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How to Read a Dog Food Label

Reading nutrition labels is important when choosing dog food. WebMD shows you how.
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3. What are all those chemical-sounding names lower on the ingredient list?

Preservatives, artificial colors, and stabilizers in pet food must be either approved by the FDA or be generally recognized as safe, a category that includes everything from high fructose corn syrup to benzoyl peroxide, used to bleach flours and cheese.  Manufacturers must list the preservatives they add, but they do not always list preservatives in ingredients such as fish meal or chicken that are processed elsewhere.

Some pet owners don't want to buy food that contains the synthetic preservatives BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), or ethoxyquin. These preservatives stop fats from turning rancid and can keep dry dog food fresh for about a year, but their safety has been questioned by some consumers and scientists. But the FDA says they’re safe at the level used in dog food.

“There is a debate about whether there is a need to avoid artificial ingredients like these, as conventional safety testing says they’re fine,” says Susan Wynn, DVM, AHG, a nutritionist for Georgia Veterinary Specialists in the Atlanta area and a clinical resident in small animal nutrition with the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. “I wouldn’t want them in my diet every day though, and I try to avoid them in my dog’s daily diet.”

Ethoxyquin came under scrutiny in the 1990s after complaints of skin allergies, reproductive problems, cancer, and organ failure in some dogs given food with this preservative. In 1997, the FDA asked dog food makers to halve the maximum allowed amount of ethoxyquin after tests conducted by manufacturer Monsanto Company showed possible liver damage in dogs fed high levels of the preservative.

Some manufacturers no longer use ethoxyquin, BHA, or BHT, instead using natural preservatives such as vitamin E (mixed tocopherols), vitamin C (ascorbic acid), and extracts of various plants, such as rosemary. Those also keep food fresh, but for a shorter period.  Be sure to check a food’s “best by” date on the label before buying or feeding it to your pet.

“If you want shelf life, it’s better to have chemical preservatives,” says Joseph Wakshlag, DVM, PhD, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. “They’re added at amounts that won’t harm the dog, and it creates a more stable fat. Rancid fat can cause liver enzymes to go up, and diarrhea.”

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