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How to Read a Pet Food Label

Updated on February 18, 2011

Having one week before our new puppy gets here I started looking into what food I would eventually change over to. Right at first I'll stick with the food the breeder is feeding but I do want to feed the best I can for our new puppy. Two organizations are involved in passing regulations and standards for pet food labels. They are the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and an independent body called the Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). The federal level is the FDA and at the State level most adopt standards set by the AAFCO. Keep in mind the AAFCO is comprised of both government and industry officials. So the people that make the food have a part in regulating it also.

Pet food is a multi-billion dollar industry and the pet owner is buying the food not the dog. The front of the package is marketing and is aimed at selling the product. The naming of the product tells a little about the product itself. For instance a "Beef Dog Food" has more meat or meat meal than say "Beef Dinner for Dogs" which will have a lower percentage. Choose your pet food based on facts not marketing hype. So the cute commercials with animation, neat songs and talking pets have nothing to do with nutritional quality.

The information panel is where the good stuff is listed. Most consumers are used to reading the information label when shopping for themselves. It is not much different on pet foods. There is an ingredients list, a guaranteed analysis of ingredients, feeding guidelines and the manufacturer's contact information.

The ingredients list places items in order of most to least weight of ingredient BEFORE production (while they are a mixing). Meats contain as much as 80% moisture most of which evaporates in the cooking process. In the list of ingredients Chicken may be listed first but Corn make be the highest weighted ingredient in the final product and Chicken may be third or fourth.

If you want to compare dry versus wet pet food you will have do some eighth grade algebra to get a proper comparison. It is not that hard. In order to get the product to a level comparison you must take the water out of the product as this is the largest variant in the formula. A can of food contains 80% moisture and 5% meat. You would take 100% (full product) and subtract out the moisture which is 80% leaving 20% of food in the can after water removed. Then you divide the ingredient you want to compare. In this example that would be 5% meat divided by 20% food in can yielding 25% meat of the food in the can. Dry food (10% moisture equates to 90% food, 75% meat yields 83% meat in this product).

Meat meals and by-products are not meat but a product produced by taking all the water out of items left over after all the human grade pieces are taken out. This is called rendering and produces a meal that is high in protein but very low in water. The makeup of meal cannot include hooves, blood, hair, hide, feces or horn materials.

The guaranteed analysis in the percentages of nutrients as tested in a lab analysis. The requirements are that the manufacturers show the minimum percentages of fats and proteins and the maximum amount of fiber and water. The final product could have more of the minimum and less of the max.

In addition, as pet owners become smart informed consumers, some companies include vitamin and mineral content as well as caloric information.

Feeding instructions always seem to be more than you need to be feeding your dog and depend on breed, how active the dog is and where in life they are. It seems this would be to sell more food but I found out it's more likely to be because the company runs trials with active, champion level dog athletes. Consider the feeding instructions to be the max and discuss it with your veterinarian to optimize how much for your pooch.

Other terms like "natural dog food" or "organic dog food" are unregulated in the pet food industry right now. The terms "Complete and Balanced" do have some standardization from AAFCO.

Read the packaging in order to choose the best possible food for you buddy. If you do not know what an ingredient is research it. Consult your Veterinarian (some sell food also). Never switch from one food to another without an adjustment period easing in the amount of the new food while reducing the old brand. I've read four days is standard I always use 7 to 10 days. This will avoid any digestion issues that can be brought on by changing foods suddenly.

We as pet owners deserve to be able to make intelligent comparisons of the product for sale out there before we feed it to our pets. We owe it to out pets to learn and read pet food labels. The disasters of some pet food recalls over the last couple of years have made us more interested in what is in and where our pet foods come from. Hope this info is helpful in your search for that best dog food for you pup.

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    • datahound profile image

      datahound 3 years ago from USA

      Thanks Bob,

      I missed your comment when you replied. This is a very good point and should be considered when choosing the dog food that you are going to use. The food I use lists chicken meal as the third ingredient but no by-products.

      take care,

    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Good information, datahound. I might point out that meat meals and by- products don't belong in the same sentence, though. Meat meals are a quality ingredient that contain as much as 300% more protein than the meat. But, it should be from an identified species...chicken meal, lamb meal, etc.

      By-products aren't considered a quality ingredient...I've heard the term "slaughter house waste" used. But actually, they're made up of stuff the dog would eat in the wild, but that most humans wouldn't eat at all.

      As you pointed out, marketing has a lot to do with how a pet food is perceived, and the decision is made by a human (usually on an emotional level, not a scientific one), so by-products talk a bad story. They still provide protein and amino acids, though, and are inexpensive.

      The general public usually puts meals and by-products in the same nose-wrinkling category because they don't know the true definition of meals. They just SOUND bad.

      But, the high end foods that start with an identified source meat will back it up with an identified source meat meal because, as you said, most of the moisture in the meat is lost during the cooking. The meat is a lot less expensive than the meal, so it's a way to cut production costs. Voted up, useful and interesting.

    • thevoice profile image

      thevoice 7 years ago from carthage ill

      great pet hub thanks much