How To Choose Your Dog’s Food: Understanding the Pet Food Label

As pet owners, we are highly motivated to find the “right” food for our animal companions. We may feel like nutrition is one health factor we can control. A nutritious diet is crucial to human and non-human animal health alike. However, often, nutritional-related expectations transcend realistic outcomes. The reality is that our pets are resilient and able to thrive on a variety of diets. Nutrition is important, but only one of the complex and interacting variables which influence health.

The “perfect” food for your dog likely does not exist; however, it is possible to discern healthy elements based on inspection of the label. This may be overwhelming at first, as labels can be filled with jargon and potentially misleading information. Here are some tricks to equip yourself with to make an educated decision about your pet’s health.

Pet food labeling is regulated on two levels: federal guidelines from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) establish standards for proper identification of ingredients along with other basic rules. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has specific rules that pet food manufacturers must follow.

The food that makes up a dog’s main meals should have a statement from AAFCO that the product “provides complete and balanced nutrition” or that the product “is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles.”

While these institutions regulate the pet food industry to some degree, it is important to note that some terms like “natural” or “premium” do not have many regulated specifications. “Natural” means that the food is preserved with natural preservatives but does not indicate anything about the other ingredients. “Premium” is an unregulated term in feed law. To figure out what is really in your dog food, flip the bag over and read the ingredients and nutritional analysis list.

The product name is likely the first thing that catches your eye as you peruse dog food. The product name is generally the number one factor consumers consider, and here is how to decipher what it means.

AAFCO and the FDA regulate the product name with the 95% rule, meaning that the ingredients derived from animals, poultry, or fish must constitute at least 95% of the product’s total weight. This seems like quality ingredients would be the primary component of dog foods; however, here are some exceptions you should look for

  • Dinner, Formula, Entrée, or Recipe in Product Name – If the product contains one of these words, the main ingredient in the food must equal 25% or more of the diet. 
  • With in the Product Name – If the product contains, the ingredient can be relatively minor and only constitutes 3% of the total weight. 
  • Flavor in the Product Name – If the product contains flavor then any specific percentage of the ingredient is not necessary. 

Legally, the ingredient list is in order of weight. The first five ingredients are what is going to make up the bulk of what is in your dog’s food, so pay attention to them. Do not neglect the remaining ingredients. Scan the list looking for food names you recognize. Often, the ingredients we do not recognize are synthetic vitamins that are added to meet AAFCO guidelines. If the rest of the ingredients after the first five are synthetic – this is still significant!

I picked up my dog’s kibble to look at the ingredient list, which went: Beef, Beef Liver, Beef Kidney, Pumpkin Seeds, Beef Spleen, Carrots, Apples, Butternut Squash Ground Flaxseed, and more. This means that Beef is the top ingredient in the kibble, right? Well, in this case, yes, but only because Beef Liver is the number two ingredient. A listed whole meat, like “Beef” or “Chicken” includes its water content, making it heavier, but not necessarily due to nutritional content. “Beef Liver” would not include water weight, and so, it may actually be the most predominant ingredient by weight. It can be tricky to differentiate between potentially water-filled and dry ingredient weights, but look out for names of whole meats.



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