Choosing appropriate puppy foods can be helped by understanding dog food labels. It might be tempting to feed your puppy people food, and that can work fine for the occasional treat. But to provide the best nutrition, a commercial food based on nutritional research offers the best chance for healthy, tasty food.
Puppy food labels, though, can be confusing and sometimes even misleading because they are first and foremost legal documents written in very specific language.
The information on the dog food package must satisfy regulators who check to be sure all the laws are followed. Dog food labels only secondarily inform the public. Information on the pet food label can reveal important facts about the food. However, there is no hard-and-fast way to judge a given diet or brand's qualities based on this information alone. Here's what labels will tell you.
Understanding Puppy Food Labels
All pet foods involved in interstate commerce must, by law, disclose on their labels very specific information. These include:
- Product name and brand name. The label includes the principle display panel which identifies the product by brand and/or product name.
- Species name. Many times, a picture identifying the species (dog) is on the display panel along with the words dog food or a similar designation.
- Quantity statement that includes a net weight
- Guaranteed analysis. The information panel contains a guaranteed analysis statement listing minimum levels of crude protein and fat, and maximum levels of crude fiber and moisture. "Crude" refers to the amount measurable by laboratory equipment, not the amount that can be used by the dog. PLEASE NOTE: This is NOT an accurate assessment of nutrient levels, and is designed primarily to meet the regulator’s need to test and assess the food.
- Statement of purpose and/or validation of nutritional adequacy (for puppies or adults, for example). Nutrient profiles have been established for dog foods intended for growth and reproduction, or for adult maintenance and pet foods formulated to meet these standards may claim to provide complete and balanced nutrition. Alternatively, pet food manufacturers may use their own standards, which may be more stringent than the AAFCO standards.
- Feeding directions. For instance, it can tell you how much or how often to feed your puppy. Manufacturers generally err on the side of recommending too much rather too little food, so be prepared to adjust up or (more likely) down for your puppy.
- Name/address of manufacturer. Any questions concerning a dog food product should be directed to the manufacturer. Many reputable manufacturers include a toll-free telephone number on the label for consumer questions.
- Ingredient statement. Knowing the ingredients in a puppy food may be important to help you avoid cases of food allergies. The dog food label must also list ingredients in the food in decreasing order of the amount present by weight before manufacture. Therefore, ingredients listed first are present in the greatest amounts, while smallest amounts are listed last.
What Ingredients Don't Reveal
The ingredient list tells you nothing about quality or usability of individual ingredients. Manufacturers aren't allowed to cite the quality of their ingredients on the label.
Further, although the top-listed ingredients should be present in the greatest amounts, manufactures can fudge this information by “splitting” up various ingredients or citing them by weight before they’ve been rendered in manufacturing.
For example, a whole chicken before rendering contains water that weighs more and so may be listed first—even though on a dry-matter basis there may be more “corn” type ingredients. The best way to compare foods is on a dry matter basis.
Comparing Foods on Dry Matter Basis(DMB)
Water content varies depending on the form of food: dry foods contain a maximum of 12 percent moisture, soft-moist foods contain a maximum of 33 percent moisture, and canned foods contain 78 percent moisture. Here’s how to convert a food from the “as fed” details listed on the package to dry matter basis (DMB):
First subtract 100 by the moisture content you’ll find on the Guaranteed Analysis panel. So if the guaranteed analysis states the food contains 75 percent moisture, you’ll be left with 25 percent DMB (100-75=25).
Then divide the nutrient by the DMB. So for instance if the guaranteed analysis says the food contains 10 percent protein on an as fed basis (above), you’ll divide 10 by 25 DMB and determine that on a DMB (dry matter basis) the food content actually is 40 percent protein.
In addition, several types of “corn” may be listed (or split and cited separately) and therefore fall to lower in the list, when if combined they instead might weigh more and be listed toward the top of the ingredient list. It’s more difficult to determine the reality of nutrient percentages when splitting is used, because ingredients like corn may provide several different nutrients—corn supplies protein, carbohydrate, fatty acids and antioxidants, for example. In these cases, relying on the label comes down to how much you trust the reputation of the manufacturer as well as recommendations from your veterinarian and your pet’s health when eating the food.
Pet Food Ingredient List
In general, the dog food ingredient list should have:
- ONE OR MORE PROTEIN SOURCES, which should be one of the first two ingredients in canned dog food, and one of the first three in dry dog food. High-quality protein is essential for muscle tone and development, and healthy skin. Commonly you’ll see fresh meat and/or chicken/meat by-product meal, meat by-products, soybean meal, and egg listed here. NOTE: a “by-product” just means it was produced while making something else, and a “meat by-product” includes organ meats that have high nutritional value.
- CARBOHYDRATE SOURCE, such as cereals, are needed for energy. Common carbohydrate sources in dog food include corn, rice, barley and sorghum.
- FIBER SOURCE promotes intestinal tract health as well as weight management. Common fiber sources include cellulose, soybean mill run and beet pulp.
- FAT SOURCE includes essential fatty acids and provide energy, improve taste (palatability), and aid in healthy skin and coat. Frequently you’ll see these listed as animal fat, fish oi and vegetable oil; and
- LARGE NUMBERS OF TRACE MINERALS AND VITAMIN SUPPLEMENTS, which will be toward the bottom of the list.