The Dog Food Project
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Label Information 101

Interpreting Pet Food Labels

This article will give you a quick overview about what the labels on a pet food tell you - and more important what they don't tell you. It is based on the FDA consumer information provided by the Center for Veterinary Medicine (parts are quoted in the grey boxes) and has my own comments added below. I have chosen not to simply link to that page and let it speak for itself, since it cites overly long examples but leaves out some relevant information entirely and is also outdated in some respects.

What is the AAFCO?

Before getting into the specifics, I would like to outline what the often-mentioned Association of American Feed Control Officials is. This group regulates the pet food industry, and while the board consists of state and federal representatives, it is not a government body and also includes people directly involved in the industry. According to the definition on their website, the AAFCO "provides a mechanism for developing and implementing uniform and equitable laws, regulations, standards and enforcement policies for regulating the manufacture, distribution and sale of animal feeds", but if this process includes business insiders, they are likely to protect their own interests first before anything else.

Their decisions are also the reason why pet food manufacturers (even if they wanted to) still can't use a more honest, descriptive labeling system, with less opportunity to make a product look better than it actually is, thus effectively protecting those companies that sell poor quality food. Manufacturers who use quality ingredients don't have anything to hide - they will proudly display e.g. chicken meal, whole grains and fresh vegetables. Those who are using ingredients like chicken byproduct meal, brewer's rice and corn gluten meal would have a hard time justifying the price of their foods.

Information on the label

Product Name

The product name is the first part of the label noticed by the consumer, and can be a key factor in the consumer's decision to buy the product. For that reason, manufacturers often use fanciful names or other techniques to emphasize a particular aspect. Since many consumers purchase a product based on the presence of a specific ingredient, many product names incorporate the name of an ingredient to highlight its inclusion in the product. The percentages of named ingredients in the total product are dictated by four AAFCO rules. [...]

If a food is named specifically, e.g. "Beef Dog Food", the named ingredient must not be less than 95% of the total weight if the water required for processing is excluded, no less than 70% if the water is included in the calculation. If more than one ingredient is named, e.g. "Beef and Liver Dog Food", all of them combined must not be less than 95% (or 70% respectively) and they must be named in descending order of content by weight. This description is used almost exclusively for canned foods.

If a food name includes the word "dinner" (or similar ones like "formula", "nuggets" etc.), e.g. such as in "Lamb Formula", the named ingredient must not be less than 25% of the total weight. If more than one ingredient is named, e.g. "Lamb and Rice Formula", all of them combined must not be less than 25% and they must be named in descending order of content by weight.

Watch out:
Since the named ingredients are only required to make up 1/4 of the total product, they may not even be descriptive of the main ingredients! The manufactur er is not technically lying about what is used, but if you don't look closely, you may not be getti ng what you intended to buy.

Ingredient list example where "Lamb and Rice Formula" is correct but misleading:
Ground yellow corn, meat and bone meal, lamb, brewers rice...
Example of truthful use:
Lamb, ground rice, barley flour, fish meal...

If the name of a food includes the phrase "with [ingredient]" (e.g. "with beef"), the named ingredient must not be less than 3% of the total weight.

Watch out:
The mentioned ingredient is only required to m ake up 3% of the total product, so it will not be descriptive of the product at all! Unless you take a close look at the ingredient lists of such foods, you are very likely to be deceived.

Ingredient list example for "Product X With Real Lamb and Rice":
Ground yellow corn, chicken byproduct meal, wheat, animal fat, corn gluten meal, lamb , rice, natural poultry flavor, salt, minerals, vitamins...

Last but not least, if a name only includes the word "flavor" or "flavored", no specific percentage is required at all, but a product must contain an amount sufficient to be able to be detected.

Watch out:
If you buy a "flavored" product, you are guaranteed to find only a minute amount of the flavoring ingredient in it, while the predominant ingredients are not mentioned in the name at all.

Ingredient list example for "Product X with Liver Flavor":
Ground yellow corn, poultry byproduct meal, brewers rice, soybean meal, beef tallow, corn gluten meal, brewers dried yeast, digest of beef liver, natural flavors, salt, vitamins, minerals...

