When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

How To Read & Understand Dog Food Labels

We all want our dogs to live long, happy, healthy lives. We know that good health and proper nutrition are closely linked. Today many dog owners are taking a critical look at the quality of ingredients in pet foods. Some people have switched to “natural” diets – or BARF (Bones and Raw Food), while others have compromised with a combination kibble and home cooked food diet.

The pet food industry which totals over $9 billion annually, has responded to consumer demand for higher quality foods by adding so-called “natural’ product lines, changing their labeling practices, and generating slick promotional literature espousing the superior quality of their product. But how do you choose a high quality dog food with literally hundreds of brands and varieties available? The challenge is to decipher the labels. Pet food labeling is regulated at two levels: the federal regulations, enforced by the Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine, which sets standards for all animal feeds: proper identification of the product, net quantity statement, manufacturer’s address and proper listing of ingredients.

Some states also enforce their own labeling regulations. Many manufacturers follow the model pet food regulations of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), a non government advisory body with representatives from all states. These model regulations are more specific, covering aspects of labeling such as product name, guaranteed analysis, nutritional adequacy statement, feeding directions and calorie statements. Every dog food label must include specific information, which is usually divided into two parts:

Principal Display Panel states the following

(1) Brand Name
(2) Identity Statement which describes the contents of the food (i.e., lamb, chicken, etc.)
(3) Designator of what class the food is (i.e., Growth, Maintenance, Lite, etc.) and Category of dog (Puppy, Adult, Senior, etc.).
(4) Quantity of contents identifies the weight of contents (i.e., 5 pounds, 20 pounds)
The Information Panel states ingredients
(1) General analysis (shows the “as is” percentages of the food’s constituents).
(2) Ingredients list (shows ingredients in descending order, by weight).
(3) Nutritional adequacy claim (identifies specific life stage for which food is intended and whether animal feeding tests based on AAFCO procedures were used).
(4) Feeding instructions (how much to feed)

Guaranteed Analysis

The Guaranteed Analysis on the Information Panel of the dog food label lists the minimum levels of crude protein and fat and the maximum levels of fiber and water. “Crude” refers to the total protein content, not necessarily the amount of protein that is actually digestible.

What this means is that this is ONLY a crude protein percentage, and fat amounts are rough guides. The actual amounts depend upon the ingredients and their quality

The amount of moisture in a food is important, especially when you are comparing foods. A food containing 24% protein and 10% moisture would have far less protein per serving than a food with 24% protein listed on the label but only 6% moisture.

This is why the AAFCO guidelines are formulated on a dry matter basis, so that all foods can be compared equally.

Ingredients List

Ingredients are listed in descending order, by weight. However, the listings may be misleading. Suppose beef is listed as the first ingredient, causing you to think it is the primary ingredient.

Look again. If it’s followed by wheat flour, wheat germ, wheat middlings and so on, the combined wheat products may very well total much more than the beef.

Artificial Coloring

Many of the artificial colorings used in dog foods have been associated with potential problems. FD&C; red No. 40 is a possible carcinogen but is widely used to keep meat looking fresh.

Blue No. 2 is thought to increase dogs’ sensitivity to viruses. Another color that is commonly used but has not been fully tested is Yellow No. 5.

Both Red No. 2 and Violet No. 1 were banned by the FDA in the mid-seventies as possible carcinogens but prior to that were widely used in pet foods.The food color used in today’s manufacture of foods is not for the dogs.

It is to satisfy the dog’s owner-the consumer. Sugar is not an ingredient most people would expect to find in dog food, but many foods do, in fact, contain sugar, especially the semi-moist brands.

In fact, some semi-moist foods contain as much as 15% sugar. The sugar adds palatability and moisture, and aids in bacterial contamination prevention.

Dogs do not need this amount of sugar, which can stress the pancreas and adrenal glands, causing diabetes. Completely devoid of protein, vitamins and minerals, sugar is, literally, empty calories.

Salt is added to many foods as a meat preservative. Too much salt can irritate the digestive system and can cause a mineral imbalance because the salt itself can upset the calcium / potassium balance in your dog’s system.

