Healthy Pets

Dog Food Labels: What do they mean?

posted: 05/15/12
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Courtesy of Allison Robey
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They say 'we are what we eat,' and if it is true for us, it is probably true for our dogs, too. Knowing how to select a good dog food, how much and when to feed, and how we can control or prevent certain diseases through diet will help our dogs live longer and healthier lives.

Your dog requires a minimum daily amount of six essential elements: water, protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and minerals. Your vet can help you pick out a good commercial dog food, or monitor a homemade diet. Always read store-bought food labels, and remember the following:

  • Animal proteins are digested more easily than soy and other vegetable protein in general.
  • You don't need to feed a dog as high a volume of food if it is easily digestible. The more digestible a food, the less stool will be produced.
  • Keep in mind that a sick or stressed dog may need more protein.
  • An unbalanced diet too rich in carbohydrates and/or fiber can cause constipation, bloating and other digestive problems, as well as excessive elimination. Keep in mind that foods high in vegetable proteins are also high in carbohydrates.
  • Fats keep skin and coats healthy and provide energy. Even an overweight dog needs a certain amount of fat in his diet.
  • Rancidity can be a problem with food that has been sitting on the shelf for too long. Food treated with chemical preservatives such as BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin will last for up to 18 months, whereas vitamin E and other natural preservatives will keep food nutritionally sound for six to eight months.
  • A diet lacking in vitamins can lead to problems such as a weakened immune system, a greasy coat, bone disorders, thyroid problems or behavioral changes, to name a few.
  • Never give your dog mineral supplements unless prescribed by your veterinarian.
  • Water keeps the bodily processes flowing. Make sure fresh, clean water is always available.

Reading your pet food label is one of the best ways to determine the quality of the food you are feeding. The ingredients and the guaranteed analysis (amounts of protein, fat, carbohydrates and fiber, and other nutrients) are included on the food label. In addition to providing information about the amount and quality of protein and fat, the label will also alert you of any unwanted preservatives and give general feeding guidelines.

A few other things to consider are the price. Calculate out the price per pound or the price per day. Almost always, dry food is more economical, and the larger the bag the lower the price per pound. Many times, a 40-pound bag is less than half as much per pound than an equivalent 5-pound bag. Remember that with lower quality foods you feed more and it may not always be cheaper. On the other hand, some of the higher priced foods, especially foods sold only through veterinarians, may not be as good as the less expensive more easily obtainable food. Check the ingredients, they will tell the real story. Most pets do not need specialty foods, just quality food. By understanding this article and looking at a few pet food labels you will be able to find the best food for your pet.

Converting dry matter basis

This can be the hard part. All pet foods have different levels of moisture. Canned foods can have up to 80% moisture whereas, some dry foods can have as little as 6%. This is important for 2 reasons. The first is that the food is priced by the pound, and when you buy dog food that is 80% water you get 20% food and the rest is water. So the amount of food your pet consumes is small and expensive. The other reason for understanding percent moisture is to help you compare crude protein and fat between brands and between canned and dry. The listings on the label are for the food as it is, not as it would be on a dry matter basis. So without converting both brands of food to a dry matter basis you will not be able to compare them accurately. Fortunately, the conversion is not that complicated.

If a dry dog food has 10% moisture we know that it has 90% dry matter. So we look at the label and check the protein level that reads 20%. Next, we divide the 20 percent protein by the 90% dry matter and we get 22%, which is the amount of protein on a dry matter basis. Does this make sense so far? Good. Now let us compare this to canned food that has 80% moisture. We know that with 80% moisture we have 20% dry matter. The label shows 5% protein. So we take the 5% and divide it by 20% and we get 25% protein on a dry matter basis. So the canned food has more protein per pound on a dry matter basis after all the water is taken out. We can do the same for fat, fiber, etc.