Net Quantity Statement

The net quantity statement tells you how much product is in the container. There are many FDA regulations dictating the format, size and placement of the net quantity statement. None of these do any good if the consumer does not check the quantity statements, especially when comparing the cost of products. For example, a 14-ounce can of food may look identical to the one-pound can of food right next to it. Also, dry products may differ greatly in density, especially some of the "lite" products. Thus, a bag that may typically hold 40 pounds of food may only hold 35 pounds of a food that is "puffed up." A cost-per-ounce or per-pound comparison between products is always prudent.

This bit of information is important when you are comparing food brands that are sold in differently sized bags. Depending on the quality of the food, a 33 lb bag of one brand may be more expensive than a 40 lb bag of another, but the smaller bag may contain a more concentrated food of which you have to feed a lot less.

Watch out:
If a particular brand is sold in bags of different sizes, the smaller the size, the higher the price per pound.

Example: Brand X comes in bags of 5, 10, 20 and 40 pounds.
A 5 lb bag costs $8, the price per pound is $1.60
A 10 lb bag costs $13, the price per pound is $1.30
A 20 lb bag costs $21, the price per pound is $1.05
A 40 lb bag costs $32, the price per pound is $0.80

As you see, you are paying twice the amount per pound when you buy the smallest bag. If you are concerned about freshness and still want to save money, consider buying a vacuum food sealer to split the content of one large bag into several smaller ones. There is no need to refrigerate or freeze vacuum packed dog food, just store it in a dark, cool and dry place.

Manufacturer's Name and Address

The "manufactured by..." statement identifies the party responsible for the quality and safety of the product and its location. If the label says "manufactured for..." or "distributed by...," the food was manufactured by an outside manufacturer, but the name on the label still designates the responsible party. Not all labels include a street address along with the city, State, and zip code, but by law, it should be listed in either a city directory or a telephone directory. Many manufacturers also include a toll-free number on the label for consumer inquiries. If a consumer has a question or complaint about the product, he or she should not hesitate to use this information to contact the responsible party.

This is pretty straightforward and requires no further explanation.

Ingredient List

All ingredients are required to be listed in order of predominance by weight. The weights of ingredients are determined as they are added in the formulation, including their inherent water content. [...]
Ingredients must be listed by their "common or usual" name. Most ingredients on pet food labels have a corresponding definition in the AAFCO Official Publication. [...]

"Listed in order of predominance by weight" refers to the weight before processing. This is important to know when you are comparing products with different moisture content. Even in dry foods this can be a difference of 4%, or even more if dry and semi-moist kibble are mixed in the same bag. More important though, manufacturers can use this rule to make their product look better than it actually is by using little tricks like ingredient splitting or use of better quality ingredients that still retain a lot of water, but the dehydrated versions of less desirable components.

Watch out:
A good rule of thumb to distinguish the major components of a food is to look for the first named source of fat in the ingredient list. Anything listed before that, and including it, make up the main portion of the food, other items are present in much smaller amounts to add flavor, function as preservatives or because of their dietary benefits (e.g. probiotics, vitamins and minerals).

Food A has the following ingredient list (first source of fat marked green):
Ground yellow corn, meat meal, chicken fat, ground wheat, chicken byproduct meal, dried beet pulp, flaxseed, salt, vitamins, minerals...
Food B has the following ingredient list (first source of fat marked green):
Turkey, chicken, chicken meal, ground barley, ground brown rice, potatoes, ground white rice, chicken fat, herring, apples, carrots, cottage cheese, sunflower oil, alfalfa sprouts, egg, garlic, probiotics, vitamins, minerals...

This is important to know when looking for ingredients that may not necessarily be harmful but should only be present in small amounts in a quality product (beet pulp, corn gluten meal etc.).

A "common or usual name" may be very obvious when looking at such ingredients like "lamb" or "ground corn", but won't be common or usual for the average consumer, who has never read the definition of ingredients like "hydrolyzed chicken protein", "digest of poultry byproducts" or "corn distillers grains with solubles".At this point I find it important to mention that the AAFCO does not provide a lot of relevant information for consumers on its website. Any non-AAFCO members interested in their publication (which contains the definitions and specifics for all feed ingredients) have to pay $50 to obtain a copy. How many people do you know who would order this publication just for the purpose of choosing a new food for their companion dog? If it was viewable online, the situation would be different.

