I originally wrote this post in March 2011:

You’re probably pretty savvy about interpreting the package labels on the food you eat. But have you ever tried to do the same with your pet’s food? Go ahead. Grab the package and take a look. Make sense to you? Last month we covered the topic of the nutrients your pet needs. But how can you tell if their food delivers that? This month we offer the secret decoder ring for pet food labels.

Start with the name

Your first clue to the composition of ingredients is in the name of the food. By Association of American Feed Control Officers (AAFCO) rules, how the food is named relates to how much of an ingredient is in the food. If the name is, for example, “Beef Dog Food,” then it must contain at least 95% of that ingredient by weight. Similarly, “Chicken and Liver for Cats” means that the combination of chicken and liver is at least 95% of the food. This rule applies only to animal product ingredients, so “Lamb and Rice” means that 95% of the food is lamb.

If the name includes “dinner” or “entrée” or “formula” or something similar, then the named ingredient must represent at least 25% of the food. A secondary named ingredient will account for at least 3% of the food’s weight. “Tuna and Salmon Dinner” means that 25% of the food is tuna and 3% of the food is salmon.

If the word “with” is in the name, the ingredient following is as little as 3% of the total weight.  “Dog Food with Beef” means that beef is only about 3% of the food, but “Beef Dinner with Cheese” means beef is 25% and cheese is 3% of the food.

Finally, know that terms like “gourmet,” “premium,” “organic,” or “specialty” have no specific definition or official guidelines and the AAFCO considers them to be marketing tools.

Evaluating ingredient quality

Labels list ingredients by weight, so the first one is the largest ingredient in the food. That seems clear enough. But wait. If a manufacturer splits an ingredient into two smaller categories, it can seem like it is a lesser part of the food. For example, corn products are often split into “ground corn” and “corn gluten meal,” but together, corn may still be the largest ingredient in the food.

And meat is meat, right? Well, not exactly. If the meat is listed as “chicken” it means the clean flesh of the animal. Chicken “meal” is the clean processed remainder after the meat has been removed (meaning it can include bones, feet, intestines and tissues). Chicken “by-products” are the clean unprocessed remains, often including bones, beaks and viscera. Yuck!

To keep it straight, use this rule of thumb: avoid foods that contain animal by-products; artificial colors, flavors and preservatives; and growth hormones. Try to choose foods with meat as the primary ingredient. Remember last month’s column: dogs and cats need a lot of protein and animal protein is a great source. As a bonus, you can feed smaller quantities of nutrient dense foods.

Check out the AAFCO “statement of nutritional adequacy” on the label. It will say either “is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO“ or “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate…” The first statement indicates that a chemical analysis is used and the second means the food was tested on animals according to AAFCO procedures.

Resources at your fingertips

If all this just seems like more than you can comprehend, check out www.goodguide.com/categories/308912-pet-food. You’ll find ratings on over 1,500 pet foods. Concerned about possible food recalls? Get timely information from the FDA at www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/newpetfoodrecalls/.

There is so much more you can learn on this topic. Check out Petfinder.com, HealthyPet.com and VeterinaryPartner.com for more information.

Carol Peter is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of Cold Nose Companions, LLC Dog Training. She offers private in-home training for people and their dogs throughout Geauga County. Carol focuses on resolving problem behaviors and teaching good household manners using positive reinforcement training and behavior modification methods. She can be reached at carol@coldnosecompanions.com.

©2011, Carol Peter, Cold Nose Companions, LLC