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Dog Diet: Understanding Dog Food Labels | The Truth Behind the Hype

Updated on October 4, 2015
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Barbara Fitzgerald is an AKC Breeder of Merit and author of the column "Conversations with Champions" for the BCSA magazine, "Borderlines."

You don't need to ready every dog food label in the store to find the best value!
You don't need to ready every dog food label in the store to find the best value! | Source

Why Read Pet Food Labels?

Over the last 10 years there has been an alarming upward trend in the number of pet food recalls. Contaminated dog foods have been linked to a variety of maladies from gastrointestinal disorders to lethal kidney disease resulting in pet deaths.

As consumers grow increasingly aware of antibiotics, glutens and preservatives in their own foods, they have turned their eyes to the labels of their pet's food as well. With approximately 6-8 dog food aisles and 4-6 cat food aisles in the typical pet supermarket to peruse, pet owners attempting to decipher the quality of the ingredients in the packages find themselves overwhelmed by pricey holistic recipes and life stage formulas purporting to contain organic ingredients. But what do these promises on the label really guarantee?

Fortunately for the consumer, the FDA and AAFCO (the American Association of Feed Control Officials) have created stringent guidelines regarding the labeling of pet food formulas and the advertising claims that may be associated with the given ingredients of each product.

Understanding the nomenclature of pet food labels will help you to select the best value and highest quality pet food product for the specific needs of your dog while avoiding the sleazy recipes and sauces that promise almost no nutritive value for your pet.

Save Time By Knowing Where to Start Looking Big Box Store

As a marketing maneuver, pet food producers have moved their better and newer food lines out of human super markets and into pet supermarkets and pet specialty stores. You will quickly discover that the food in the Big Box Pet Superstore is not stocked in random order.

Foods are arranged by price and reputation. On one end of the aisles you will find the lower end, bargain products like Old Yeller and Purina One. If you are seeking the best value on a high quality pet food, move towards the other end of the aisles and stop 3/4 of the way through the rows of isles. Here, and on the adjacent aisles you can begin comparing labels and prices for the better price-to-quality values. If money is no object or you have a single small dog with equally small dietary requirements, then by all means, head on down to the opposite end of the aisles. Here you will find the high-end organic pet foods with high-end prices to match!

Why You Will Never Find Beef, Lamb or Chicken Dog Food On The Shelves

Rarely, if ever, will you find a dog food labeled Chicken, Beef or Fish Dog Food. That's because AAFCO requirements specify that 95% or more of the ingredients in the food labeled chicken or beef dog food be exactly that,: beef, chicken or what ever other "protein" that is described as the "food."

That leaves only 4.99% by the weight of the ingredients for fillers, vegetables and grains, making beef dog food, for example, a very expensive proposition. However, AAFCO provides labeling alternatives that allow manufacturers to reduce the level of protein below 95% of the total contents by weight.

These alternatives also have protein requirement ranges that will help you determine whether the package merits further investigation. Formulas, Recipes and Dinners are legal terms in the dog food labeling arena, that guarantee various levels of protein for each food product.

...bypass those foods labeled as beef or chicken "flavored" meals or treats, as these are very low in protein, and avoid high moisture foods labeled as "gravies, sauces and aspic," as you are essentially purchasing cans of water.

Dog Food "Definitions" - What Are Recipes, Formulas and Dinners vs. Flavors and Sauces

Recipes, Dinners and Formulas fall under the same legal rubric, which requires that the main ingredient listed on the label constitute between 25 and 95% of the total weight of the food. So a dog food labeled as Fish Formula, must contain at least 25% fish and fish by-products in order to qualify as a recipe of formula.

Frequently we find multiple ingredients labels such as Lamb and Rice or Fish and Sweet Potato formula. In these instances the food must contain more of the first listed ingredient on the label than the following label ingredients. For example, a lamb and rice recipe might only contain 13% fish and 12% rice. Other labeling terms that fall under this rubric include entrées, platters, pates and shreds.

Another modifier frequently seen on dog food labels is the word “With.” Pet foods that market ingredients using the term “with” need only contain 3% of the specified additional ingredient.

Flavors - Pet foods labeled with the phrase, for example, chicken flavored dog food, have the lowest protein standard to meet. Meeting the requirement on these foods merely means that the food contains enough of the protein that its essence or scent is detectable by the pet. This standard is met by using professional dog food experts, canines who are trained to detect certain aromas or scents, who can then identify the food as a specimen containing the specified aroma. Given the remarkable olfactory senses of the canine (they can detect early stages of cancer and the presence of internal infections in humans), this is a remarkably low standard to meet.

Gravies, Sauces and Aspics - These labels give the manufacturer a license to steal. While the moisture in most dry dog foods ranges from 8-10% and the moisture content in canned dog foods labeled as dinners etc. is limited to 78%, using the phrase "with gravy" or "in aspic" allows manufacturers to add more than 79% moisture to the meal. That leaves just 21%, at best, of the serving by weight for protein and fiber.

To summarize, bypass those foods labeled as beef or chicken flavored meals or treats as these are typically very low in protein and avoid high moisture foods labeled as gravies, sauces and aspic as you are basically purchasing cans of water.