Watch out:
Ingredient lists can be manipulated in various ways to make a product look more attractive than it really is. On the other hand, a plain, honest ingredient list may also make a quality product look worse than one of lesser quality with cleverly formulated ingredients, unless you know what you are looking for.

Food A has the following ingredient list:
Lamb, brewers rice, brown rice, poultry fat, rice flour, beet pulp, rice bran...
Food B has the following ingredient list:
Brown rice, chicken meal, chicken fat, fish meal, flax seed meal...

Even though product A lists lamb as first ingredient, the meat still includes about 75% water. Once the moisture is removed to reach the final percentage of about 10%, the lamb meat will have shrunk to 1/4 of the original amount, while relatively dry ingredients like the different rice components will not change much. Product B lists rice as first ingredient, but since chicken is added in already dehydrated meal form, the amount will not shrink any further. Together with the fish meal the product may contain an equal amount of animal protein and rice and is pretty much guaranteed to contain more meat than product A.

Reversing this technique, let's look at examples:
Food C has the following ingredient list:
Chicken, chicken byproduct meal, brown rice, oatmeal, corn meal, chicken fat...
Food D has the following ingredient list:
Chicken meal, chicken byproducts, brown rice, oatmeal, corn meal, chicken fat...

Product C lists chicken as first ingredient (again, this still includes about 75% water) but the much less desirable chicken byproducts in dehydrated meal form - the finished product will contain much less "real" chicken than byproducts. Product D has chicken meal as first ingredient, and the byproducts as second, which will lose 3/4 of their weight by the time the food reaches its final moisture content. Product D contains a larger amount of better digestible animal protein.

To recognize whether a food even includes any real meat, you need to know the ingredient definitions. Some animal proteins in "meal" form are of high quality, including for example the whole carcasses of slaughtered chickens minus feathers, heads, feet, or entrails; while ones like "beef & bone meal" are made from any leftovers after the quality cuts of meat have been removed for human consumption. Here are two example ingredient lists of foods that do not contain a quality meat source whatsoever, despite the pretty images on the bag:

Food E has the following ingredient list (animal protein sources marked bold):
Ground yellow corn, wheat middlings, meat & bone meal, soybean meal, digest of poultry byproducts & beef, poultry fat, brewers yeast, yeast culture, salt, vitamins, minerals...
Food F has the following ingredient list (animal protein sources in bold):
Ground yellow corn, beef & bone meal, soybean meal, digest of chicken byproducts, animal fat, poultry byproduct meal, brewers rice, salt, vitamins, minerals...

Guaranteed Analysis

At minimum, a pet food label must state guarantees for the minimum percentages of crude protein and crude fat, and the maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture. The "crude" term refers to the specific method of testing the product, not to the quality of the nutrient itself.

Some manufacturers include guarantees for other nutrients as well. The maximum percentage of ash (the mineral component) is often guaranteed, especially on cat foods. Cat foods commonly bear guarantees for taurine and magnesium as well. For dog foods, minimum percentage levels of calcium, phosphorus, sodium, and linoleic acid are found on some products. [...]

Since this website is limited to the topic of dry food, I will leave out most of the material relating to canned and semi moist foods. If you are interested in those, please refer to the FDA document.

The guaranteed analysis is given on an "as is" or "as fed" basis. In order to compare products with different moisture content you will have to calculate percentages for both products at an equal moisture content.

Watch out:
Before comparing products by their weight, cost, content of protein, fat, and fiber, make sure they have the same content of moisture. If they differ, you need convert the values for all products to an equal percentage.

3 Products list 22% protein, 12% fat and 4% fiber "as fed". Product A contains 10% moisture, product B 12% and product C 14%. Note that the more moisture the food contains, the less nutritious dry matter is present - meaning you pay for extra water and get less nutrients:

Product "as fed" Contains dry matter
Product A 22% protein, 12% fat, 4% fiber, 10% moisture 90%, or 900 g per kg, or 14.4 oz per pound
Product B 22% protein, 12% fat, 4% fiber, 12% moisture 88%, or 880g per kg, or 14.1 oz per pound
Product C 22% protein, 12% fat, 4% fiber, 14% moisture 86%, or 860g per kg, or 13.8 oz per pound

I'll leave it up to you to calculate the differences in feeding costs per month or year.