Guaranteed analysis

The guaranteed analysis on the information panel of the dog food label lists the minimum levels of crude protein and fat and the maximum levels of fiber and water. The protein and fat are listed as crude sources and not as digestible sources. The digestibility of protein and fat can vary widely depending on their sources. The list of ingredients should be examined closely to determine how digestible the sources are. The other factor in determining actual protein and fat percentages is the amount of moisture present in the food as discussed earlier. While the guaranteed analysis is a start in understanding the quality of the food, be very careful about relying on it too much. A pet food manufacturer made a mock product that had a guaranteed analysis of 10% protein, 6.5% fat, 2.4% fiber, and 68% moisture, similar to what you see on many canned pet food labels. The only problem, was that the ingredients were old leather work boots, used motor oil, crushed coal, and water!

All pet foods must list the ingredients present in the food. The ingredients must be listed in order of weight. This is one of the best ways to determine the quality of the food. With a little knowledge of the ingredients, you can choose a food that is highly digestible and free of unwanted products. Be careful of one tactic used by manufacturers to disguise less desirable ingredients. Breaking an ingredient into several different smaller ingredients and listing them individually is used to lower these undesirable ingredients farther down the ingredient list. For example, a product list could contain chicken, ground corn, corn gluten, ground wheat, corn bran, wheat flour, wheat middling, etc. If we were to group all of the corn ingredients as one, they would probably far out-weigh the amount of chicken, and wheat. As a consumer, you must read all of the ingredients carefully including the ingredients at the end, to know the type of preservatives and colorings that are used. I have listed a few of the more common ingredients and their definitions.

  • Meat: Meat is the clean flesh of slaughtered animals (chicken, cattle, lamb, turkey, etc.). The flesh can include striated skeletal muscle, tongue, diaphragm, heart, esophagus, overlying fat and the skin, sinew, nerves and blood vessels normally found with that flesh.
  • Meat By-products: Meat by-products are clean parts of slaughtered animals, not including meat. These include lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, liver, blood, bone, and stomach and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth, or hooves.
  • Poultry By-products: Poultry by-products are clean parts of slaughtered poultry such as heads, feet, and internal organs (like heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, abdomen, and intestines). It does not contain feathers.
  • Fish Meal: Fish meal is the clean ground tissue of undecomposed whole fish or fish cuttings, with or without the oil extracted.
  • Beef Tallow: Beef tallow is fat derived from beef.
  • Ground Corn: Ground corn is the entire corn kernel ground or chopped.
  • Corn Gluten Meal: Corn gluten meal is the by-product after the manufacture of corn syrup or starch, and is the dried residue after the removal of the bran, germ, and starch.
  • Brewers Rice: Brewers rice is the small fragments of rice kernels that have been separated from larger kernels of milled rice.
  • Brown Rice: Brown rice is the unpolished rice left over after the kernels have been removed.
  • Soybean Meal: Soybean meal is a by-product of the production of soybean oil.
  • BHA: BHA is butylated hydroxyanisole, a fat preservative.
  • Ethoxyquin: Ethoxyquin is a chemical preservative that is used to prevent spoilage in dog food.
  • Tocopherols: Tocopherols (e.g., vitamin E) are naturally occurring compounds used as natural preservatives.

The AAFCO standards 'AAFCO' stands for the Association of American Feed Control Officials. The AAFCO develops guidelines for the production, labeling, and sale of animal foods. These are called the AAFCO standards. AAFCO has developed two standards which pet foods should meet. Pet foods which meet the AAFCO's requirements will include one of two statements on their label. The first and lower standard states 'formulated to meet AAFCO's nutrient requirement.' This means the food was tested in the laboratory and was found to have the recommended amounts of protein, fat, etc. But as mentioned above, the combination of shoe leather, used motor oil, and coal would meet this standard. The second standard states something like 'animal-feeding tests using AAFCO's procedures substantiate that this product provides complete and balanced nutrition.' For a pet food to be able to carry this label, it had to be tested on a population of animals for six months and shown to provide adequate nutrition. But even with this statement, there are problems with its interpretation. If one particular product in a manufacturer's line was tested and found to meet this standard, the company is allowed to include this same statement on other products in the same 'family' which provide equal or greater concentrations of all the nutrients. So even if the pet food carries this AAFCO food trial statement on its label, you cannot be sure that specific product was actually tested in a food trial. In addition, testing a food for six months is not an adequate amount of time to determine if deficiencies or other long term effects may occur after feeding the product a year or more. Despite these problems with the interpretation of this AAFCO food trial statement, having the statement on a pet food label at least shows the company has made some attempt to develop a good food.

