Having prepared my own dog food for well over a decade, I’d always notice others in the pet store, bag of dog food in hand, reading the fine print with skewed concentration and a look of utter confusion. Well, I recently found myself in their shoes since I’ve been involved with a new Weimaraner rescue, and I started running into problems finding the time to prepare food for multiple dogs. And so this prompted my entrée back into the commercial dog food aisles.
The dog food choices seem to exponentially grow daily, and my confusion, combined with a healthy dose of frustration, only grows along with those choices. Picture this. Not one, not two, but three aisles adorned with dog food, all competing for my attention. Tempting packaging and key buzz words, riding the trendy wave of “natural dog food” (It says so right on the bag, so it must be true!) vied for my attention – “No grain!” “All natural!” “Holistic!” “Buy me! Buy me! Buy me!”
It’s completely overwhelming! But it doesn’t need to be!
It turns out that most of the stuff written on the bag should be ignored. Let’s cut through the hype and go for the 80/20 rule here; you do not need to be a dog food expert to feed your dog a good quality, balanced and nutritious food.
When you look at a bag of dog food, all you need to concentrate on are the following four things: the ingredient list, guaranteed analysis, AAFCO statement and bag dates. I know it sounds really boring and dry, and it is! These items usually take up only about 25% of the bag’s real estate; the rest of the bag is marketing fluff! It’s actually hard to ignore the marketing, so do try to make a concerted effort to look at only the information that matters!
Front of the Bag
Forget the name of the food and all the key phrases that are used. “Gourmet,” “home style,” “holistic” and the like all mean nothing. Let’s just implement a rule of thumb now. Adjectives and pictures should be ignored. Be aware that trendy buzzwords like “light” “reduced calorie” “gluten free” are all just that, buzzwords.
The one that trips most people up is “natural.” What does that mean? Technically nothing; only “organic” has a legal definition and is regulated. Oh, and it’s the process of growing that defines organic, not the quality of the ingredient!
The only exception to ignoring everything on the front of the bag is when there is some number stated. A real number has no wiggle room, so if the label says 95% meat, it really is 95% meat. (You would find this type of number on a canned food label; it’s impossible for dry food to be 95% meat.)
Flip to the back and put on your reading glasses….
… because this is where you find the real meat of the matter (pun intended)!
This is where you should turn to first, and you can concentrate on the first 5-6 ingredients on the list. The main thing to look for is meat and other ingredients that you recognize as food. If you can’t picture it in your head (like, what the heck is “by product”? Can you picture it?) then it’s probably a food fraction or a waste product from human food processing.
Food fractions are a little tricky. A common misleading tactic is to break up the ingredient items into fractions; for example, corn, corn bran, corn gluten, corn gluten meal. Listing fractions this way is accurate and therefore completely legal, but it is deceptive to the average consumer.
It’s not as important to understand the differences of each of these fractions (you can always Google it if you really want to know) but to understand that the combined total of the various corn fractions could add up to more than the singly listed meat product that sits in the first position on the ingredients list. Manufacturers know that at the very least most consumers know that more meat is better. That’s why they do it!
Food fractions aren’t necessarily bad and can serve a purpose, so you shouldn’t necessarily eliminate a brand only due to the fact that fractions are listed. That said, in general, fractions tend to be lower quality and used as filler.
So it’s pretty common in premium brands to see a named meat source as the first ingredient. This is a great sign, but if it’s followed by a laundry list of fractions, you should stop and think. Water weight counts and makes an ingredient heavy, and “chicken” has a lot of water in it. So is it mostly chicken or mostly grain? In these instances while a whole meat in the first slot is a good thing, it could be deceptive; you have to look at what follows.
What do I mean by named meat source? “Chicken” or “beef” is named. “Meat” or “poultry” is not. We want specificity. So “chicken” is better than “poultry” which is better than “animal.” It may seem innocuous to feed mixed meats, and it is actually beneficial to feed various proteins, but you want to do the mixing, don’t leave it to the manufacturer!
Bottom line, if the label only says “meat,” how do you trace things if there’s a recall?
So we like a named meat source as the first ingredient, and usually the better foods would have another named meat source second in the ingredient list. This second source is often a “meal.”
“Chicken meal” is the same as “chicken,” except it’s rendered, meaning the chicken is boiled and then fat is skimmed off. After all the water is boiled away, it’s ground and dried. “Meals” aren’t a lower quality ingredient, and in fact has a higher protein level since regular meat has so much water in it. The takeaway here is that “meals” are basically the same thing as the whole meat, except it’s more nutrient dense.
On the other hand, “by-products” are undesirable. The stuff that consists of by-products is mostly organ meats and offal. While they are not bad ingredients in and of themselves, the problems are the way by-products are allowed to be handled. The pet industry standards allow for unclean and non-chilled handling, often leaving meat to rot in the heat. Rendering by cooking in high temperatures kills bacteria, and while by-products are not deemed unsafe for your dog, it’s important to understand what you are feeding.
