AAFCO: The Company Behind Your Dog’s Health

By Chelsea Hunt-Rivera / December 31, 2018

Being a dog owner is a huge responsibility. Your four-legged companion is counting on you to make the best decisions for their health and well-being, which can be more difficult than it sounds. You do your best to stay on top of their day-to-day happiness and are sure to act efficiently when problems inevitably do arise. However, are you certain you’re doing all you can when choosing the best food for your furry companion?

We talk a lot about the utmost importance of diet. Yet, how can pet owners truly ensure that they are choosing the best food source for their dog? Many dog owners (and dog food stores) may feel that if an agency such as the AAFCO approves of the product then it has to be up to the necessary health standards… right? Unfortunately, this is far from the case.

In this article, we’ll cover everything that pet owners must understand regarding the company behind your dog’s health: the AAFCO. We’ll discuss what the agency does and the worrisome list of things that they do not do. When it comes to your dog’s wellbeing, you’re all they have. It is imperative that pet owners know as much information as possible regarding their dog’s food in order to make the best decision for (wo)man’s best friend. Let’s get started!

What is AAFCO

The AAFCO is The Association of American Feed Control Officials. When reading the name of the organization, you can see why many pet owners feel that if the company “approves” of a product then it has to mean they are ensuring its quality. However, we want to stress that the AAFCO does not regulate or inspect anything. Let that sink in… A company called the Association of American Feed Control Officials doesn’t actually inspect your dog’s food. It doesn’t make much sense when you sit back and think about it.

Instead, The Association of American Feed Control Officials puts forward a model regulation for pet food. The members of AAFCO on the local, state, and federal levels then have meetings in order to develop uniform policies that pet food companies should abide by.


Who is Behind the AAFCO

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is a voluntary organization. It is a private organization, not a government regulatory agency. This is why they do not regulate or inspect your dog’s food, they aren’t legally allowed to do so. The organization is comprised of local, state, and federal agencies. These agencies are charged by law to regulate the distribution and sale of animal feeds (such as dog food and cat food). They also regulate animal drug remedies based on nutritional adequacy that they set forth.

What Does the AAFCO Do

Let’s take a step back and reread that last sentence. “Nutritional adequacy.” That term is troubling, to say the least. Who is to say what is “adequate” or “good enough?” Furthermore, do we really want to be feeding our dogs food that is simply good enough, let alone labeled adequate for all dogs of a certain age despite individual health concerns that they might have? Furthermore, what does that adequate entail exactly?

It is important for pet owners to understand that the AAFCO regulations deal with the minimum and maximum amounts of nutrients that they deem acceptable based on your dog’s life stage. For instance, puppy food should contain different levels of nutrients and, therefore, ingredients than senior dog food. The AAFCO then establishes recommendations for model regulations that they put forth for dog food companies to follow.

Let’s get a bit more specific regarding exactly what AAFCO does in terms of our pet’s food.

Feed Labeling Guidelines: “Complete and Balanced”

On most dog food that you will find at your local pet store, you’ll find what is referred to as an “AAFCO statement.” The “AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy or purpose” can also be referred to as a nutritional claim. The statement will state that the food is “complete and balanced” for a specific life stage. For instance, adult food will have a statement regarding the food being complete and balanced for adult maintenance. Puppy food will have a statement that the food is complete and balanced for growth. If the food does not contain a statement that it is complete and balanced, then it is only intended as an intermittent or supplemental food source.

Guidelines for Being “Complete and Balanced”

There are three ways in which a food source can be labeled as complete and balanced: formulation, feeding trials, and product family establishment. The dog food only has to meet one of the following criteriums.


The AAFCO Dog Food (or Cat Food) Nutrient Profiles are set forth based on the recommended nutritional levels by the National Research Council (NRC) for dogs and cats. If the specific food was formulated to contain every nutrient the animal needs based on these statistics, it can be labeled as complete and balanced.

AAFCO Complete & Balanced

Feeding Trials

Additionally, dog and cat food that undergo a feeding trial using AAFCO Dog and Cat Food Feeding Protocols can also be labeled as complete and balanced. These feed trials involve varying lengths of time as well as additional testing following the trial to determine whether it was successful. Many times, feeding trials during specific periods of the dog’s life (i.e lactation and gestation) will be necessary in order for the claim to be valid.