Too much salt can be life threatening for a dog. Salt free foods are available.

Biological Value

The biological values of the ingredients are a key to good nutrition. The biological value of a food is the measurement of the amino acid completeness of the proteins contained by the food.

Eggs are considered a wonderful source of protein because they contain all of the essential amino acids.

Digestibility of Food

Digestibility refers to the quantity of the food that is actually absorbed by the dog’s system.

The more food fully metabolized, the higher the digestibility figure.

Quality Before Processing

Understanding the definition of an ingredient is not enough. Many grains grown in poor soil will lack needed vitamins and minerals, and, unfortunately, this is a common occurrence in the United States.

Grains and vegetables can be polluted with fertilizer residues and pesticides of various kinds. Ingredients can also be soiled with mold, mildew, and fungus.

The quality of meat can also be suspect. We have all heard stories or had personal experiences of finding bits of hair and other unsavory additives in our hamburger, but the quality of meats used for dog foods is much lower.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has said that there is non-mandatory federal inspection of ingredients used in pet food manufacturing. However, some states do inspect manufacturing plants, especially those producing canned pet foods.

In the majority of states it is legal (and common practice) for pet food manufacturers to use what are known as “4-D” meat sources–animals that are dead, dying, diseased, or disabled when they arrive at the slaughterhouse.

Some pet food analysts believe that feeding slaughterhouse wastes to pet animals increases their chances of getting cancer and other degenerative diseases.

Definition of Ingredients

Meat or Meat Based

Meat is the clean flesh of slaughtered cattle, swine, sheep or goats. The flesh can include striated skeletal muscle, tongue, diaphragm, heart or esophagus, overlying fat, and the portions of skin, sinew, nerves, and blood vessels normally found with that flesh.

Meat Meal

Rendered meal made from animal tissue. It cannot contain hair, hoof, blood, horn, hide trimmings, stomach or rumen (the first stomach) contents, or manure except for amounts that may not be avoided during processing.

It cannot contain any added foreign matter and may not contain more than 14% indigestible materials.Indigestible crude protein in the meal cannot be more than 11%.

Meat By-Product

Clean parts of slaughtered animals, not including meat. These parts include lungs, kidneys, brain, spleen, liver, bone, blood, partially defatted low-temperature fatty tissue, stomach, and intestines freed of their contents.

It does not include hair, teeth, hooves or horns. Only 14% may be indigestible residue and no more than 11% indigestible crude protein.

Meat and Bone Meal

Rendered from meat and bone, but it does not include hair, blood, horn, hoof, manure, hide trimmings, stomach, or rumen contents except that which is unavoidable during processing. It does not include any foreign matter.

Like meat meal, only 14% may be indigestible residue and no more than 11% indigestible crude protein.

Poultry By-Product

Clean parts of slaughtered poultry, such as heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, feet, abdomen, intestines, and heads and must not contain feces or foreign matter except that which is unavoidable and then only in trace amounts.

Poultry By-Product Meal

Made up of ground, rendered, and clean parts of slaughtered poultry, such as undeveloped eggs, necks, feet, and intestines. It does not contain feathers except those which are unavoidable during processing.

Dehydrated Eggs

Whole poultry eggs which are dried.

Animal By-Product Meal

Consists of rendered animal tissue which does not fit in any of the other categories. It cannot contain hoof, hide trimmings, extra hair, horn, stomach or rumen contents, manure or any foreign matter.

Animal Digest

A powder or liquid made by taking clean under-composed animal tissue and breaking it down using chemical and or emblematic hydrolysis. It does not contain horn, teeth, hair, hooves, or feathers except in trace amounts which are unavoidable.

Digest names must be descriptive of their contents, that is, chicken digest must be made from chicken and beef digest made from beef.

Fish Meal

Clean, dried, and ground tissue of undecomposed whole fish or fish cuttings which may or may not have the oil removed.

Alfalfa Meal

The finely ground product of the alfalfa plant. Dried Whey – The thin part of milk separated from the curd, or thicker part, when milk coagulates.

