How to Read Dog Food Labels

Dog food labels can be confusing. They can also leave people wondering what's in dog food. Pet owners don't have the luxury of having veterinarians, Ph.D. nutritionists, and food scientists by their side to decipher the words and ingredients on dog food bags and to tell you how to read the dog food labels.

Pet owners want the best for their dog, so it's important that labels are written in terms and words that are easy to digest.

Here's a primer on dog food labels and what they mean:

The Importance of Knowing How to Read Dog Food Labels

It's important for your dog to get the proper nutrients so that he remains healthy, strong and bright for years to come. But just like with food for people, dog food comes in varying levels of quality. You don't want your dog eating the equivalent of a candy bar every day. You want him to get the protein, fat, fiber and other nutrients he needs in the correct balance. Foods with a precise balance of these nutrients meet the specific needs of pets associated with their life stage, size or special needs.

Knowing how to read dog food labels helps you determine the quality of the food you're choosing. Not only will you find information about ingredients, the percentage of nutrients, and feeding directions on a label, but you'll also receive a guaranteed analysis and nutritional adequacy statement. All of these parts of a label can help you choose the best quality food for your dog.

Hand holding out silver bowl of dog food to dog lying down.

Government and Voluntary Oversights

The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) requires that all animal foods are safe to eat, produced under sanitary conditions, contain no harmful substances and are labeled truthfully.

While pet food is regulated by the FDA in the United States, many food providers are also rated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). AAFCO is a voluntary organization, but one that is important because AAFCO develops and implements uniform and equitable standards that regulate manufacturing and labeling of animal food. The organization provides resources and the understanding of how to read dog food labels and make educated decisions about their pet food choices.

What the Information on the Dog Food Label Means

The List of Ingredients

What's in dog food? The list of ingredients on the dog food label is listed in descending order of quantity based on weight. That means proteins like chicken, beef and lamb — which weigh a lot because of high water content — are often listed before dry ingredients like grains, vitamins and minerals. The FDA points out that the moisture content is important when analyzing an ingredient list.

"If we could compare both products on a dry matter basis (mathematically 'remove' the water from both ingredients), one could see that the second product had more animal-source protein from meat meal than the first product had from meat, even though the ingredient list suggests otherwise," the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes.

The Guaranteed Analysis

Independent regulators review pet food labels for compliance with nutrient requirements and label claims. They require information of at least four vital nutrients used in pet foods: proteins, fats, fibers and moisture content. This is called the "guaranteed analysis." Additional nutrients must be included in the analysis if a product label makes a claim that mentions a specific nutrient. The FDA also reviews these specific claims made on pet food.

The Word "Crude"

You might notice that the word "crude" appears in the guaranteed analysis. That simply refers to the analytical method used to determine the percentage of nutrients in the product.

The Nutritional Adequacy Statement

The nutritional adequacy statement will tell you if you are matching your pet's nutritional needs with a product. For instance, it will tell you if the food is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for gestation/lactation, growth, maintenance or all life stages.

The Feeding Directions

Feeding directions are required on pet food labels to show how much weight and volume of the food to give per weight of the animal. However, the feeding guide is only intended as a starting point. It's critical to your pet's health that you monitor his physical condition and adjust the feeding amount as needed and with the guidance of your vet.

The Calorie Content

Because feeding directions vary and because pet foods can vary greatly in calorie content, the best way for consumers to compare products and determine how much to feed your dog is to know the calorie content. AAFCO regulations require manufacturers to include a statement including the number of "kilocalories" in units familiar to pet owners such as "cup." Kilocalories are the same as the calories you see on human food labels. The FDA advises a rough comparison of the caloric content values between canned and dry food, and then multiply the value of the canned food by four.

Trust and Integrity Matter

Lastly, integrity is an essential quality to have in the company that you trust to provide the balanced nutrition your pet needs every day. False and misleading information on labels prevent pet parents from making informed choices when comparing dog and cat foods.

As noted by the FDA, "Products labeled as premium or gourmet are not required to contain any different or higher quality ingredients, nor are they held up to any higher nutritional standards than any other complete and balanced products."

Dog food companies should be the kind of company that pet parents can trust. What is found in the food products should be what you find in the bags or cans you buy.

Partner with a dog food company that believes daily nutrition is the single most important thing you can do to enrich and lengthen the special relationship you have with your pet.

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