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Learn to Read a Dog Food Label

Making sure your dog has a balanced diet is just as important as obedience training to help it maintain a balanced state of mind. But, as with any product marketing, you may need to read between the lines to find out what’s really going on.

The Center for Veterinary Medicine requires dog food labels to list:

  • Proper product name
  • Proper ingredient listing
  • Net weight
  • Manufacturer’s address

The Association of American Feed Control Office (AAFCO) also has reporting guidelines. However, states or brands can choose whether they will follow these guidelines. So if a company does follow them, that’s a good sign.

AAFCO Dog Food Label Listing Guidelines:

  • Guaranteed analysis (percentage breakdown of crude protein, fat, grain, etc.)
  • Feeding directions
  • Calorie statements

What’s in a name?

First, let’s start with the product name. “Premium Lamb Formula,” ” Lamb with Rice Dog Food,” “Premium Dog Food with Chicken,” “Lamb and Duck Recipe.” These are the sorts of phrases that sell food. And dog food companies are not dumb to that fact. But did you know that companies are required to put certain amounts of an ingredient in the food based on how they structure that phrase?

Here’s a great chart we pulled from Organic Pet Digest.
Click here for a printer friendly version.

Rule What it Means Examples Tips
“95%” At least 95% of the product must be the named ingredient, not counting water and “condiments.” Counting the water, the named ingredient must still make up 70%.  If two ingredients are listed, they must combine to make up at least 95% (or 70% including water).  Only meat can be used to make up these percentages, so other ingredients like grains or vegetables cannot be used in the calculation. “Beef for Dogs” must be 95% beef. 

“Lamb and Rice Dog Food” must be 95% lamb.

Make sure the named ingredient is the first on the dog food label list of ingredients – if it is not, you can be sure that it does not make up the required percentage.
“25%” or “Dinner” (other descriptors are allowed, such as “entrée,” “formula,” “nuggets,” and “platter”) Applies to many canned and dry products.  The named ingredients must make up at least 25% of the product (not including water) but less than 95%. “Beef Dinner for Dogs” must be between 25% and 95% beef. The named ingredient will probably be third or fourth on the dog food label ingredient list.  Other unwanted ingredients not used in the product name may be more prominent.
“3%” or “with” The term “with” can be used either in the dog food label product name or as a side burst if the food is comprised of at least 3% of the named ingredient. “Beef Dinner with Cheese” must be at least 3% cheese. Pay attention to where the ingredient falls on the ingredient list; the higher up, the bigger the percentage.
“Flavor” No specific percentage is required to use the term “flavor,” but the product must contain a sufficient amount to “be detected” by specific test methods.  The word “flavor” must be the same size, style and color as the named ingredient. “Beef Flavor Dog Food” must have a trace of beef ingredients. The corresponding ingredient could be in the product, but more likely than not another cheaper and less healthy substance  will give the named flavor (i.e. beef meal, beef by-products, digests, stocks or broths).
“Stew,” “in Sauce,” “in Gravy” or other similar terms The maximum percentage moisture content for pet food is 78%, except when these terms are used.  They can have up to 87.5% moisture. “Beef Stew in Gravy” can have up to 87.5% moisture. The moisture can really throw off your understanding of how nutritious a product is for your dog.  Always calculate and compare the dry weight of a product when making a selection.  Many of the dog food recall problems were with pet food with gravy.  Steer clear to be on the safe side.
“Complete,” “Balanced,” “100% Nutritious,” or other similar terms Statement must be proven by… 

1) Following established guidelines confirming that food truly contains levels needed for a healthy animal

2) Actually being tested by AAFCO
…and indicate the appropriate life stage.

1) “Formulated to meet the nutritional levels est. by the AAFCO… Profiles” 

2) “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures…” …“for growth”

In order to believe the claim, make sure the dog food label contains the AAFCO or other reputable organizations’ name.
“Premium,” “Super Premium,” “Ultra Premium,” or “Gourmet” NOT required to have any different or higher quality ingredients and NOT held to any higher standards. This was a shocker the first time we heard it.  Don’t be sucked in by this terminology without reading the rest of the label.
“Natural” or “Organic” See Natural Organic Dog Food vs. Commercial Dog Food page



Unwanted Ingredients

Because of regulations, dog food companies are required to list all the ingredients in descending order of weight. But often unhealthy and sometimes even toxic substances can be hiding in plain sight.

Here’s a list of ingredients you want to steer clear of:

  • Any artificial coloring
  • Any artificial flavoring
  • Ammoniated lgycyrrhizin
  • Bone meal
  • Butylated hydroxytoluene (bht)
  • Chicken by-products
  • Corn syrup
  • Digest of poultry by-products
  • Dried animal digest
  • Dried liver digest
  • Ethoxyquin
  • Fish by-products
  • Fish meal
  • Liver glandular meal
  • Meat by-products
  • Potassium sorbate
  • Poultry by-products
  • Poultry by-product meal
  • Propyl gallate
  • Propylene glycol
  • Sodium nitrate
  • Sucrose


In terms of vitamin supplements, a good acronym to remember which ones to add is: With vitamins, Always Bring Extra. Vitamins and minerals in dog food can be lost through heat processing, which is especially true with Vitamins A, B and E. Always add these to your dog’s diet.

Source: Organic Pet Digest

About the Author
Jamie Walden
is an experienced dog trainer and co-owner of See Spot Sit Dog Training in Little Rock, Arkansas. Contact him at jamie.walden@ymail.com with questions or comments.