It's imperative for dog owners to know how to read dog food labels. Sadly, the regulations in the pet food industry are very lenient. There are many loopholes that can be used to make dog food labels look appealing and mislead pet owners, so we have to stay vigilant because many diseases have been linked to poor quality dog foods.
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Feeding your dog a healthy and nutritionally balanced dog food is the absolute best thing you can do for their health. It will aid in a dog's overall well-being, and prevent many future health issues from occurring. However, purchasing dog food based on the large, bold print words on the label won't always get you a high-quality food.
As I explain below, there are many loopholes in pet food labeling regulations that allow companies to write descriptive terms like ‘natural‘, ‘holistic‘, and ‘premium food‘ on their labels. You need to know what these terms actually mean, how much “weight” they carry and how to read dog food labels accurately and find the right information on pet food packaging, so you know you're feeding your pooch a diet that's healthy.
How to Read Dog Food Labels
1. Ingredients on Dog Food Labels
Just like the food made for human consumption, pet food manufacturers must list all of the ingredients used in the making of their products by weight.
The list of dog food ingredients begins with the heaviest ingredients, which is why you always hear experts say that the protein source should be the first ingredient listed. That means that the majority of the weight is made up by the protein source.
Unfortunately, this is a common misconception.
Meat in dog food is made of about 75% water. This means that without the weight of the water, the meat may actually not make the top of the list. Meat meals (like chicken meal) have had most of the water and fat removed, so the protein is more concentrated.
Another trick used by pet food manufacturers is the breaking down of certain ingredients in order to place them lower on the dog food label ingredient list.
For instance, your dog's food package label may have an ingredient list that names ground corn, corn bran and corn gluten separately. If they had grouped all of the corn ingredients together, it may have ranked at the top of the list.
This is why it is extremely important to read the dog food label ingredient list thoroughly all the way to the end.
There are a few ingredients that you'll see on a dog food label that you need to pay special attention to. And, don't count out words that you can't pronounce, which is what many pet owners often mistakenly advise to do.
We assume that these complex and unique words are artificial ingredients or chemicals. However, often they are actually natural ingredients that are used as preservatives.
2. Most Common Ingredients in Dog Food
Here are some of the most common ingredients in pet food and what they can and cannot contain according to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO):
1. Meat – The clean flesh of a slaughtered animal. Meat can include skeletal muscle, diaphragm, tongue, esophogus, overlying skin and fat, heart, sinew (tendons and ligaments), and blood vessels and nerves that are normally found in the flesh.
2. Meat by-products – The clean parts of a slaughtered animal, not including the meat. By-products could include organ meat such as liver, longs, kidneys, spleen and brain. They can also include bone, blood, fatty tissue and the stomach and intestines if the contents has been removed. This does not include horns, teeth, hair or hooves.
A note about by-products: We often hear that by-products in dog foods are bad and we should not buy dog food containing them. However, organ meat, such as liver and kidney, are very beneficial and actually have a high nutritional value for dogs.
3. Poultry by-products – These are clean parts of slaughtered poultry including feet, heads and internal organs. This does not include feathers.
Meat and poultry meals, as explained here (PDF), do not have to only be meat. They can also include some by-products. But this isn't something scoff at, as these ingredients can actually have a lot of nutritional value. They also add a flavor that your dog will love.
Artificial colors, preservatives and fillers are what you need to avoid when learning how to read dog food labels accurately. In order to be included in pet food, they do need to be approved by the FDA or generally recognized as safe to consume by dogs.
What does that mean, exactly?
This is one of those loopholes I was talking about. It's best to research any ingredients listed on the dog food label that you don't understand. A quick Google search will tell you if the ingredient is artificial or natural, and why it is included in your dog's food. You'll also see information on possible side effects of the ingredient, if there are any.
Another trick that manufacturers use is what allows them to hide some of the preservatives used in their dog food products. Unless the food is wholly USA made, there are ways that some things will not make it onto the label.
While they don't all do it, manufacturers are only required to list the preservatives that they add to the product. If the ingredient is sourced from far away and was processed by the sourcing company using preservatives, the dog food manufacturer does not need to list them.
3. Things to Look for on the Dog Food Label
As I show you in my video above, there are certain things that you need to be looking for when learning how to read dog food labels accurately.
