How to Read a Dog Food Label


Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S on May 01, 2010 From the WebMD Archives

The dog food nutrition label, likethe nutrition facts box on packaged foods for people, is designed to help youcompare products and to learn more about the food. But it can be a bit hard todecipher. We’ve put together a guide to the label to help you understand how touse it.

1. How do I read the dog food ingredient list?

Like packaged food for people, pet food must list ingredients by weight,starting with the heaviest. But if the first ingredient is a type of meat, keepin mind that meat is about 75% water, according to the FDA.

Without that water weight, the meat probably would fall lower on theingredient list.

Meat meals, such as chicken meal or meat and bone meal, are different; mostof the water and fat have been removed, which concentrates the animalprotein.

2. What are byproducts, and should I avoid dog foods that contain them?

Veterinarians say that’s a matter of personal choice. Any pet food labeledas “complete and balanced” should meet your dog’s nutritional needs.

Liver, which is a byproduct, is rich in nutrients such as vitamin A. Meatbyproducts also can contain blood, bone, brains, stomachs, udders, and cleanedintestines, according to the Association of American Feed Control Officials.Byproducts don’t include hair, horns, teeth, and hooves, although an exception is allowed foramounts that occur unavoidably during processing.

Meat meal also may contain animal parts that many people consider to bebyproducts.  An ingredient listed as “chicken” or “beef” may include theheart, esophagus, tongue, and diaphragm. Although all these ingredients maysound unpalatable to you, your dog would probably disagree. So don’tnecessarily balk if you see byproducts in the ingredients list.

Federal rules to guard against the spread of bovine spongiformencephalopathy (mad cow disease) ban some previously allowed cattle and buffaloparts in animal feed, including pet food. The FDA rule bans the inclusion ofbody parts from any animal that has tested positive for mad cow disease, aswell as brains and spinal cords from older animals, as these are considered tobe at higher risk of the disease.

3. What are all those chemical-sounding names lower on the ingredient list?

Preservatives, artificial colors, and stabilizers in pet food must be eitherapproved by the FDA or be generally recognized as safe, a category thatincludes everything from high fructose corn syrup to benzoyl peroxide, used tobleach flours and cheese.  Manufacturers must list the preservatives theyadd, but they do not always list preservatives in ingredients such as fish mealor chicken that are processed elsewhere.

Some pet owners don’t want to buy food that contains the syntheticpreservatives BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene),or ethoxyquin. These preservatives stop fats from turning rancid and can keepdry dog food fresh for about a year, but their safety has been questioned bysome consumers and scientists. But the FDA says they’re safe at the levelused in dog food.

“There is a debate about whether there is a need to avoid artificialingredients like these, as conventional safety testing says they’re fine,” saysSusan Wynn, DVM, AHG, a nutritionist for Georgia Veterinary Specialists in theAtlanta area and a clinical resident in small animal nutrition with theUniversity of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. “I wouldn’t want themin my diet every day though, and I try to avoid them in my dog’s dailydiet.”

Ethoxyquin came under scrutiny in the 1990s after complaints of skin allergies, reproductiveproblems, cancer, and organ failure insome dogs given food with this preservative. In 1997, the FDA asked dog foodmakers to halve the maximum allowed amount of ethoxyquin after tests conductedby manufacturer Monsanto Company showed possible liver damage in dogs fed highlevels of the preservative.

Some manufacturers no longer use ethoxyquin, BHA, or BHT, instead usingnatural preservatives such as vitamin E (mixed tocopherols), vitamin C(ascorbic acid), and extracts of various plants, such as rosemary. Those alsokeep food fresh, but for a shorter period.  Be sure to check a food’s“best by” date on the label before buying or feeding it to your pet.

“If you want shelf life, it’s better to have chemical preservatives,” saysJoseph Wakshlag, DVM, PhD, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at CornellUniversity College of Veterinary Medicine. “They’re added at amounts that won’tharm the dog, and it creates a more stable fat. Rancid fat can cause liverenzymes to go up, and diarrhea.”

4. How can I make sure the food meets my dog’s needs?

Look for a statement of nutritional adequacy on the label.

Many pet food makers follow model regulations set by the Association ofAmerican Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) that establish the minimum amount ofnutrients needed to provide a complete and balanced diet. The statement may saythe food is formulated to meet AAFCO standards or that it has been tested infeeding trials and found to provide complete nutrition.

The AAFCO statement also should say what life stage the food is appropriatefor. For puppies, look for a food suitable for growth or all life stages. Foradult dogs, look for adult maintenance or all life stages. Nutritional needsfor senior dogs can vary, depending on health conditions, and there is no AAFCOstandard for senior food.

5. What is the guaranteed analysis?

All dog food labels must list the minimum amount of protein and fat in thefood and the maximum percentage of fiber and moisture.

Some dog food labels also list the percentage of other ingredients, such ascalcium and phosphorous.

Low-fat dog foods often contain less fat and more fiber, to fill up a dogwithout adding calories.

At least 10% of the daily diet, by weight, should be protein, and 5.5%should be fat, according  to the National Research Council, a scientificresearch unit of the nonprofit National Academies. Dog foods typically containhigher amounts than those, because dogs may not be able to digest all of thenutrients in a food.

6. What do “natural” and “holistic” labels mean?

Legally, not much. Food labeled as natural should contain few, if any,synthetic ingredients. Holistic, along with premium and super-premium, aremarketing terms and there is no rule that controls how they’re used. Watch outfor marketing terms like “human-grade ingredients” or “made in a USDA-inspectedfacility,” too.

“It’s difficult to confirm those claims are truly accurate,” says TeresaCrenshaw, interim chair of AAFCO’s pet food committee. Although pet food can bemade in a USDA-inspected plant, it may happen when there is no inspectorpresent, Crenshaw says. Meat once considered safe for humans may have spoiledand been diverted to pet food, she says. Neither claim means the food is safefor humans to eat.

7. What is organic pet food?

There is no official definition for it.  But the U.S. Department ofAgriculture’s National Organic Program, which sets rules for using an “organic”label, is reviewing the issue.

Show Sources


U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “Pet Food Labels: General.”

U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “Pet Food: The Lowdown on Labels.”

U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “Feed Ban Enhancement: ImplementationQuestions and Answers.”

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