After meat and grains (or, potatoes, peas or other substitutes to help the kibble bind in grain-free formulas), you will see a list of vitamins and minerals. Any food ingredient you see after that may as well not be there, as the quantities after the vitamin and minerals are so miniscule, it is listed only for marketing purposes.
I hear a lot of people talk about this % of protein and that % of fat and using those percentages to compare different foods with each other. Making an across the board comparison is inaccurate, misleading and potentially dangerous.
The guaranteed analysis is only required to guarantee moisture content, and minimum percentages of crude protein and fat and maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture. “Crude” by the way, is the pre-processed state, so quality or digestibility would not come into play here. For (totally fake) example, muscle meat and feathers could both have the same amount of crude protein but clearly one source would be better quality than the other. You get the point.
And just because some label says 25% minimum protein and the other one says 35%, does not mean that the one that says 35% has more protein! The actual amount varies! These are not precise numbers, so the 25% minimum protein food may actually have 40% actual protein and maybe the 35% minimum protein food has 38% actual protein. So which REALLY has more?
The other problem with trying to compare foods based only on the percentages listed on the bag is that you can’t compare dry to wet foods without adjusting for the added water in wet food. Since I can’t really remember how to calculate this — and don’t really want to — I use the rule of thumb on this one too. FDA says the dry matter in kibble is about four times that of wet food so multiply the guarantee on the canned food x 4 to compare to dry. This is very ballpark and may give you some idea, but if the minimums or maximums are way off, you will be way off regardless. Dry foods can range from 5-40% fat!
In most cases, you will not know the exact breakdown of the food; however, the best companies will list a total nutrient analysis or an actual nutrient analysis tested by a lab on their website. You can also call for this information. The Innova line of dog foods publishes complete nutritional analysis on their website. Good luck trying to find others without having to call!
If there are more ingredients listed in the guaranteed analysis than what is required by law, the manufacturer is still guaranteeing those additional ingredients as listed. They are also subjecting these ingredients to surveillance by the state feed control officials.
Nutritional Adequacy Statement/AAFCO Statement
If you’ve examined your dog food bag, you’ll see something called AAFCO that sounds all official. AAFCO stands for the Association of American Feed Control Officials which is an advisory group that establishes nutritional standards for pet food. Their website is clear, “AAFCO does not regulate, test, approve or certify pet foods in any way.”
A nutritional adequacy statement is required on any pet food that claims to be “complete and balanced” as a sole source of nourishment. Nourishment means that your dog will survive (which is adequate, and this is an adequacy statement, remember), it does not mean that he will thrive.
AAFCO categorizes dog food into two categories: “for growth” or “for maintenance.” If it meets AAFCO’s requirements for both growth and reproduction as well as adult maintenance, then it may be called “for all life stages.” Adult or maintenance food requires a minimum of 18% protein and 5% fat. Growth food for puppies and pregnant moms requires a minimum of 22% protein and 8% fat; these bags will say, “Adequate for growth and reproduction.”
About Puppy Foods
From an AAFCO label standpoint both “for growth” and “all life stages” foods are “puppy foods,” but here’s where gimmickry can come into play due to that pesky minimum and maximum thing again.
Most “all life stages” foods exceed calcium levels that large breed puppies like Weimaraners need to the point of it being detrimental, even dangerous.
Animal nutritionist, Susan Lauten, Ph.D. (and Weimaraner owner!) says, “Large breed puppies under 6 months of age require calcium and phosphorus levels in the 1.2 grams and 1.0 grams range, respectively, in order to grow properly; however the [AAFCO] numbers for all life stages are 2.9 grams and 2.3 grams respectively. These large breed puppies have no way of regulating the absorption of calcium in the digestive tract, and the results of feeding levels like this is developmental orthopedic disease. The bones eventually remodel, but the damage is already done.”
The takeaway here is to remember not to rely on labels and label claims alone; the numbers are what matters. These numbers may be difficult to find, so a phone call to the manufacturer may be necessary.
Nutritional adequacy for “complete and balanced” foods (whether “for growth,” “for maintenance,” or “for all life stages”) can be substantiated in one of two ways. They must do an AAFCO feeding trial, meaning that they feed the food to dogs in a laboratory environment to test the efficacy of their foods. Or, they must state that the food has met AAFCO guidelines. This is tested in a lab.
So which is better to determine nutritional adequacy? The feeding trial or the lab testing? This is tough to answer.
A feeding trial means that the food was testing on real dogs for a specific time, with “all life stages” being tested the longest since it is fed to pregnant moms and her puppies, and then for several months afterwards as the pups grow. Usually the total duration is up to 6 months.
