Choosing The Best Dog Food
Browse any grocery store or pet food store to buy Dog Food and you will agree that trying to decide on what is best for your dog is an exhausting task. Scanning the shelves of products available, you are bombarded by foods extolling different health benefits as well as a huge range of prices. The pet food industry is a multi-billion dollar industry and pet food manufacturers are eagerly marketing for every dollar. Not only are they marketing us to death, but also developing new products to put in front of us. Those products include “dry”, “canned”, “semi-moist” and health targeted products such as “senior”, “premium” and “gourmet.
So which food is best for your dog? Finding that out takes time and research. The truth is, the best dog food is the one that meets your dog’s nutritional requirements, which vary based upon the dog’s age, breed, body weight, genetics, and amount of activity… and one that fits within your budget. It is definitely worth consulting a veterinarian to get the best advice and nutrition plan for your dog. But for those of you that want to take matters in your own hands, you will find detailed below the most important things you will need to know.
Dog Food Labels
Susan Powter comes to mind when thinking about food labels. Remember this iconic infomercial star with the coined phrase “Stop the Insanity”? Her gospel about nutrition and the importance of studying the ingredients on the side of the packaging to distinguish the various elements and how each plays its role in overall nutrition, was novel at that time. It seems that this was the beginning of the mass movement to better nutrition, label reading and choosing products more carefully.
With all the recent pet food recalls, millions of dog owners have extended this scrutiny to selecting a dog food. But we can’t pull from the Susan Powter gospel for this, because dog foods are manufactured under a series of different standards and regulations, put forth by the AAFCO ( The Association of American Feed Control Officials ). There are special labeling requirements that require all dog foods to have certain information on the label. So, in order that we can all make a proper choice for our dogs, we must know how to read and understand the dog food label.
The AAFCO puts out an official publication, on a yearly basis, detailing special requirements for dog food. Among all the different requirements, they request all dog food manufacturers to adhere to label regulations and must include on the package the following:
- Product Name
- Guaranteed Analysis
- Nutritional Adequacy Statement
- Feeding Directions
The Name Game
When shopping for dog food, what is the first thing you look at? The product name, of course. We’ve all walked down the pet food aisle and seen the product names jump out as us…calling us. Displayed in bold type and fancy fonts such descriptions as “With Chicken”, “All Life Stages”, “Duck Entree”, “95% Beef”, “Natural Dog Food”. But what do these descriptions really mean? Is it just fancy marketing? The AAFCO has set forth rules that dictate how ingredients can be used in a product name.
- Applies to most canned dog food that consists mostly of meat, poultry or fish.
- Specifies that at least 95% of the dog food must be the named ingredient on the label, not counting water and preservatives added for processing.
- Counting water, the product must still consist of 70% of the product.
- If the name consists of a combination of ingredients, the two combined must equal 95%.
- The rule only applies to ingredients of animal origin, so grains and vegetables cannot be used as part of the 95% rule. So if the product name was “Beef and Brown Rice”, the product would still have to consist of 95% beef.
25% or “Dinner” Rule
- This rule applies to many canned as well as dry dog foods.
- If the named ingredient, or a combination of ingredients, found on the label consists of 25% of the weight (but less than 95%) excluding water for sufficient processing.
- The name must include a descriptive term, such as “Dinner”, “Platter”, “Entree”, or “Formula”.
- If more than one ingredient is in the name, they must both total 25% combined, with each named ingredient equaling or exceeding 3%.
3% or “With” Rule
- Originally, this rule was intended to apply only to ingredients highlighted on the package, outside of the product name.
- It allows manufacturers to highlight minor ingredients.
- The ingredient must have at least 3% added.
- The rule now allows manufacturers to use the term “With” in the product name.
Be careful when reading the dog food label because “Beef Dog Food” and “Dog Food with Beef” are not the same. The first must have 95% beef, whereas the latter only needs 3%.
- A percentage of any one ingredient isn’t required.
- The word “Flavor” must appear on the label in the same font size and color as the ingredient name.
- The flavor might be the corresponding ingredient, but more often than not, it’s another substance such as “meal”, “by-product”, a “stock” or a “broth”.
