Understanding Dog Food Labels

Because you love your dog, you want it to have a nutritious diet that will allow it to live a full, healthy life. But high priced food doesn’t always equal high quality food, so understanding dog food labels is essential to be sure you are feeding your dog a balanced and healthy diet.

A quick glance at a dog food label might prove to be more confusing than helpful, but understanding just part of what you see on the label will help you make the right choices. Some pet owners assume that because they are paying a lot for their food that it must be of a higher quality than other food. That is not necessarily true. Even some foods that are sold only through a vet are not any more nutritious than other foods. That is why understanding the label is so important: It is the ONLY way to know for sure what you are feeding your dog. There are four things you should examine on every dog food label: guaranteed analysis, ingredient list, feeding instructions and AAFCO standards. Below you will find an explanation of each, but first, let’s take a look at what we can learn about a food just from the name it is given.

Dog food makers cannot arbitrarily give its products a name that could mislead consumers. In fact, there are precise guidelines about what percentage of each named ingredient must be present. Here are some examples to help you understand these rules.

Example 1:  Sally’s Chicken for Dogs: In this example, chicken must make up 95% of the total product, excluding the water. Chicken must be 70% of the total product including water. But just because you see the word “chicken” in the name doesn’t mean that it’s 95% chicken. That’s because there is another rule as shown in the example below.

Example 2:  Sally’s Chicken Dinner for Dogs – By including the word “dinner”, the requirement for the amount of chicken drops from 95% to 25%. Other words besides dinner can be used such as “entrée”, “platter”, “formula” or any other word that qualifies the named ingredient (in the case of the example, the named ingredient was chicken). There is also a rule that allows dog food makers to highlight an included ingredient that doesn’t meet the above requirements. Here is an example.

Example 3:  Sally’s Chicken Dinner with Cheese – In this example, the “with cheese” means that cheese makes up 3% of the total product. In the case of “Sally’s Chicken Flavored Dinner” there is no set percentage requirement, but the rule says there must be enough to “be detectable”.

While in some cases it may be a good start, you can’t get all of the information you need from the name of the food. Here is how to dig a little deeper.

Guaranteed Analysis

This part of the label provides information pertaining to the minimum levels of protein and fat and maximum levels of water and fiber that are in the food. While the minimum amount of protein may look impressive, it’s important to note that the levels of protein and fat are listed as “crude sources”. That means that if the label lists 30% of crude protein, you still have no idea how much of that protein is digestible. The digestibility of protein depends on the source. In order for your dog to get the necessary nutrients, there must be sufficient digestible protein and fat. To learn the sources of the fat and protein, you will need to study the ingredients list.

Ingredient List of Dog Food

All ingredients in the dog food must be listed in the ingredient list. They must be listed in order of weight, starting with the item that there is the most of in the food. You want to see a named protein as the first ingredient. In other words, look for “chicken” or “beef” rather than “meat.” Also, in addition to being sure the food has ingredients you do want, you also want to check the list for preservatives that you may want to avoid. Reading the ingredient list won’t mean much if you don’t know what the ingredients mean. Here are a few of the most common.

  • Meat – the flesh of slaughtered animals including chicken, cattle, turkey etc… may include muscle, heart, skin, sinew and blood vessels.
  • Meat by-products – parts of slaughtered animals, not including flesh. This may include lungs, brain, spleen, blood, bones and intestines.
  • Poultry by-products – parts of slaughtered chickens and turkeys, not including flesh. This may include lungs, brain, spleen, blood, bones and intestines. This will not include feathers.
  • Beef tallow – fat derived from beef.
  • Ground corn – the whole kernel of corn, can be ground or chopped
  • Corn gluten meal – after corn syrup or starch is manufactured, this is the by-product after the removal of the bran, germ and starch
  • BHA – a fat preservative
  • Ethoxyquin – a chemical preservative
  • Tocopherols – a natural preservative

Feeding Instructions

Dog food labels provide instruction for how much to feed your pet based on weight and, perhaps, age. It must be understood that this is just a guideline. The amount of food your pet requires will be dependent on many things. Your pet may require more or less than the suggested amounts. While you can start with the listed guidelines, you must pay attention to your pet’s weight and make adjustments accordingly.


AAFCO, the Association of American Feed Control Officials, sets guidelines for all aspects of animal food, including production and labeling. AAFCO has developed guidelines that pet foods should meet. Foods that meet these requirements will say so on the label. A pet food that has an AAFCO statement doesn’t mean that it is a perfect food, but any food without it should be avoided entirely.

There is no one brand that is superior to all others. There are many brands that offer a quality food that provides a balanced diet. A food that costs more doesn’t necessarily mean it is a higher quality food. You must read the label.

Understanding dog food labels takes a little bit of effort on the part of pet owners, but the health benefits for your dog are well worth the trouble.



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