Meeting Your Dog’s Nutritional Needs Without Being Misled by the Label

Pet stores are lined with packed shelves of brightly coloured bags with cute pictures, fancy names and tiny little boxes riddled with complex words and numbers. It’s difficult for most people to wade through “information”, designed by marketers trying to sell the most dog food for their brand. You need to be a savvy shopper to ensure that what you buy for your dog meets his nutritional needs.

Government regulations require the label to be bilingual, display the brand name, the net metric weight and whom the product was manufactured by or for. While this stuff might sell more, or make the government happy, it isn’t really going to help you judge the quality or adequacy of the diet.

Still, as we all love our pets it is worth doing a bit of work to make sure they are getting the food they require. Check out our Food Label Tip Sheet that will help you make sure you are meeting the basic requirements of your pet. Most important, though, check with your veterinarian to find out what nutritional needs your dog has, and remember that as your dog ages, his requirements can change.

Food label tip sheet
Nutritional Claims
Of No Value: Words and phrases like “premium”, “super premium”, “ultra”, “a precise balance of nutrients”, “scientifically balanced”, “controls calorie intake”, “human grade” or “quality” are called “unqualified claims”. They are not regulated and don’t have to have anything to do with the diet. They are pretty much sales-speak.

Of Value: On the label one of three statements of nutritional adequacy may appear.

The American Standards:
The statement of nutritional adequacy, which starts with “Formulated to meet Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) standards for…)” is a government regulated phrase, and means that the diet is formulated to meet specified minimum nutrient requirements for that particular life stage. Think of this as a laboratory standard — animals haven’t been tested with this food, but from a chemical and scientific point of view, this food is safe and meets basic requirements. The formula that meets these qualifications is submitted once and never followed up unless there are complaints or the formula is substantially changed.

When the package says that it “passed AAFCO feeding trials” and meets the requirements for a particular life stage that means that the company that makes the food has tested the food according to AAFCO standards. This doesn’t mean that the government or even AAFCO have tested the food, but it means that the company is claiming to have tested it on real dogs. Still, this is not 100 percent foolproof: AAFCO offers a loophole in which the company can feed test one food and then ask for similar foods to be given the same approval. Also, AAFCO has no continued monitoring of the diet or the company once it has met the standards.

The Canadian Standard:
The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association Certification Seal is only available in Canada, but it means that a manufacturer
meets and continues to maintain the standards set by this independent certification program to ensure the diet is safe and nutritionally adequate. Still, feeding trials are not part of the certification process.

The Ingredient List
The ingredient list is not equal to the nutritional value list. The ingredient list appears in order of amount of the ingredient in the diet, from most to least. Still, it doesn’t tell you exactly how much per ingredient, so it is not that useful. Also, just because a product has healthy-sounding ingredients, it does not mean that they will improve your pet’s quality or length of life. Similarly, if a pet food contains ingredients such as corn or peanut husks, is does not mean that the food is dangerous or unhealthy. In certain diseases, treatment with increased fibre in the diet, for example the addition of peanut husks, can improve the healing process.

Here are some clues to help you through the marketing:
Poultry, lamb, chicken, fish, beef, added as fresh/frozen or a dry meal are the common animal sources of protein. Corn gluten meal and soy protein are the main plant sources. Corn and brewer’s rice are the principle carbohydrates and animal fat is usually the first fat source.
If your dog has been diagnosed with food allergies, avoid feeds that contain those specific ingredients.
Don’t get hung up on the difference between “chicken” and “chicken byproducts”. Chicken often refers to the muscle meat; however, there are often better nutrients (such as iron, vitamin B, etc) in chicken byproducts (liver, heart, kidneys, etc). The same holds true for beef byproducts.
Any ingredient lower than sixth place on the list are not worth considering and are probably only there to justify including them as colourful pictures on the bag.
The addition of herbs and probiotics is often the only difference between “Ultra Premium”, “Premium” and the company’s regular version. But just because it contains probiotics, it doesn’t mean they are nutritionally advantageous to your pet, or that they contain enough to be advantageous. Definitely consult with your vet. Some of the true premium diets will have more digestible ingredients (optimum, not minimum) levels of ingredients and DHA, as well as antioxidants that add to the price, but may also improve quality.

The most important thing to remember is that your veterinarian has been trained and has access to resources to help you to determine the best food for your pet. Your vet will know your dog and might recommend a therapeutic diet to provide the optimum needs based specifically on your pet’s health or age (for example, dental or senior care, renal disease, or perhaps you have a large breed puppy). There are high-quality commercial veterinary pet food companies that produce diets fit for the specific needs of your pet, including helping treat diseases your pet might have. These diets promote the health and longevity of your pet. Don’t hesitate to contact your vet to discuss nutritional needs for your pet.