When you go to choose a dog food for your pup it’s important to first consider what your dog’s “ideal food” will be, then use that as an “avatar” to compare other dog foods to. There are many different ways to start comparing dog foods, but the best place to start is the dog food label – or the dog food bag. This will allow you to make sure the food meets your dog’s basic ideal needs, and help you quickly weed through and discard foods that don’t suit your dog.
However, it is important to note that this is just the first step in comparing dog foods, the second step will be looking beyond the bag at the pet food formulation, quality control, manufacturing, ingredient sourcing, etc.
There are FIVE areas of the dog food bag that you can use to compare dog foods: the title, the guaranteed analysis, the ingredients, the AAFCO statement, and the marketing claims/statements. Each of these areas has been specifically defined by AAFCO (or the American Feed Control Officials) and many people actually do not know the definitions and unfortunately make assumptions that certain terms MEAN something completely different than what the term truly means.
Today we are going to look at the TOP THREE areas that you should look at to compare dog foods to see which diet is appropriate for your dog.
- Product Name or Title
- Guaranteed Analysis
- AAFCO Statement
Comparing Dog Food Names – What Do They Mean?
Did you know that the Title or Product Name can actually give you a clue as to the overall composition of your dog’s diet? AAFCO has legally defined product names to fit into 5 groups depending on their wording… The 100% Rule, the 95% Rule, the 25% Rule, the “with” Rule, and the “flavor” Rule.
But what is a Product Name of a dog food? It’s the simple description you see of the product on the front of the bag, container, or package of pre-made dog food (“Chicken and Rice Recipe” is a Product Name). We can use the Product Name and the AAFCO definitions related to these names to easily and quickly compare dog foods and rule out foods that would not be suitable for our dogs.
The 100% Rule
This rule states that the food must contain 100% of the item listed, except a small amount of added preservatives to keep the item fresh, colors to make the item easily distinguished from “human food”, and water for processing.
An example of this would be… “All Beef Treats”, “100% Canned Chicken”, “Venison Treats”, “Canned Tuna”.
Items in this category are either treats or for supplemental feeding only (unless of course, they are part of a recipe you received from a board-certified veterinary nutritionist).
The 95% Rule
The 95% Rule states that ingredients named within the “Product Name” must make up 95% of the product weight (without water), and 70% of the product by weight (with water). If there are two named ingredients in the Product Name both items together must combine to make up at least 95% of the product weight, with no individual item making up less than 3%.
Let me give you an example of what a food composition might look like in this category…
An example of this would be… “Fido’s Beef Dog Food”, “Sport Hound Chicken and Rice Dog Food”, “Teacup Lamb and Potato Dog Food”. This is different from the use of words like “formula” “recipe” or “dinner” – which actually fall into a different category.
When comparing dog foods in this category it is VERY IMPORTANT to look at the Nutritional Adequacy Statement if you plan on feeding this as your pet’s sole diet – as many foods within this category are not actually labeled as complete and balanced, but instead for supplemental feeding only. If a dog food is labeled for “intermittent or supplemental feeding only” it should be treated similarly to a treat. A diet for supplemental feeding should be kept to 10% of your pet’s daily caloric needs unless otherwise recommended by a veterinarian.
The 25% Rule
A majority of pet food Product Names actually fall under the “25% Rule”. Dog Foods that follow this rule are required to use a word like: “formula”, “recipe”, “dinner”, “platter”, “nuggets”, or “entree” as a descriptor after the ingredient mentioned.
The 25% rule states that the named ingredient or ingredients must compose at least 25% of the product weight (without water), or 10% of the product by weight (with water). If two ingredients are named in the product name together they must add up to the 25%. No single product mentioned is allowed to make up less than 3%. This rule also states that if two ingredients are mentioned there must be more of the item listed first than the item listed second.
Some examples of foods that would fall into this category are… “Chicken and Rice Recipe”, “Ground Beef Entree”, “Grilled Lamb Platter”, “Sweet Potatoes and Venison Formula”.
Since this category encompasses almost 80-90% of the pet foods on the market today, if you are comparing foods in this category you will need to do further research in order to choose your pet food.
The “with” Rule
Dog foods that fall into this category use the word “with” prior to the ingredient. An example of this would be “Fido’s Dog Food with Chicken”, or “Oven Baked Morsels with Beef”.
