Dog Food: How To Know What You Are Getting

Black Lab at rest
My dog appreciates technology, he eats it several times a day

Dog food, really???

Lincoln-Sofa2-300x240 Dog Food:  How To Know What You Are Getting Commentary Discussions
My dog appreciates technology. He eats it several times a day.

I know what most of you are thinking.  How does an article about dog food fit into a technology website?  Actually, the topic fits quite well:

  1. “Dry” dog food is a marvel of technology.  Each of those tasty kernels (also called kibbles) your pet crunches as he eats, is a totally engineered food/nutrient source.  If you have the right food, your dog will only need water, exercise, along with some love from its pet-parent, to have a reasonably healthy life.  So, a totally engineered food source is pretty “high-tech”.
  2. As a geek/wire-head, I know that most of us love pets, and we want to see that our pets get the best quality food we can afford.

Here in the States, trying to select food for your dog or cat is pretty confusing. There are many reasons for this, to name a few:  There are several different, and often not clear to the consumer, categories of food; the advertising hype from some brands often lands very close to out and out deception; dog foods are often subcategorized by either breed, size, and/or age, while cat foods break down into indoor or outdoor, as well as age;  as well,  there are special need foods for weight, digestion,  skin and coat, and so on.  If this isn’t enough, there are also numerous myths about ingredients (especially corn) that have taken on “urban legend” status.   It’s no wonder the process of deciding what kind of food to feed your animal is so difficult.

This article is not designed or intended to be an industry “tell all”.  Dog food manufactures are not evil, loading their foods with heretofore unknown secret toxic chemicals.  In fact, the opposite is true.  They do tons of research in developing their products to be both healthy and safe for you pet.  The down side here comes from corporate marketing. The pet food industry has some of the best “spin doctors” in the world.  It is in the marketing arena that the pet food corporations differ.  Some companies hold a tight rein on marketing, and make a valiant effort to keep advertising limited to the truth; whereas other companies take a great deal of liberties with the truth.  From these two extremes a blurring of the information is presented to the public.

It is the purpose of this article to lift the fog created by aggressive advertising, and add clarity to what is available from the many food choice options you have for your pet.

So how do you know so much about dog (and cat) food?

The information in this document comes from over 70 hours of classroom training focused on dog food and cat food nutrition, meeting notes, vendor information, working with veterinarians, my own research, and experience gained from working in the pet food industry for over six years.

I am still currently employed in the pet food industry. That being said, to avoid the appearance of any bias, I will not mention where I work, and this article will not mention any brand names.

Some basic facts and information.

1.  Dog and cat food break down into four broad categories.  Generally speaking, a food from any of these four categories can sustain a dog for a reasonable life span.

Basic (often called Grocery Store).  This is the least expensive of all the categories of food, which is why it is often found in grocery or discount stores.  There is a significant amount of corn, corn meal, meat by-products (in this case, simply put, parts of an animal we would not eat), and insoluble fiber in this category of food. The problem with Basic food, is that it is not well balanced, and may lack proper levels of nutrients for your dog or cat.  This food is designed to be inexpensive, not overly nutritious.  It is usually easy to tell a dog that has been on a Basic food for awhile.  Their coat and skin will be dry, followed with a lot of shedding, the dog is unusually thirsty, and their waste is large for the size of the dog (due to a the large amount of insoluble fiber).  Though there could well be other physiological issues, these symptoms are usually due to the imbalance of nutrients, or in some cases, lack of nutrients, or a combination of both in the Basic food the animal is eating.

Premium.  This food, as well as the next two types, is primarily found in pet stores.  It too has corn, grain, and insoluble fibers,  but it is better balanced, and typically more nutritious than Basic food.  The Premium category, over the past few years is narrowing, and may ultimately disappear.  This is because an ever growing number of pet-parents want a better quality of food for their pets.

Natural.  For a dog and cat food to be truly Natural, the ingredients of the food must meet certain standards.  These standards are set by AAFCO.  What is AAFCO?  The following is from their website:

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is a voluntary membership association of local, state and federal agencies charged by law to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds and animal drug remedies.

Purpose and Function of AAFCO: Although AAFCO has no regulatory authority, the Association provides a forum for the membership and industry representation to achieve three main goals: Ensure consumer protection, Safeguarding the health of animals and humans, Providing a level playing field of orderly commerce for the animal feed industry. These goals are achieved by developing and implementing uniform and equitable laws, regulations, standards, definitions and enforcement policies for regulating the manufacture, distribution and sale of animal feeds – resulting in safe, effective and useful feeds by promoting uniformity amongst member agencies.

