Ever since the pet food recalls in 2007 pet food owners have become more and more concerned about what they’re feeding their pets and what’s actually in the food they buy. During the recalls we discovered that many ingredients in popular pet foods came from countries outside North America. We discovered that many companies had arrangements with other manufacturers to produce their pet foods. And, we discovered that sometimes there wasn’t that much difference between the most expensive foods and the cheapest when you actually looked at the ingredients.
How to Read the Dog Food Label
When it comes to rating and scoring dog foods there is no substitute for learning to read the label on the package. It doesn’t matter what the package looks like or what kind of claims the manufacturer makes about the food, the real information is found on the label. When you can read and understand the food’s nutritional information and ingredients, then you will be able to tell if it’s really a good food for your dog.
In the United States, the nutritional information on a dog food label is approved by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. They set the standards and nutrient profiles that you find on a bag or can of dog food such as the recommended minimum amount of protein for adult maintenance, vitamin and mineral levels, and so on. When you look at a bag or can of dog food it should indicate that it has met either an AAFCO nutrient profile or an AAFCO feeding trial. A feeding trial is usually better since it indicates that a certain number of dogs have actually been fed this food for six months and most of them finished the trial; and the dogs were in acceptable good health. A nutrient profile means that, according to the research provided by the manufacturer, dogs should be healthy if fed this food.
There are now two separate nutrient profiles for dogs. One profile is for growth (puppies) and one is for adult maintenance. The standards include recommendations on protein, fat, fat soluble vitamins, water soluble vitamins, and mineral content of foods. The profiles now include maximum levels of intake for some nutrients because over-nutrition rather than under-nutrition has become a bigger problem with some dog foods.
The dog food label will also list a guaranteed analysis of the ingredients in the food. This will tell you how much crude protein the food contains, how much crude fat, how much crude fiber, how much moisture, and so on. It may tell you what fatty acids are found in the food. This is useful information. However, it does not tell you what percentage of the protein, for example, is digestible by your dog. Some forms of protein will be very easy for your dog to digest while other forms will be hard to digest and your dog will simply pass them through his body as waste. Your dog won’t get much nutrition from those proteins even though they are included in the crude protein analysis of the food.
“Splitting” Ingredients to Mislead Consumers
In order to really know what’s in your dog’s food you have to learn to read the ingredient list and to recognize some of the good ingredients from the not-so-good ones. Ingredients must be listed in order of weight before cooking/processing. That means that the first ingredient listed is the primary ingredient in the food — usually. Manufacturers sometimes resort to a practice called “splitting” in order to divvy up a less than desirable ingredient. For instance, the ingredient list may claim that the first ingredient is chicken meal, which would be a good protein for your dog. The fifth ingredient might be corn gluten. The next ingredient might be corn gluten meal. Later you see ground corn meal listed. And later you find whole yellow corn in the list. When you add up all of the corn in your dog’s food you discover that the real primary ingredient is corn. Corn is a frequent ingredient in many dog foods because it is a cheaper protein. However, dogs can only digest around 50 percent of the protein in corn. (Poultry is about 70 percent digestible by your dog.) Your dog passes the rest as waste. So, a food that claims to be high in protein and has chicken meal as the first ingredient is actually not a very high quality food for your dog but it probably has a relatively high price tag.
What to Look Out For
You can learn some of the other ingredients to avoid, too. For example, you should avoid foods that have unnamed meat and fat sources, such as “meat digest,” “meat by-products,” “animal fat,” “poultry fat” and so on. Look for meats and fats that are specifically named such as chicken meal, whole chicken, beef, fish meal, lamb, lamb meal and similar parts of other named meats. Unnamed meats and fats can come from some undesirable sources including, in some cases, what’s left on the slaughterhouse floor or worse.
You should avoid foods that have BHA and ethoxyquin as preservatives. Ethoxyquin is used in making tires and it really has no good place in dog food. However, it is often found in fish prior to its processing as a dog food ingredient so many foods cannot claim to be 100 percent ethoxyquin-free for this reason.
You should avoid foods that have artificial sweeteners and colorings. Your dog doesn’t need these and the colors are really only used to appeal to you, the buyer.
Do You Need to Buy Grain-Free Dog Food?
Grains or no grains? That’s really up to you and your dog. Many dog foods today are moving toward fewer grains and carbohydrates. However, all dry dog foods need to contain some grains to act as a binding agent so the food can work through the dog food machinery. From a nutritional standpoint, your dog does not need to eat a completely grain-free diet. Nor does he need to eat a diet that is made completely of cereal. A happy medium is fine. Try to avoid foods that are heavy on corn since many dogs have developed allergies to it and dogs do not absorb much nutrition from it. Foods with soybeans can also be problematic since soybeans used as fiber have been associated in some breeds with bloat.
Learning to Choose a Good Dog Food
These are just a few of the things that you should look for when you read a dog food label. There are many kinds of dog food and some of them have some unusual ingredients such as exotic proteins, herbs, vegetables, etc. If you find something on a dog food label and you’re not sure if it would be good for your dog, check into it. Find out what the experts say.
There is extensive information available about dog food and dog food ingredients and it’s worth spending some time to learn more.