Dried whey is this milk part, dried, and is not less than 11% protein or less than 61% other grains or 10% wild oats.

Barley

At least 80% good quality barley; no more than 3% heat damaged kernels, 6 percent foreign material, 20% other grains or 10% wild oats.

Barley Flour

The soft finely ground barley meal obtained from the milling of barley.

Ground Corn (also called Corn Meal or Corn Chop)

The entire corn kernel ground or chopped. It must contain no more than 4% foreign material.

Beet Pulp

The dried residue from production of sugar from sugar beets.

Corn Gluten Meal

The by-product after the manufacture of corn syrup or starch which is the dried residue after the removal of the bran, germ, and starch.

Brewer’s Rice

The small fragments of rice kernels that have been separated from larger kernels of milled rice.

Brown Rice

The unpolished rice left over after the kernels have been removed.

Soybean Meal

By-product of the production of soybean oil.

Ground Grain Sorghum

Made by grinding grains of sorghum.

Cereal Food Fines

The by-product of breakfast cereal production which consists of particles of the foods.

Linseed Meal

The residue of flaxseed oil production, ground into a meal.

Peanut Hulls

The outer hull of the peanut shell.

Dried Kelp or Dried Seaweed

The maximum percentage of salt and minimum percentage of potassium and iodine must be declared.

Preservatives

BHA and BHT – These are both preservatives. Both BHA and BHT have been associated with liver damage, fetal abnormalities, and metabolic stress.

They also have a questionable relationship to cancer.

Ethoxiquin

This preservative has been the most highly debated item in dog foods for the last several years. It is a chemical preservative that has been widely used to prevent spoilage in dog foods.

It is alleged that Ethoxiquin has caused cancer, liver, kidney and thyroid dysfunction, reproductive failure, and more, although the allegations have not been proven in tests to date. The FDA is considering new data.

Many manufacturers have eliminated Ethoxiquin from their food. However, there is no way to know how much if any, Ethoxiquin has been added by the rendering plants. If an ingredient is not added by the pet food company it is not required to be listed on the bag.

Sodium Nitrate

Used both as a food coloring (RED) and as a preservative. When used as a preservative, it produces carcinogenic substances called nitrosamines.

NOTE: Accidental ingestion of sodium nitrate by people can be fatal.

Tocopherols

Naturally occurring compounds used as natural preservatives. Tocopherols function as antioxidants, preventing the oxidation of fatty acids, vitamins, and some other nutrients.

These are being used more frequently as preservatives, as many dog owners are more concerned about chemical preservatives. Tocopherols have a very short shelf life, especially once the bag of food has been opened.

If your bag of dog food does not smell right take it back to the store as it most likely rancid.

Vitamins and Minerals are added to dog foods but the amounts of each added are not stated. Manufacturers state that their food provides 100% of nutritional requirements. For this reason, most sales reps will tell you not to supplement with additional vitamins-doing so could be harmful to the dog.

If you feel the dog needs additional vitamins consult your veterinarian before supplementing. A potential problem in minerals centers on copper. Some dogs are sensitive to copper (Copper Toxicosis-an inborn error in copper metabolism which allows copper to accumulate in the liver, resulting in cirrhosis).

Some owners feel that excess copper in the food causes severe paw licking. Many so-called diet or lite foods contain added copper beyond USDA requirements to add palatability. There are foods available for low copper. diets.

Call the manufacturer’s 800 number for specifications on the amount of copper in the food.

What should YOU feed?

Different dogs, even of the same breed, in the same household, have different nutritional needs; depending on activity levels, age, possible food allergies. What works for your dog may not work for mine.

Some dogs have adverse reactions to certain foods while others thrive. Only you can decide which food is best for your dog.

Apply common sense, read the labels and monitor the results by looking at your dog’s overall health: coat, eyes, energy level, stools. If the dog consistently vomits; has loose stools or itches constantly and other physical causes are ruled out by your vet, consider changing his food.