Recipes and formulas are typically used on dry dog food labels, while dinners, entrees, platters and shreds tend to refer to canned, moist food products. These are the foods that merit further investigation when selecting a new food for your pet. Recipe and dinner labels typically market palatablility, while formulas generally market to specific diet requirements or life stages.

Kibble or dry dog food tends to be more nutritious than canned food.
Kibble or dry dog food tends to be more nutritious than canned food.

Dog Food's Life Stages Labeling and Limited Ingredient Diets

Life Stages Labeling on Dog Food Packages

Frequently brands will divide their product lines into a series of life stages formulas or recipes catering to dogs with specific dietary allergy needs. Puppy or Kitten, Small Breed Puppy, Large Breed Puppy, Adult, Small Breed Adult, Large Breed Adult and Senior food labels suggest to the consumer that a scientific formulation has informed the selection of the ingredients of the meal.

In fact, AAFCO has established only two nutrient profiles for life stages of both dogs and cats— growth/lactation and maintenance. Products tested and found to provide proper nutrition based the nutritional requirements identified by AAFCO and the FDA, may include the following statement on the package, "Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that "This Product" provides complete and balanced nutrition for (the specific Life Stage).

Bear in mind, AAFCO only differentiates between Adult and Puppy diets. Products found to be suitable for an adult are referred to as maintenance diets, which may or may not provide adequate nutrition for animals in the lactating or growth phase, or hard working animals. Large Breed, Small Breed and Senior formulas mean that they meet the requirements of a maintenance, adult diet and nothing more. “All Life Stages” refers to diets that meet both the requirements for maintenance as well as the higher nutritional requirements of the growth/lactation diet.

Limited Ingredient Diets

Many animals have developed food allergies that coincide with many of the dietary allergies humans experience. Gluten intolerance and allergies to specific proteins are not uncommon. Chicken, as a production animal, causes the greatest number of protein allergies. Food allergies are indicated when the dog engages in excessive licking of the paws and legs, resulting in dark brown stains. Dogs with food allergies may also be prone to frequent, yeasty ear infections. As both chicken and beef tend to be produced with excessive antibiotics and growth hormones, Lamb and Fish are therefore the primary proteins in most limited ingredient diets.

Gluten free and grain-free are not synonymous. Gluten-free diets eliminate wheat, rye and barley from the ingredient list, leaving rice, corn, oatmeal and potato as the potential carbohydrates of choice for these formulas. On the other hand, "Grain-free" formulas may not include corn, but may include rye or barley. Diets heavy in corn, a crop produced to quickly put weight on cattle, can quickly add weight to your pet as well. If your dog is experiencing gastrointestinal disturbances, begin with a limited ingredient gluten-free diet based on Lamb or Fish with potato, rice and/or oatmeal as the carbohydrate.

USDA Certified Organic Seal
USDA Certified Organic Seal | Source

Comparing Holistic, Natural, Premium and Organic Dog Food Labels

The terms Holistic and Premium are not defined by AAFCO or the FDA and therefore have no legal meaning. Therefore these terms can only promise the manufactureres good intentions. “Natural,” however does have a legal definition in the pet food industry, and natural products are defined by AAFCO as:

“A food or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal, or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis, or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts which might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.”

Therefore, Natural food products may not contain chemical or synthetic additives. This limitation also includes many trace elements such as taurine as well as many vitamins which are synthetically derived. The addition of such synthetically derived ingredients to an otherwise natural product requires that a disclaimer, such as “Natural ingredients with vitamins added,” be included on the packaging.

Organic foods must maintain the most rigorous standards in the pet food industry. In order to be labeled organic, the producers must follow strict growing, harvesting and processing procedures. The organic pet foods contain ingredients closest to human grade ingredients in the pet food industry. Under FDA auspices, the term organic applies to human foods, and may only be applied to pet foods when the human standards have been met. Organic on the label indicates that the food has been produced through methods that "promote cycling of resources, ecological balance and biodiversity." In addition, organic proteins must be raised without the use of drugs such as hormones and antibiotics.

Pet foods containing 95% or more of ingredients which meet the human standard may display the USDA organic seal. When the level of organic contents in the package falls below 95% but remains are above 70%, the label may state, “Made with organic ingredients.” And those foods with less than 70% organic ingredients by weight as eaten, may list the individual organic ingredients in the ingredient list (such as organic barley, organic rosemary), but cannot use the term organic anywhere else on the label.

Not a Once In A Lifetime Endeavor

Keep in mind that dogs fed the same diet, day after day and year after year can develop allergies to ingredients in the food that did not originally exit. Similarly, they can develop nutritional deficiencies by lack of a varied diet. As we do not fully understand canine and feline nutritional requirements any more that we fully understand human requirements, it's recommended that we rotate our pets diets through several different brands and a mix of protein and carbohydrate formulas. When making a change in your dog's diet, make the change a gradual one that is accomplished over the span of a week.

If you find that your pet cannot tolerate the new food or does not find it appetizing, most reputable pet supermarkets and food manufacturers offer a full money back guarantee. Don't be afraid to return the unused portion (assuming a reasonable amount is still left in the bag) and exchange it for something that your pet will thrive on.


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