Feeding instructions

Feeding instructions or guidelines are included on most every bag and most cans of pet foods. These guidelines give the recommended amount to be fed based on growth level and weight. I would remind owners that these are very rough guidelines. Every animal has a different level of activity, metabolism, and ambient environmental temperature. In addition, breed, age, and other environmental stresses all impact daily requirements. I encourage you to use these guidelines as rough starting points. If your animal is thin or hungry, feed it more often and in greater quantity. If your pet is obese, feed it less. I cannot begin to count the number of clients that have complained of a hungry, thin, or obese dog and after being questioned about it found that they were feeding the recommended amount on the bag and were afraid to deviate from it. This is an area where common sense is much more important than science.

Most of us are guilty of sneaking a tasty table scrap to our pets during or after dinner. While there is not anything inherently wrong with giving your pet an occasional morsel left on your plate, there are some very good reasons to limit your handouts to treats made for dogs. Giving dogs a bit of leftover lean meat, non-buttered vegetables, and a little rice will not cause problems, but unfortunately, many people do not stop there.

Once you reward begging behavior with table scraps or something off your plate, you can expect to see the same hopeful eyes looking up at you every meal from that day forward. That is fine if you do not mind, but if you have a dog that whines, the behavior may disrupt your dinner. If you do mind, you will have a hard time training your dog to stay out of the room now that he knows he just might get a handout. Also, some dinner guests do not appreciate a tongue-wagging dog at their elbow while they try to eat their meal. The more you fill your pet up with your food the less likely he is to eat his own. And since our nutritional needs are not the same as our dogs', your dog will get less of the vitamins and minerals he needs and probably more of those he does not need. Quality dog treats are developed with your dog's nutritional needs in mind.

Many times scraps are nothing more than empty calories. And since you probably save that hunk of fat or sweet morsel you know your dog will like, he gets all the wrong food for a trim waistline. Overweight pets, besides not looking their best, have a higher risk of many health problems. Table scraps are a leading cause of digestive disorders. The rich foods we eat can wreak havoc on your dog's digestive tract. A simple, consistent diet keeps their system functioning as it should. Throw in your very different foods and spices and do not be surprised if your dog has bad gas, bad breath, loose stools, etc. The rich foods we eat can wreak havoc on your dog's digestive tract. A simple, consistent diet keeps their system functioning as it should. Throw in your very different foods and spices and do not be surprised if your dog has bad gas, bad breath, loose stools, etc.

If your dog develops a taste for your food, he may stop eating his own. After all, which would you prefer, dry dog food or juicy steak and hamburger every night? Pets that are used to eating human food are more likely to devour the turkey leftovers you left unattended on the kitchen table. Or bury their heads in the garbage can to get at that fish you 'forgot' to give them. As you know, many bones, chocolate, and other food items can be dangerous to your dog. Treats are a better choice. A dog treat gives you and your dog the same satisfaction as giving or receiving a table scrap. It promotes that special bond between you and your dog, it gives your pet a new, delicious taste to savor, and it makes both of you feel good. Quality dog treats are usually more nutritious and tend to have far fewer calories than most table scraps. Liver products are great treats because they provide nutrients your dog is unlikely to obtain from any other food source. There are other benefits, too, depending on the type of treat you buy. Biscuit-type treats are good for your dog's teeth as they help scrape off plaque and tartar that can cause dental problems. Rawhide satisfies a dog's urge to chew, relieves boredom, and is also good for teeth. Treats also do not encourage bad behavior. In fact, it is usually the opposite. Treats can be used during training to reward good behavior, but be careful not to overdo it. As with anything in life, treats should be used in moderation. Too many treats can add weight and affect your dog's meals. As a rule, treats should never account for more than 10% of your dog's food intake. Your dog's food is his sole source for the nutrition he needs so do not 'fill' your pet up on treats before meal time. Remember, no chocolate, no bones that splinter easily, and no high-fat, greasy foods.

