Deciphering Dog Food Labels

Dog Food Labels

The world of dog food ingredients and understanding labelling and ensuring that our dog is getting adequate nutrition can sometimes feel like quite a slippery slope to most of us. With new terms like gluten free, supplemental food source, beef flavouring and the like emerging all the time it is difficult to know which ones are good for your dog, which ones to avoid and which have just been added for marketing purposes.

Based on expert advice from leading veterinarians, here we take the guess work out of labels and teach you what the top labelling statements mean so that you're well informed when shopping for your pooch's next meal.

1. Guaranteed Analysis

This is government prescribed mandatory guarantee that a dog food contains the percentages of protein, fibre, fat and moisture that is detailed on the label. When reading this, always be mindful that wet and dry dog foods are categorised according to different standards, so 9% protein in canned dog food will not be the same as 9% in dry dog food. Wet or canned dog food contains 75-78% moisture while dry food has just 10-12% moisture, so protein percentages will be lower in the wet food.

This means that you will need to convert wet dog food into dry matter in order to make a fair comparison between the two. You can do this by dividing the reported protein percentage (9%) by the total amount of dry matter (25%) and times this by 100 which give you 36% as the dry matter protein percentage. You can also ask your vet for a detailed breakdown of what you should be looking for.

2. Stage of life description

Dog foods are categorised according to size or stage of life of your dog. This is done in order to ensure that your dog is receiving adequate nutrition and caloric intake. If a dog food is labelled "Large breed formula" then it will not be suitable for small dogs like Yorkshire Terriers or Chihuahua's as it will be higher in calories which will lead to obesity if fed to a small dog and may also contain ingredients to minimise diseases that affect large breeds. Always stick to a dog food formulated for your dog's size and stage of life.

3. Allergens

If your dog is allergic to certain ingredients, look for them in the labelling. Common allergens such as wheat or dairy, they should be listed on the packaging and if foods claim to be gluten free or wheat free, they generally are. If there is any doubt, always check the ingredients label before making your purchase.

4. Identify the Protein

As you may already know, ingredients are listed in order of their weight, with the heaviest ones being mentioned first. This means that protein like beef, lamb, chicken and fish should be listed in the first few ingredients to ensure that your dog is getting enough of them. Suprisingly chicken meal, which is dehydrated chicken offers more protein than its fresh counterpart which contains 80% water! The same is true for other proteins so don't be put off by the words "beef meal". If these descriptions are topping the ingredients list, you can be sure your dog is having his/her protein requirements met.

5. Flavouring Ingredients

Flavourings are added to give dog foods an appealing taste to your dog. However if a dog food has an adequate amount of protein, flavourings are generally unnecessary. Always ensure that proteins are listed amongst the top ingredients in your dog's food to ensure that flavouring has not been added to mask grain heavy foods. If a food does have flavouring ensure that it is specific like "lamb flavouring" rather than just a general "meat flavouring" as this better clarifies the origin of the ingredients used.

6. Serving size

Any dog food worth its salt should include a serving size and daily feeding recommendation on the packaging. This is a solid guideline for feeding if you have a normal, healthy, active dog. If you find that your dog is putting on too much weight or is not getting adequate nutrition and is looking skinny, consult your veterinarian to tailor the portion size to your dogs requirements.

7. Natural and Organic Dog foods

Dog foods that are labelled "natural" mean that all ingredients are in their natural forms and have not undergone scary chemical alterations. Do however be cautious of foods claiming to be "holistic" as there is no legal definition for this and it may just be a clever marketing ploy. If you are looking for an organic dog food then ensure that it has the appropriate label just like you would with your own foods.

If a food claims to be "organic", then it must be manufactured with 95% organic ingredients excluding water and salt and if it is labelled "Made with organic ingredients" then it is required to contain a minimum of 70% organic ingredients, excluding salt and water.

If dog foods are manufactured using some organic ingredients but these make up less than, the manufacturer may use the term "organic" in the ingredients listing but it may not bear the organic seal.

8. Nutritional Adequacy Statement

Always look for dog food that meet the minimum nutritional requirements as designated by AAFCO as fed to real pets in a controlled feeding trial. High quality brands undertake to do these types of expensive trials will definitely indicate this on their packaging.

9. Beware of Supplemental Food Sources

Dog food that state that they are "supplemental" are not balanced and complete diets and unless your vet has prescribed these for a specific reason, you should not feed these to your dog for extended periods as they lack the full caloric and nutritional values that your dog requires for continued good health.