Photo by klynslis’

The AAFCO, or Association of American Feed Control Officials, sets the standards for pet food safety and nutrition.  The testing done by them is used to determine whether or not certain ingredients are acceptable to be added to your pet’s food.  However, the problem that all pet owners should know is that they can rate both low and high quality ingredients to be nutritionally adequate mainly because of the demand for pet foods in all price ranges.  That is why I find it very important for you to learn how to read past the AAFCO approval statement on your dog’s food labels and be able to fully understand what  your beloved furry family member is really eating.

Reading a Dog Food Label

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When shopping for dog food, there may be several reasons why you pick up a certain brand, or there may be none.  I know when I acquired my first dog and had little experience about the importance of feeding your dog a proper diet, I choose one that looked appealing from the packaging and those I saw advertised on television.  I knew that certain brands were better than others, but I was unsure as to why that was.  It looked like a bunch of mumb0-jumbo to me!

As I become more knowledgeable about the importance of giving your dog a proper diet throughout my years in the veterinary field as a technician, I found that the label tells us many important facts and figures that may dissuade or persuade us from purchasing that specific brand of food.  In short, it is important to read the labels.  To actually read that label, not just giving it a quick glance, is the first essential step to giving your dog all the nutrients his/her body needs.

First, for you to be able to read your dog’s food label you will need to know a little bit about what can be found there and what it means.

The first thing you probably notice, just like I did is the product name and the primary ingredient, such as “Beef Dog Chow”, and who the food was designed for (puppies, adults, seniors, lactating, etc.).  If, in the product name, an ingredient is listed, say “Beef Dog Chow”, beef must be at least 95% of the total weight if there is now water required for processing, and at least 70% when water is included.  So, for dry kibble, 95% of that weight needs to contain beef.

When the title contains “dinner”, “formula”, “nuggets”, and/or other similar words, the ingredient named must be at least 25% of the weight.  So in a product that is named “Lamb Dinner”, 25% of the total weight for the product must be lamb.  But, if only ¼ of that entire product needs to consist of lamb, the lamb may not, and probably is not, the main ingredient.  Ingredients must be listed in a descending order of weight.  So, even though the bag says “Lamb Dinner”, the lamb may be fourth in order.


  • Lamb Dinner Ingredients:  Corn, meat and bone meal, wheat, lamb.  In that Lamb Dinner, the main ingredients are really the corn and meat and bone meal.  Not really desirable for a healthy meal.

On the other hand, if the ingredients listed were:

  • Premimum Lamb Dinner Ingredients:  Lamb, ground rice, ground yellow corn…This presents a more desirable meal and one that your dog can actually consume and digest properly.

When it comes to the words “flavored” or “flavor”, such as “Lamb Flavored Nuggets”, no exact precentage of the named ingredient needs to be present, only enough needs to be present to be detectable.  That doesn’t sound very healthy now, does it?

Often times, the main ingredients will not be present in the title.  These foods often include items such as: ground yellow corn, meat by-products, tallow, and other items that are not particularly digestable for your pet.  The actual named ingredient will probably be down the list and make up only a very small portion of the food.  That is why it is very important for you to check the list of ingredients and where those place on the list when choosing your dog’s diet.

Besides naming an ingredient with the product name, other phrases are sometimes used.  For example, Premium Dog Food and other like titles are products consisting of a nutritional standard for a complete and balanced diet for your dog, and is definately a good choice when shopping around.  Natural Dog Food means that there are no artifical colors, preservatives or flavors.

If a product has given the calorie content on the bag, “Premium Beef Dinner:  Now with lower calorie content,” this is done primarily as a service to the consumer because the calorie intake of pet foods is not required to be displaced on their labels, like it is for humans.

Here is a formula that can help you to determine whether your canine is eating enough:

  • Multiply the carbohydrate by 4.2kcal (kilocalories)/gram, the protein by 5.65, and then the fat by 9.4kcal/gram.  If you need to convert the kilocalories to kilojoules (another unit of measurement for energy) simply multiple the total by 4.184.  Of course, rounding to the nearest ten might be helpful, as long as you keep in mind that it’s an approximation erring to the low side.

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Finding the Fat

A good way to find the higher quality dog foods by reading the ingredient list is to search for the first source of fat.  Everything that is listed before that fat source, and including it, is the main part of the food.  Everything else is generally used for flavor, preservatives, vitamins, and minerals.

For example:

  • Food A: Ground yellow corn, meat meal, chicken fat, ground wheat, chicken by-product meal, dried beet pulp…
  • Food B: Turkey, chicken, chicken meal, ground brown rice, ground white rice, chicken fat, apples, carrots, sunflower oil…

The importance of finding the source of fat and where it is listed is so you can find ingredients that may or not be harmful to your pet, such as beet pulp or corn gluten meal.  Learning to read the labels on dog food is the single most important thing you can do if you intend to feed your pet a commercial diet.  Your dog may be the smartest dog who ever wore a collar, but he can’t read, and he needs to rely on you to keep him healthy.

If what’s in that can or bag doesn’t sound like something you’d want to eat, it’s probably not something your dog would eat if there were an alternative.  So take the time to learn the language of your dog’s food label.

For more information about your dog’s nutrition, you can download the complete guide HERE.

5 Thoughts on “What’s Your Dog Really Eating?

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  3. Oh GOD… This is shocking!. Your furry mate may probably like holistic foods:


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