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What You Might Not Know About Dog Food

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- We love our dogs. It's estimated Americans spend billions each year on veterinary care, grooming and food -- and the choice in that last category can be tough to pick.

There are 5,000 different types of dog food in the country, and Courtney Opdahl is on the lookout for what's best for her constant companion – Chloe, a 7-year-old Labrador retriever.

"I read food labels. I care about what my dog eats, because she's a part of my family," Opdahl said. "The first thing I did was look at the ingredients list."

But the ingredients list on the back of dog food bags isn't the one a University of Minnesota clinical veterinary nutritionist looks at first. Dr. Julie Churchill eyes go straight for the letters: AAFCO.

The AAFCO – the Association of American Feed Control Officials – is a group run by those who regulate animal food. Minnesota follows the AAFCO's guidelines, and each bag of dog food sold in the state must have a Nutritional Adequacy Statement.

But that statement can be hard to find, even for trained professionals.

"It's often on the side of the bag, or the back of the bag," Churchill said, adding that it's often in small print.

Dog Food Statement
(credit: CBS)

WCCO-TV's Dog Food Findings

WCCO-TV bought dog food from five different stores across the metro, including a specialty pet store, drugs stores and grocery stores. WCCO then brought the food to the University of Minnesota for Churchill to examine.

"By law, all of these pet foods must have a pet food statement," Churchill said.

WCCO-TV found a statement on each bag and each said the food was nutritionally balanced and fit to eat. But the statements on the bag were written in two ways.

On most of the statements, the food was said to be formulated. That word appeared on four out of five bags of dog food.

Formulated, as it appears on dog food nutrition labels, usually means the food is sent off to a lab for chemical analysis, which is not very expensive to have done.

"So, formulated tells me that the nutrients are probably in this bag, but they tell me nothing about the quality, the digestibility," Churchill said, adding the questions: "Does it get in my pet? Does it do that job?"

The second statement that can be found on dog food is: animal feeding tests. This statement means that a group of dogs was studied while eating said food.

"This food then had to be fed to a colony of dogs," Churchill explained. "They had a physical exam, blood work and body weights at the beginning and throughout this study. And they had to be fed for a minimum of 6 months."

These tests can cost a company hundreds of thousands of dollars, because they usually do the formulation first and then commit to the feeding trial, Churchill said.

"When I'm counseling an owner to pick a food, I first say pick one that's done an animal feeding test. Then I match it to the needs of the pet," Churchill said.

Courtney And Her Lab, Chloe

When we took at a look at what Opdahl feeds Chloe, we found she picked up a formulated brand- the kind not tested on dogs.

"No one has talked to me about this," Opdahl sad. "I was more interested in the makeup of the ingredients."

But Churchill says that formulated brands are not bad by any means. They just don't tell the pet owner if the dog food company invested to test the food on pets.

Having tried a few other dog food brands, Opdahl said she isn't ready to switch just yet – even if it means keeping a closer eye on Chloe.

Your Dog And Its Food

If the dog food you buy is working for your dog, Churchill would advise you to ask questions during exams about how your pet is feeling, especially if you have any concerns about your pet's behavior.

The AAFCO statement must be on dog food, but you will not find it on treats or biscuits.

Another tip from Churchill: Save your money on senior-labeled dog food. She says it's just a marketing claim, and that it isn't any better for your older dog.

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