According to AAFCO, Natural food is:

“A feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subjected to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.”

Organic.  According to AAFCO:

“Organic” refers to the handling and processing of ingredients and products. Pet foods and pet treats must comply with the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) regulations (7 CFR 205). These regulations cover: ingredient sourcing ingredient handling manufacturing labeling & certification of products wanting to use the word “organic” in their labeling.   NOTE: “Organic” refers to the processing of a product, not the quality of the product.

For dog and cat food to be Organic, 95% of the ingredients must be organically grown or cultivated without the addition of man-made pesticides or fertilizers.

In most cases, Organic food is basically Natural food, cultivated and processed to a certainly different, and hopefully, higher standard.

NOTE:  Of the four categories of food mentioned, AAFCO only recognizes “Natural foods” and “Organic foods”.

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Human grade food? No thanks, I like Parrots (I think)

2.  Human Grade Food.  One condition for food to be “Human Grade”, is that it must be maintained under the watchful eye of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The ingredients in dog and cat food are not always monitored by the USDA.  A good example of this is chicken.  While being processed in a facility under to purview of the USDA, it is still Human Grade.  Once the chicken leaves the facility and enters a truck bound for a plant for pet food processing, the meat is no longer under the view of the USDA, and the chicken is no longer Human Grade.   I am not aware of one dog food that meets the USDA requirements of Human Grade.  A pet food manufacturer claiming their food is Human Grade, is taking some creative license with the truth.

3. Holistic Food. Supposedly, a “whole is greater than the some of its parts” concept where each ingredient in the dog food contributes to the overall animal’s health and well being.  I think you could make that statement about just about any dog food.  AAFCO does not define Holistic Food.  Most Holistic Foods, are often a Natural Foods, – in short, holistic food is more marketing than science.

4.  “This dog food will taste great.”  The sense of taste in dogs is pretty poor as they have about 1/6th of the number of taste buds of their human pet-parents.  It is not likely a dog can determine a great taste, or much of any taste for that matter; however, dogs have a great sense of smell and can actually recognize the many different components in an order.  To the dog, Organic food, Natural food, Premium food, or Basic food have little meaning.  If something smells good to them, they will probably try to eat it.  Good tasting dog food is pure marketing.

5.  Dogs can eat both meat and fruits, vegetables, and some plants.  Dogs are omnivores.  Cats on the other hand are carnivores, and eat only meat.

6. My dog has a food allergy.  Most allergies have environmental causes.  Though a dog could have a food allergy, it’s a long shot.  Here are the odds:  Out of a 1,000 dogs, roughly 10% of them will have allergies.  So this means 100 dogs will have allergies, and out of these dogs, another 10% will have food allergies, or 10 dogs.  For those dogs with food allergies, the common foods that trigger the allergy are (in descending order) Beef, Dairy, Wheat, Egg, Chicken, Lamb, Soy, Pork, Rabbit, and Fish.

7.  Are Corn and Grain bad for your dog?  Corn is a great source of carbs and proteins.  It is also 94% digestible.  Also, notice from the list above, corn is not listed as a common food trigger to an allergy.  Let’s be perfectly clear here:  corn is not an allergen.   Grains provide fatty/amino acids, vitamins, and minerals.   I can’t fully understand why corn and grain have such a bad image as a nutrient source.  Maybe because they are over used in Basic foods, or maybe, and more likely, corn and grain have become victims of marketing and advertising.  Notice that “grain free” pet foods come at a premium price.  Caveat emptor.

8.  What kind of meat makes the best protein source?  It is the amino acids from proteins that dogs and cats need.  There are 21 of them.  Chicken is the most common meat source,  primarily because it is readily available, and not expensive.  Many companies offer Lamb (usually good for dogs with digestion issues), Buffalo, Venison, and so on.  You don’t need to base your buying decision on a food with an exotic or unusual meat source.  Your dog is not a meat gourmet.  The point here is protein is protein, is protein, and you’ll get the same amino acids from most any common meat source.  You can also get many of the needed amino acids from non-meat sources like corn and beans.

9.  Life stages for your dog are as follows:  Puppies up to one year; from one year to seven years, the dog is an Adult, and from 7 years on the dog in Mature.  If you buy a specific food from a manufacturer and stay with it during the dogs life, the ingredients in each life stage are the same, the only difference are the proportions.  For example, a puppy might need 25% protein, while a mature dog will need only 20% – the same protein for both life stages, just differing amounts.

