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How to Read Dog Food Labels – 13 Things to Look For

Jessica Kim

By Jessica Kim

woman buying dog food

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Dr. Paola Cuevas Photo

Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Paola Cuevas

MVZ (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Dog food brands use several marketing tactics to make their food look more appealing. If cannot interpret food labels, you could end up buying low-quality dog food without even realizing it.

There are a lot of components that go into a dog food label. To make things easier for you, we’ve broken down dog food labels with explanations of each component. After reading, you’ll be able to make informed decisions when shopping for dog food and decide if it’s time for you to switch out the food you’re feeding your dog.

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The 13 Things to Look For in a Dog Food Label

1. Dog Food Name: 95% Rule

You can gain a lot of information just from the name of the dog food. High-quality dog food will include its first ingredient in its name. When a name includes an ingredient, it must make up at least 95% of the weight of the recipe. For example, a recipe that has chicken in its name must have chicken make up at least 95% of the weight of the food. This rule states that the named ingredients should be at least 95% of the product by weight, not counting added water. The remaining 5% consists of small amounts of other ingredients necessary for the formulation of the product plus vitamins and minerals.

If the name has two ingredients in it, then the added total of both ingredients should make up at least 95% of the food’s weight. For example, a name with beef and pork in it will have a total weight of beef and pork that adds up to 95%. The percentage of beef must be greater than pork because it’s listed first.

For a product to qualify within this “name rule”, the named ingredients should also represent at least 70% of the total product weight including the water content.

man buying pet food
Image Credit: LADO, Shutterstock

2. Dog Food Name: “Dinner” Rule

If a name has “Dinner” in it, then it means that the listed ingredient will take up at least 25% of the product weight not including water.  So, a “Chicken Dinner for Dogs” will contain chicken that takes up between 25-94% of the food’s weight.

If a food name combines two ingredients like “Salmon and Cod Dinner for Dogs,” then the weight percentage of salmon and cod must add up to at least 25% and less than 95%, and salmon must weigh more than cod because it’s mentioned first. Both ingredients must account for at least 3% of the food’s weight. For a product to qualify within the “dinner rule”, the ingredient should make up at least 10% of the total product, including water content.

3. Dog Food Name: “With” Rule

When a dog food name has the word “with” in it, it means that it just needs to make up at least 3% of the food’s weight. If a name is something along the lines of “Dog Food with Chicken,” it means that the food contains only 3% chicken.

Therefore, it’s essential to read labels carefully. “Beef Dog Food” and “Dog Food With Beef” sound very similar, but they’re actually very different types of food.

dog showing his paws about to eat dog food
Image Credit: mattycoulton, Pixabay

4. Dog Food Name: “Flavor” Rule

The last rule applied to dog food is the “Flavor” rule. When dog food names contain “Flavor” it doesn’t have to use the actual food that produces that flavor. Pet food can contain digests, which are concentrated flavors. So beef digest will be predigested, by chemical or enzymatic processing of cow tissue ingredients, prepared in a way that makes them taste like beef meat.

So, a name like “Dog Food With Beef Flavor” won’t necessarily contain real beef meat. It may have some beef stock or flavoring in it, but it doesn’t have to have actual beef meat in it.

5. Net Quantity Statement

Dog food labels must clearly show the net quantity on the packaging. You can usually find the net quantity statement on the front righthand corner of the package.

Different packaging can appear to contain more food than they actually carry. So, it’s best to look at the net quantity to get a precise amount rather than making a guess by just looking at the packaging.

Dog food in a bowl
Image Credit: 279photoStudio, Shutterstock

6. Nutritional Adequacy Statement

The nutritional adequacy statement can be a little more challenging to find. It’s usually written on the back or sides of dog food bags in small print. The statement should include the product’s name and that it’s for dogs.

It also must have the intended life stage:

Lastly, the statement should clearly say that the food meets nutritional levels established by the Association of American Feed Control Officers (AAFCO). The AAFCO provides guidelines for nutrients that dog food should include to sustain a dog’s daily functioning adequately.

