How to Read a Dog Food Label
Reading nutrition labels is important when choosing dog food. WebMD shows you how.
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
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.”