Product Family Establishment 

Finally, specific dog food may be labeled nutritionally balanced if the lead product member passes the feeding trial using the AAFCO Protocols and has nutritional levels that are highly comparable to the lead product that has passed the necessary standards. In other words, by essentially combining the feeding trials and the recommended formulation standards, the claim can be made that the product is complete and balanced.

Establishing Feed Ingredients | Ingredients Definition

The term ‘ingredients’ is defined as the foods or substances that are combined in order to create something else. For example, a food dish or, in this case, your dog’s balanced meal. While it may seem like a fairly simple concept, the ingredients in your dog’s food are extremely important. Furthermore, as a responsible pet owner, it is imperative that you understand how often your dog’s “complete and balanced” food source may not be exactly how it seems.

AAFCO states that the pet food manufacturer must provide a guaranteed analysis on the food label. Additionally, the manufacturer must also list the ingredients in a specific order: descending beginning with the ingredient weighing the most listed first. This is incredibly helpful for pet owners to have a better idea of what exactly their dog’s food entails. If you don’t recognize the first few ingredients on the food label, you may want to consider a different option for mealtime. However, it isn’t always that simple. Let us explain.

The Scary Truth Behind Ingredient Listing

The listing of ingredients can also be devised to confuse the consumer. For instance, manufacturers often list the protein source of the food by using terms such as ‘meat meal, meat digest, fat meal, bone meal, and animal by-product meal.’ At a glance, it doesn’t sound all that bad. Yet these terms are used in a specific way to mask what the ingredients truly are…chicken beaks, pig ligaments, beef muscle meat, blood, intestines, etc. Pretty awful, right?

Furthermore, manufacturers may also separate the less desirable ingredients, such as corn and wheat, into their own separate categories. This allows them the ability to move the ingredients further down on the list as they are splitting them up into smaller portions. For example, the manufacturer may separate corn into corn, corn bran, corn gluten, corn gluten meal, corn germ meal, and corn syrup. In this way, they are able to manipulate the ingredient list and make it appear that the protein source is the first and heaviest ingredient when in actuality it may be the exact opposite.

The scariest part? They aren’t breaking any of the ‘rules’ set forth by AAFCO. These manufacturers are following the protocols and, yet, their products are far from what experts would consider to be complete.

Guidelines for Feeding Trials

Finally, AAFCO sets specific guidelines for feeding trials. The feeding trials must follow very specific protocols involving the following criteria:

  • A minimum number of test subjects (animals)
  • A specific duration of time
  • Physical examinations by veterinary specialists throughout the testing
  • Clinical examinations involving blood testing and observing changes in body weight

Additionally, each ‘life stage’ has its own specific protocol that the feeding trial must follow. The life stages for both dogs and cats include:

  • Adult Maintenance
  • Growth
  • Gestation/ Lactation
  • All Life Stages

AAFCO Dog Food

What the AAFCO Does NOT Do

We want to reiterate one very, very important fact. The Association of American Feed Control Officials does not regulate or inspect your dog’s food. It begs the question, who does? How can we fully trust an organization that establishes guidelines but isn’t legally able to regulate them or ensure manufacturers are following through appropriately? Furthermore, the AAFCO allows for certain undesirable ingredients to not only be included in your dog’s food, but be labeled in a confusing, misleading way.

Even with all of this information being widely available, the AAFCO continues to claim that its sole function is to protect the consumer. We just can’t understand how. The organization supports major manufacturers who purposefully mislead dog owners into believing products that have an AAFCO statement are of the highest quality. It simply isn’t true.

Not All Nutrients are Covered

Additionally, AAFCO doesn’t evaluate or even concern itself with every component of canine nutrition. For example, omega 3’s and omega 6’s are left entirely up to the manufacturing company. AAFCO does not include the fatty acids on its list of nutritional requirements. However, most experts would argue that these fatty acids are absolutely necessary for most dogs.

