How to Read Dog Food Labels

Posted by Dr. Roth on

Bernese Mountain Dog with dog food, how to read food labels
When it comes to shopping for dog food, it can seem like the options are endless. Pet food manufacturers spend a lot of time, research, and money on marketing and packaging their products. Just because dog food comes in a pretty package and is expensive doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s high quality. When it comes to dog food, the only way for pet parents to really know what's nutritious for their pet is to read the labels. But sometimes that can be tricky. That’s why knowing how to read dog food labels is an important first step when buying dog food.  

Interpreting the Label

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is an organization that tests animal feed to make sure it is nutritionally “balanced and complete.” The first thing to look for when buying dog food is a label showing that it is AAFCO approved. Manufacturers cannot put “balanced and complete” on their packaging unless it’s been officially approved by the AAFCO. 

Wording on the package of dog food has underlying meanings. The following are things to look for on the packaging and their meanings:
  • 95% Rule: When a dog food is named after its primary ingredient, then 95% of the food must be made up of that ingredient. For example, “Beef Dog Food” must be made up of 95% beef and should be the first ingredient listed on the label.
  • 25% Rule: Some examples of descriptive terms are dinner, platter, entree, nuggets, or formula. When these descriptive terms are on the label — for example, “Beef Entree Dog Food” — it means that that ingredient makes up at least 25% of the food but can be less than 95%. 
  • “With” Rule: The “with” rule allows manufacturers to put an ingredient on the label as long as at least 3% of the food comes from that ingredient. The “with” rule can look like this on the package: “Dog Food With Beef,” which means that the food doesn’t have to be 95% beef but must be at least 3% beef.
  • Flavor Rule: This rule doesn’t require a percentage of the ingredient to be included on the label. Instead, concentrates or broth can be used to create the flavor. This means “Beef Flavored Dog Food” can just have a beef concentrate additive to create its advertised flavor. 
  • Moisture Content: AAFCO regulations only allow pet foods to contain a maximum of 78% moisture. If the label says gravy, sauce, stew, or something similar, then it can have more moisture, meaning that it has less dry matter and the consumer is paying for more water.
  • Label Claims: Foods labeled as premium, super-premium, ultra-premium, holistic, or gourmet aren’t required to provide higher quality ingredients. These are just marketing terms used to make the product more appealing to consumers.
  • Organic: This means that ingredients cannot come from sources that use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, growth hormones, or other artificial agents. 
  • Natural: This usually means a lack of artificial preservatives, color, and flavors. However, there’s no legal definition for how manufacturers use this term.

Understanding Ingredients

Ingredients are listed on the label in order, beginning with the heaviest ingredient first. Any ingredient highlighted on the packaging should be one of the first three ingredients listed on the label. Soft or wet foods are mostly water, so water should be listed first. High-quality foods will list the protein source next — usually meat — since dogs need a lot of protein. If the manufacturer uses the term “meat meal,” then it might be listed further down on the list because it is a concentrated meat source and doesn’t weigh as much as hydrated meat. 

The beginning of the ingredient list is usually pretty easy for pet parents to read. Further down the list, the ingredients may get more difficult to recognize and have long chemical names. These chemicals are often synthetic preservatives, stabilizers, and artificial colors/flavors. Preservatives are used to prevent the food from going rancid, although there are alternatives to using harsh chemical preservatives. More recently, some manufacturers have started using rosemary, vitamin E, or vitamin C as preservatives. However, the food doesn’t stay fresh for as long, so it’s important to check the food's expiration date. 

Many pet parents get discouraged when they see foods containing “byproducts.” Usually, if a byproduct is used in dog food, it’s an animal byproduct, meaning the food can contain parts of the animal a pet parent may think is less appetizing to eat. Examples of meat byproducts are organs, blood, and bone. While a pet parent may not think of a cow tongue as appetizing, a dog might disagree. Many byproducts contain high amounts of essential nutrients. Probiotics for dogs are natural supplements that can be added to a dog’s diet to support digestion and intestinal health. Good bacteria and natural microorganisms will be listed under ingredients.  

What to Look For‌

All of that information might be a lot to consider when perusing the pet food aisle. So some key things to keep in mind when shopping for pet food are: 

  • Look to see if the food has AAFCO approval.
  • Look for foods that have the protein source in the title.
  • Beware of food titles containing the word “flavor.” 

For additional support on reading dog food labels and recommendations on dog dietary and nutritional needs, Fuzzy veterinary support team is available via 24/7 Live Vet Chat to answer questions. 

Lifestyle Nutrition Wellness Care