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By Lorie Huston, DVM
Feeding your dog a high-quality well-balanced food is one of the best things that you, as a pet owner, can do to keep your dog healthy. A good food will keep your dog’s hair coat shiny and sleek. It will strengthen his immune system. It will keep his digestive system in good health. But when it comes to choosing a dog food, the options seem almost endless.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has established guidelines for regulators to govern claims a pet food company can make on its label.
If the food is said to contain a single ingredient, it must contain at least 95% of that ingredient, not including water. If a combination of ingredients is advertised, that combination has to make up at least 95% of the food. For instance, if the food claims to be made solely of beef, beef makes up 95% of the food.
Phrases like dinner, platter and entrée means the foods must contain at least 25% of the named ingredient. If the name states “with” a specific ingredient (such as “with cheese”) only 3% of the named ingredient is required. Products that advertise specific “flavors” need to contain only a detectable amount of that ingredient.
Next, look at the list of ingredients. Keep in mind that ingredients are listed by weight. Ingredients that contain large amounts of moisture (such as beef, poultry, chicken, or fish) are likely to be at the top of the list because of the moisture content. Ingredients further down the list may offer even more key nutrients such as protein but may weigh less because the water has already been removed for a dry pet food.
Some of the controversies that surround pet foods include the use of grains, glutens and by-products. Grains are used in many pet foods and provide an excellent source of carbohydrates. Dogs can easily metabolize these carbohydrates and use them as an energy source. However, some people prefer to avoid grains in their dog’s food. Avoiding grains for those dogs that are allergic to them is a valid choice. However, allergies to other ingredients, including meats, are much more common than allergies to grains.
Gluten allergies are common in people and many pet owners choose a gluten-free food for their dog believing that the same is true for the canine species. However, gluten allergies are actually very rare in dogs.
Pet food ingredients labeled by-products include highly digestible and nutritious organs, such as the liver and lungs. They do NOT include things like hair, horns or hooves, as advertising gimmicks would have you believe. It is a misconception that by-products are “unfit” for human consumption, though it is true that they are less popular ingredients for human food in the U.S. Most of the meat that we eat is derived from skeletal muscle rather than organ meats and other by-products.
Reputable dog food companies choose quality by-products to include in their foods so choose a company you can trust.
You’ll also want to check the pet food label for a nutritional adequacy statement. This statement will read something like “This food is complete and balanced for all life stages,” “This food is complete and balanced for adult maintenance” or “This food is complete and balanced for growth and reproduction.”
Puppies have different needs than senior or adult dogs. So choose your dog’s food accordingly.
Along with the nutritional adequacy statement should be a statement that indicates how the adequacy statement was substantiated. This may be through feeding trials or through formulation to meet a nutrient profile. Foods that have undergone feeding trials are preferred. This indicates that the food has actually been fed to living dogs to make sure that the dogs not only were willing to eat the food but remained healthy while eating it.
A guaranteed analysis lists the minimum amount of protein and fat by percentage and the maximum amount of fiber and moisture, also by percentage. Moisture can skew the comparison, though, so look for one converted to a dry matter basis, especially if you’re looking to compare dry food to wet food.
Although the guaranteed analysis provides a measure of nutrient categories, it does not indicate quality or digestibility of ingredients.
Genetics, age, life style and reproductive status all play a role in how much food your dog should eat. Ask your veterinarian to perform a body condition evaluation for your dog and make sure you know the basics too. It’s the best way to make sure your dog’s weight is on-track. It’s even better than the scale. The main point to remember is that you should be able to feel your dog’s ribs.
You might find that your dog needs a little less or a little more than what your dog food packaging suggests. Some dogs need special foods to help them lose weight. Ask your veterinarian for a dietary recommendation.
Information on sourcing and quality control in manufacturing is not required on pet food labels. You may be able to find the information on the company’s website but if not, call their consumer relations department and ask where its ingredients are sourced. Any reputable company with a quality product will be happy to engage with its consumers.
Next, see if the company manufactures in its own facility rather than outsourcing. This provides better control and safer food for your pup!