This rule states that the named ingredient must comprise at least 3% of the product by weight. If multiple items are listed after the “WITH” each item must individually make up at least 3% of the product by weight. So with multiple ingredients (like “with chicken and rice), the chicken would compose at least 3% of the product by weight, and the rice would compose at least 3% of the product by weight.
This category of dog food is not as common as the 25% category, however, if you walked through a grocery store or a local pet store you will probably find a couple of examples of diets that fit into this category.
The “flavor” Rule
Also known as the less than 3% rule – dog foods and treats that fall into this category will use the descriptor “flavor” or “flavored” when describing the food, this can be before or after the ingredient mentioned.
Some examples of this would be… “Chicken Flavored Dog Food”, “Fidos Lean Beef Flavored Nuggets”, “Hound’s Best Dog Food Flavored with Chicken”.
This rule states that the named ingredient must be present enough to impose a “flavor” on the food. There is not a minimum of the food required for this to be true. One way that this can be done is by adding in something like “chicken fat” or “chicken digest” in order to impose a “chicken flavor” on a product that may or may not be otherwise made of chicken. This rule also requires that both the word flavor and the ingredient be the same size on the package as to not confuse a dog owner. However, it does not limit the use of large pictures of the ingredient on the bag.
This rule is most often seen in treats, however, it can be seen in some lines of dog food.
How to Use Product Name to Compare Dog Foods
Probably the best way to use the product name to differentiate dog foods from each other is if you know how much of a particular ingredient you might want within a food. For example – if you have a high-energy dog, you might want to choose a dog food that within the 25% category or above. So when browsing through foods you can immediately remove foods from your “list” of potential foods that have the words “with” or “flavor”. Whereas if you are looking for a diet for a dog that needed lower protein due to a medical condition – choosing a dog food with the word “with” might be ideal.
How to Compare Dog Food Guaranteed Analysis
When looking at the dog food bag you probably noticed the guaranteed analysis – this looks a lot like the nutrition label that we typically see on human packaged foods in the grocery store. The guaranteed analysis (or GA) is supposed to give you quick information about the overall diet composition so that you to make comparisons between diets for dogs.
However, the problem is, the guaranteed analysis does not adjust for water – and moisture can be variable between different diets. This is especially true when comparing something like a kibbled food to a canned or fresh food option.
Also, the guaranteed analysis does not actually give us all the information we may want about the diet composition – namely it doesn’t list the total carbohydrate content – which you may need to know if your dog has certain medical conditions – like diabetes, or certain types of cancers.
So how do we compare dog food compositions? You simply convert the guaranteed analysis to dry matter.
Converting Guaranteed Analysis to Dry Matter
In order to properly compare dog foods, we HAVE to either look at them on a dry matter basis or a caloric basis. Both of these remove water as a variable and give the full macro breakdown of the food item – including protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
While working in the veterinary field I have often seen people compare foods using the guaranteed analysis only to be surprised when the diet actually doesn’t have the overall composition that they first believed. Personally, I have found the guaranteed analysis to dry matter calculation much more user friendly than converting to a caloric basis.
But how do you know what composition is right for your dog?
This is largely going to be based on several different factors – including your dog’s age, breed, lifestyle, and if they have any known medical conditions. Some dogs that are more active may need more protein or fat in order to maintain their endurance or activity level, where others may have issues with maintaining their weight and need more carbohydrates in order to provide extra calories. A great place to start when considering what diet composition would be best for your pet is your veterinarian, they should be able to point you to or away from certain dietary compositions that would be ideal for your dog.
One area that is very important to look at on your dog food bag is the AAFCO adequacy statement – this covers two main areas – one is the life stage that that food was created for. Meaning if the food is adequate and balanced for puppies (small or large breed), adults or all life-stages.
The second thing this statement can tell you is if the food has undergone feeding trials – meaning if this food was fed to other dogs and those dogs had their health monitored over a period of time. We can use these statements to compare dog foods to make sure that the foods we choose for our dogs are appropriate for their current life stage and nutritional needs.
There are currently two AAFCO statements that state that a dog food would be considered complete and balanced for puppies. If the AAFCO statement is not one of these then it is NOT balanced for puppies.
“[Dog Food] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for growth.”
“[Dog Food] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for all life stages.”
For large breed puppies you should also be aware that there is a third statement for dogs with adult weights over 70 lbs, this is because large breed dogs have specific calcium for phosphorus needs in comparison to smaller breed puppies.