Why Pet Owners are Wary of AAFCO

By now, you’ve likely gathered why so many pet owners are wary of AAFCO, and for good reason. Unfortunately, there is even more reason to question the organization. A large part of AAFCO is comprised of major manufacturers within the pet food industry including companies such as Nestle Purina, Hills Pet Nutrition, Nutro Products, and Cargill Animal Nutrition. These manufacturers have a massive influence on the establishment of the set forth regulations. They are also able to dictate how labels use specific terminology that can easily confuse the consumer. That’s why so many pet owners and holistic vets are scratching their heads when AFFCO claims their purpose is to protect the consumer. It seems like they are doing the opposite.

AAFCO Dog Food Precautions

Differing Standards

Additionally, the nutritional profiles presented by AAFCO differ from those established by the NRC (National Research Council). For this reason, many holistic veterinarians do not agree with the standards of the AAFCO. The AFFCO standards don’t reflect the latest researching regarding the nutritional needs of our animals. Therefore, how can we be certain that it is nutritionally ‘adequate?’

Animal By-Products and 4-D Meats

Finally, AAFCO regulations allow animal by-products as well as 4-D meats (dead, diseased, decaying, and disabled). We know… it’s a hard pill to swallow. A volunteer organization that claims to set forth specific guidelines for our pet’s diet allows dead, diseased, decaying, and disabled meat in their food source. It makes us wonder why we would listen to their ‘protocols’ and ‘rules’ when they openly allow such dangerous ingredients in their products, claiming them to be complete and balanced. We wholeheartedly disagree.

The Importance of Diet & Choosing the Right Food Source

We want to close by reiterating the importance of your dog’s diet. Your dog’s food source can truly make a world of difference for your pet’s health and well-being. It is up to you to make the best decision on their behalf. We understand that so much responsibility can be a bit daunting. However, with the proper knowledge and research, making the best choices for Fido is far from impossible. In fact, the more you know, the easier it is to pick out the beneficial brands over the brands that may have flashier labels.

Additionally, pet owners must understand that when choosing an appropriate food source, they must consider their pet’s overall health. Some dog owners may opt for dog food labeled ‘all life stages.’ If it’s formulated for every aspect of the dog’s life, it must have loads of beneficial nutrients, right? Well, not exactly. Senior dogs, as well as dogs with kidney issues, may not be able to tolerate such high levels of vitamins and nutrients simply because their bodies don’t need the excess supplements. Therefore, their bodies won’t be able to process an ‘all life stages’ food source.

Different Dogs = Different Needs

One of the most important things that we want our readers to take away from this article is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ dog food. It is incredibly important to only purchase food from reputable sources and understand what makes a company reputable in the first place. Does an AAFCO statement mean the food is of the utmost quality? The answer to that question is no.

Understanding the Ingredients

Furthermore, understanding the ingredients on the label is imperative. If you have questions, ask your veterinarian. Why are there six forms of corn in dog food that states it is nutritionally sound? What about animal by-product? Why does to certain dog foods contain 4-D meats yet still have the seal of approval from AAFCO? Doesn’t make much sense if you ask us.

AAFCO Dog Food Doesnt Always Mean its Healthy

AAFCO Dog Food: The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, we know that your furry companion means the world to you. Trust us, we get it. Here at SimpleWag, we are all dog owners and animal lovers. Therefore, we know first hand that being a responsible pet owner can be pretty challenging, particularly when certain manufacturers are going out of their way to confuse consumers. It’s a scary fact that we all must acknowledge before moving forward. When it comes to major manufacturers, read the label carefully… and then read it again.

Furthermore, we want to stress the importance of truly doing your homework when it comes to your dog’s food. Just because it has a statement from AAFCO doesn’t mean that it is the food source that you want to be giving your dog. We highly recommend consulting with your holistic veterinarian regarding their personal recommendations. Each dog is uniquely different and will require food that is formulated to meet their individual health needs.

The harsh reality is rather simple. The pet food industry is a massive money maker. Pet owners spend $12 billion dollars on food for their animals each year. While we all wish that major manufacturers had Fido’s best interest at heart, it sadly isn’t the case. As pet owners, we must ask ourselves what exactly we are feeding our beloved four-legged friends. Is it really the “complete and balanced” meal that certain statements are claiming?









About the author

Chelsea Hunt-Rivera

Chelsea Rivera is a Dedicated Pet Parent who loves to create amazing content for pet owners and is helping change pet wellness as the Head of Content for Honestpaws.com.