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How to Read Dog Food Labels: A Guide for New Dog Owners


Food labels are confusing enough when it comes to human food, for our dogs, they’re downright maddening! However rough it may be, learning how to read dog food labels by reading between the lines will enable you to choose the highest quality food which could add several healthy, cuddly and ball-fetching years to your pup's life.

Notice the Order of the Ingredients

Just like people food, dog food companies are required to list the ingredients by order of content determined by weight. Inexpensive dog food will have grains like corn or soy listed first, while higher quality food will have animal proteins listed as their main staple.

Artificial colors, stabilizers and preservatives must be either approved by the FDA or have a long track record of safety, this can include anything from high fructose corn syrup to benzoyl peroxide, used to bleach flour and wheat. Pet food companies are required to list the preservatives they include but they are not required to list the preservatives used in ingredients such as chicken meal, that were processed offsite before they were added to the food.

Assess the Protein Quality

Look for easily identifiable names like “chicken” and avoid the catch-all words like “poultry.”  The most nutrious proteins in order of quality are; Lamb (too young to be full of antibiotics and hormones) Beef, Chicken, and Fish.

“Meat meal” may contain animal byproducts.  An ingredient listed as “chicken meal” or “beef meal” may include the stomach, tongue, heart or diaphragm. Meat byproducts also can contain bone, blood, udders, brains and cleaned intestines. Don’t discount all byproducts offhand. Liver, which is considered a byproduct, is rich in vitamin A and nutrients. They may seem distasteful to you but they’re a perfectly healthy form of protein for your pet. If it says "bone meal", think twice. There's no guarantee of where the bones came from – let your imagination wander and you could be right.

Pay Attention to the Grain Content

Your carnivorous pup has no biological need for grains. Many grain-free formulas use potatoes or legumes as a substitute, because, unlike canned dog foods, kibble cannot be made with just meat. As dry food requires a binder to hold everything together, starchy vegetables have become the most common source of carbohydrates found in non-grain recipes.

Check for Certification

Most mainstream manufacturers follow the guidelines established by the Association of American Feed Control (AAFCO), which dictate the minimum nutrient amounts for a balanced diet. There are two levels of AAFCO standards. The first states that the product “is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles.” To meet this standard, the food must be analyzed to ensure that it complies with the nutrient profiles. To meet the second standard, the product must be tested on a population of animals to ensure adequate nutrition.

The AAFCO certification should also state what life stage the food is suited for. For young dogs, look for a food geared towards growth. For adult dogs, look for adult maintenance or all life stages. Nutritional needs for senior dogs vary and currently, there is no AAFCO standard for senior food.

Know the Difference between “Natural” and “Organic”

Food labeled as “natural” is said to contain few, if any, synthetic ingredients, however, there is no governing body controlling the use of this word. Take marketing terms like “All-natural, human-grade ingredients” with a grain of salt. Meat once considered safe for humans may have spoiled and been diverted to pet food.

“Organic” should ensure the ingredients are pesticide and hormone free. Again, there is no governing body to validate that claim. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, which sets rules for using an "organic" label, is currently reviewing the issue. In the meantime, online reviews and vet recommendations are your best bet for finding organic dog food manufacturers that have a history of satisfied pups and owners.

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