The MyStetho blog

How to read a dog food label

1. How to read the list of dog food ingredients?
Like packaged foods for humans, pet foods must list ingredients by weight, starting with the heaviest. But if the first ingredient is a type of meat, keep in mind that meat is about 75% water, according to the FDA.

Without this water weight, the meat would likely fall lower on the ingredient list.

Meat dishes, such as chicken meal or meat and bone meal, are different; most of the water and fat have been removed, which concentrates animal protein.

2. What are by-products and should I avoid dog food that contains them?
Vets say it's a matter of personal choice. Any pet food labeled "complete and balanced" should meet your dog's nutritional needs.

Liver, which is a byproduct, is rich in nutrients such as vitamin A. Meat byproducts can also contain cleansed blood, bones, brains, stomachs, udders and intestines, according to the Association of American Feed Control Officials. By-products do not include hair, horns, teeth, and hooves, although an exception is allowed for amounts that inevitably occur during processing.

Meat meal can also contain animal parts that many people consider to be by-products. An ingredient listed as "chicken" or "beef" may include heart, esophagus, tongue, and diaphragm. Although all of these ingredients may seem unpleasant to you, your dog would probably disagree. So don't necessarily balk if you see by-products in the ingredient list.

Federal rules to guard against the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) ban certain parts of cattle and buffaloes previously allowed in animal feed, including pet food. The FDA rule prohibits the inclusion of body parts from any animal that has tested positive for mad cow disease, as well as brains and spinal cords from older animals, as they are considered to be at higher risk of the disease.
3. What are all those chemical-sounding names further down the ingredient list?
Preservatives, artificial colors and stabilizers in pet foods must be FDA approved or generally recognized as safe, a category that includes everything from high fructose corn syrup to benzoyl peroxide, used for whitening flours and cheese. Manufacturers must list the preservatives they add, but they don't always list preservatives in ingredients such as fishmeal or chicken that are processed elsewhere.

Some pet owners do not want to buy food containing the synthetic preservatives BHA (butylhydroxyanisole), BHT (butylhydroxytoluene) or ethoxyquin. These preservatives prevent fats from going rancid and can keep dry dog ​​food fresh for about a year, but their safety has been questioned by some consumers and scientists. But the FDA says they're safe at the level used in dog food.

"There's a debate about whether artificial ingredients like these should be avoided because conventional safety testing indicates they're good," says Susan Wynn, DVM, AHG, nutritionist for Georgia Veterinary Specialists in the region. of Atlanta and a clinical resident in small animal nutrition at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. "I wouldn't want them in my daily diet, and I try to avoid them in my dog's daily diet."

Ethoxyquin came under intense scrutiny in the 1990s after complaints of skin allergies, reproductive problems, cancer, and organ failure in some dogs fed this preservative. In 1997, the FDA asked dog food manufacturers to halve the maximum allowable amount of ethoxyquin after tests by manufacturer Monsanto Company showed possible liver damage in dogs fed high levels. of curator.

Some manufacturers no longer use ethoxyquin, BHA or BHT, but instead use natural preservatives such as vitamin E (mixed tocopherols), vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and extracts from various plants, such as rosemary. These also keep food cool, but for a shorter period. Be sure to check the expiry date of a food on the label before you buy it or give it to your pet.

"If you want shelf life, it's better to have chemical preservatives," says Joseph Wakshlag, DVM, PhD, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. “They're added in amounts that don't harm the dog, and it creates a more stable fat. Rancid fats can cause increased liver enzymes and diarrhea. »
4. How can I be sure the food meets my dog's needs?
Look for a nutritional adequacy statement on the label.

Many pet food manufacturers follow model regulations set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) that establish the minimum amount of nutrients needed to provide a complete and balanced diet. The statement may state that the food is formulated to meet AAFCO standards or that it has been tested in feeding trials and shown to provide complete nutrition.

The AAFCO statement should also indicate what life stage the food is appropriate for. For puppies, look for a food suitable for growth or all life stages. For adult dogs, look for adult or all-life-stage maintenance. The nutritional needs of senior dogs can vary depending on health conditions, and there is no AAFCO standard for senior foods.

5. What is the guaranteed analysis?
All dog food labels must state the minimum amount of protein and fat in the food and the maximum percentage of fiber and moisture.

Some dog food labels also list the percentage of other ingredients, such as calcium and phosphorus.

Low-fat dog foods often contain less fat and more fiber, to fill a dog up without adding calories.

According to the National Research Council, a nonprofit National Academies science research unit, at least 10% of the daily diet, by weight, should consist of protein and 5.5% fat. Dog foods usually contain higher amounts than these because dogs may not be able to digest all the nutrients in a food.

6. What do the labels “natural” and “holistic” mean?
Legally, not much. Foods labeled as natural should contain few or no synthetic ingredients. Holistic, along with premium and super-premium, are marketing terms and there is no rule controlling how they are used. Also, be wary of marketing terms like “human-grade ingredients” or “made in a USDA-inspected facility.”

“It is difficult to confirm that these claims are truly accurate,” says Teresa Crenshaw, acting chair of the AAFCO pet food committee. While pet food can be made in a USDA-inspected plant, it can happen without an inspector, Crenshaw says. Meat once considered safe for humans may have spoiled and been diverted to pet food, she says. Neither claim means the food is safe for humans.
7. What is organic pet food?
There is no official definition for this. But the United States Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program, which sets rules for using an "organic" label, is looking into the matter.