If you have ever taken the time to read the side panels on a bag of dog food, it can be completely confusing and rather misleading unless you clearly understand what you are actually reading. Many of the commercial dog food labels are designed, not be misleading per say, but rather to give the consumer the false peace of mind that they are feeding their dog only the best. Look next time you are at the store as to how many products have pictures of steak, chicken, fish or even lamb, often presented exactly how people would enjoy as a meal. This is all designed to catch your attention and have you think that the food inside the bag is just what you are seeing on the outside of the bag. In reality this couldn't be farther from the truth, with many types of dog food sold that contain almost no meat, no nutritional value and no benefits to your pet at all.
There are two different components to a dog food label. One is very important for understanding the nutritional value of the food and the other is critical in understanding what items are in the food that contribute to the nutritional content. Reading just one of the label components only gives you part of the total picture of how good or how bad the dog food actually is for your pet.
Many people mistakenly choose their dog food based solely on the information from the ingredients list. This information, while helpful and certainly important, is not as telling as the information found on the guaranteed analysis grid or chart. The chart will list the minimum percentage of crude protein and fat, which are the building blocks that the dog's body needs to create energy and maintain tissue. The chart also lists the maximum amounts of crude fiber and moisture or water. It is important when choosing a food to keep in mind that for most foods, especially dry foods, the water or moisture content should not be above 10%. Canned foods may be 80% moisture, which only leaves 20% actual product in the can.
The guaranteed analysis is typically fairly standard with good quality premium foods, especially with kibble. Most dogs will need between 21 and 26% crude protein in their food to stay healthy, however pregnant females and puppies may need additional protein while diabetic dogs or obese dogs may need less protein. Always talk to your vet about what levels you should be looking for with regards to your particular dog.
After you have checked the guaranteed analysis, the next step is to look over to the ingredient list to find out where the manufacturer is getting the protein, fiber, fat and other minerals and components from.
The ingredient list must indicate exactly what food items and non-food items are used in the manufacturing of the food. They are also listed in order on the ingredient list, but this is by natural weight, not by volume. Keep in mind that meat is largely water, and will weigh much more than grains or other dry matter, even though there may be five to ten times more dry ingredients to make up the same weight of wet ingredients. This is critical as many people see the meat at the top of the list and assume there is more meat, on a volume basis, than any other ingredient. In reality if the meat item were dried before being included on the list it would likely be close to the bottom.
In addition manufacturers now must list where the meat is coming from. This is done by a series of terms that are universally used in pet food manufacturing. When you see "meat" on the ingredient list this is the actual muscle of the animal and must be disease free. Meat can include striated skeletal muscle, nerves and blood vessels that would normally be found in the flesh of the animal. Approved meat for pet foods include lamb, chicken, turkey, fish and beef. The skin, overlying fat, tongue and esophagus is also be considered as meat.
Meat by-products are literally everything else from the carcass that is not considered meat. Meat by-products cannot contain hooves, hair, teeth or horns, but may include ground up bones, internal organs and the digestive tract that is cleaned of any undigested materials. Poultry by-products are the entire carcass of the chicken or turkey, including the head and feet but not the feathers.
Beef tallow is fat that is obtained through rendering parts of the slaughtered animals. This tallow is often used to coat dog food kibble to make it more desirable for dogs to eat, but it is also essential in providing some of the necessary fats for the dog's health.
Vegetables and grains are listed on the ingredient label as either meal or the grain such as corn, brown rice or wheat. The term meal means that the grain has been processed to make another product, and the meal is the dried left over parts that are then used for dog food. Typically they are mostly bulking agents and provide some fiber to the food.
The common preservatives used in dog food include naturally occurring fat preservatives called Tocopherols. They are important for your dog, one common natural tocopheral is Vitamin E, essential for healthy, shiny coats and good skin. Artificial preservatives include butylated hydroxyanisole or BHA and Ethoxyquin. Both of these preservatives are used to stop the dog food from spoiling, particularly the fatty component.
Reading the label will help you determine what is the best value for your dollar, as well as what is the best possible food for your dog. If you are buying a specialized diet that indicates it is to help the coat or help your dog lose weight, you may want to double check what it actually has in it that can accomplish this from a nutritional standpoint. You may find it is less expensive to just add a supplement to the existing food or increase your pet's exercise level.