The guaranteed analysis is the next component that needs to be on a dog food label. It serves as a general guide as to what the percentages of the main nutrients and other items are in the total makeup of the product. At the bare minimum, the guaranteed analysis must consist of the following:
- Minimum Percentage of Protein
- Minimum Percentage of Fat
- Maximum Percentage of Fiber
- Maximum Percentage of Moisture
Go ahead and look at your label at this point. See it there? Good. Now, if you have a can of dog food and a package of dry dog food at your disposal, take a look at both labels. After careful analysis you might want to ask, “Hey Michael, I notice when looking at both labels that the dry dog food has way more nutrients. I thought canned food had way more protein…what gives?”
Keep this in mind, as I have noticed this as well, that the amounts of protein and other nutrients stated on the labels appear to be less for canned versus dry, but looks are deceiving. The reason? Differences in moisture content. Canned dog food, on average, consists of 75% water, while dry dog food contains about 10%. So to make a true comparison of the nutrient levels, we need to put both types on the same playing field. To do this, we will be converting both products to dry matter.
To convert the nutrients, we need to dust off our calculators that we last used in high school, in order to perform a little math. (And you said to your math teacher, “I’ll never use this in the real world!”), But I digress. Here’s the formula we will be using:
% Guarantee divided by % Dry Matter multiplied by 100
In one corner, we have a canned dog food that has a guaranteed analysis consisting of 9% protein, 6% fat, 1.5% fiber and 78% moisture.
In the other corner, we have a dry dog food that has a guaranteed analysis consisting of 24% protein, 14.5% fat, 4% fiber and 10% moisture.
- Dry matter of canned: 100 – 78 = 22
- Dry matter of dry: 100 – 10 = 90
- Now we can do our calculations
Canned Dog Food
- Protein: 9 / 22 x 100 = 40.9%
- Fat: 6 / 22 x 100 = 27%
- Fiber: 1.5 / 22 x 100 = 6.8%
Dry Dog Food
- Protein: 24 / 90 x 100 = 26.6%
- Fat: 14.5 / 90 x 100 = 16.1%
- Fiber: 4 / 90 x 100 = 4.4%
So after were done, do you notice the protein? The canned dog food actually has 14% more protein.
Nutritional Adequacy Statement
You’ve seen it on the labels…”Complete”, “Balanced”, “For All Lifestages”, among others. But how are these claims substantiated? What rules are in place to regulate such verbage? The answer is set forth, once again, by the AAFCO.
The Nutritional Adequacy Statement is required and is one of the most important aspects of a dog food label. This statement assures us that a product meets all of a dog’s nutritional requirements. So how is a dog food substantiated for nutritional adequacy? They must use one of two ways:
- The product (or a similar product made by the same company) has been tested in dogs under strict guidelines and found to provide proper nutrition
- If it meets the profile set by the AAFCO, the label will carry a statement as follows: “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (name of product) provides complete and balanced nutrition for (specific life stage).”
The Nutritional Adequacy Statement will also include a statement about which life stage(s) the dog food is suitable for. Two profiles are used. Below is a definition of each and additional information about other profiles:
- Growth/Lactation – A product intended for growing puppies, for pregnant dogs or lactating females.
- Maintenance – Suitable for any adult, non-reproducing dog of normal activity level, but may not be sufficient for a growing, reproducing, or hard working dog.
- Terms like “Senior” or “Formulated for Large Breed Adults” means the dog food meets the requirements for the Maintenance profile, but nothing more.
- A product that doesn’t fit within the two profiles above must state that “This product is intended for intermittent or supplemental feeding,” except if it is conspicuously identified as a snack or treat.
Feeding guidelines are very broad, to say the least. At a minimum, they should include instruction like “Feed ___ Cups Per ___ Pounds.” But keep in mind that these instructions are very rough estimates. Most people feed their dogs way too much. In fact, 25% of all dog’s are overweight…causing problems such as:
- Heart and Liver Problems
- Bladder Cancer
You should treat the guidelines as a place to start. Talk with your veterinarian about your dog food and how much to feed. They understand that nutritional requirements vary and, by knowing your dog, they will be able to recommend a feeding schedule based upon several factors including:
- Body Weight
- Activity Level