Furthermore, it lists the minimum levels of crude protein and fat and the maximum levels of fiber and water. "Crude" means the content regardless of quality or digestibility, leaving you without any means to determine the true quality of the product from this analysis. A chunk of meat and a handful of ground up feathers are both sources of protein, chicken fat and discarded restaurant grease both provide fat. Which would you rather pay for, but much more important - which would you rather feed your dog day in and day out?

Watch out:
Different sources of protein and fat vary in digestibility and content of valuable nutrients required to maintain good health. The amount of food your dog has to eat (and conversely the amount of cleanup to do, food to buy and money to spend) strongly depends on the concentration of nutrients present in a product. Approximate digestibility values (not the "biological value", which is a completely different concept) for protein (based on information published by T.J. Dunn, Jr. DVM):

  • Egg whites and whey protein 100%
  • Muscle meats (chicken slightly higher than beef or lamb) 92%
  • Organ meats (heart, kidney, liver) 90%
  • Fish, whole soybeans (not leftover fragments!) 75%,
  • Rice 72%
  • Oats 66%
  • Yeast 63%
  • Wheat 60%
  • Corn 54%

Note: The above does not refer to the total digestibility of the item, but specifically to the percentage to which the protein part can be utilized.
Various meat and bone meals and byproduct meals range from about 45% to 80%, depending on the content of bone vs. more digestible parts.

The biological value of proteins indicates how complete a protein source is in regards to content of the essential amino acids. Combining ingredients that complement each other results in an appropriate balance of amino acids. To achieve this, not all ingredients are required to have high individual biological values. Example: if the main protein source of a food is high in biological value but has a low content of one particular amino acid, the secondary source only needs to fill that gap to create the required balance. I am not able to quote a suitable source for the BV of different protein sources, since most tables that are published are relevant for the essential amino acids for humans (histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine), dogs also require arginine in their diet - humans synthesize it in the liver.

While fats are the main source of energy in a dog food, they also supply essential fatty acids, prevent dehydration and serve as carriers for fat soluble vitamins. Chicken fat, sunflower oil, various coldwater fish oils and flax oil/seed are rich in nutrients, while cheaper ingredients like animal fat, beef tallow, and lard (though very palatable to dogs, who just love the taste) lack significant and balanced amounts and are often of questionable quality.

An interesting side note: Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids for example are still not recognized as essential nutrients by the AAFCO dog food nutrient profile. It is interesting that they are often referred to by dieticians as "essential fatty acids" though and increased supplementation often solves many health problems. Go figure.

Nutritional Adequacy Statement

[...] A "complete and balanced" pet food must be substantiated for nutritional adequacy by one of two means.

The first method is for the pet food to contain ingredients formulated to provide levels of nutrients that meet an established profile. Presently, the AAFCO Dog or Cat Food Nutrient Profiles are used. Products substantiated by this method should include the words, "(Name of product) is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO (Dog/Cat) Food Nutrient Profiles." This means the product contains the proper amount of protein, calcium, and other recognized essential nutrients needed to meet the needs of the healthy animal. The recommendations of the National Research Council (NRC) were once used as the basis for nutritional adequacy, but they are no longer considered valid for this purpose.

The alternative means of substantiating nutritional adequacy is for the product to be tested following the AAFCO Feeding Trial Protocols. This means that the product, or "lead" member of a "family" of products, has been fed to dogs or cats under strict guidelines and found to provide proper nutrition. These products should bear the nutritional adequacy statement "Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (name of product) provides complete and balanced nutrition." [...]

These two phrases do not really tell you anything about a product, except that it contains the minimum of nutrients the AAFCO deems appropriate to keep your dog alive and that he will survive while eating it. The dictionary defines the word adequate as "sufficient to satisfy a requirement or meet a need" - now ask yourself if you want your dog to survive or to be healthy and thrive? I also find it alarming that the recommendations of a group of people including business insiders are favored over those of a neutral body of scientists with solid backgrounds in animal nutrition who do not have a vested interest in profits from selling food products.

