Feeding directions, which are based only on the weight of the animal, so you might run the risk of overor underfeeding if you follow them. Always monitor your dog’s weight and energy level.
List of ingredients, identified in the order of “predominance by weight,” or weight before processing. This is important to note when you are comparing products with different moisture contents (see Dry Matter p. 67). Also, as explained by Linda Bren in an FDA Consumer newsletter, “Similar materials listed as separate ingredients may outweigh other ingredients that precede them on the list of ingredients. For example, chicken may be listed as the first ingredient, then wheat flour, ground wheat and wheat middlings. The consumer may believe that chicken is the predominant ingredient, but the three wheat products — when added together — may weigh more than the chicken.”
The Animal Protection Institute points out that “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) makes up the main portion of the food. Other items, which may add flavor, function as preservatives or [have] dietary benefits (e.g. probiotics, vitamins and minerals),” are present in much smaller amounts.
Calorie Statements (optional). AAFCO regulations say the listing for calories “shall be distinct from Guaranteed Analysis and shall appear under the heading Calorie Content.” If a calorie statement is on the label, it must be expressed on a “kilocalories per kilogram” basis. Kilocalories are the same as the calories. A kilogram is a unit of metric measurement equal to 2.2 pounds.
The label can reveal other important information besides the ingredients. Check for a “best by” date. Most naturally preserved dry foods have a “best by” date that is 12 months from the date of manufacture.
Try to find a bag that is as fresh as possible. If yours is a one-dog household and your budget can tolerate the price differential, shop for smaller-sized bags, which make it easier to keep the food fresh. Also, look for bags lined with untreated aluminum foil. Do not remove the food from the bag, but rather, store the bag inside an airtight, metal container.
If you feed your dog canned food and don’t use an entire can in one meal, store the leftovers in the refrigerator in a covered container. Food left in an opened can (even one with a plastic lid) loses flavor.
Dogs thrive on variety. As Bren points out, “Some animal nutritionists recommend switching among two or three different petfood products every few months. Doing so helps ensure that a deficiency doesn’t develop for some as-yet-unknown nutrient required for good health. When changing pet foods, add the new food to the old gradually for a few days to avoid upsetting the pet’s digestive system.”
If you are adding fresh or cooked ingredients to the meal (which many recommend), make sure you adjust the amount of commercial food to avoid overfeeding and weight gain.
When in doubt, shop at small boutique or holistic pet stores. The owners and staff are usually more familiar with their products and can help you with your buying decisions.
Make sure you contact the food manufacturer if you have any questions about their products, either before or after buying it. Do not simply rely on the information from their websites.