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Reading Dog Food Labels

Learn to read dog food labels

Providing a high quality diet for me meant understanding and reading dog food labels.  I am one of those people who pour over human food labels hoping to decipher just what it is that I’m eating so naturally I also want to know what my dogs are eating too.  

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  

Sadly, I found that the job of finding the perfect food might take me a life time of full time effort which I surely do not have.  Still, I knew that my dog’s would be happier and healthier if I could provide a high quality diet that was easy to serve and also affordable, so I began looking into what dog food manufacturers place on their labels.  

In this article I will be looking at commercial kibble or the dry food we purchase for our dogs.

Before we get started, you should know that AAFCO stands for Association of American Feed Control Officials. This organization sets the nutritional standards for pet foods sold in the United States.  There are at least eight areas of the label you should examine when making a choice.

Dog Food Labels:  The Guaranteed Analysis

This is where you will find the minimum amounts of protein and fat and the maximum amounts of moisture and fiber.  

But this is where it gets tricky, especially if you want to compare one food to another.  The protein and fat levels are listed on the label in an “as-is” basis which includes water.  

Each dog food can have a different level of moisture which would affect how much of the nutrient is in the food on a dry-weight basis.  What this is really saying is that you can't be sure how much protein and fat is in a particular food until you do a simple calcualation

The comparison requires a little math:

  1. Locate the % of the nutrient such as protein on the label

  2. Locate the % of moisture on the label

  3. Subtract the % of moisture from 100 to get the % of dry ingredient

  4. Divide the number from number 1 by the number in 3 and multiple by 100

Guaranteed Analysis on Dry Kibble for Puppies

Crude Protein  27%

Crude Fat 16.0%

Crud Fiber 4.0%

Moisture 10%

Actual Amount of Ingredients

Protein:  30%

Fat:  17.7%

Fiber:  4%

In this example, I subtract 10% (moisture) from 100% to get 90% dry.  I divide 27 (Crude Protein amount) by 90 and multiple by 100 to get 30% protein on a dry basis.  I then do that for fat and fiber.

The AAFCO or American Association of Feed Control Officials sets the guidelines for the type and amount of nutrients dogs need.  For adult dogs, foods should contain no less than 18% protein and for puppies the food should have a minimum of 22 percent protein.  In the case above, the amount of 30% is clearly higher than the minimum requirements.

The Nutritional Adequacy Statement or AAFCO Statement

This statement shows the method of testing used to determine the nutritional adequacy of a pet food.  It shows that the food provides complete and balanced nutrition for each specific life stage such as puppy, pregnant, adults, seniors, etc.  that it is intended for.  

Alternately, the statement might say that it is nutritionally adequate for all life stages.  If you cannot find this statement, chances are that the food is not nutritionally complete. Here are a couple of examples to look for on the label:

  1. XXX product is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles

  2. Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that XXX provides complete and balanced nutrition.

Dog Food Labels:  The Ingredient List

As is the case with human food, dog food manufactures are required to list the ingredients in descending order by amount on a dry weight basis and must list every ingredient. Again, this can be tricky and dog food manufactures have ways to get around this requirement, thus making their foods look better and more nutritious.  

For example, if the main ingredient in a dog food was corn, the manufacturer could list the corn as corn flour, corn germ meal, corn bran and corn middlings.  If chicken is also part of the food, the manufacturer can then list chicken or even chicken byproducts as the first ingredient.

Better quality foods will have at least two animal protein sources listed in the first few ingredients.To make matters more confusing, food manufactures have their own vocabulary.

Here are a few commonly used terms:

Animal byproduct meal:

Any part of the rendered animal and in this case, it could be any kind of animal, that does not fit into another definition but it cannot contain hair, horns, hoofs, hide, manure or intestinal content.


Byproducts refer to any non-human grade protein obtained from the animal carcass.  Use your imagination. Actually by-products are not necessarily all bad. Before we domesticated dogs they killed and ate the whole animal.   

But in a high-quality dog food, the main protein source should be the real thing, not the stuff that gets thrown away when food is processed for human consumption.