“…including growth of large-size dogs (70 lbs or more as an adult)”
There are currently two AAFCO statements that state that a dog food is considered complete and balanced for adult dogs – ones that use “all life stages” or “maintenance”. Using a puppy food for an adult is not considered “unbalanced” however excess in certain nutrients (like calcium) could possibly cause issues for adult or senior dogs as they age.
“[Dog Food] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for maintenance.”
Any life stage statement may also contain a “feeding trial” or “formulated to” statement. You may be surprised to know, but probably over 90% of the foods currently on the market today DO NOT actually have any type of feeding trials or digestibility trials done on their diets.
The most common testing done on diets is just palatability trials – meaning a trial done on if -most- dogs will eat a food, which though may be good for marketing and overall acceptance, is not necessarily an indication of nutritional adequacy.
“Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that [Dog Food] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [Lifestage].”
What this statement means is that the dog food in question has been formulated to the nutritional level established by AAFCO AND the food has also gone through feeding trials – where the diet was fed to a group of pets for an established period of time and the pet’s health is monitored.
[Dog Food] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog (or cat) Food Nutrient Profiles for [Lifestage].”
What this statement means is that the dog food in question has been formulated to the nutritional level established by AAFCO. If a product is “formulated to” AAFCO standards this means that the diet has not undergone food trials or additional research testing to substantiate the safety of the food on an “as fed” basis in a controlled setting.
So what is a feeding trial anyway?
The minimum requirements for a feeding trial are fairly basic. You must have a minimum of 8 dog within the trial, and a full exam should be performed and health evaluated prior to starting the trial. During the trial, only the food tested is fed – for at least 6 months.
During the testing, all of the dogs are monitored for at least four different blood parameters – hemoglobin, packed cell volume, alkaline phosphatase, and albumin. Their overall health and weight are also observed during this period.
To pass the AAFCO feeding trial 6 of the 8 dogs must have normal bloodwork, must not have lost more than 15% of their body weight, and no dogs within the trial must have been removed due to nutritional problems or because they have died.
Doesn’t sound like a lot does it?
This is true – but these are minimum standards – many pet food companies go above and beyond on their feeding trials, collecting full blood chemistry panels, along with urinalysis, and even digestibility data. There are NO RULES against doing more extensive trials on foods.
Also, feeding trials do not actually need to be performed within a laboratory setting – several companies have now done feeding trials with dogs living in their own homes while having owners bring in the dogs for routine testing.
Other companies have created their own humane nutrition centers that house hundreds of dogs with play areas, daily enrichment activity, and of course human love and interaction. So “animal testing” related to these trials have come a long way, no longer do companies have to use sterile laboratory environments in order to perform these feeding trials.
What your Dog Food Label Doesn’t Tell You
When you are comparing dog foods using just the bag it is important to realize that there are A LOT of things that are not included on the bag that are extremely important to know prior to choosing a dog food. For example…
- The bag will not tell you how extensive of a feeding trial was performed on the food.
- It will not tell you WHO formulated the diet and what their qualifications are (did you know ANYONE can formulate and sell a dog food – without ANY training in animal nutrition).
- The pet food packaging will not tell you what type of quality control the dog food has gone through.
- The bag will also not tell you where the ingredients are sourced, or what type of quality control or protocols the ingredients have to go through to be part of the recipes.
- It will also not tell you what post-production testing the food goes through for pathogens, toxins, and completeness.
All of these items can also only be found by actually contacting the dog food company directly and asking them about what their particular standards are. Remember that EVERY dog food company is going to say their food is the best, or the most healthy – it is our job as puppy parents to weed through all the boasting to get the facts so we can make the best-informed decisions for our dogs.
Looking for more tips and ticks on how to choose a dog food? Make sure to join the conversation on Instagram or Facebook and get questions answered, and connect with other like-minded pet parents that are interested in being proactive about their dog’s health and nutritional needs.
Until next time my canine health nuts!
About the Author: Nikki is a Registered Veterinary Technician (Veterinary Nurse) and Dog Mom with over a decade of experience with dogs and cats. Since graduation from college (BS Biology, AS Animal Health -2013) she has adopted two mixed breed dogs – Ranger and Ash, and has focused her time learning about pet food and nutrition.
Nikki shares information on a range of dog nutrition topics: from how to create a homemade complete and balanced dog food recipes, to how to choose a dog food. Nikki strives to give dog parents the information they need in order to make the best nutrition decisions for their pup!
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