With a feeding trial, these foods are scientifically proven to nourish dogs in real life, but they do not need to meet the nutritional adequacy. So while this food may have proven itself for the period it is tested on dogs, it doesn’t mean that there wouldn’t be ongoing long term problems, particularly nutritional imbalances that build up over time.
On the other hand, an AAFCO statement means that the food has been tested in a lab but not on real life dogs. The problem here is that just because it meets nutritional guidelines in a lab, it cannot measure how digestible the ingredients are or if a combination of ingredients is bad and so on.
It is also worth noting that smaller more independent companies often cannot afford the expense of feeding trials.
This information is really only sort of useful. Every dog is different with different lifestyles and energy needs. Furthermore, manufactures can over or under estimate the directions here, to sell more food or to make the food look economical.
The best thing to do to determine the quantity of food that’s right for your dog is to start with the bag recommendations and then keep an eye on your dog’s weight and adjust as needed. Particularly if you are changing brands, you may need to pay more attention as there may be a big calorie difference between the foods. Just use your common sense on this one!
Batch Code/Expiration Date/Best By Date
Ever have your dog one day turn his head at the food he’s always eaten with gusto? You too may notice that the food smells a little off. When this happens, you may want to check out the date on the bag.
The culprit is usually fish and fish oils (but not always) as when oils get old, they go rancid. This is what your dog smells and turns him off. For those that still eat the food, it usually results in some pretty nasty gas.
It’s always wise to buy the freshest food possible so look for those dates! They can be hard to find, sometimes in the folds of the bag and often in fine print. Dry foods are usually stable for approximately 12 months. 18 months if preserved. Fish oils in particular have a short shelf life so you have to be a bit more careful with dates on fish based foods. Fish based foods should be used within 3-4 months of manufacture.
If you see a batch code instead of a best buy date, call the manufacturer for the information you need.
The Bottom Line and General Advice
I would have loved to have written an article where I could confidently recommend a commercial food that would work for everyone’s dog so that this can be a no-brainer for you. Unfortunately, it’s just not possible. In fact, be suspicious of anyone saying that any one brand is categorically “the best.” There are too many unknowns both from the manufacturer’s side as well as from the perspective of the individual dog’s particular needs.
Most of the time choosing the right dog food is a matter of trial and error. There really are no “good” or “bad” ingredients. Corn gets a bad rap as if corn is an allergen to all dogs. Fixating on all grains being “bad” is a little bit trendy right now, and this type of mind set may cause you to miss other ingredients that could be causing issues. Chicken and beef are actually common allergens in dogs!
For those who have dogs with health problems, keep a health journal and be sure to note what food your dog is on as you journal. Poop journals are not uncommon with owners that are dealing with dogs with major food issues, and while it’s a pain and maybe a little bit gross, it can tell you a lot and show you patterns that you’d never figure out otherwise.
I am also a believer in switching foods rather than keeping a dog on one brand. I think it’s wise to rotate protein sources and other ingredients, so not only switching formulas but brands also. Frequent changes will not allow your dog to develop nutritional imbalances over time and keeps the digestive system more robust. Issues with changing foods disappear when you change frequently.
For easy keepers you won’t have to worry too much about these choices; there are always those dogs that thrive with supermarket brands just the same as high end foods. In general though, dogs do better on the more expensive foods just because the ingredients tend to be higher quality. But that doesn’t mean that you cannot be budget conscious. A good rule for value would be to concentrate on the first 2-3 ingredients being really solid, and you will get into the right ball park.
These days, dog food choices are getting better and better as consumers get more and more educated. This is a good thing! Competition means that manufacturers must be conscious of consumers’ knowledge, and produce better products and offer better customer service – but this only happens if it’s demanded! Do not be afraid to call a dog food manufacturer to ask questions if you need answers. Companies need to know that owners care about what their dogs eat! As they say, good food is the cornerstone to good health. I know that is what I want for my dogs, and I know that is what you want for yours. There is a perfect food for YOUR dog out there!
Using This Information in Real Life
My journey in understanding dog food labels started when I struggled to find the right food for my first Weimaraner who had vaccine induced allergies and chronic diarrhea. In my quest to make him healthier, I studied dog nutrition and started making my own dog food in my kitchen over a decade ago.
In the mean time tried a lot of different brands and I know how overwhelming it is, so I’ve created a one page cheat sheet that you can take with you to the pet store the next time you shop. I’ve also included my top five dog food picks for you to try. (Don’t forget that not all foods work for all dogs, so you will have to see what works for yours, but these picks will give you a starting point. They are the ones that I use when I feed commercial food, and I’ve also included the reason I like them.)
Have you had frustrations or successes or any tips or hints not covered here? Please post below!