7. Guaranteed Analysis

The guaranteed analysis will give a breakdown of percentages of crude protein, fat, fiber, and moisture in the food. It can also include information on other important nutrients, such as taurine, calcium, omega 3 fatty acids, etc. In addition, you can usually find the number of calories per serving near the guaranteed analysis.

According to the AAFCO, adult dog food should have a minimum of 18% crude protein and 5.5% crude fat on a dry matter basis. Puppy food must contain at least 22.5% crude protein and 8.5% crude fat on a dry matter basis.

canned dog food on the table
Image Credit: Jiri Hera, Shutterstock

8. Ingredient List

The ingredient list gives information on all the ingredients that went into the dog food. It will list information from highest to lowest weight. Keep in mind that the weight is measured with the moisture content rather than after the food has been dehydrated and formed into dry food.

So, ingredients with high moisture content, such as whole meat and vegetables, can actually have a lower nutrient concentration than other ingredients, even if they’re listed as the first ingredient.

Healthy dog food will typically list a type of whole meat as the first ingredient. Some recipes will also contain meat meal, which is processed, ground, and dehydrated meat. Animal byproduct meals will have ground meat and other animal parts, including organs.

It’s best to avoid dog food that doesn’t specify the type of animal byproduct. Ambiguous animal byproducts can include any mixture of meat and organs.

9. Feeding Guidelines

All dog food labels should include feeding guidelines, which are usually located on the back or sides of the packaging. The feeding guidelines are based on a dog’s weight and life stage.

As a general rule of thumb, high-quality dog food will be nutrient-dense and require smaller portions. Low-quality dog food will have higher recommended feeding portions because they often contain higher amounts of filler ingredients will very little nutritional value.

Make sure you’re feeding your dog the right amount, check out our dog food calculator here:

The exact amount of calories an individual animal needs to maintain a healthy weight is variable and influenced by many factors including genetics, age, breed, and activity level. This tool is meant to be used only as a guideline for healthy individuals and does not substitute veterinary advice 

10. Expiration Date

You can usually locate the expiration date on the bottom of packages or near the UPC code. The expiration date should be about a year after the manufactured date. Looking at the expiration date is important because it can help you determine if the food has degraded and can no longer provide adequate amounts of nutrients to a dog, or even worst, put its health at risk.

11. Additional Label Claims

A lot of dog food packages will have additional label claims, and many of these labels are mostly for marketing purposes.

For example, pet food companies can label their food as “human-grade,” but aren’t any strict regulations and standards for human-grade dog food. However, this term usually refers to food made without rendered meat meal ingredients and using gentle cooking methods.

It’s also important not to mistake “natural” for “organic.” Natural dog food just needs to be free of artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives.

woman buying dog food in pet store
Image Credit: BearFotos, Shutterstock

12. Certifications and Accreditations

Some dog food companies will acquire other certifications and accreditations from outside organizations. These certifications can boost the credibility of a brand’s dog food.

Here are some common organizations that test and approve dog food:
  • Certified Humane
  • Global Animal Partnership
  • Marine Stewardship Council
  • Ocean Wise
  • USDA Organic

13. Manufacturer’s Contact Information

Dog food companies should include a mailing address on their labels. It’s even better if they include a phone number, email, or social media accounts and allow themselves to be easily accessible to consumers.

Keep in mind that trustworthy manufacturers should provide answers to your product-related questions and requests for other helpful information related to dietary concerns and dog food nutrient composition.

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Final Thoughts

Dog food labels contain a lot of valuable clues that let consumers know if they’re purchasing high-quality dog food. It’s vital to look past fancy packaging and buzzwords and examine the parts of the label that contain a lot of helpful information, such as the guaranteed analyses and ingredient lists.

Once you get into the practice of reading dog food labels, you’ll be able to make quick decisions at the pet store and buy high-quality dog food and treats. Not only are these foods healthier and more nutritious, but they’re also much more flavorful. Your dog will appreciate them more, and its happiness will be well worth the effort.

Featured Image Credit: Caftor, Shutterstock

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