The vast majority of dogs and cats in this country are fed commercial dry kibble or canned food as the sole source of their calories and nutrition. Since the 1940s, preprocessed commercial foods have become so commonplace that most people would find feeding anything other than dry kibble or canned food very unusual or abnormal. The fact is however, that there are literally thousands and thousands of pets that do not eat commercially prepared food for a multitude of different reasons. A homemade diet can be nutritious, balanced, and better for your pet than commercially prepared diets. This article will explore the pros and cons of a homemade diet and give some helpful pointers to steer you in the correct direction should you choose to feed a homemade diet.

Why would someone feed a homemade diet?

There are many good reasons that people feed homemade diets, for instance, if their pet has a special dietary requirement that cannot be met by commercial foods, such as food allergies, diabetes mellitus, kidney failure, or weight loss. Another reason that some people feed a homemade diet is to provide their pets with a source of nutrition that is free from the by-products, chemical additives, and processing found in commercial foods. A third group of animals that may be fed homemade diets are performance dogs such as sled dogs, whereas, they require very high amounts of fat and protein that cannot be met by a commercial diet.

What are the benefits of feeding a homemade diet?

There can be many benefits of feeding a homemade diet over a commercial diet. To understand the benefits of a homemade diet we may have to break through a commonly held myth that commercial foods are the best food for your pet. While the commercial kibble does an excellent job of meeting the nutritional requirements of most pets and is convenient and fairly affordable, it is far from the perfect food for your pet. First off, have you ever looked at the ingredients listed on a pet food label? Most commercial diets are full of grains, animal by-products (by-product means intestines, chicken feet, etc., but no actual meat) and chemical preservatives. They contain huge quantities of carbohydrates. Dogs and especially cats were never intended to eat many of these types of foods. Dogs are primary carnivores and cats are complete carnivores. That means that they never evolved to eat all of these carbohydrates. They are designed to eat animals including their organs, skin, meat, hair, bones, and stomach contents. Ancestors of dogs would eat an occasional berry or plant but they were not the bulk of their diets. Cats hardly ever ate plant material of any kind, yet in commercial kibble we are feeding them up to 70% carbohydrates. Wild canines and felines eat a diet much higher in protein than what is found in commercial diets. But protein is expensive and even though many pet foods utilize the cheapest protein source available in the form of animal by-products, it still costs more than grain. Because these carnivores cannot begin to digest these grains in a raw form, they must be cooked. The cooking and high temperatures necessary for processing destroys many of the vitamins and nutrients found in these ingredients in the raw form, so they must be added back in the form of vitamin and mineral supplements. To prevent the fat in the food from becoming rancid, chemical preservatives are then added. The pet food supplies what the public demands. We want food that is inexpensive and meets the minimum required vitamin and mineral requirements. We want food that is fast, convenient, and easy to purchase. In our demand for convenience and low cost the pet food industry has given us what we wanted, but is it what your pet would want or is really designed to eat?

Feeding a homemade diet can sometimes be cheaper than a commercial diet. I know of many kennel owners who purchase outdated frozen chicken and beef for as little as 10 cents a pound and formulate their own diets with this meat as the base. A homemade diet can also be a huge benefit in animals with food allergies or digestive disorders.