First, be sure there is an AAFCO nutritional statement somewhere on the packaging.
In the photo above, you can see that the dog food I feed my dogs meets the nutritional level established by the AAFCO for dogs of all life stages.
While many dog foods will have this same statement, some pet foods are only suitable to meet the dietary needs of puppies, adult dogs, senior pets or pregnant females.
Also, all dog food labels are required to list the minimum amount of protein and fat in the dog food, as well as the maximum percentage of moisture and fiber.
This is called the Guaranteed Analysis.
In the photo on the below, you can see a sample of what this information looks like. Usually, you will see the calorie count per serving listed close to the guaranteed analysis on the dog food label.
4. Marketing Tricks for Dog Food Labeling
I also want to share a few things that you should be mindful of when learning how to read dog food labels. Many people simply look for the big words in bold print, but there's more to this if you want to ensure that you know exactly what you're feeding your dog.
Remember that big words on the dog food packaging are just a marketing ploy to attract attention to the product and get owners to assume they are healthy, when they may not actually be; they essentially may not even mean anything at all.
Sneaky manufacturers' marketing tactics for dog food labels include words such as:
- Premium or Super Premium
The regulations on pet food labeling are very lenient, and it varies by country. Dog food is not held to the same standard as food made for humans. Therefore, there aren't a lot of rules as to which pet food products can and cannot have these types of descriptive words on their label.
When you're learning how to read dog food labels, it's extremely important that you don't get sucked in by these marketing tricks.
Organic dog food. For example, there are no specific guidelines on what constitutes an organic dog food. While a label may state that a food is natural, that may just mean that a majority of the ingredients are natural (but not all).
Human-grade dog food. Meat that has been inspected and deemed suitable for human consumption could expire and be diverted for use in dog food. While the company can still claim to use human-grade ingredients, they're may also use spoiled meat.
The exact same applies for all other marketing “terms” used for dog food labels.
The thing to remember is that claims like these are very difficult to prove to be accurate, as the regulations for pet food are so tricky and loose right now.
Keep these things in mind, and do your own research on the manufacturer and the dog food company before making your purchase.
If the company claims to use organic ingredients in their dog foods, do some research on their website to find out what their definition of organic is, where and how the crops are grown or how the animals are raised, and where the ingredients are sourced from. You can always email or call the company with any questions that you still have unanswered.
It's a little work at first, but once you find a few suitable brands of dog food to feed your pet, you won't have to be doing this every single time you buy his kibble.
5. Comparing Dry Kibble to Wet Food
Finally, when learning how to read dog food labels, you need to know how to compare foods with different moisture content. We've discussed this with a canine nutritionist and PhD in nutrition in one of my podcast episodes here.
As I mention in my video, you can't compare protein and fat levels between different types of dog food without knowing how to convert the listing on the dog food label into the amount of nutrients contained in the dry matter.
The two most popular types of dog food are wet/canned dog food and dry kibble.
In layman's terms, canned dog food includes a lot of water, which is why it's also commonly referred to as “wet dog food.” When you take away the water content, the food that is left is the “dry matter.”
So just because a can of dog food says that it contain 2 cups of food, it doesn't mean that your dog is actually getting 2 cups of food; more than 50% of that is just water. It's not necessarily bad, as long as this is what you're expecting from your pet's food.
Dry kibble has very little moisture content, while canned dog foods obviously contain a lot more. Let's say that a dry kibble has 5% moisture content (you can find this information right on the label). That means that 95% of the kibble is dry matter.
Look at the protein level in the guaranteed analysis section of the dry dog food label. Let's say that the protein level is 20%. You need to divide the 20% protein by the 95% dry matter. You get about 21% actual protein in the end.
Let's do the same thing with a canned dog food example. Say the canned dog food brand has 60% moisture, so it is 40% dry matter. We'll say that this label states there is only 10% protein in this food. We need to take the 10% protein and divide it by the 40% dry matter. In the end, we see there's 25% protein in the canned food on a dry matter basis.
In the above example, the canned dog food has more protein per pound, even though the dog food label makes it seem that it has less. You can use this same equation to compare the fat levels, fiber content and other nutrients and ingredients in your dog's foods when you're learning how to read dog food labels to ensure complete accuracy.