Watch out:
If a product analyzed in an AAFCO laboratory meets the respective standards established by this organization, it is considered "complete and balanced" without actually being tested in feeding trials. Your dog is not a laboratory and neither are the nutritional requirements of different dogs, let alone different breeds, 100% the same.

Just so you can form your own opinion, here are the AAFCO requirements for their feeding trials, passing which is often used as a major point of advertising especially for low quality foods:

  • Only a minimum of 8 dogs is required as a valid "test group".
  • There are no restrictions regarding breed or sex.
  • Of these 8 animals, only 6 are actually required to complete the 26-week trial. The reasons for which an animal might drop out are losing too much weight or other negative side effects.
  • During the trial, the only food available to the test animals is the food being tested. Water is freely available at all times.
  • At the beginning and end of the trial the test dogs must pass a physical examination by a veterinarian. The veterinarians evaluate general health, body and hair coat condition.
  • At the end (but not at the beginning) of the trial, hemoglobin, packed cell volume, serum alkaline phosphatase, and serum albumin are measured and recorded.
  • The diet being tested fails if any animal shows clinical or pathological signs of nutritional deficiency or excess.
  • The maximum permissible weight loss during ther trial is 15% of the starting body weight. Specific minimum values for the blood tests are given, and applied to the average result of all participating animals that finished the trial.
There you have it - wouldn't you have expected much more stringent rules, like larger sample groups, a time frame that is longer than just 6 months (for a food your dog might well be eating his or her entire life?), less permissible weight loss for a food that is supposed to be a maintenance diet? 15% is a loss of 7.5 pounds in a 50 lb dog, and unless more than 25% of the test subjects drop out from malnutrition, in the eyes of the AAFCO there is no problem with the product. Feeding trials are also not conducted under conditions that even remotely emulate the environment of a family pet, as they are mostly conducted in kennels of research facilities. A dog who sits in a kennel run all day surely has different nutritional requirements than one who is included in much of it's owners activities and gets a moderate to high amount of exercise every day.

Furthermore, if one particular food in a product line proved to meet the AAFCO standard, the company is allowed to include the nutritional adequacy statement on other products of the same line that provide equal or greater concentrations of all the nutrients. Breed specific health concerns, like for example orthopedic problems in large breeds, hypoglycemia in toy breeds, copper sensivity in Bedlington Terriers, zinc deficiencies in Alaskan Malamutes and other genetic and metabolic differences are not taken into consideration by AAFCO.

Feeding Directions

Feeding directions instruct the consumer on how much product should be offered to the animal. At minimum, they should include verbiage such as "feed ___ cups per ___ pounds of body weight daily. [...]"

This piece of information is a valuable tool for a quick general comparison of different foods, but the content of fiber and ash should not be overlooked. Kibble size and density also vary a lot between different brands.

Watch out:
Please take these recommendations only as very basic guidelines. How much you have to feed depends on whether your goal is weight maintenance, weight loss or gain; the individual dog's age, breed, metabolism, and activity; and of course also environmental conditions. Manufacturers can over- or understate amounts depending on whether their goal is to sell more food or to make their product look more economical than a competitor's.

Calorie Statement

[...] until recently, calorie statements were not allowed on pet food labels. New AAFCO regulations were developed to allow manufacturers to substantiate calorie content and include a voluntary statement.

If a calorie statement is made on the label, it must be expressed on a "kilocalories per kilogram" basis. Kilocalories are the same as the "Calories" consumers are used to seeing on food labels. A "kilogram" is a unit of metric measurement equal to 2.2 pounds. Manufacturers are also allowed to express the calories in familiar household units along with the required statement (for example, "per cup" or "per can"). Even without this additional information, however, consumers can make meaningful comparisons between products and pick the product best suited for their animals' needs. As with the guaranteed analysis, the calorie statement is made on an "as fed" basis, so corrections for moisture content must be made as described above. [...]

The caloric content of a food gives a good idea about the digestibility of a product, but it should always be taken into consideration along with the guaranteed analysis. Fat provides more than twice the amount of energy per weight unit than protein or carbohydrates, so if a food is slightly higher in fat content, it will automatically provide more energy.

