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How to Read Dog Food Labels

Karina Carbo-Johnson, MS
By Karina Carbo-Johnson, MS
Updated: 5/8/20242-4 minutes
Table of quality pet food ingredients Table of quality pet food ingredients

Pet food labels contain a lot of information, but dog food analysis is easy once you know what you’re looking at.

Once you understand what certain claims mean, know a few key terms and recognize which ingredients can play a key role in boosting your dog’s health, you’ll be ready to help him thrive with a healthy diet.

Government Regulations Around Dog Food & Package Labels

According to regulations set forth by federal and state agencies, every package of dog food must contain the following items.

  • Overview: The overview identifies the brand name (Like Purina Pro Plan or Purina Dog Chow). It may also give an indication of the primary ingredients or formula name, such as “chicken and rice.”
  • Net Weight Statement: This states how much food is in the package.
  • Manufacturer/Distributor Name & Address: This information tells you who made the food, so you can contact them with questions.
  • Product Traceability Information: Based on the date code on a Purina dog food label, we can pinpoint the exact production date and the plant that produced that particular package.
  • Expiration Date: This gives pet owners an indication for how long a particular package of dog food will be good for and at which point it has expired and should not be fed to a dog.
  • Ingredient List: The ingredients on dog food labels are listed in descending order by content weight. If you see chicken listed as the first ingredient, for example, you’ll know your dog’s food has more chicken than any other ingredient on the list.
  • Guaranteed Analysis: The guaranteed analysis on dog food labels shows the product’s nutrient content. It must include the minimum percentages of crude protein and crude fat as well as the maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture. Including percentages for additional nutrients is voluntary, but they’re often included to indicate nutrient levels for benefits derived from the product (e.g.,: Calcium for strong bones and teeth.). The essential nutrients listed in the guaranteed analysis must meet (or exceed) the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) nutrient profile standards.
  • Nutritional Adequacy Statement: A dog food must meet or exceed the standards of an established nutrient profile to be marked “complete and balanced” for a particular life stage, such as adult maintenance or growth. Some products and dog foods are designed for intermittent or supplemental feeding and are not considered “complete and balanced.”
  • Feeding Directions: These guidelines help you determine how much and how often to feed your dog every day. You may need to adjust the amount to maintain his ideal body condition based on his age, activity level and more. Feeding recommendations are also based on dogs not spayed or neutered. If yours has been fixed, you’ll want to account for that, too, says Purina veterinarian Dr. RuthAnn Lobos. Your dog’s veterinarian can help you determine how much to feed your dog.

Calorie Statement: The calorie statement is expressed as kilocalories per kilogram and as a common unit of measure, such as kilocalories per cup. This will help you understand the caloric differences between dog food brands.

Nutrients vs. Ingredients on Dog Food Labels

“It’s nutrients, not ingredients when it comes to dog food and healthy dogs,” says Dr. Lobos. The ingredients in your dog’s food are important, but you should pay attention to the nutrients they provide.

The nutrients a complete and balanced dog food should include are:

  • Protein: According to Dr. Lobos, “Protein is critical for metabolism, skin and coat and lean body mass. Protein also helps support a healthy immune system,” she says.
  • Fat: When it comes to fat, Dr. Lobos says it protects the body, builds neurons and produces energy.
  • Vitamins & Minerals: “Vitamins are body protectors while minerals are body builders and protectors,” says Dr. Lobos. “Dogs need 23 essential vitamins and minerals. So, you want to look for dog food labels that say they’re complete and balanced.” This means vitamins and minerals have been added to meet the dog’s nutritional needs.
  • Carbohydrates: The various sources of carbohydrates in your dog’s food provide him with energy.  

What About By-Products & Difficult-to-Pronounce Ingredients?

There are a lot of misconceptions about what by-products are. Many people believe they are cheap fillers or even inedible parts of other animals, but that’s not the case.

As Dr. Lobos explains, by-products are nutrient-rich organ meats that are less commonly consumed by humans. “By-products are not  undesirable ingredients. Not only are by-products an excellent source of protein, vitamins and minerals, but they also reduce environmental waste.”

As far as those lengthy ingredient names go, a quick internet search can help. You’ll see that calcium pantothenate is vitamin B-5, thiamine mononitrate is vitamin B-1 and L-ascorbyl-2-polyphosphate is vitamin C.

Those ingredients are required to be listed by the scientific name for a vitamin or mineral, which are essential in helping maintain your dog’s health. To assist consumers, most companies also have the common names of these vitamins and minerals in parenthesis on their products.  

Claims on Dog Food Labels

Regulations for human food and pet food are different. On a dog food label, “natural” means there are no chemically synthesized ingredients outside of vitamins, minerals and amino acids.

Of course, you’ll see those hard-to-pronounce, scientific names we mentioned above. You now know those are just the official names of vitamins and minerals, though—not something that doesn’t belong in your dog’s food.

“Formulated to meet” on a label means an analysis proves the food meets the nutrient profile standards. An “animal feeding test” means the product was fed to dogs using one of AAFCO’s feeding protocols. This validates the product meets the AAFCO nutrient profile for the life stage indicated on the package.

How to Decide Which Dog Food Is Right for Your Dog

Having a better understanding of dog food labels allows you to better assess the various types of food available. As a result, you can confidently choose the one that best meets your dog’s needs. Comparing different types of dog food isn’t easy, but our experts can help.

Get more tips from our experts on our Pet Expertise page.

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