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Dog Food–What’s In It for Fido?: How to Read Pet Food Labels

Dog food labels can be confusing, so how do you know what's best for Fido?

Grain Free. Organic. All Natural. Take a stroll around your local pet supply store, and you’ll see labels and claims of all sorts staring at you from the shelves. Pet owners can be passionate about choosing the best food for their pets, but with thousands of products on the market, how do you make the right choice? Pet food labels are a good place to start, and understanding the label information can help you make informed decisions. Let’s talk about the need-to-know information to interpret those labels, and we can dispel a few myths and misconceptions along the way.

Ingredients Labels

Though frequently the first place we look for information, the ingredient list can be misleading and is often misunderstood when determining nutritional value. Ingredient lists can certainly be valuable when a pet has a confirmed food allergy and must avoid certain ingredients, but much of the way pet food is labeled can be unclear. Here are some important facts to keep in mind when it comes to pet food ingredients: Each ingredient, including additives, must be listed in the ingredients statement.

Ingredients are listed in descending order by pre-cooked weight. However, this does not reveal the amounts of the ingredients. For example, wheat germ meal, wheat bran and wheat flour are all components of wheat, but they may provide different nutrients.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), not the food manufacturer, defines how ingredients are named. For example, according to AAFCO, corn gluten is defined as: the part of the commercial, shelled corn after removal of the larger portion of the corn’s starch and germ. Incidentally, corn is an acceptable grain and is not classified as cheap filler. Corn is an excellent source of energy because it contains approximately 80 percent carbohydrates. When comparing corn to other ingredients, very few provide an equivalent amount of energy. The carbohydrate portion of corn can be more than 95 percent digestible for our pets. Additionally, corn provides a blend of carotenoids, which are nutrients that are converted to vitamin A. Biologic functions that involve carotenoids are vision, skin health, reproduction and bone and muscle growth. They also have a role as antioxidants.


Pet owners may be concerned to see “phylloquinone,” “α-tocopherol,” “cobalamin” and “ascorbic acid” listed on their pets’ food until they learn that these are the actual chemical names for vitamins K1, E, B12 and C, respectively. Vitamins A, C and E are also antioxidants, which are added to foods to balance the nutrient profile and preserve fats. Preservatives are not universally bad for pets and, in fact, help prevent foods from becoming rancid. However, do be aware of added dyes. Your pet doesn’t particularly care if his food is brown or yellow or red (those colors are added to influence owners, not pets), but there have been documented cases of sensitivity to food colorants.

Animal By-Products

Many questions about pet food result from a misunderstanding of particular ingredients. Pet owners may incorrectly think that by-products are solely the undesirable parts of animals, such as hooves, feathers and beaks. However, as defined by the pet food industry, meat by-products are clean parts other than muscle meat, such as organ meats like lungs, kidneys and spleens. Therefore, by-products can be an excellent source of amino acids, protein, vitamins and minerals.

Organic and Natural

Pet food labels are factual, but they are also used to attract consumers. Terms such as organic and natural, and unregulated terms such as human grade, premium and holistic are of little use when determining nutritional value. As more pet foods are manufactured to meet pet owners’ demands for organic and natural ingredients, owners need to understand these terms. AAFCO defines natural as “originating from animals or plants.” The AAFCO has no regulatory definition for organic, which in human food refers to the procedure by which organic ingredients are grown, harvested and processed. Pet foods that meet the human standard for organic (at least 95 percent of the content by weight, excluding salt and water, must be organic) may display the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic seal on their packaging. The FDA uses “natural” to describe food and “organic” to describe both the food and the way in which it was processed.

Grains in Pet Food

Grain-free is not necessarily better. While there is still debate in the scientific community as to whether dogs and cats fall into the carnivore or omnivore category, the fact is that through years of domestication, they have acquired the capability of digesting grains. Raw diets are available, but are difficult to maintain and challenging to keep balanced. While commercially available foods may have grains in them, the top ingredient should still be a high-quality protein. The most commonly reported food allergies in dogs and cats are chicken, beef, dairy and egg, while fish is the most commonly reported allergy in cats. There is nothing particularly special about these ingredients other than they have been the most common ingredients in pet foods for the past few decades, so both cats and dogs often have been exposed to them a lot. What surprises many pet owners is that grains are actually uncommon causes of food allergies – most pets are allergic to animal proteins!

Wet Vs. Dry

Dry and wet foods are both nutritionally balanced. However, since most of us don’t brush our pets’ teeth daily, dry foods do have the added benefit of helping slow down tartar buildup. Finicky eaters may have “trained” their humans to only offer wet foods, and may turn up their nose at dry foods. However, since dogs and cats really are feast and famine eaters — meaning that in the wild, they would eat well after a kill, but may not eat again for some time — it’s not a veterinary emergency if your healthy pet skips a meal or two when changing foods. (However, if your pet suddenly stops eating her normal diet, it might be an early indicator that she isn’t feeling well.)

Feeding Guidelines

Complete and balanced pet foods must include feeding directions on their labels. However, one set of feeding guidelines cannot account for the great variation in metabolic rates and nutritional needs among individual pets. Additionally, breed, temperament, environment and other factors can influence food intake. Feeding guidelines provide a good starting point, but frequently overestimate the caloric needs of some pets, leading to weight gain. Therefore, pet owners (with guidance from a veterinary professional) will likely have to adjust the feeding guidelines on a case-by-case basis to achieve a healthy, lean body condition for their pets.

What Does It All Mean?

My personal choice is to feed a high-quality, commercially available dry dog food. While lower quality foods may appear cheaper per ounce, the nutritional value is diluted, meaning that you have to feed more to get the same effect. Look at the feeding guidelines for Ol’ Roy vs. Dick Van Patten’s Natural Balance, and you’ll see what I mean. A 65 pound dog can do quite well on only 2.5-3 cups a day of a high-quality food, and produce a lot less waste! So, not only are you saving money by feeding less of a high-quality food, but you are also saving on clean-up supplies.

If read correctly, pet food labels can provide important information for optimizing your pet’s health. Owners who are educated about the myths and misconceptions regarding pet foods and their labels are starting from a good place. If you have questions about a pet food or its appropriateness for your pet, consult your veterinarian.

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