There are some manufacturers that make a food for all life stages.  AAFCO requires all life stage food meet nutritional standards of the life stage that has the most nutritional needs, and that is Puppies.  So a food designed for all life stages, is in fact puppy food.  As a result, feeding this “food for all life stages” to an adult or mature dog might mean those dogs are missing important levels of nutrients, or are getting too much of some nutrients.

Let the force of the label be with you

Those plastic bags that contain the dry dog or cat food hold a wealth of information, if you know what and where to find it.  You can also gain a lot of knowledge from what is not printed on the bag.

A good source of general information is the AAFCO label.  If you don’t expect too much from it (most people do), and remember the purpose of each of the label’s components, you can gain a good amount of information about the contents of the food in the bag.   All dog foods sold in the USA have an AAFCO label.  It is typically found on the side of the bag (or gusset), or on the backside of the bag.  There are three parts:

  1. Ingredients
  2. Guaranteed Analysis
  3. Nutritional Adequacy Statement

Ingredients.  On this panel you will find the ingredients, vitamins, and minerals that compose the food inside the bag.  They are listed in terms of weight, meaning the component of the food that weighs the most is at the top list, and the component weighing the least is at the bottom.  From here, actual usable information is missing, and clarity of the contents of the bag becomes a bit murky.

What you don’t know is that the weight of the components, for some reason, is from the pre-processed component, not the actual “finished” component.  This bit of news means that the whole descending structure you are looking at will be re-ordered after after food processing.  For example, your meat source has a lot of a very natural element, water, in it.  When you cook it, the water evaporates, and so the meat weighs less after cooking than before.  The same thing will happen to many of the other ingredients, but they all will not loose water proportionately.  In short, the order by weight you see on the label before processing is not necessarily the same order you would see after processing.

The main value of the ingredients section is that it tells you what food elements compose the food in the bag.  Be careful in making comparisons with the ingredient’s sections with other foods.  What you don’t know is the actual recipe (i.e., the amount of grams of Fat, or wheat, etc.), or how the different ingredients, vitamins, and minerals interact with each other.  To make a valid comparison between foods would require the actual recipe, and a chemist and nutritionist to analyse the results.

The information in the AAFCO section still is not all bad.  When you buy a car, you don’t need to understand how air conditioning works to know the car has air conditioning.  Think  of the AAFCO ingredient portion of the label as a new car’s window sticker.  If you have a dog that has a problem with its coat, you will need Vitamin A (comes liver, fish oil, dairy product, or egg); you can see if the food has it.  Should you be looking for proof of antioxidants (Vitamin C), see if the food has fruits, vegetables, or organ meat (this is usually the “by products” found Premium and Natural foods.  “By products” in Basic food is the parts of an animal we definitely would not eat).  A final example:  If your dog is having digestion problems, lamb and brown rice are easy to digest, you can clearly see if its listed in the ingredients.

Guaranteed Analysis.  This section will show a range (either “not less than” or “no more than”) of specific (not all) nutrients, ingredients, vitamins, and minerals found in the bag.   For example, the Guaranteed Analysis will show the dog food in the bag contains “No less than 22% Protein”, or “No more than 12% fat”.    Also, the food components listed are measured after the food has been processed.

Finally, you have something you can use to compare “bag-to-bag”, product to product.  Good, but………….., there’s that old saying “that a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.”  For example, you see on a bag: “No less than 28% Protein”.  This food must be really good, as Brand B states “No less than 21% Protein”.  Do you know how much protein the breed, age, or size of your dog needs?  Does knowing that 28% or 21% of the food source really tell you anything about the dog’s need for protein?  Not to be scary  here, but the #2 cause of death (not counting accidents) for dogs is kidney disease, which often is brought on, or exacerbated by the dog eating too much protein?  What looks on the surface as something beneficial and/or a bargain, could end up having pretty serious consequences for your dog or cat.

A Point To Remember:  Both the Ingredients and the Guaranteed Analysis sections of the AAFCO label provide you with a general amount of information about what is in the bag. It is certainly not all inclusive.  When you try to use these labels to do comparisons with other bags and products, you can be led as-stray, because all the information you need is not presented.  For example:  The companies are never going to reveal their actual recipes.

