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How to Read Dog Food Labels

By: Dr. Dawn Ruben

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By learning how to read a label, you can learn a great deal of information about the food you are feeding your pets. You can even learn how to compare one food to another and choose the one best suited for your dog.

As with human food labels, pet food labels are strictly regulated by the federal government, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture, and must follow stringent guidelines. Pet food labels are typically divided into two separate sections: the principal product display and information about the food.

Principal Display – Product Name

This part of the pet food label contains the brand name of the food as well as the specific food or formula contained in the can. It lists which meat is primarily used in the food and may indicate for which age group the food is intended (growing, maintenance, adult). The product weight, in grams and ounces, is also included. The principal display also includes the type of animal the food is meant for – dogs or cats.

How the product is listed on the label is also strictly regulated. In order to call something "Beef for Dogs," at least 95 percent of the product must be the named meat, without counting the moisture content. If the moisture content is included, at least 70 percent of the product must be the meat listed. If the name has a combination of meats, such as "Chicken and Liver," the two products together must be 95 percent of the product with the first ingredient listed more prevalent.

If the amount of the meat is over 25 percent but less than 95 percent, a qualifier must be added. The word dinner is a commonly added qualifier but platter, entrée, nuggets and formula are also common. Also, just because the product name says "chicken formula" doesn't mean beef or fish are not added. Check the ingredient list to find out which meats are also included.

Another rule regarding product name is the newly approved use of "with." In pet food such as "Dog Food with Chicken," since the word "chicken" follows "with," that food must have at least three percent of the food as chicken. This wording can fool some people. "Beef Dog Food" is very different than "Dog Food with Beef." The first has 95 percent beef. The second only has three percent beef.

Informational Section

In addition to displaying the product name, brand name, weight and intended species, the pet food label also includes a more complex section. The informational section contains a list of ingredients, the guaranteed analysis, feeding instructions and nutritional adequacy claim. This is the part of the label that is most important when comparing different foods and determining the nutrients in the product.

Ingredient List

The list of ingredients must be in descending order. This means that the most prevalent part of the diet is listed first and then followed by each ingredient in order by weight. If your pet needs a diet low in protein, considered getting a food with several carbohydrates listed in the top five ingredients. If your pet needs high protein, get a food with the first two ingredients as meat products.

Guaranteed Analysis

This section of the pet food label lists the amounts of each ingredient contained in the food. Typically, the minimum amount of the ingredients is listed and not always the exact amount. When comparing one product to another, you must take moisture content into account. The ingredients should be compared on a dry matter basis. This means that if 82 percent moisture is present in the food, the remaining items comprise 18 percent of the diet. The minimum values listed for each ingredient (besides water) should be divided by 0.18 in order to get a dry matter amount. Now two products can be compared fairly. For information on minimum nutrient guidelines set forth by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), see Dietary Requirements in Dogs.

Feeding Instructions

Each pet food lists how much of the food to feed per day. It is up to you to decide whether to feed as one meal or split into several throughout the day. The feeding instructions should be considered suggestions and not rules. A variety of factors will determine if your specific pet needs more or less of the food.

Nutritional Adequacy Claim

This section of the information area lists the life stage for which the food is made, such as "for maintenance," "for growth" or "for all life stages." If the pet food follows the guidelines set forth by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the label will include a statement that says the food provides complete and balanced nutrition for a particular life stage. It will also list if the food is meant as a treat or a supplement and should be fed in combination with other foods.

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