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Daragan’s Dog Food Guide: Ingredients and Supplements

Learn how to read the label and make the best decisions for your pet.

When it comes to feeding your dog, it seems like that there are more choices now than ever before. There are the big brands like Pedigree and Purina, but new options have sprung up. You might have seen ads on Instagram for the Farmer’s Dog or noticed a whole new brand in the aisle of your local pet store that made you curious. But how do you know if it is worth it to switch? And how do you decide what new food would be the best for your beloved dog?


If you’ve asked yourself these questions or similar questions, then this is the guide for you. We’ll cover the basics of reading a dog food label, what ingredients actually are, and different kinds of supplements available. We’ll also include examples of products for you to see for yourself.


In this guide:

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. We may get a commission of any products purchased through these links, at no cost to you.


How to Read a Dog Food Label

The first step to understanding dog food is knowing how to read the label. With so many different brands and marketing messages, it is difficult to tell what is actually in the food at first glance. And the nutrition labels are filled with all sorts of information that can be difficult to digest if you don’t know what to look for. So, let’s break down each part of the label piece by piece.


Product Name: The Four AAFCO Rules

Before you even pick a bag off of the shelf, you can get an idea of what is in it by the name. There are four rules established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) that apply. These rules each apply when a product uses a specific form of phrasing, which are detailed below.


The 95% Rule

This rule applies to “named ingredients” when a product is labelled as “Beef/Chicken Dog Food” or something similar. When phrased in this way, the ingredient in question must account for 95% of the product weight, excluding added water, and at least 70% of the total product weight when including added water. Added water is usually more applicable to wet foods for processing purposes. Any water added to dry foods will be evaporated during the drying process. If there is more than one ingredient listed, such as “Beef and Sweet Potato Dog Food,” then neither ingredient can be less than 3% of the total product weight (excluding water).

The remaining percentage of ingredients is are those required for additional nutrition, such as vitamins, minerals, and other ingredients needed to create the food. This can include preservatives to prevent spoilage.


The 25% Rule

When the named ingredient includes a qualifier such as “Dinner,” “Entrée,” or “Platter,” then the 25% rule is at play. The logic being here that a dinner or platter at a restaurant would include sides in addition to the meal. For example, if you ordered a steak then you’d probably get mashed potatoes and asparagus to compliment to main attraction.

With this rule, any product that contains less than 95% of the main ingredient but more than 25% percent of the product weight must include one of these qualifiers or a similar one.

In the example of “Beef and Sweet Potato Dinner for Dogs,” beef and sweet potato must account for at least 25% of the product weight, excluding water. With water, that number is 10%. Since there is more than one ingredient, neither ingredient can be less than 3% the total product weight.


The “With” Rule

Food that includes “with” in the name are subject to this rule. Any named ingredient only needs to account for at least 3% of the total product weight. If a food is called “Dog Food with Beef,” then there can actually be a lot of variation in the ingredient list. The rest of the product could be corn meal, necessary nutrients, and preservatives. We definitely recommend paying attention to the ingredient list and guaranteed analysis for foods using this qualifier.


The Flavor Rule

Any product listing a flavor only needs to have a detectable amount of the ingredient in question. So, a product listed as “Chicken Flavor Dog Food” only needs to have enough chicken product to be detected and it is not an indication that there is any significant amount. This is not necessarily bad and foods operating under this rule can still have good ingredients, you just need to check before purchase.


Guaranteed Analysis

Regulators examine each label for compliance with nutrient requirements and voluntary label claims use the guaranteed analysis to gather product information. Different states have laws dictating the bare minimum of nutrients that a pet food must include, as well as the highest possible levels of hydration and crude fiber. The percentages of crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber, and water must be listed on dog food labels. Other ingredient information can be listed, but they are not required. If you want to get extremely technical, the FDA website provides a thorough description of how the guaranteed analysis is determined. Please note that “crude” refers only to the method of testing the product and it is not a reflection of the quality. If a product claims to contain vitamins or minerals, it must provide a guarantee of the quantity it offers.


Ingredients

This is the most important part of the dog food label is certainly the ingredient list. Just like in human food, the ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. So, the ingredients most prevalent ingredients are first and the ones with the smallest amount by weight are last. And, according to AAFCO regulations, each ingredient must be listed individually. Collective ingredient listings, such as “protein products,” are not allowed. Below is a list of common ingredient names and phrases and what they mean.