Stay away from foods with cheap fillers like peanut hulls, beet pulp and tomato pomace. Purchase foods which state that the product has been tested using AAFCO procedures. Do not be influenced by slick promotions.

Challenge the manufacturer to prove his claims. Read the labels and compare. And don’t forget, the QUALITY of the ingredients is paramount in your final choice.

The terms “PREMIUM” or “SUPER PREMIUM” do not always indicate quality ingredients.

If you have been using a particular food with good results-stick with it. If you notice a change in your dog’s reaction to the food check the label-it is possible that the formula has changed or your dog has built up an intolerance to a certain ingredient. Whenever possible, food changes should be made very gradually, over a period of 7-14 days.

How To Read Dog Food Labels

PRODUCT NAME AND INGREDIENTS
Regulations and guidelines have been established jointly by FDA and AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials). The 95% rule applies to products consisting primarily of meat, poultry or fish, such as some of the canned products.

They have simple names, such as “Beef for Dogs”. In these examples, at least 95% of the product must be the named ingredient, not counting the water added for processing. Counting the added water, the named ingredient still must comprise 70% of the product.

All ingredients are required to be listed in order of predominance by weight. The weights of ingredients are determined as they are added in the formulation, including their inherent water content.

Therefore, a Lamb and Rice Dog Food would be misnamed unless the product was comprised of at least 95% lamb.

GUARANTEED ANALYSIS
The guaranteed analysis lists the minimum levels of crude protein and fat and the maximum levels of fiber and water. Crude protein refers to the total protein content and is not necessarily the amount of protein actually digestible.

The actual amounts depend upon the ingredients and their quality.

PROTEIN QUALITY
Every protein source contains different levels of amino acids and each protein is different in its ability to be broken down into amino acids. The ability of a protein to be used by the body and its amount of usable amino acids is summarized as protein quality (biological value).

Egg has the highest biological value and sets the standard for which other proteins are graded. For example, eggs are 100% protein, Fish Meal-92%, Beef-chicken-lamb-78%, Meat and bone meal-50%, corn-53%.

RECOMMENDED PROTEIN AND FAT LEVELS
Proteins are necessary for all aspects of the dog’s growth and development; they are burned as calories and can also be converted to and stored as fat.

Minimum requirements set by AAFCO for an adult dog: 18% protein / 5 % fat and for a puppy 22% protein / 8% fat. Bear in mind these are ‘minimum’ only.

Nutritional studies are continually in progress to better evaluate needed protein requirements. Most recommended levels are 28% protein / 15% fat for puppies and 22% protein / 12% fat for average adults.

MOISTURE CONTENT & DRY MATTER CONVERSION
This has little relevance when the guarantees of two products of similar moisture content are compared (for example, a dry dog food versus another dry dog food).

However, when comparing the guaranteed analyses between dry and canned products, one will note that the levels of crude protein and most other nutrients are much lower for the canned product. Canned foods typically contain 75-78% moisture, whereas dry foods contain only 10-12% water.

For comparisons of nutrient levels between a canned and dry product, they need to be converted to a dry matter basis. The percentage of dry matter of the product is equal to 100% minus the percentage of moisture guaranteed on the label.

INGREDIENT SUMMARY
Meat – Meat is the clean flesh of slaughtered cattle, swine, sheep or goats. The flesh can include striated skeletal muscle, tongue, diaphragm, skeletal muscle, tongue, diaphragm, heart or esophagus, overlying fat, and the portions of skin, sinew, nerves, and blood vessels normally found with that flesh.

Meat Meal – Rendered meal made from animal tissue. It cannot contain hair, hoof, blood, horn, hide trimmings, stomach or rumen (the first stomach) contents, or manure except for amounts that may not be avoided during processing. It cannot contain any added foreign matter and may not contain more than 14% indigestible materials. Indigestible crude protein in the meal cannot be more than 11%.

Meat By-Product – Whatever remains of the carcass — bones, blood, intestines, lungs, ligaments, and almost all the other parts not generally consumed by humans. It does not include hair, teeth, hooves or horns.

