There are few things more confusing and challenging than sifting through a pet food label. Trust me, even many general practice veterinarians—myself included—find them challenging and often difficult to truly understand. I recently had a nice chat with one of my good friends and colleague, a Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist, to help sift through some of the essentials when it comes to labels:
One very important element to look for in a label is the Nutritional Adequacy Statement. This is the statement that specifies who should be eating this food. Is the food acceptable for all dogs, i.e. for all life stages and breeds, or is it just for maintenance? Is it ok for growth, as well as reproduction, activity and performance? If it’s a puppy food, is it okay for all breeds—large and small? You see—there are many considerations.
I’m sure you’ve seen the AAFCO statement on a label. This statement certifies that the food meets or exceeds certain nutritional standards, and all foods should have this statement. Basically there are two statements—one states that “this food is formulated to meet or exceed the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO,” while the other states “feeding trials have established that this food is formulated, etc…… .” The difference is that a company can develop a food that has all the proper nutrients, but can they guarantee the dog will eat it? Feeding trials that prove the food will be eaten, were more popular and more accepted years ago, but are becoming more obsolete given the unwillingness of many companies to maintain dog colonies in a boarding-like environment just to study them.
The basic premise of a pet food label is the actual ingredient list—probably the most confusing part of the label. Many of the ingredients are meant to appease us---not necessarily our dogs. Can “by-products” be acceptable? Do they have nutritional value? The answer is “Yes” to both. Liver is actually considered a by-product. Obviously “human grade” meats are of higher quality and are very digestible (in the 90% range) whereas the average supermarket brands are about 75% digestible. But, understand that those ultra-premium foods are more costly, less available, and actually for some dogs might be too rich as they are higher in fats and protein!
When checking labels for protein, fat, and carbohydrate percentages, usually referred to as “Guaranteed Analysis” it is important to compare foods on a dry matter basis. Dry foods contain about 10% water, while canned foods are around 75% water (thus much more diluted). You need to take this into consideration when comparing.
Also, make sure your food lists calorie content—either per kilogram of food, or per can or cup. When starting a new food and you want to know how much to feed, follow the guidelines on the bag or can for your dog’s size—and start somewhere in the middle of the printed range.
Don’t get overwhelmed, and don’t feel that you need to feed the most expensive food on the shelves. Look for a familiar brand that is AAFCO certified, something your dog really likes, something that keeps his or her coat nice and shiny, one that gives them lots of energy, and normal stools. My general recommendation is that if you are currently feeding a food that satisfies the above criteria, is convenient and cost effective for you, and your dog isn’t suffering from any problem that your veterinarian is suggesting a dietary modification, then don’t switch!!
Hope this helps you navigate through the dozens upon dozens of pet foods available to you.
Jeff Werber, D.V.M.
Fi Chief Veterinary Consultant