Everything You Need to Know About Dog Food

By: Cate Burnette

As humans have become more interested in our foods, our diets and our nutritional needs, pet parents are turning to the veterinary community to determine what foods are best suited to meet the needs of our dogs. Whether your pet eats commercially prepared dog food, you cook a doggy homemade meal daily, or you feed raw, your dog deserves your best research to make sure she is getting the finest, most nutritious, food for her.

How To Read Dog Food Labels

Pet food labels are regulated in this country by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) to ensure compliance with state and federal feed laws.

According to AAFCO, pet food labels must include food type and product name, net weight, guaranteed analysis, ingredient content, manufacturer’s or distributor’s name and address, and “a claim that the pet food meets or exceeds the requirements of one or more of the recognized categories of nutritional adequacy: gestation, lactation, growth, maintenance, and complete for all life stages; unless another scientifically substantiated claim is made, the food is designated solely for intermittent or supplemental feeding, or is to be used on the advice of a veterinarian.”

  • Food type means that the label must say whether the food is made for dogs or cats; the “product name” describes the food. Any descriptive phrases used to appeal to the consumer are strictly regulated. For example: Beef (or other meat) has to be at least 95 percent pure beef, Beef Dinner (entree, etc.) is 25- to 94 percent beef, With beef is at least 3 percent beef, and Beef Flavor is a detectable amount.
  • Net weight is the amount of food in the container, typically listed in pounds and grams. The label may give a rough estimate of the energy density of canned foods, many of which contain about 1 Cal/gram as fed according to label directions.
  • The guaranteed analysis must list minimum percentages of crude fats and proteins and maximum percentages of crude moisture and fibers in the feed. Because AAFCO does not specify the methods of chemical analysis, numbers tend to provide only maximums and minimums.
  • The ingredients list is categorized into 5 groups: water, protein sources, energy sources, vitamins and minerals. Other substances may be listed depending on the reasons for supplementation. Since animals need nutrients and don’t require ‘ingredients,’ a wide variety of components can be combined to produce the nutrient profile appropriate for the intended pet. AAFCO requires that ingredients be listed in descending order by weight. This means that a meat source like ‘fresh beef’ followed by several grains may indicate that the grain, not the meat, is the primary – and heaviest – ingredient. Pet parents need to calculate the total net weights of each category to determine the reality of what composes their pets’ foods.
  • The manufacturer or distributor must provide a name and address on the label to identify the source of the product and permit the buyer to contact the producer of the food. Many commercial foods also provide a toll-free telephone number or website, which may provide information concerning the food.
  • A claim of ‘complete and balanced’ also must appear on the label. This claim can be met in three ways: a. by the manufacturer calculating that the combination of nutrients meets or exceeds recommended animal nutrient levels, b. using chemical analysis to determine that the levels of nutrients meets minimum requirements, and by c. ‘protocol testing’ requiring that foods be tested on live animals during all life periods (including gestation, lactation and growth).

The AAFCO allows certain descriptive terms such as, “light,” “lean,” “low-fat” and “promotes urinary tract health” on commercial food labels to draw attention from pet parents to certain foods to promote pet health. These claims are not regulated and must be verified by consumers through their own research.

What To Feed – What Foods To Look For, What Foods To Avoid & Other Considerations

When it comes to feeding our dogs, there are basically 3 kinds of diets that pet parents utilize to give our furry companions their best nutrients.

Commercial diets are those pet foods (both wet and dry) processed and manufactured by both small and large money-making operations. You should consider the following points when deciding on a particular manufactured product.

  • Inexpensive food is not what is healthiest for your dog, says The Whole Dog Journal. Cheap food tends to be made with cheaper ingredients. Good- and top-quality ingredients cost more, and the companies that use them have to charge more, so a high price can be an indication of quality. But higher prices can also be indicative of a company’s advertising budget, or the higher costs associated with running an independent pet supply store in a remote area. Checking label ingredients and deciding which food works best – and most economically – for the health of your pet is the way to go.
  • When checking your ingredients list look for where the components of your pet’s food comes from and determine if you want a “grain-free” diet, or if your pets can safely eat foods with soy, wheat gluten, and corn derivatives. Additionally, you might want to consider which ingredients are organic, local, non-GMO, or humanely raised and killed.
  • Determine how many times the manufacturer has been involved in food recalls. Any company can suffer one manufacturing accident. However, if accidents or recalls happen more than once…that might be a factor in your decision.
  • Some people don’t trust the corporate giants that manufacture the bigger-named and better-advertised pet foods, preferring the care and attention of the smaller pet food companies that typically produce top-quality products using organic ingredients. In contrast, the giant food companies can put some of the most educated veterinary nutritionists to work in their research and development departments, furthering the industry’s knowledge of animal nutrition.
  • Which foods are the best for pets should be a decision formed from a consultation with your veterinarian and your knowledge of your own animal’s tastes and dislikes. If there are several products in the running, look for the one that best matches your pet’s needs for protein, fat, and calories, using body condition and activity level to choose a product in the appropriate range. Unless your animal is emaciated or obese (and in need of a high-calorie or “light” food, respectively), look for a product whose calories, fat, and protein levels are in the middle range of the products that are still in the running.

Homemade diets are those pet foods that can be made in your own kitchen from products found in your refrigerator and pantry. Many animals can live long and healthy lives eating ‘human’ foods as long as pet parents follow specific guidelines.

