Dog food labels can be lengthy and difficult to decipher and despite being regulated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials, and not all brands contain the best nutritional ingredients that dogs need to stay healthy. In addition, while premium dog foods are typically better formulated with healthier ingredients, consumers also need to be aware of how their dog's age and activity level affects nutritional needs.
The product labels on dog food packaging contain important nutritional analyses and percentages such as how much protein, fat, moisture, carbohydrates, fiber and by-products are in the food. In general, the ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. However, it is the high water content of, for example, chicken, that makes it rank higher on the list, rather than the actual nutritional value of the ingredient.
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Below are some of the key ingredients to look for when determining if a particular brand represents a healthy dog food choice or is laden with substandard ingredients that could not only lessen the quality of a dog's life, but also the longevity.
- Protein: Not all protein sources offer the same nutritional value. For example, plant-based proteins are a cheap substitute for proteins that come from meat sources. In addition, some protein, which comes from meat by-products, is actually indigestible. Dog Food Advisor ranks common sources of dog food protein in descending order of nutritional worth beginning with eggs, and then fishmeal, beef, milk, wheat, corn, and wheat gluten. In this ranking, "Animal protein can be expected to demonstrate a notably higher biological value than vegetable protein."
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- By-products: These filler foods are low in nutritional value and are more commonly used in cheaper dog foods. They do little to contribute to the health of the dog but do add weight and nutritional percentages to the label. By-products come from animal sources such as internal organs, feet, intestines, necks, and heads. To identify healthier dog food brands, look for less or no by-products on the label.
- Preservatives: There are chemical preservatives that are common in cheaper dog food brands and over the long term, they may be harmful to dogs. Whole Dog Journal recommends that dog owners avoid "dog food that contains artificial preservatives such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), tert-butyl hydroquinone (TBHQ), propyl gallate, and ethoxyquin, in favor of products made with natural preservatives, such as tocopherols (vitamin E), citric acid (vitamin C), and rosemary extract."
- Life stages: If a brand of dog food is labeled as appropriate for all stages of life, then it is likely the food will not meet the needs of older or younger dogs nor take into account their activity levels. The food may contain the right amount of protein or calcium for puppies, but be inappropriate for the nutritional needs of a senior dog.
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- Digestibility: Healthy dog foods that have less by-products and higher nutritional values also have a higher level of digestibility. Although they may cost more, the actual serving portions may be less, which can help even out the higher price. In addition, a higher digestibility factor has the added bonus of producing less waste.
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