Poultry By-Product – Clean parts of slaughtered poultry, such as heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, feet, abdomen, intestines, and heads and must not contain feces or foreign matter.

Poultry By-Product Meal – Made up of ground, rendered, and clean parts of slaughtered poultry, such as undeveloped eggs, necks, feet, and intestines. It does not contain feathers except those which are unavoidable during processing. Poultry by-product meal is a good source of animal protein and other nutrients. For this reason, it is widely used by pet food manufacturers as an ingredient in dry dog food formulas and generally contains about 55-70 percent protein

Fish Meal – Clean, dried, and ground tissue of undecomposed whole fish or fish cuttings which may or may not have the oil removed. It is also considered an excellent source for Omega 3 fatty acids.

Meat and Bone Meal – Rendered from meat and bone, but it does not include hair, blood, horn, hoof, manure, hide trimmings, stomach, or rumen contents except that which is unavoidable during processing. It does not include any foreign matter. Like meat meal, only 14% may be indigestible residue and no more than 11% indigestible crude protein.

Whole Fresh eggs – This is the Highest rated source of usable Protein, and rates above all meats and meat products. Shells are a great source of Calcium Carbonate good for strong healthy teeth.

Eggs – Whole poultry eggs which are usually dehydrated.

Egg Product – dehydrated egg yolks

Ground Corn: Ground corn is the entire corn kernel ground or chopped. Corn Gluten Meal: Corn gluten meal is the by-product after the manufacture of corn syrup or starch, and is the dried residue after the removal of the bran, germ, and starch.

Brewers Rice: Brewers rice is the small fragments of rice kernels that have been separated from larger kernels of milled rice.

Brown Rice: Brown rice is the unpolished rice left over after the kernels have been removed. Soybean Meal: Soybean meal is a by-product of the production of soybean

ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS (EFA)
Fatty Acids (there are over 70 of them!) are important for a wide array of cell structure components and for many chemical reactions in the body including hormonal and energy activities. Fatty Acids play a vital role in establishing a healthy lipid barrier in the skin to block irritants and infections.

In an animal’s body (and ours) the liver and other tissues can make many of the fatty acids that are required for the body’s chemical factory to operate. Dogs, however, cannot make Linoleic Acid (also called Omega6 Fatty Acid). So THAT is called an ESSENTIAL FATTY ACID because the dog needs to consume it from dietary sources.

With adequate Omega6 in the dog’s diet the other fatty acids needed for metabolism can be created internally. Dietary sources of omega-6 fatty acids include animal tissue and plant seeds, while cold water marine fish oils, animal tissue and plant leaves contain omega-3 fatty acids.

The body can convert EFAs from fish more easily than from other sources.

The potential of omega-3 fatty acids contributing to the health of our pets is promising. Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids have the potential to help manage severe inflammation associated with certain skin disorders; support the proper development of the nervous system and visual acuity; aid in the remission and decrease the side effects of lymphoma.

According to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (July, 2002) : Omega-3 Fatty Acids May Prevent Heart Disease By Improving Arterial Elasticity. The article states: “Eating fish benefits those who are at high risk for ischemic heart disease (IHD), and sudden cardiac deaths occur less frequently in those who habitually eat ocean fish, a major source of omega-3 fatty acids.

In a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Nestel et al. examined the role that omega-3 fatty acids play in improving systolic and pulse pressure and vascular resistance, effects that may reduce the risk of IHD and adverse cardiac events.”

DIGESTIBILITY
Digestibility of Food – Digestibility refers to the quantity of the food that is actually absorbed by the dog’s system. Although digestibility is not listed on most dog food labels, this can be obtained by contacting the manufacture directly.

This is obtained by weighing the amount of food fed daily and the weight of the stool (dried) for several days. Divide the weight of the food into the weight of the stool and you will have the percentage of digestibility. The higher the digestibility of the food, the more nutrition your dog receives.

Resources
FDA. Information for Consumers
Personal NCRAOA Correspondence with Diamond Pet Food Company Personal Correspondence with Natura Pet Products Personal Correspondence with Purina Foods

image license Deposit Photos

Sharing is caring!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.