Watch out:
Caloric statements can be found in three different values:

  • Gross Energy - The amount of energy in a food product on an "as fed" basis.
  • Digestible Energy - The amount of energy available to the dog after the amount lost in feces has been substracted, and
  • Metabolizable Energy - The amount of energy available to the dog after the amount lost in feces, urine and gaseous products of digestion has been substracted. This is the most common value used.

It is easily possible to compare "apples and oranges" unless the Metabolizable Energy (ME) of all compared products is taken into consideration.

Example 1:
Manufacturer A lists the following product information:
Gross energy 1,950 Kcal/lb, digestible energy 1,700 Kcal/lb and metabolizable energy 1,550 Kcal/lb.
The competitor B only lists the metabolizable energy content of 1900 Kcal/lb.
Manufacturer B offers the more nutritious food, but manufacturer A distracts from the lower relevant value by providing all 3.

Unless you have a dog who loves eating and tends to overeat, feeding a more concentrated food is the better economic solution and also cuts down on the cleaning up you will have to do, since less waste is excreted.

Example 2:
Two products both list 24% protein, 14% fat, 3% fiber and 10% moisture.
Product A contains 2,700 Kcal/kg metabolizable energy, product B contains 3,600 Kcal/kg.

Product B is clearly the better quality food with more digestible ingredients, you need to feed much less of it per day compared to product A to supply the same amount of energy.

Another detail you need to know is that the amount of Kcal per cup isn't really a good basis of comparison, since a cup is a measurement for volume, not for weight. Depending on size and density of the kibble, one cup may hold under 3 ounces(~85 grams) to over 4 ounces (~113 grams) of food. If you can't locate the amount of Kcal per pound or kilogram on a product bag or manufacturer website, email or call to find out.

Other Label Claims

Many pet foods are labeled as "premium," and some now are "super premium" and even "ultra premium." Other products are touted as "gourmet" items. Products labeled as premium or gourmet are not required to contain any different or higher quality ingredients, nor are they held up to any higher nutritional standards than are any other complete and balanced products.

The term "natural" is often used on pet food labels, although that term does not have an official definition either. For the most part, "natural" can be construed as equivalent to a lack of artificial flavors, artificial colors, or artificial preservatives in the product. [...]

"Natural" is not the same as "organic." The latter term refers to the conditions under which the plants were grown or animals were raised. There are no official rules governing the labeling of organic foods (for humans or pets) at this time, but the United States Department of Agriculture is developing regulations dictating what types of pesticides, fertilizers and other substances can be used in organic farming.

While it is true that many terms used to market a pet food are not legally defined, the manufacturers of quality brands go out of their way to supply their customers with additional information, such as using hormone free animal products, pesticide free grains, providing the USDA grades of ingredients, avoiding genetically modified products and so on. To put the quoted FDA article into date perspective, as of Oct. 21, 2002, products labeled as organic require certification by USDA-accredited certifying agents unless the operation qualifies for exemption.

Watch out:
Manufacturers are not required to include substances in the ingredient list that they did not add to the product themselves. Products they obtain from their suppliers may still contain undesirable ingredients such as synthetic preservatives and/or other additives. A prime example is fish meal, which, according to US Coast Guard regulations, must be preserved with Ethoxyquin if it is not destined for human consumption.

So while terms like "human grade", "human quality", "table quality" etc. may not be legally defined, they still provide some information about the quality of certain ingredients and the way they are handled before they end up in the food product. If words like "hormone free", "organic" etc. are used, it is not likely that such ingredients are feed grade or low quality.


[...] The pet food label contains a wealth of information, if one knows how to read it. Do not be swayed by the many marketing gimmicks or eye-catching claims. If there is a question about the product, contact the manufacturer or ask an appropriate regulatory agency.

It is correct that the pet food label contains a wealth of information, but it can be very misleading to anyone who has not read up much on the topic - and to be honest, would you unless you have a reason? Almost every single element of the label information is of ambiguous nature and seems to favor the interests of the manufacturer over those of the consumer. Unfortunately, until a more truthful, customer-friendly labeling system is implemented, the majority of pet owners will be swayed by marketing gimmicks and eye-catching claims because watching cute commercials requires less effort than understanding the information on the label.

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