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Puppy Foods: Dog Food Analysis

How Pet Foods Are Tested


Puppy Foods: Dog Food Analysis

Big breed puppies like this German shepherd need nutrition that supports slow growth.

Image © Amy Shojai, CABC

Dog food analysis ensures your puppy food provides the nutritional promise provided on the label, and tells you exactly how the foods are tested.

Pet food labels are governed by regulations established and enforced by Feed Control Officials in each state. However, most states based their regulations on those developed by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AFFCO). The AAFCO standards are also recognized in Canada.

Among other things, the AAFCO Model Regulations detail what and how information is presented on the label. This label is, in essence, a legal document provided for the regulators—those who inspect pet food manufacturers to ensure they follow guidelines. Virtually all pet food manufacturers with interstate distribution follow AAFCO label guidelines.

Label information on pet foods must also follow rules and regulations established by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). These national, state and local rules regulate how pet food is distributed, what goes into the food, how it's sold, and even the way it's labeled. By reading and understanding food labels, dog owners are able to choose the best products for their pets.

How Pet Foods Are Validated

If the food doesn't say it's complete and balanced, choose a product that does. Some foods are formulated as gourmet treats designed as supplements to a complete and balanced diet. When research hasn't proven nutritional adequacy, the label must state that the product is "Not Intended for Sole Feeding Purposes." Dog food manufacturers may label the food "nutritionally complete and balanced" only if they meet AAFCO standards. These standards can be validated in one of two ways:

1. By laboratory chemical analysis or calculation of nutritional values. This formulation method is less expensive because actual feeding or digestibility trials aren’t required. There’s no guarantee the pet will eat the food, though, or be able to use it. Products tested this way say "(name of product) is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profile for (lifestage)." In this case, you’ll look for the “puppies” lifestage, rather than “adult” or “all life stages.”

2. Feeding trials that determine whether dogs benefit from food. Products tested in this way will be labeled "Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (name of product) provides complete and balanced nutrition for (life stage)."

Pet Food Feeding Trials

Feeding trials are expensive and time-consuming, but are the only way to ensure the nutrition is adequate for the dog's needs. The best foods for your dog are complete and balanced products validated through feeding trials that determine whether the nutrients are truly usable by the dog's body. Puppies go through several developmental stages, and nutrition is adjusted to accommodate this growth. For instance, some products may be formulated and labeled specifically for large breed puppies because growing too fast may negatively impact bone health. Foods for puppies are very different than foods for adult dogs.

Reputable pet food manufactures determine nutritional adequacy using long-term feeding trials that test for support of growth, adult maintenance or reproduction.

  • Reproduction trials must maintain the dam through gestation and lactation, and the puppies through six weeks of age.
  • Growth tests determine if a diet will support normal growth of puppies; they begin at weaning, and run a minimum 70 days.
  • Adult maintenance trials run for a minimum of six months with dogs at least one year old. An "all life stages" claim is validated by testing the same animals through all stages of reproduction and growth.


Dog food manufacturers also conduct tests to determine digestibility—that is, how well the dog's body is able to utilize the food. Digestibility is measured by comparing the difference between what's eaten and what comes out in the feces.

Highly digestible foods tend to have less waste, which means you won’t have to clean up the yard as often and the puppy won’t need to eat as much to benefit from the nutrition. Nutrient-dense diets are particularly helpful for tiny puppies and small breeds with small tummies unable to eat enough of other diets to fulfill adequate nutritional needs.


Palatability of diets is extremely important. Palatability refers to how tasty the dog considers a diet, and includes a combination of taste, aroma and mouth feel (crunch vs slimy, for instance). The test is determined by offering test dogs more than one choice in foods and measuring the quantity and how fast the food is eaten. A typical taste test trial might offer 25 dogs the choice of two or more foods over a two-day period. For dogs, their preference ranking appears to be smell first, followed by taste and finally texture.

The science of taste and smell has evolved so well that pet food designers know which aromas appeal best to dogs. But manufacturers also test how palatable the food is to humans. Puppies don’t care how a food looks. But since people have the pocketbooks, it’s important that the look and especially the smell doesn’t offend.

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