Meat

Meat is largely an animal's muscular tissue, but it may also contain fat, gristle, and other tissues that are typically found around the muscle, like you could find in a slice of raw meat that is offered for human consumption. The less desirable cuts of beef and other meat may fall under this category. It does not include bone. If only the term “meat” is used, then the meat in question came from cattle, pigs, sheep, or goats. If the meat came from another source, the species must be identified.


Meat by-products

The majority of the animal's parts, excluding the muscular tissue and internal organs, are considered meat by-products. It comprises some of the parts that people commonly eat (such tripe, livers, and kidneys), as well as certain sections that are not typically eaten by people in the US. Even while the USDA does not consider some byproducts, such as lungs and udders, "edible" for human consumption, they can be totally healthy and nutritious for animals, who certainly don’t mind where they came from. As with meat, the species must be identified if it is not from cattle, pigs, sheep, or goats.


Poultry and Poultry by-products

Poultry is essentially the equivalent of a rotisserie chicken that you can buy at the grocery store, but in dog food form. Poultry by-products are the other parts of a chicken that you would not find in a prepared chicken, such as the heads, feet, and other parts that are free of fecal matter.


Rendered Products

Rendered products are common ingredients that typically include the qualifier “meal.” These are “meat meal,” “meat and bone meal,” “animal by-product meal,” “poultry meal,” and “poultry by product meal.”


These are all the same as the ingredients described earlier, but they went through the process of rendering. This is a process where the ingredients are subject to heat and pressure, removing most of the water and fat and leaving primarily protein and minerals. Then, they are ground up to create the “meal.” This process destroys bacteria and leaves behind a high protein ingredient that is appealing to dogs.


Other Ingredients

Other ingredients you may find include animal and vegetable fats or oils that can provide additional energy or add flavor. Plant ingredients can also provide these same benefits, in addition to helping the kibble retain its structure. Other ingredients can help provide fiber, such as powdered cellulose (which can also be found in some powdered parmesan cheese).


Consider These Dog Food Brands:


Supplements

Many people opt to give their dog nutritional supplements, which can compliment the nutrients provided by the food and cover any deficiencies. They are also a great option for special needs and considerations that would not be taken into account by the needs of the average pet. Or simply, needs that are not covered by standard nutritional requirements – like coat care or arthritis. Below are common supplements that you might consider. Though, with all things related to your dog’s health, consult your veterinarian to make sure any supplement is right for them.


Glucosamine

Glucosamine is an amino sugar that is found naturally in the fluid around the joints to help build cartilage and a supplement is can help treat arthritis, though some studies have shown varying results. Though, a 2007 study published in “The Veterinary Journal” found that this supplement helped to reduce pain and improve mobility after 10 weeks of treatment.


Products to consider:

Fish Oil

Fish oil is another popular supplement, thanks to being rich in omega-3 fatty acids. These can help improve coat quality, making it appear shinier in some breeds, and alleviate skin allergies. Some studies have suggested that they also help alleviate inflammation and support heart and joint health.


Products to consider:


Antioxidants

Antioxidants can help reduce the effects of chronic inflammation, similarly to fish oil. They may also help counteract the effects of aging, such as memory loss or another cognitive dysfunction. This supplement can be found in vitamins C and E and protect the body’s cell membranes from free radicals, a type of molecule that can contribute to cell death.


Products to consider:


Probiotics

Probiotics are beneficial microorganisms that live in the digestive tract. As a supplement, they can help aid with digestion and general intestinal health. They may also be a way to treat diarrhea and other digestive health problems.


Products to consider:

What Food Is Best for Your Dog?

Have you decided to take a fresh look at what you’re feeding your dog? That’s great! It’s also important to make sure that we are doing the best we can to help our furry family members lead long, healthy lives. But remember, before making significant changes you may want to ask your vet what their thoughts are, especially if you are not 100% of the best decision. The best food will depend on your dog's breed, age, and lifestyle.


If you are looking to compliment a healthy diet with plenty of exercise, consider signing your dog up for doggy daycare! A day or two of playtime every week can help combat obesity and help your dog burn off any extra energy. You just need to get in touch.