How To Read Dog Food Labels

How To Read Dog Food Labels

You can find tons of information on the internet about dog food.  There is no shortage of opinions or ratings of different foods. To complicate choosing a food even more, dog owners are very passionate about what food they choose to feed their dog.

Dog food is hotly debated on social media pages, and posts can easily gain steam as people debate about what dog food is the best. Lots of misinformation is shared and even dangerous advice is promoted.

Lots of people with no formal education in animal nutrition promote themselves as “nutritionists” and are wildly followed by lots of fans. Meanwhile, actual veterinarians and veterinary nutritionists are often vilified.

Manufacturers also vary greatly in who formulates their food. For instance, some are only brands that are excellent at marketing to appeal to dog owners. These brands don’t manufacture their own food, they hire a co packer to make the food.

Others own their own plants and manufacture their own food but may or may not have qualified experts formulating their food. Their safety and quality control measures can also vary greatly.

So, what is a dog owner to do when trying to choose dog food?

This purpose of this article is not about what dog food is the best or to sway you to choose one brand of food over another. Rather, it’s to help you get past the marketing noise so that it will be easier to make an informed decision for yourself.

What is the most important thing to look for when choosing a dog food?

If you’re like most people, the packaging and ingredient list are the first things you look at.  But there is even something more important than the ingredient list to check first, it’s the AAFCO statement.

AAFCO Statement

The first thing you should look at is the AAFCO, The Association of American Feed Control Officials, statement to ensure that the food is formulated to meet the nutritional requirements for your dog. The nutritional adequacy statement identifies the life stage the food is appropriate for and recognizes these stages:

  • Gestation/lactation
  • Growth
  • Maintenance
  • All life stages

The “AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy or purpose,” also called a “nutrition claim” or “complete and balanced statement,” identifies the above life stage and/or lifestyle the product has been approved for. Under AAFCO regulations, this statement must be substantiated by the manufacturer. To be complete and balanced, the claim may be met in any of three ways:

  1. Formulation: If a pet food has been formulated to contain every nutrient the pet needs as specified in the AAFCO Dog Food (or Cat Food) Nutrient Profiles, which are based on the nutritional recommendations of the National Research Council (NRC) for dogs and cats. While the AAFCO Nutrient Profiles list the "minimum" levels (and some maximum levels), pet food manufacturers can formulate and market their products for a specific life stage, provided the nutritional profile of the pet food still meets the levels specified in the appropriate AAFCO Nutrient Profile.
  1. Feeding Trial: If a pet food undergoes an animal feeding trial using AAFCO Dog and Cat Food Feeding Protocols. The AAFCO Protocols mandate factors such as the length of the trial and the diagnostic tests which determine if the feeding trial was successful. This "protocol testing" also requires that the food be fed during the period — often gestation, lactation, and growth — for which the claim is made.
  1. Product Family Establishment: If the lead product member of a pet food passes a feeding trial using the AAFCO Protocols and is deemed nutritionally similar to the lead product by meeting specific nutrient and calorie criteria. In essence, this method combines the formulation and feeding trial methods for determining nutritional adequacy.

Dog food with an "All Life Stages" claim can be used if it meets all the nutrient requirements of both “Growth & Reproduction” and “Adult Maintenance” as listed in the AAFCO Nutrient Profiles. However, senior pets may not need such high levels of these nutrients, especially dogs with kidney issues.

Food labeled as "All Life Stages" can be used from weaning through adulthood, but it is most ideal during the gestation/lactation and growth when dogs have a higher need for certain nutrients, including protein and fat as well as minerals like phosphorus.

For example, the AAFCO nutritional statement below tells you that the food is appropriate for adult large breed dogs and not for puppies:

“Pro Plan Sensitive Skin & Stomach Large Breed Formula is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for maintenance of adult dogs.”

Compare that statement to the one below, which we found on a couple of very expensive, high-end, pet food labels. This statement means that the formulations have not been approved to be complete and balanced. Notice that there is no life stage mentioned and one of the brands is much too high in calcium (over 5) for the growth of large breed puppies and could be harmful.


We have not included the brand names in case the formulas change, which they often do. However, we did use Purina Pro Plan in our example because they tend to be consistent in their formulations. We encourage you to read the AAFCO statement on your own pet food label.


After determining if the food meets to the nutritional requirements of the growth of large breed puppies (in the case of German shepherds) or the maintenance of adult dogs, then you should move on to the ingredient list.

