There are many opinions about what to feed dogs. There are grain free foods, limited ingredient foods, designer brands and cheap dog foods. What is really best for my golden retriever? The answer depends on the individual dog but there are some guidelines that can help you choose a good food. AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) has developed a statement that can be found on dog food labels which tells you whether the diet is complete and balanced and for what life stage. The statement will also tell you how the nutritional adequacy was obtained, via feeding trials or by following tables.

The ingredient list can be very confusing. The first thing to remember about the ingredient list is that the name of the ingredient does not detail its nutritional quality, its digestibility, or the bioavailability of its ingredients. That is why AAFCO has established feeding trials to test for the quality, digestibility and bioavailability of the ingredients. The next thing to remember is that the ingredient list displays the ingredients in decreasing amounts (by weight, dry vs wet) used in the food. Some companies measure the dry weight (weight with water removed) and others measure the wet weight (weight with water included). Fresh meat contains a lot of water. When you remove the water, the meat weighs less so may appear lower on the list.

AAFCO has established definitions for the animal sourced products in pet food. The manufacturers must follow those definitions. Below is a list of the definitions of some of the animal products used in pet food. The definitions have been taken from a publication by AFFCO.

Meat is the clean flesh derived from slaughtered mammals and is limited to that part of the striate muscle which is skeletal or that part which is found in the tongue, the diaphragm, the heart or esophagus. There may be fat, portions of the skin, sinew, nerve and blood vessels which normally accompany the flesh. In order to use the term meat, it can only come from cattle, pigs, sheep or goats. If the meat comes from any other animal, the species must be identified.

Meat by-products is the non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals. It includes, but is not limited to lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, liver, blood, bone, partially de-fatted low temperature fatty tissue and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth and hooves. Unless the by-products are derived from cattle, pigs, sheep or goats, the species must be identified.

Poultry is the clean combination of flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from the parts or whole carcasses of poultry or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails.

Poultry by-products must consist of non-rendered clean parts of carcasses of slaughtered poultry such as head, feet, viscera, free from fecal content and foreign matter. These include heart, gizzard, liver and other internal organs.Meat meal is the rendered product (subject to heat and pressure to destroy bacteria) from mammal tissues, exclusive of any added blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents. There are required mineral specifications and nutrient guarantees set for by AFFCO. Meat meal is high in protein and can appeal to the dog’s palate.

Meat and bone meal is the rendered product from mammal tissues, including bone, exclusive of any added blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents.

Animal by-product meal is the rendered product from mammal tissues, exclusive of any added hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents. It may consist of whole carcasses but often includes by-products in excess of what would normally be found in meat meal.

Poultry by-product meal consists of the ground, rendered clean parts of the carcasses of slaughtered poultry such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs and intestines, exclusive of feathers. This is a concentrated protein and mineral ingredient.
Poultry meal is the dry rendered product from a combination of clean flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from the parts or whole carcasses of poultry, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails.

You will also see on the label ingredients like animal and vegetable fats or oils which supply additional energy and flavor to the dog food. Plants like corn, barley, peas and potatoes also supply energy and help hold the kibble together. Fiber is added to the food as well, including dried beet pulp, dried chicory root, fructooligosaccharide, powdered cellulose and inulin. A common misconception is that these ingredients are fillers and not good for your dog. However, these ingredients provide energy and essential nutrients like amino acids, vitamins and minerals.

Pet food contains many inorganic compounds which provide necessary vitamins and minerals to the diet. These compounds often have names which include elements like calcium, copper, magnesium and others. Vitamins often have names that are difficult to pronounce like cholecalciferal (Vitamin D), and alpha-Tocopherol acetate (Vitamin E). Additives are added which supply amino acids (building blocks to proteins). Some of these ingredients are DL-Methionine and L-Tyrosine. These ingredients are all needed to ensure the diet is complete and balanced.

As you can see, pet food can be a confusing business. Reading the labels and understanding what is actually in the dog food can reduce some anxiety when feeding that food. Looking for foods that have undergone feeding trials is another way to ensure that the dog food is healthy for your pet. The AFFCO officials have generated these guidelines to ensure that our dogs are getting good quality food.