People do not feed a homemade diet because for most of us it is too much work and most pets do pretty well on commercial diets. Many people also believe that they cannot properly balance their pet's diet if they make it themselves. The fact is that pets live longer now than ever before and a lot of that is due to improved nutrition, mainly, commercially prepared diets. In fact, pets do so well on commercially prepared diets, that by far, the single biggest nutritional problem veterinarians see is obesity in pets. So despite all of the less than optimal characteristics of commercially prepared diets, there are many positive benefits, especially affordability and convenience. Most pets do pretty well on dry or canned food. But if you have one of the pets that does not, or you want to feed a more natural, healthier diet to your pet, you may want to seriously consider the benefits of feeding a homemade diet. With the availability of pet multi-vitamins on the market, balancing the vitamins and minerals is relatively easy.

The three kinds of homemade diets

I see three different kinds of homemade diets being fed. The first is the true, well-balanced, nutritiously complete, entirely homemade diet. This diet contains premium protein sources, a balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and fiber and meets the animal's entire vitamin and mineral needs. People that feed this diet are truly dedicated to the health of their pet. The second diet is the supplemented homemade diet. It usually consists of a commercial dry food as at least half of the pet's diet. The owner then supplements the diet with meat and some carbohydrate sources. The family leftovers usually get scraped into the pet's bowl. If the owner is careful not to feed fat in the leftovers and adds a multi-vitamin to the diet this can work great. With sled dogs or large kennels of working dogs this is often the diet of choice. The third type of homemade diet is the one where the owners feed their pet only table food and does not balance the diet for protein, fat, carbohydrates, and vitamins. This is not a good diet for your pet. It is often fed to finicky eaters. In an effort to please the pet and to get them to eat the owner prepares a 'special' diet that may consist of chicken breast or turkey but lacks fiber, and the correct vitamins and minerals.

Some things to consider before feeding a homemade diet

  • Preparing a homemade diet takes more time.
  • A homemade diet may be more expensive than commercial kibble.
  • A homemade diet needs to be supplemented with a multivitamin to ensure that it is completely balanced.
  • Once a pet gets used to eating a homemade diet it probably will not go back to commercial food.
  • If a homemade diet is not properly balanced it can be worse for your pet than commercial diets.
  • Homemade diets are often soft and your pet needs to chew a solid, crunchy food such as carrots to provide the needed cleaning action for their teeth.
  • You need to switch a pet from a commercial diet to a homemade diet slowly over a period of three weeks to prevent intestinal upset.

A sample of some homemade diets for an active dog

  • 1 lb. of meat with the fat included
  • 2 cups of cooked cream of wheat
  • 1 1/2 cups cottage cheese
  • 1 hard-boiled egg
  • 2 T. brewers yeast
  • 3 T. sugar
  • 1 T. vegetable oil
  • 1 t. potassium chloride
  • 1 t. dicalcium phosphate
  • 1 t. calcium carbonate
  • Multi-vitamin/mineral tablet or 1 lb. of ground meat with the fat included
  • 4 hard-boiled eggs
  • 1 cup cooked oatmeal
  • 1 cooked potato
  • 1/4 cup wheat germ
  • 1/2 cup raw carrot
  • 1/2 cup raw green vegetables
  • 3 T. olive oil
  • 2 T. minced garlic
  • Multi-vitamin/mineral tablet

This is just a small sampling of homemade diets. There are more complete lists in the references listed below. By following the rough guidelines shown with these diets you can substitute appropriate protein and carbohydrate sources as you or your pet desires.

Homemade diets can be a great source of nutrition for your pet. They require a little planning and extra time on your part but they can have many positive rewards. Dogs and cats with special nutritional needs can benefit greatly from these diets. By providing a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement you can meet your pet's daily requirements. With a little planning and preparation your pet can be one of the thousands that enjoy the benefits of a homemade diet.


Palika, L. The Consumers Guide To Dog Food. Howell Book House of Simon & Schuster/Macmillan Company. New York, NY; 1996.

Ralston Purina Company. Nutrition and Management of Dogs and Cats. St. Louis, MO; 1987.

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