Reading labels for our dogs’ food is just as important as it is for our own food. They can, however, be a bit trickier. Providing the correct balance of nutrition at each stage of your dog’s life is important to his overall health and well-being. Understanding the labeling requirements and possible misconceptions surrounding those requirements can help dog owners ensure they are meeting those needs. From the rules to the risks, dog food nutrition labels can be challenging to understand.
Reading and Understanding Dog Food Nutrition Labels
Regulatory Authority for Dog Food Nutrition Labels
Understanding who sets the standards for dog food labeling, what those standards are, and who enforces them is the first step in breaking the dog food labeling code. In the U.S., this occurs at two levels. At the national level, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) establishes the standards for all animal feeds. However, many states have also adopted their own labeling regulations, many of them following those established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). According to the AAFCO, although most pet food manufacturers in the U.S. do comply with their guidelines, there are differences in their interpretation from state to state.
Ingredients Listed on Dog Food Nutrition Labels
Just like the ingredients in foods meant for human consumption, a dog food’s ingredients must appear in order of weight on the nutrition label. This can be deceiving, however, because of the amount of water contained in some ingredients. For instance, according to the FDA, “meat” can be made up of as much as 75% water. Therefore, a dog food with “meat” listed as its first ingredient may actually contain less animal protein than one where “meat meal” is the third ingredient listed.
The difference between meat and meat meal gets more complicated than that. By the AAFCO definition, meat is restricted to the striate muscles of mammals, with or without the accompanying fat, skin, sinew, etc. that may come with that meat. Meat meal, on the other hand, is a result of rendering the entire animal, with the exception of things such as added blood, hide, hair and stomach. To complicate things even further, in order for a dog food to be named “Beef Dinner,” for example, it has to contain beef rather than beef meal.
Additional Requirements for Dog Food Nutrition Labels
Many states require that dog food manufacturers include on their labels both the minimum percentages of crude protein and crude fat as well as the maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture. These percentages are helpful when comparing one dry food to another, or one canned food to another. However, they are relatively meaningless when comparing a dry food to a canned one. To do this accurately you need to first determine the dry matter of each, which is 100 percent less the maximum moisture content reported on the label. Then you take the percent guarantee of the nutrient you’re comparing, divide it by the percentage of dry matter (that you calculated earlier), and then multiplied by 100. For more detailed information concerning these comparison calculations, you can refer the FDA link mentioned earlier.
There is no doubt that reading and fully understanding dog food nutrition labels is not as easy as it appears on the surface. It is, however, a necessary skill to be sure what you are feeding your dogs provides the best nutrition for their specific needs. As with all things pertaining to your dog’s health and well-being, if in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask your veterinarian.