This is a little easier to understand.  It is the clean flesh of the slaughtered mammals such as cattle, swine, sheet or goat that comes from the muscle, tongue, diaphragm, heart or esophagus.

Meat Meal:

This refers to the rendered meal made from animal tissues.  It cannot contain blood, hair, hoofs, horns, hide trimmings, manure or intestinal content and cannot contain more than 14% indigestible materials. Meat meal may not sound terribly appetizing to humans but it can contain more minerals than meat.

Meat byproducts:

This is the fresh, non-rendered clean parts of the slaughtered animal.  There is no meat, but it does contain lungs, spleens, kidneys, brains, lovers, blood, bones, fat, stomachs and intestines.  It cannot contain hair, horns, teeth, or hoofs

Meat and Bone Meal:

This is similar to meat meal, but can also contain bone.Poultry or chicken or turkey byproduct meal:  This is the ground, rendered clean parts of the carcass of poultry or if chicken is used exclusively it is made entirely of chicken.  It can include necks, feet, undeveloped eggs and intestines.  It cannot contain beaks or feathers.

Poultry, chicken or turkey byproducts:

This contains all non-rendered parts of the poultry, chicken or turkey but cannot contain feces or foreign matter.

Dog Food Labels:  Product Names

Here are a few more definitions to help you understand the label.  Some manufactures are using terms such as premium, super premium, ultra-premium, holistic or even gourmet.  

There are no guidelines for using these labels and so consumers should know that these so called premium or gourmet foods are no different or have any higher quality of ingredients than any other brands of dog foods.  This is simply a marketing ploy.

If a food says it is organic, it must be certified as organic by the USDA and produced and processed without chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, hormones and antibiotics.  If the food is natural, it is free of food coloring and chemical additives.

There is also what the AAFCO calls the 95% rule.  At least 95% of the product must be the named ingredient, not counting water and “condiments.” If the product name lists one ingredient, such as chicken dog food, then 95% of the total weight of the food must be chicken.  If there is a combination such as chicken and brown rice formula the combination of ingredients must equal 95% of the total weight.

Dog Food Labels:  Feeding Guidelines

These guidelines tell the dog owner how much to feed based on their pet’s body weight.  

One difference between a high quality and a low quality food is the digestibility of the food. This is the amount of the ingredients in the food that the animal can break down and absorb.  The dog can use a more highly digestible food and so will need less of it to get the same nutritional value.  

A diet of less digestible food requires that the animal eat more of it per day to assure they are getting the same nutrition.  Sometimes you will discover that a higher priced food is actually cheaper in the long run because the dog requires less of it.  And, lest I say, what goes in must come out, so higher priced food also tend to produce less feces for later clean up.

Dog Food Labels:  Net Weight

The package should state the net weight and this requirement is strictly regulated by the U.S. Fair Packaging and Labeling Act.  It tells you the weight of the product and is especially important towards helping you understand what you are paying for when comparing products.

Manufactures play plenty of tricks such as adding air to the product to fill a bigger bag with less dog food, so be sure to compare the net weight when comparing product pricing.

These weights can change over time, so it is important to know how much food you are actually buying. There seems to be a trend in recent years to purchase smaller and smaller bags of the foods.  

Dog Food Labels:  Manufacturer's Information

Pet food labels must include the manufacturer’s name and address and preferably a telephone number.  Many nowadays also provide a website and even an email address.  

Many products on the shelves are not actually made by the brand or company selling the product.  The "manufactured by..." statement on the dog food label will let you know who is actually making the food and who you should be researching.  

If you live in the United States of America, you should be purchasing food manufactured in the USA.  Furthermore, the ingredients that go into your dog food should also be produced in the USA.  You may also want to avoid manufacturers involved in any recall of dog food.

Dog Food Labels:  Expiration Date:

Finally, it is always a good idea to look at the expiration date.  Most dry foods have expiration dates approximately one year after the food is manufactured.  

The date does not tell you if the ingredients were stored improperly before being manufactured into a dog food.  

Even after manufactured, the nutritional content may not be at its premium if stored in warm, humid environment.  

The date does tell you when it was manufactured and then you be the judge.

Well, are you now an expert on reading dog food labels? 

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