Skip to content

What to Look For in a Dog Food

Recently, there has been an increasing demand for higher-quality ingredients in our pets’ food. But every time we go into a pet store, it seems there are more and more dog food varieties on the shelves. Suddenly the seemingly simple task of picking out dog food is now daunting.

This article will give you some quick tips on interpreting the bag label and what might be in the bag.

What should I look for on the bag?

While reading food labels and nutritional content may seem overwhelming as you stand amongst bags and bags of dog food, there are a couple of key points you can look for: an AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement, an ingredient list, and a guaranteed analysis.

Look for the AAFCO statement on the side or back of the bag – it may be in tiny print. This is a statement of nutritional adequacy put out by the Association of American Feed Control Officials, indicating that a food is complete and balanced for that particular life stage. It is NOT a regulation or certification but a guideline for product labels and nutritional analysis. There is no such thing as an “AAFCO-approved” brand or food.

If the statement says the food is “complete and balanced,” the food contains all required nutrients – fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and minerals- and those nutrients are present in appropriate ratios.[1]

Example of AAFCO statement:

“_________ (product name) is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for ________ (intended life stage: maintenance, growth, all life stages, etc).

What about the ingredients? How do I know what is in the bag?

When you read the ingredient list, the ingredients are listed in order by weight, with the most abundant ingredients listed first. According to the FDA website on Pet Food Labels, if the name includes more than one ingredient – such as “Chicken and Barley Dog Food” – those two must make up 95% of the total weight. The first ingredient listed in the name is the one higher in weight. This can get tricky since it includes the ingredients’ natural water content. For example, meat contains a significant amount of water and may be higher on the ingredient list as a result, but meat meal (water and fat removed) may be second or third on the ingredient list. The FDA Pet Food Labels website has an extensive explanation of this.

The bag also contains a “guaranteed analysis” – this will show the minimum percentages of protein and fat and the maximum percentages of fiber and moisture. According to the AAFCO nutrient requirements, dogs require 22% minimum protein for growth and reproduction, and 18% minimum for adult maintenance.

I found a food – now how much do I feed?

Regardless of the type of food your dog eats, appropriate portion sizes are just as important as a balanced diet. A high-quality diet can still be detrimental to your pet if they are overfed. One way dog owners can monitor their dog at home is by assessing the dog’s body condition score, a hands-on assessment for evaluating body fat. This website describes how owners can assess their dogs at home and what to look for. Knowing whether your dog is at an ideal weight is the first step to determining how much food they need.

Every food bag is required to have feeding guidelines and a calorie statement. Remember, the amount to feed is a guideline at best. Your dog’s specific needs, body condition, health status, and activity level should all be considered. This is why most vets will use the bag recommendation as a starting point and then make adjustments.

The calories are often expressed as kilocalories per kilogram but should also have an equivalent “per cup” or “per can” amount. So why won’t your vet tell you exactly how many cups your dog needs daily? Because it will vary depending on the calories in each dog food. For example, one cup of potato chips will have a very different nutritional content than 1 cup of broccoli. Your vet can use the calorie statement to roughly calculate a feeding amount based on your dog’s lifestyle, activity level, and body condition score.

Are there certain diseases or life stages that mean my dog needs a specific food?

Your dog’s health status will be essential in determining what food is best. For example, dogs with kidney disease are often put on a more protein-restricted diet so the kidneys don’t have to work as hard to eliminate protein waste products.

Each life stage has slightly different nutritional requirements as well. While all dogs need the essential nutrients – protein, fat, carbohydrate, vitamins, and minerals – each life stage has changing requirements. Puppies, for example, have a higher energy requirement to keep up with their fast growth. At the same time, adult dogs need steady maintenance energy.

The AAFCO only recognizes four life stages: growth, maintenance, gestation, and lactation. The term “all life stages” can be used on a label as well, meaning the product was tested for growth or pregnancy but would also then pass a nutritional adequacy assessment for maintenance as well. The AAFCO does not have a recognized nutritional adequacy profile for senior dogs or weight loss.

What about grain-free diets?

In 2018, the FDA announced it was investigating a potential link between grain-free dog foods and a heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). In the years leading up to the announcement, there had been an increase in reported cases of dogs with DCM that were not breeds typically associated with heart disease. One of the common factors in these cases was a grain-free diet.

Unfortunately, we still need a firm answer about the link between food and heart disease; the research is ongoing. At a 2020 Kansas State forum on DCM, the FDA recognized that the condition is a complicated disease with multiple contributing variables. Essentially, more research is needed to understand if the link is significant.

In the meantime, most veterinary cardiologists are still recommending against a grain-free diet. In fact, grains are often a healthy source of carbohydrates and fiber. Ideally, the ideal dog food would not contain a lot of legumes or potatoes as the main ingredients.

Three key points your vet wants you to know

  1. Make sure the dog food you pick is complete and balanced for your dog’s life stage – find the AAFCO statement on the bag.
  2. Feed the appropriate amount of food. Don’t forget that any treats you give count towards calories as well.

Talk to your veterinarian about any concerns you have about your dog’s diet. This is especially important if your dog has a serious medical condition like heart disease or diabetes. Nutrition is critical to maintaining your dog’s health, so don’t overlook it.