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How to Read a Dog Food Label

Reading nutrition labels is important when choosing dog food. WebMD shows you how.
By
WebMD Pet Health Feature
Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S

The dog food nutrition label, like the nutrition facts box on packaged foods for people, is designed to help you compare products and to learn more about the food. But it can be a bit hard to decipher. We’ve put together a guide to the label to help you understand how to use it.

1. How do I read the dog food ingredient list?

Like packaged food for people, pet food must list ingredients by weight, starting with the heaviest. But if the first ingredient is a type of meat, keep in mind that meat is about 75% water, according to the FDA.

Without that water weight, the meat probably would fall lower on the ingredient list.

Meat meals, such as chicken meal or meat and bone meal, are different; most of the water and fat have been removed, which concentrates the animal protein.

2. What are byproducts, and should I avoid dog foods that contain them?

Veterinarians say that’s a matter of personal choice. Any pet food labeled as “complete and balanced” should meet your dog’s nutritional needs.

Liver, which is a byproduct, is rich in nutrients such as vitamin A. Meat byproducts also can contain blood, bone, brains, stomachs, udders, and cleaned intestines, according to the Association of American Feed Control Officials. Byproducts don't include hair, horns, teeth, and hooves, although an exception is allowed for amounts that occur unavoidably during processing.

Meat meal also may contain animal parts that many people consider to be byproducts.  An ingredient listed as “chicken” or “beef” may include the heart, esophagus, tongue, and diaphragm. Although all these ingredients may sound unpalatable to you, your dog would probably disagree. So don’t necessarily balk if you see byproducts in the ingredients list.

Federal rules to guard against the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) ban some previously allowed cattle and buffalo parts in animal feed, including pet food. The FDA rule bans the inclusion of body parts from any animal that has tested positive for mad cow disease, as well as brains and spinal cords from older animals, as these are considered to be at higher risk of the disease.

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