Here are some tips to help you decipher the label:

Ingredients are listed in order by their weight. When the label says chicken (or whatever protein) is the #1 ingredient, understand that this is the whole bird, including fluids, before it is cooked. So, a food with chicken as the number one ingredient may not actually contain as much chicken as a food with chicken meal as the first ingredient (this is called ingredient splitting).

The first 5 ingredients tend to make up the bulk of the food and anything listed after salt is minuscule and only provides trace amounts of those ingredients. So, when you see blueberries, cranberries, kale, spinach after the salt, they don’t contribute much to the recipe and are there to make you feel good about your choice.

To help you understand the label you are reading, know that the AAFCO has 4 rules when it comes to ingredient labels:

  1. The 95 Percent Rule

At least 95 percent of the product must be the named ingredient, for example, “Beef for Dogs,” or “Chicken Dog Food,” must include at least 95 percent of beef or salmon. The main product must be at least 70 percent of the total product when counting the added water. The remaining five percent of ingredients will be those required for nutritional reasons, such as vitamins and minerals, and small amounts of any other ingredients.

  1. The 25 Percent Rule

When you see food labels with “Chicken Dinner for Dogs,” “Chicken and Sweet Potato Entrée,” or “Beef Platter,” this is the 25 percent rule in marketing. If the ingredients comprise at least 25 percent of the product (not counting the water for processing), but less than 95 percent, the product name must include a qualifying term, such as dinner, entrée, or platter. Counting the added water, the named ingredients still must comprise 10 percent of the product. If more than one ingredient is included in a “dinner,” the combination of the named ingredients must total 25 percent of the product and be listed in the same order as found on the ingredient list.

  1. The With Rule

When you see “Canine Dinner with Lamb,” the word “With (insert protein)” ingredient only needs to be at least 3 percent of the product. The word “with” changes the percentage requirement of the ingredient in the food and indicates that this would contain very little actual meat.

  1. The Flavor Rule

If a label says, “Chicken Flavor Dog Food,” a specific measurement of the chicken is not required. However, the product must contain enough of an amount “sufficient to be able to be detected.” The word “flavor” must also appear on the label in the same size, style, and color as the word “chicken.”

Guaranteed Analysis

Another very important part of the dog food label is the Guaranteed Analysis. The most important part of the guaranteed analysis includes:

  • Protein
  • Fat
  • Fiber
  • Water/moisture

When you add these together and include approximately 4% for ash, that will give you a close idea of how many carbohydrates the food contains.

Wet Dog Food

When looking at wet food labels, keep in mind that you need to convert the nutrients to a dry matter basis to compare the protein to dry food and get a good idea of how much protein they include.

For example, if the can says the protein is 10% on as fed basis with 75% moisture:

Remove the moisture and you’re left with 25% dry matter.

Divide the amount of protein (10%) by the total amount of dry matter (25%) in the can. Then, multiply the result by 100. That tells you that the protein content is 40%.

10% divided by 25% = .4

.4 x 100 = 40%

Definitions of Proteins

A word about “meat” and “poultry” and “fish”:

Meat means cow, pig, sheep, or goat. Poultry is chicken, turkey, or duck. Fish is fish.

By Products

The term “by products” are often vilified but praised for their virtue when broken down into their nutritious components, such as liver. The definition of by products is:

“The non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals. It includes, but is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially de-fatted low temperature fatty tissue, and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth, and hoofs. It shall be suitable for use in animal feed. If it bears a name descriptive of its kind, it must correspond thereto.”

You can learn more about what is in pet food here.

Organic Dog Food

The term “organic” is not yet regulated except that if the food claims to be organic must meet the ingredient, production, and handling requirements of the USDA’s National Organic Program to be considered organic

However, it should contain No artificial preservatives, coloring, or flavoring; No antibiotics or growth hormones in meat and meat by-products; No or little fillers.

Natural Dog Food

Natural usually refers to how the animals were raised or how the plants were grown and that the dog food is free of artificial flavors, artificial colors, or artificial preservatives.

Human Grade Dog Food

Human grade is approved as nourishment for humans, human-grade food is highly regulated by the FDA and the USDA. According to the AAFCO, for a dog food to be human edible, “all ingredients must be human edible and the product must be manufactured, packed and held in accordance with federal regulations in 21 CFR 110, Current Good Manufacturing Practice in Manufacturing, Packing, or Holding Human Food.”

We hope that these tips help you better decipher you dog food and make it easier to make your pet food decisions. As always, feel free to pass the information on to your friends.

 You might also like: 6 Super Foods That Will Keep Your Dog Healthy

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