality. AAFCO requires pet food manufacturers to follow a 95% rule – if the product contains at least 95% of a certain ingredient (like meat, poultry, or fish), it can use that word in the product name. For example, a product called “Tuna Cat Food” must contain at least 95% tuna, not counting the water that is added during processing. If there are two ingredients listed in the name, like Chicken and Liver Dog Food, those two ingredients must make up 95% of the product combined and the one present in higher quantity must be listed first.
Pet food products have many different names – another common word you might see in pet food product names is the word “dinner”. If the product uses the word “dinner” in the name, the named ingredient must total 25% of the product and each named ingredient must be at least 3% of the total. For example, a product named Turkey and Fish Dinner Dog Food would have a total of 25% turkey and fish combined, with at least 3% fish. You may also see the word “flavor” used in pet food labels – there is no specific percentage required by AAFCO to use this word but the amount must not be sufficient to be detected. A product can use the word “flavor” in conjunction with the name of the flavor, even if ingredient being flavored is completely different. For example, a product might be called Chicken Flavor Dog Food but the chicken flavor might come from chicken by-products instead of fresh chicken, but it still provides chicken flavor.
Examining the Ingredients List
The USDA requires that all ingredients used in pet foods be listed in order of predominance by weight. This means that the ingredients that appear at the beginning of the list are present in the highest quantity or volume. Keep in mind that the water content is included in the original weight or volume – when the product is cooked, or rendered, the actual weight might be much less. This is especially important to consider with fresh meats like chicken and fish. These ingredients may appear at the beginning of the ingredients list behind carbohydrates but, when the product is cooked, the moisture content becomes much lower so the actual weight might be less than that of the carbohydrate ingredients. If you see a meat meal (like chicken meal or salmon meal) on the list, it means that the product has already been cooked down to a moisture content around 10% so it is a highly concentrated and high-quality source of protein.
When it comes to evaluating the ingredients list for a dog food product, you should focus on the top five ingredients since they will be present in the highest quantity. There may be 20 or more items on the ingredients list, but many of them are likely to be present in such small quantities that it doesn’t make a noticeable difference. A high-quality dog food will contain at least one high-quality source of animal protein within the top five ingredients (ideally in the number one or two slot). Remember, fresh meats are good but meat meals (from named sources like chicken or salmon) may be better unless there are multiple protein sources listed.
When it comes to carbohydrates, you want to see whole-grain carbohydrates like brown rice or whole grain oats instead of inexpensive fillers like corn and wheat. You should also keep an eye out for plant-based proteins like potato protein and pea protein – while these products do provide protein, it is much less biologically valuable for your dog than animal-based protein. Pet food manufacturers often use ingredients like this to increase the protein content of their foods without adding extra meat. You should also be on the lookout for high-quality fats like chicken fat, salmon oil, and other fish oils. Plant-based oils like flaxseed oil may also be beneficial, but animal-based ingredients are always best.
Guaranteed Analysis vs. Dry Matter
After you’ve looked at the ingredients list and determined that the product is of high-quality you still need to look one step further. Every pet food product is required to have a guaranteed analysis on the label which tells you the percentage of crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber and moisture. Keep in mind that the guaranteed analysis only includes crude sources, not necessarily digestible sources so you still need to check the digestibility of the protein and fat sources by looking at the ingredients list. Because different pet foods have different moisture contents, the guaranteed analysis can be a little misleading. For a more thorough understanding of the protein, fat, and carbohydrate content of a product you should convert the guaranteed analysis into a dry matter calculation.
To convert the guaranteed analysis for protein, fat, and carbohydrate to dry matter you need to take a look at the moisture level indicated in the guaranteed analysis. For example, the guaranteed analysis for a pet food product might indicate a minimum of 21% protein, 12.5% fat, 3.0% fiber, and 10% moisture. To convert those amounts to dry matter you would divide each reported amount of protein, fat, or carbohydrate by the total amount of dry matter in the product. To find the total amount of dry matter, simply subtract the moisture content (in this case, 10%) from 100% – in the example given, that would leave you with 90%. Then, just multiply each value by 100%. Using the example given for protein, you would divide 21 by 90 then multiply by 100 for a dry matter protein content of about 23%. Use the same calculation to determine the dry matter fat and fiber content as well.
Choosing a high-quality dog food for your pet can be difficult because you cannot necessarily trust the packaging to tell the whole story. Start by looking for an AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy and then compare products based on the ingredients list and dry matter content of key nutrients. It may take a little bit of extra effort for you to sort out which products are better than others, but it will be well worth it for your dog in the long run.