The “Nutritional Adequacy Statement”.  Here, AAFCO redeems itself a bit for some of the incomplete information from the 2 elements of the AAFCO label mentioned above. You will find this statement usually as a separate paragraph right after the the Ingredients section.

Here is an example of a one type of statement, “Leo Vetus Food for Small Breed Puppies is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by AAFCO for Small Breed Puppies.”  Before the manufacturers can use this statement on a food label, the specific food in question must meet an AAFCO minimum nutritional profile for, in this example, “Small Breed Puppies”.   To determine if the food meets the standards, a Calculations method is used.  Here, calculations estimate the amount of nutrients either by an average nutrient content of ingredients, or by results of laboratory tests using standard chemical analysis, to  compare to the profile.

A second variant of the statement is used, “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that “Leo Vetus Food for Small Breed Puppies” provides complete and balanced nutrition for Small Breed Puppies.”   Initially, this sounds a lot better than the Calculation method, but AFFCO requires only eight dogs to be feed for a six month period, and during the duration of the tests, 25% of the animals can be removed for varying reasons, and the animals can loose up to 15% of their body fat.

On the surface, it appears that neither of the two methods of receiving a Nutritional Adequacy Statement from AAFCO is too much of a hurdle to jump over.  Most manufacturers use the “formulated-calculations” method.  It’s easier, quicker, and cheaper. The downside here is that there is no guarantee of acceptability for the “target” size, breed, and or life stage of dogs, nor is there a guarantee that the nutrients in the food will be available for the “target” dogs to assimilate into their systems.

I found only a few companies that use the “feeding trial” method.  The good news is, that after a little research, I could not find one company that used the minimum number of dogs (8) for the tests – all exceeded this number, with one using 30 dogs (over three times the AAFCO requirement).   For my money, and the health of my dog, I want a food that earned its “stripes” through the feed trail method.

More important labels on the bag….

When a manufacturer’s food meets an AAFCO standard, the company has the right to use a label verifying their success, and identifying their product by specific text on their bags.  One of the master works of the marketing spin doctor’s is in how they declare their food is Natural.  One way this is done is by using the word Natural or some variation of the theme in the dog food’s name.  So you will see names like, Natural (blank), or Nature’s (blank).  Often along with the name are pictures of a wilderness scene, and statements the the product is indeed providing “All natural food”.  These foods must be Natural, with all those statements and beautiful environmentally friendly pictures on the bag.  In some cases, these foods do not meet AAFCO’s standards for Natural foods.  When a food meets the AAFCO standards, the manufacture can place this statement on its bags: “Natural foods plus added vitamins, minerals, and amino acids”.  If you do not see this statement on the bag, the food has not meet the AAFCO standard. 

Do you have a dog that is needing to loose weight.  AAFCO has a specific set of standards for “diet” dog food.  Though you will see many brands with labels like “Health Weight”, “Weight Loss”, or “Weight Control”, only the foods that meet AAFCO standards for diet food can use the words “Lite” or “Light” to describe and label their food.

Over the past few years, there has been a good number of dog food recalls. One thing you might want to know when you purchase a food is whether or not the dog food manufacturer actually manufactured the food, or had it manufactured by someone else.  If the company manufacture’s their own food, generally they will have more control over both quality and ingredient sources. To determine this, look on the bag for a “Manufactured by” statement; if the bag does not show this exact statement, the food was made by someone else.  “What a relief, my bag says it was “manufactured in the United States”.  There is no relief, you do not know who manufactured the food, or what country or countries the ingredients came from, just that the food was “processed” in the USA.

To see if an organic food is certified, check to see if there is a “USDA Organic” seal the bag.  Despite the manufacturers claims that the food is organic, if there is no logo, the food isn’t certified organic by the USDA..  I am not aware of one USDA Organic approved dog food as of this writing (it seems that a number of years ago, the USDA changed its standards, and this left dog and cat food out in the cold.  Should you find a dog food that carries the official seal, then it is truly a unique pet food).


Hopefully, this article has answered more questions than it has created for you.  If you still have questions, call or see your vet.  Also, if you have questions about a company’s food, each bag will have a “consumer”  toll free phone number on it.  Ask the people who made the food your questions.  After all of this, if you are still confused about what to get your pet, simply stay with a Natural food that is AAFCO certified feed trial tested, manufactured by the brand in the USA, for the appropriate life stage and size of your dog.  Only a few brands will meet those requirements, and they will undoubtedly be at the “head of the pack” in nutrition, quality, and safety for your pet.




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