How to Read and Understand Dog Food Labels - PetHelpful - By fellow animal lovers and experts
Updated date:

How to Read and Understand Dog Food Labels

Amanda was raised with dogs and has kept dogs all her life. "Dogs aren't just pets," she says, "They're workmates, friends, and family."

Not all dog foods are created equal. But the list of ingredients and nutrition labels can be hard to understand. Learn to read and understand these labels to make sure you're dog's food is the best for his needs

Not all dog foods are created equal. But the list of ingredients and nutrition labels can be hard to understand. Learn to read and understand these labels to make sure you're dog's food is the best for his needs

Decoding Your Dog's Diet

As a responsible dog owner, you'll be keen to make sure your canine companion gets a full, balanced, healthy, and nutritious diet. But have you ever picked up a can or sack of dog food to read the nutrition table and list of ingredients only to find that you're none the wiser after you've read it? Then this article is for you!

Your dog's diet is the foundation of his health and happiness. It is essential to choose the right dog food to give him all the nutrients he needs. Most commercially produced foods have nutritional information printed on the packaging.

But decoding these labels can be tricky if you don't understand the terminology and abbreviations. The following guidelines should help you know the nutritional value of dog foods, so you make the best choice for your pet.

Dog food labels are required by law to list ingredients and the percentage proportions of key nutrients

Dog food labels are required by law to list ingredients and the percentage proportions of key nutrients

How to Understand the List of Ingredients

Dog food labels must have a list of ingredients. The ingredients, listed by volume, begin with the heaviest at the top and the lightest at the bottom. But if meat is at the top, it doesn't necessarily mean there's more protein than anything else in the food.

Up to 75% of the mass of meat can be water and fat. The meat content, sometimes listed in the form of "meat meal," "bone meal" or "chicken meal," indicates that most of the water and fat content were removed to form concentrated animal-derived protein.

List of Common Dog Food Ingredients

Table showing a list of the most common ingredients in commercially prepared dog food

Ingredient

Ground whole corn

Animal fat

Beet pulp

Ground whole wheat

Meat and bone meal

Vegetable oil

Brewer's rice

Corn and gluten meal

Are "By-Products" Harmful to My Dog?

All dog foods certified by the Association of American Feed Controls as complete and balanced should provide all your dog's nutritional needs. They should be safe for him to eat. But some dog owners are alarmed when they see "by-products" listed in the ingredients.

However, the animal-derived by-products in dog food include only pig, cattle, and buffalo liver, heart, blood, brain, intestines, the esophagus, stomach lining, and udders. There should be no hard or indigestible parts such as horns, hooves, teeth or hair. By law, all by-products included in food must come from healthy, disease-free animals under a given age.

They are labeled as by-products only because many people don't want to eat them, but your dog won't mind at all!

Are the Chemicals in Dog Food Harmful?

As with many foods designed for human consumption, dog food also has added chemicals such as preservatives, emulsifiers, colorings, and stabilizers. All these ingredients are tested and passed as safe for use by the Food and Drug Administration Federal Agency. Manufacturers are obliged by law to list all added ingredients on the label.

Controversy about including butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and ethoxyquin preservatives in food has caused alarm among the public. The chemicals help to stop fat becoming rancid and keep food fresh for longer. But after obliging manufacturers to reduce the amounts they use, health and safety officials say the small quantities now present in dog foods are harmless to pets.

If you're still not happy, look for vitamins E and C, and plant-derived preservatives listed on the label. While these natural preservatives won't keep the food as fresh for as long, they work in the short-term and are harmless. Always check the "best before" date on dog food packaging before feeding your dog.

The vast array of dog food brands and types can be confusing. Whichever you choose, the important thing is to read and understand the ingredients and nutrition label to make sure your dog is getting everything he needs from his diet

The vast array of dog food brands and types can be confusing. Whichever you choose, the important thing is to read and understand the ingredients and nutrition label to make sure your dog is getting everything he needs from his diet

Common Additives in Dog Food and What They Do

AdditiveWhat It Does

Antioxidants

Stop foods from deteriorating due to oxidation

Preservatives

Help protect dog food from harmful bacteria

Vitamins

Ensure full nutrition for optimum health

Trace elements

Help avoid nutritional deficiencies which could lead to ill-health

Coloring

Naturally derived colors make the food more attractive even after processing

Flavoring

Enhance the appeal of processed and packaged food

Which Dog Foods Are Complete and Balanced?

The Association of American Feed Control has official guidelines for the nutrients in dog food needed for a diet to be considered "complete and balanced." The guidelines are based on extensive research and testing and approved by veterinarians. Manufacturers who follow the guidelines display the AAFC certification on their packaging.

Ultimately, the quality of dog food in the USA is controlled by the Food and Drug Administration

Ultimately, the quality of dog food in the USA is controlled by the Food and Drug Administration

What Does "Guaranteed Analysis" Mean on Dog Food Labels?

The "guaranteed analysis" part of a dog food label shows the relative percentages of different ingredients and nutrients in the food, often including micro-nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Manufacturers may include or exclude specific elements from the label, but by law, they must show how much protein, fat, fiber, and moisture the food contains.

Vets recommend that your dog's diet should include at least 10% protein and 6% fat. The rest of the contents comprise carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals from grains, vegetables, and fruit. But as dogs don't digest everything they eat, the quantities of commercially produced food are higher to make sure they get enough nutrition.

Are "Natural," "Organic," "Holistic," and "Premium" Dog Foods Better?

While any food labeled "natural" might have fewer synthetic ingredients, no official guidelines exist to decide what is and isn't "natural" in dog food. The same applies to "organic." "Holistic" and "premium" are also meaningless terms used solely as marketing tactics. Other specifications you might find on labeling such as "human-grade" and "USDA inspected" are unregulated and do not mean much regarding the quality and nutritional value of the food the packaging contains.

Making Sense of Dog Food Labeling

With so many dog foods to choose from, it's essential you understand what the different brands have in them to make sure your dog gets a proper diet including all the calories and nutrients he needs for a healthy and happy life. While the information on dog food packaging isn't always crystal clear, these guidelines should help you understand it. If in doubt, always look for the manufacturer's statement that the food complies with the official nutritional recommendations of the AAFCO.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2018 Amanda Littlejohn

Comments

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on October 22, 2018:

Hi Shelley,

Not all marketers! But yes, there's reason to be vigilant and make sure you fully understand the messages on dog food labels as they can be misleading. I'm sure the same principle applies to cat food, too.

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 21, 2018:

So marketers are being even more deceptive than with products intended for humans when it comes to organic, premium, USDA inspected, natural, and other terms? (At least USDA inspected means something with human food and there’s a grading system). I guess that’s why we need regulations! People can’t always be trusted where money is involved. I learned a lot from this and assume some of the same ideas translate to cat food. Bummer.