Dog food is full of good nutrients. Major dog food brands are backed by great research labs, scientists, nutritionists and tons of data. Look around you: most dogs are in great shape and are getting good nutrition without major expenditures from their owners.

The Importance of Water The most important ingredient in your dog’s diet is water. Healthy dogs ingest as much water as they need. Since dry food has lower moisture content, dogs drink more water when fed dry food. They need about 2.5 times as much water as dry content, so they drink to supplement whatever moisture is in their food. No matter what you feed your dog, all you have to do is provide clean, fresh water and make sure the water dish is never empty.

What You Can Learn From Packaging and Labels
Your dog’s food packaging has a lot of information about the nutritional content of the food. If you know what to look for, you can make a good decision about which food is best for your dog. Drag out the food bag and look for these claims and tidbits of information.

Nutrition: “High Protein,” “Low Fat,” and other claims are useful only if you compare their percentages (expressed as a percent of dry matter) against other dog foods. These claims are designed to appeal to buyers who are watching their own (human) nutrition.

All Life Stages: With choices of foods for puppies, adult dogs, older dogs, obese dogs and work dogs, you should reject claims that food may be appropriate for any dog. Puppies need a special balance of ingredients, and cutting back quantities for obese dogs can seriously deprive them of nutrients they need.

Flavor: “Beef Flavored” or “Great Turkey Taste” does not guarantee that the product contains much beef or turkey at all. However, to get that great taste, the manufacturer must use some set minimum of animal-derived substance in the flavoring.

Complete Nutrition for Your Adult Dog: With the strict guidelines imposed by government regulators about minimum protein and fat and maximum moisture and crude fiber, almost every dog food can legally make this claim. The exception is food designed for intermittent feeding (special diets, dog treats), and they must make this clear on the label.

Appeal: Often, the only serious differences among dog food brands are appearance, texture and smell. While manufacturers work hard to convince you that their food tastes best, your dog doesn’t care that much. And no one would make a food that’s indigestible!

Enriched: Government regulations require that dog food be enriched with vitamins and minerals. Like most sliced bread you buy at your grocery store, this one just isn’t special any more, but it seems to assuage the buyer’s guilt. You’ll find it difficult to get exact information on the label.

Vet Endorsement: Don’t fall for this one. Most pet food manufacturers have one or more veterinarians on their staff, so it’s not hard to get two of them to endorse the product!

AAFCO Standards: AAFCO stands for “Association of American Feed Control Officials.” While they regulate conformance with some minimum and maximum requirements, they do not endorse particular products. When AAFCO appears on a dog food bag, it may be in the context of a statement saying that the manufacturer, distributor or packer has, for example, tried to conform to AAFCO’s recommended procedures for testing the food.

Daily Feeding: Usually, recommended daily amounts are written as ranges (4 to 5.5 cups). How much you feed within this range should depend on where your pet is within the weight range, what his activity level is and what handouts you give him in the form of table scraps or treats. Since we’re so weight conscious, you should know that underfeeding is at least as bad as overfeeding.

Guaranteed Analysis: This information is usually in table form. Manufacturers or distributors are required to list minimums of protein and fat, and maximums of crude fiber and moisture. Unless they provide additional optional information, you won’t know how much fat is actually in the average serving.

Ingredients: Unless you have a good background in animal nutrition, this list of ingredients won’t give you much information relevant to making dog food choices. You can tell more about nutrients by looking at the Guaranteed Analysis. The ingredients are listed in weight order, with the heaviest first, but this can be misleading as products can be broken down (for example, meal and hulls) and reported later on the list. You can’t blame dog food makers for protecting their recipes!

Information: Although dog food cans have small labels, dog food bags have plenty of space for “extras.” Many of the feeding tips, guidelines for telling if your dog’s overweight and dog care advice are useful. Most people in line behind you will get a bit edgy if you read all this at the checkout counter though.

Manufacturer: If the product label says “Made By,” then you can probably tell whether the food came from a reputable animal food maker. The big name places usually have a research lab and most important, trial tests in which the food is fed to real dogs and the data analyzed to measure the impact on dogs’ health. Look for “feeding tests” information somewhere on the bag.

Distributor: “Distributed by” may be the name of a large grocery chain, a pet store chain or a company you’ve never heard of. This means that their job is to sell and ship the product. Make sure you see a phone number that you can call if you have questions or complaints. You’ll find it hard to get action from the store clerk if your dog has problems with the food. You might also look for information on feeding trials just to be sure the food has been tested with dogs.