5 Things to Consider When Reading a Pet Food Label

PetFoodLabelWe all want to feed our dogs and cats the best we can. We know that nutrition is a key ingredient to their health, happiness and longevity. But given the vast amount of food choices now available, not to mention supplements, it can be tricky to navigate the food aisle.  Packaging is chock full of information, but what does it all really mean?  Here are 5 components to help you make an informed decision.
The product name. It’s probably the first thing you notice and the most basic part of the packaging, but don’t let its simplicity fool you.  The name can tell you quite a bit if you know what to look for.  Most often, manufacturers will use the name to highlight a particular healthy ingredient that makes up the food.  But there’s meaning in the subtleties thanks to rules dictated by the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials), the regulatory group that oversees labeling.
For example, there’s a difference between a food called “Beef Dog Food” and “Beef Dinner” or “Beef Dog Formula”.  The descriptives “dinner” and “formula” indicate that the named ingredient (beef) is at least 25% of the total weight.  On the other hand, the food named “Beef Dog Food” or “Beef for Dogs” indicates that the named ingredient is at least 95% of the total weight (not counting water).  That’s a big difference!
Also pay attention to products names that include the word “with” or “flavor”.  For example, “Dog Food with Beef” indicates that beef makes up only a maximum 3% of the weight.  “Cat Food with Tuna Flavor” only requires that the product have an amount “sufficient to be detected”, which can be incredibly minimal.  
Ingredient List
Just like on labels for human food, the items on pet food labels are listed in order of weight, starting with the heaviest.  Look for a high-quality protein among the first few ingredients.  Good proteins include beef, chicken, fish, or lamb.  They can also include vegetable proteins like soy or peas.  The terms “chicken meal” and “beef meal” refer to the rendered product (cooked to remove fat and moisture), which is also high in protein and a considered a good source.  By-products, on the other hand, refer to the non-rendered parts. By-product meal is generally frowned upon by pet nutrition experts because it has a very broad definition and has the potential of being comprised of some less-than-wholesome components.
Feeding Guidelines
How much to feed and how often?  The AAFCO requires that manufacturers include feeding guidelines on packaging, but remember that it is just that – a guideline.  Numerous variables will determine how much to feed your pet, including weight management, energy level, age, breed and health needs.   Veterinarians report that nearly 50% of all of the dogs they see are overweight (although interestingly only 17% of pet owners agree). Just like in humans, pet obesity can lead to a multitude of other issues, including joint problems, cancer, respiratory dysfunction, diabetes and cataracts.  Feeding your pet the proper amount is actually a critical component to his health and longevity.  Utilize your best ally when it comes to figuring out how much to feed – your vet!
The Manufacturer
You want to know that you’re purchasing food from a reputable company.  Thanks to the internet and Google, there’s a wealth of information now available about manufacturers.  Take some time to research them, their range of products and their manufacturing practices.  Look at independent reviews of them from outside agencies.  Dog Food Advisor and The Pet Food Industry are among those who regularly review and rank companies. We find that the more transparent manufacturers are about their ingredients, sourcing, and manufacturing practices – the better the food. Chances are, if they’re providing more information on the product label than legally required, they’re more likely to have higher quality standards.
One interesting side note.  If the product is available in Europe, that tells you that they adhere to European standards of quality, which are stricter that the standards enforced in the United States.  Brands like Royal Canin, Champion and Hills are among some that adhere to both European and U.S. standards.
Most Importantly…
The most important thing to keep in mind is that every pet is different and every pet will have a unique set of nutritional criteria.  One dog may flourish on grain based food, while another may have grain allergies.  Breed, size, age, health issues and activity level all play into a pet’s specific nutritional requirements.  And remember that your pet’s needs may, and probably will, change. For example, a puppy has very different caloric requirements than an older dog whose metabolism has slowed.  So, pay attention to your pet over time and don’t be afraid to modify his diet as needed.  Dog and cat foods are not a one size fits all matter, so ignore the marketing hype behind brands, carefully read the label and consult with your vet!