  • It’s important that the diet you feed your dog is “complete and balanced,” meaning it meets all of your dog’s nutritional needs. It is not important, however, that every meal be complete and balanced, unless you feed the same meal every day with little or no variation. Home-prepared diets that include a wide variety of foods fed at different meals rely on balance over time, not at every meal. Similar to the way humans eat, as long as your pet gets every necessary nutrient spread out over each week or two, the diet will be complete and balanced. Keep in mind that puppies, pregnant and lactating females, older dogs, obese animals and those with chronic illnesses need specific diets with very specific nutrient sets.
  • According to veterinary nutritionists, your pet’s homemade diet should be at least 50 percent protein. Grains and starchy vegetables should make up the other half of the diet. Lean meats (no more than 10 percent fat), raw meaty bones, fish, organ meat (chicken or beef liver), eggs, dairy products (plain, no-fat yogurt and kefir, no-fat cottage and ricotta cheeses), fresh fruits and vegetables, leafy greens, and brown grains (rice, oats, quinoa, barley) can all be made into nutritious meals.
  • Your dog’s homemade diet may require supplementation. Calcium and oils (fish oil, cod liver oil, plant oils) can be added with the dosage dependent on the weight and activity level of your pet. Vitamin D, vitamin E, and iodine may be short in homemade diets; multivitamins with mineral supplements can be used to give your dog complete nutrition.

Raw diets are also called BARF diets – BARF is an acronym for Biologically Appropriate Raw Food. The diet is based on human grade whole foods including raw meat, finely ground bones, offal and other healthy ingredients such as fruit and vegetables.

Proponents of the diet report that veterinary studies over the years have proven that feeding a raw diet can increase overall health, reduce obesity, lessen the chance of certain diseases including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, and improve the temperament and energy levels of domesticated dogs. Animals fed raw bones typically suffer fewer incidences of gingivitis and gum infections, have fresher breath, and reduced digestive problems.

Protein sources commonly include raw beef, chicken, turkey, lamb and small amounts of organ meats, such as beef heart, chicken liver, calves liver, and sweetbreads. Some dog owners choose to feed very fresh – or lightly cooked – fish or shellfish. Dairy proteins can consist of raw milk and raw cheese, yogurt, and cottage cheese treated with lactase enzymes to avoid digestive upset. The occasional raw egg is another good source of natural, organic protein. **Please note: If you choose to feed your dog raw or lightly cooked fish, you need to ensure the meat is free of parasites.

Dogs can eat all types of vegetables on this program. Finely grated carrots, parsnips, cucumbers, zucchini, peas, sweet potatoes, sprouts, wheat grass, sweet bell peppers, and herbs can be added to proteins or used as natural treat foods. Small pieces of raw carrot or sweet potato, in particular, can serve as a sweet, tasty treat while also helping your pet’s teeth to stay clean and breath smelling fresh.

Transitioning your dog from a commercial or homemade diet to raw foods can be a challenge. On her website The Whole Dog, holistic veterinarian Dr. Jeannie Thomason recommends fasting your dog from solid food for at least 12 hours before feeding the first raw meal. This allows your pup’s digestive system to clear itself of any leftover commercial product that might interfere with the digestion of the new material. During the fast, your dog should always have access to free choice water. By allowing the body to clear itself of any commercial additives or toxins, the nutrients in the raw diet are able to be ingested and used without causing stomach upset when going “cold turkey.” **Please note: Veterinaries do not recommend fasting a puppy under one year of age.

There is one caveat to Dr. Thomason’s recommendation; for senior dogs or animals coping with an illness, transitioning to the new food over a period of time may be the best way to avoid intestinal problems.

If you decide to give your dog a raw diet, please consult with your veterinarian for the best foods to meet your pet’s individual needs. The Dog Food Advisor, a website featuring the opinions of veterinarians and veterinary nutritionists, suggests a list of pre-packaged raw diets here.

What NOT To Feed Your Dog

Researching all of the human foods dogs can safely eat and enjoy may lead pet parents to wonder which foods your pups should never eat. The ASPCA’s list of foods to be avoided includes:

  • Alcohol
  • Avocados
  • Chocolate, coffee, caffeine
  • Citrus
  • Large amounts of coconut and coconut oil
  • Coconut water
  • Grapes and raisins
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Milk and dairy (full-fat and in large amounts)
  • Onions, garlic, chives
  • Raw/Undercooked Meat, Eggs and Bones
  • Salt and salty snacks
  • Xylitol (an artificial sweetener found in sweetener in many products, including gum, candy, baked goods, peanut butter and toothpaste)
  • Yeast dough

All of these foods have been found to be toxic or harmful to dogs in differing amounts and in individual animals. If you suspect your pet has eaten any of these foods, please note the amount ingested and contact your veterinarian or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at (888) 426-4435.

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catebCate Burnette is a semi-retired registered veterinary technician with clinical experience in small and large animal medicine. With 30-plus years of journalism experience, she went back to school after 9/11 to work with her first love: animals. The pet parent of four cats, three dogs and one ex-racehorse, Cate is a certified rescue volunteer with the American Humane Association’s Red Star Emergency Services and served with the group in New Orleans doing animal search and rescue after Hurricane Katrina. She is also a horse safety and horse management expert, and has volunteered with US Pony Clubs as a district commissioner and horse management judge.