Do you worry about the quality of your beloved dog’s diet, but glaze over when you try to decipher the nutritional information on the packages? What do those multisyllabic words and confusing numbers actually mean?
Understanding dog food labels and using that information wisely can make the difference between choosing a good quality dog food or settling for a dud.
How to Really Read Dog Food Labels
Dog food packaging usually includes three sets of information: the front panel, the guaranteed analysis, and the list of ingredients. Each of these gives you important information to help you make an informed decision.
The first place to start is the front of the package. You want to select a food or treat that is suited to your dog. The front panel gives you information on the brand, the main ingredients, the life stage the food is made for, and if there are any breed-specific goals for the food (e.g., it is specifically intended for giant breeds or for Miniature Dachshunds).
A typical guaranteed analysis provides information about crude protein, crude fat, crude fibre, and moisture. You will sometimes see guarantees for other nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, omega fatty acids, or glucosamine. Knowing these other nutrient guarantees can help you compare foods or find a food that meets your dog’s specific needs.
The guaranteed analysis, however, does not address the quality or digestibility of the ingredients. To get a sense of the quality of the food, you need to look at the list of ingredients.
In the United States the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) establishes standards on which individual states base their regulations. Canadian pet foods are usually packaged and labelled in accordance with AAFCO guidelines and Canadian federal regulations such as the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act and the Health of Animals Regulations. Under AAFCO, ingredients are listed in order based on weight, so items at the top of the list are the main ingredients.
A good-quality dog food will have meat listed within the first three ingredients. However, since ingredients are listed in order based on weight, having fresh chicken as your #1 ingredient does not necessarily mean that the product contains a lot of chicken, as fresh chicken contains a lot of water, which bumps up the weight of that ingredient. On the other hand, if chicken meal is the first ingredient listed, you know that there is far more chicken in the food, because meal is light in weight. In order for light-weight chicken meal to be the #1 ingredient by weight, the food must contain a large quantity of it.
Another way that ingredient lists can be deceptive is through the practice of “splitting.” If an ingredient list read “Rice, meat, etc.” you would know immediately that there is more rice than meat in the food. However, if the rice content is split into several ingredients, the company can legitimately list meat as the top ingredient, thus: “Meat, ground rice, rice flour, rice bran, etc.” When added together, these grains may actually be present at levels that are higher than the meat.
Other items to note when reading the ingredient list: food dyes, flavourings, and preservatives.
Dog Food Dilemma: What to Choose
Now that we understand the type of information to be found on a food label, let’s discuss how to use that information wisely to choose a good-quality dog food.
When comparing dog foods, you should consider the amount of moisture present in each food. The guaranteed analysis is listed on an “as-fed” basis (AFB) which is a term used in nutrition to indicate the percentage of moisture in the food has not been factored into the calculation of percentages of crude protein, crude fat, and crude fibre. If two foods have different moisture guarantees, you need to correct the values to a “dry-matter” basis (DMB). To do this you’ll need a calculator and some simple math.
Let’s look at the guaranteed analysis of two sample foods given on an as-fed basis:
Based on this, you might think the dry food contains a greater percentage of all the listed nutrients. However, if we correct the values to DMB, a different picture emerges.
To do the calculation:
- Locate the percentage of the nutrient
For Food A, this would be 26%.
- Determine the percentage of dry matter
by subtracting the moisture percentage
(100% – moisture content = dry matter) For food A, this would be 100% - 12% = 88% dry matter
- Divide the percentage of the nutrient
by the percentage of dry matter and multiply
For Food A, this would be 26% ÷ 88% x 100) = 29% protein
The number that you get should be higher than the number reported on the label because you’ve removed the moisture.
Now compare the two foods again, this time on a DMB:
At first glance, the dry food appeared to have higher guarantees, but when you correct for the moisture and convert to a DMB, the canned food is actually higher in protein.
Remember that higher levels of nutrients aren’t always better; there is an optimal percentage depending on your dog’s requirements and lifestage. Most dog foods are formulated to slightly exceed your dog’s nutrient requirements. When choosing an adult dog food, pick a food that has between 18-28 percent protein as listed on the label, unless your dog has other specific requirements, as discussed with your vet.
Both canned and dry dog foods are designed to provide a complete and balanced diet for your dog. One 421mL can (13 oz) of dog food has approximately the same caloric content as 1 cup of kibble. Canned dog food must contain about 80 percent water to allow for proper canning, so you will often find water or broth as the second or third ingredient on a can of food. The process of canning preserves the food, so there is no need to have preservatives in canned dog food. However, the high moisture content in canned food also means you are feeding (and paying for) a lot of water.
When choosing canned dog food, look for one that has a whole meat listed as its first ingredient (e.g. fresh beef). In a dry food, a meat meal (species should be identified, e.g., chicken meal) should be one of the top ingredients, to ensure adequate protein levels.
Stay away from “mystery” meat (e.g., unidentified-species meat and meal). An ingredient list should always state the species of meat (e.g., chicken, turkey, trout, etc.). If it doesn’t, it is using a mixed source of meat, which can be of questionable origin. Plus, the mixed source will not be consistent from batch to batch and this may upset your dog’s stomach.
There is no scientific evidence to suggest that consumption of food dye is harmful to your dog. However, your dog does not need or even enjoy food dye. The colouring is there to make the product more marketable to you—the dog owner. Choose foods that do not have a lot of dye in them.
Dog foods, like people foods, will spoil over time. To prevent this, preservatives are added to kibble to allow for a longer shelf life. BHA, BHT, and ethoxyquin are synthetic preservatives and vitamin E (tocopherol), and vitamin C (ascorbic acid) are natural preservatives. Multiple studies have shown that consumption of preservatives such as BHA, BHT, and ethoxyquin are not associated with cancer. In fact, some studies have indicated that they may, in fact, be protective against cancer. However, there has been concern that some dogs may develop allergies to synthetic preservatives. If you are concerned about your dog consuming synthetic preservatives, choose foods that have been preserved with vitamin E or C.
Fresh vegetables are sometimes added to dog foods to help dogs that have grain sensitivities. If you are looking for a food that contains veggies, look for veggies to be listed high on the list of ingredients. Veggies are around 80 percent water, so if they are at the bottom of the ingredient list, you are just paying for expensive water.
Some food manufacturers are starting to include a range of nontraditional ingredients such as fruits and plant extracts and herbal supplements. In most cases, these have not been proven to be useful to dogs, and often there is little data to support the safety of feeding these ingredients. While we may know that blueberries are full of antioxidants and are good for people to eat, there is nothing to show that there is any benefit to including these in a dry dog food. In addition, it’s important to remember that not everything that is safe for people is also safe for dogs. For the vast majority of herbal supplements, we have no idea what they do in a dog’s body, and there may be a synergistic action between herbal supplements during the cooking process that may be harmful to dogs or interact with medications that your dog may be on.
If you are choosing to feed a commercial dog food, one of the best ways to improve your dog’s health and well-being is to feed an appropriate amount of a good-quality dog food. With a good diet, your dog will live a longer, healthier life. When examining dog food labels, take your time to do the research needed. If you have questions, the best people to ask are the companies themselves, your vet, or a qualified canine nutritionist.