What’s really in your dog’s food?

What’s really in your dog’s food?

I’ve talked before about the good, bad and ugly with dog food, but what about the ingredient labels? Don’t dog food manufacturers have to be truthful about the ingredients?

Yes and no. Just like other manufacturers, dog food companies have found ways to use creative language designed to appeal to our emotions and our desire to provide the best for our dogs. For instance, words like “premium,” “wholesome,” “gourmet” or “holistic” have no scientific, legal or even generally-agreed-upon meaning. Some call them “fluff” words.

They’re basically marketing ploys.

Here’s a closer look at some dog food marketing lingo, starting with the name: the Association of American Feed Control Officials has four rules for a pet food’s name.

• 95% rule. At least 95% of the product must be the named ingredient. For instance, “beef dog food” must include at least 95% beef and at least 70% of the total product with added water.

• 25% rule. If the named ingredient (for instance, chicken or fish) comprises at least 25 but less than 95% of the product, the product name must include a qualifying term like “dinner,” “entrée,” or “platter.”

• “With” rule. When you see a label containing the word “with” (for instance, “doggie dinner with beef,”) the “with” ingredient needs to be only 3% of the product.

• “Flavor” rule. According to the FDA, if the label says “chicken flavor dog food,” the product “must contain an amount sufficient to be able to be detected.” That could even be microscopic.

Looking at frequently-used terms, “organic” gets tossed around a lot lately, but when it comes to pet food, organic regulations have been under development for almost two decades. In the meantime, the USDA ruled that pet foods claiming to be organic must meet its human food regulations. Unfortunately, there is very little enforcement of this regulation.

On the back label, ingredients must be listed individually and by weight, meaning there is more of the ingredient at the top of the list than one further down. That being said, some manufacturers use a tactic called ingredient splitting to make one ingredient appear more significant than it really is.

Let’s say a dog food’s first three ingredients are rice, potatoes and beef. By splitting the rice and potatoes into their separate components — rice, rice flour, potatoes, potato flour, potato starch and potato protein — the company can bring beef to the top of the list.

A manufacturer can also conceal an ingredient by using a more obscure scientific name. Some pet caretakers might want to avoid MSG in their dog’s food, so the company instead uses a term like “hydrolyzed protein,” which is simply the scientific term for a flavor enhancer. Like MSG.

Then there are those luscious pictures on dog food labels. Strips of tender, grilled steak, chunks of lean chicken, garden-fresh pumpkin, peas, apples and berries, all surrounding happy, shiny-coated dogs. Unfortunately, pictures can lie: while the FDA says that pictured ingredients on the label must be present in the food, they don’t regulate how much of those juicy-looking foodstuffs are actually in that food.

All of which is to say that you need to be a careful and vigilant consumer when it comes to choosing your dog’s food, and not allow yourself to be taken in by pretty pictures or questionable claims. I suggest that every dog caretaker subscribe to www.dogfoodadvisor.com, as it is fully independent, and it accepts no advertising or compensation from manufacturers for ratings.

Joan Merriam lives in Northern California with her Maine coon cat Indy, the infinite spirit of her beloved golden retriever Joey, and the abiding presence of her dog Casey, in whose memory this column is named. You can reach Joan at [email protected].

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