Dog paws and dry dog food

Decoding Dog Food Labels: A Nutritionist's Perspective

Our dogs' healthy and happy lives begin with the food we provide them. If you’ve ever shopped for dog food in grocery stores, you know there are unlimited options. Choosing which product to get can be complex, from hundreds of brands with various ingredients to wet, dry, and raw food options.

Learning how to read dog food labels can be overwhelming. Don’t fret, because we’ve got you covered!

The best way to know what’s inside these dog food products is by checking their labels. We put together this comprehensive guide for learning how to read dog food labels. Let this be a key to unlocking the nutritional mysteries hidden in those seemingly perplexing labels.

What are Dog Food Labels?

Dog food labels are informational panels attached to or printed on the packaging. They provide essential details about the product, helping pet owners make informed decisions about what to feed their dogs.

Most dog food labels have the following key components:

Product Name

This label typically hints at the main ingredient or the kind of food or treat. The Association of American Feed Control Officials has four rules about product name wording:

  • 95% Rule: This rule states that at least 95% of the product must be the named ingredient. For example, “Chicken for Dogs” suggests the significant components of the product. The main ingredient must also be at least 70% of the total product when counting the added water. The remaining 5% is for those required for nutritional reasons.
  • 25% Rule: The 25% rule refers to products like “Lamb Dinner for Dogs,” “Sweet Potato Entrée,” or “Chicken Platter.” If the name ingredient contains at least 25% of the product but is less than 95%, it should have a qualifying term, such as entrée, platter, or dinner.
  • “With” Rule: When products are labeled with “with…”, the ingredient must be at least 3%. Adding “with” changes the percentage requirement of the ingredient in the food.
  • Flavor Rule: Products labeled as “flavored” are not required to have a specific percentage of that flavor, but the overall product must contain a sufficient amount. Similarly, the word “flavor” must appear on the label in the same size and color as the rest of the product description.

Ingredient List

It enumerates all the ingredients in the dog food, usually in descending order by weight. In most cases, wet ingredients with higher water content, such as chicken or lamb, weigh more than dry ones, so you can expect to see them listed first.

Moreover, collective ingredients must be listed individually and by their common name. Putting them simply as “animal protein products” isn’t allowed.

You should also be wary of vague terms like “by-products” or excessive use of fillers. While not all by-products are harmful, it is best to avoid empty ones containing the stomach, bones, and cleaned intestines. We recommend opting for dog food with minimal to no by-products.

Product Quantity

In searching for the best dog food, it’s best not to go by looks. Read the label to know the amount of food the container or pack holds, as dog food products differ in density, especially for dry and wet pet food.

Weight, count, or liquid measure usually measures dog food products. A cost-per-ounce or cost-per-pound comparison is recommended to know how much it costs.

Guaranteed Analysis

This part provides the minimum and/or maximum percentages of key nutrients: protein, fiber, fat, and water. Guaranteed analysis helps you understand the nutritional content of the dog food you’ll feed your pet and will tell you whether or not your dog will get the correct nutrients.

Nutritional Adequacy Statement (AAFCO Statement)

This statement is often a fine print on the back or side of the package. It indicates whether the product meets the nutritional standards the AAFCO sets for a specific life stage, such as lactation, growth, maintenance, or all life stages. After all, dogs at different life stages have specific dietary needs and nutritional requirements.

Feeding Guidelines

These are things to remember when feeding the product to your pet. Feeding guidelines consider factors like weight, age, and activity level. Following them helps prevent overfeeding and underfeeding, as it informs about the recommended dosage.

It’s still best to consult your veterinarian for their recommendations. 

Manufacturer Information

These are details about the dog food company, including their address and contact information. This will help consumers identify and reach out to the manufacturer if needed.

Expiration Date and Batch Code

The expiration date indicates the freshness and safety of the dog food. Pet owners should take note of the “best-used-by” date or statement since food can get unpleasant after a specific period due to the ingredient’s nature. Expired food can make your dog sick.

Meanwhile, batch code helps trace the pet food in the event of a product recall.

Other Details

Other information you might find on dog food labels includes the following:

  • Special Features or Claims: These include benefits such as being grain-free, promoting dental health, or containing added vitamins and minerals.
  • Allergen Information: This portion helps pet owners choose products for dogs with sensitivities.
  • Country of Origin: Some pet owners prefer products from specific regions due to different manufacturing standards.
  • Net Weight: This label indicates the product's weight, usually in pounds or kilograms.

Cheat Sheet on Dog Food Labels: What to Look For

Here’s a quick guide to help you remember the necessary information when looking for dog food in the grocery aisle.

  • The primary ingredient is listed first and holds the highest weight in the food composition.
  • The “best-used-by” date prevents you from buying food that may have already expired. It also helps determine how long it can stay on your shelves if you plan to stock.
  • The guaranteed analysis lets you keep track of the basic four: protein, fat, fiber, and water.
  • The quantity of different products should be compared on a cost-per-pound or cost-per-ounce basis.
  • Feeding directions are recommendations. A veterinarian’s advice is still best.

Always Check the Label

Deciphering food labels is crucial for responsible pet owners in a world filled with marketing gimmicks, underwhelming products, and misleading packaging. By understanding the basics of ingredient lists, nutritional content, and additional considerations, you can make informed choices that contribute to your pet’s overall health and happiness.

Remember that each dog is unique; finding the right balance for your furry companion may take trial and error. 

Learn more on how to read dog food labels and canine nutrition by visiting the Stryde blog.