We are reader supported, we earn a small commission when you buy something using our retail links.
Food & Diet

How to Read Dog Food Labels?

At A Glance

Dog food labels offer information on ingredients, nutritional value, guaranteed analysis, and feeding instructions, among many others. Know how to decipher these sections by using this complete guide to reading dog food labels.

Last Updated on: Feb 15, 2022

Why are food labels important and how well do you understand them? You may not be the only dog owner who can get confused when checking a dog food label. To be fair, these labels often have a lot of information with quite a few jargon or technical terms, and it is sometimes easy to get lost.

But you are willing to do anything for your furry friend, right? Even if it means knowing the difference between meat and meat meal. Or the significance of the acronyms BHA and BHT, perhaps?

But do not worry, we got your back!

Today, we are teaching you how to read and interpret dog food labels. But first, we need to know what food labels are and what they are for.

a boy at the supermarket

What Are Dog Food Labels?

The dog food label contains a list of ingredients and other nutrition-related information. It is usually found in the packaging of any branded dog food product. It is sometimes called a dog food nutrition label or pet food label.

In displaying dog food labels, brands usually follow the guidelines set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). To know more about this, try to read the AAFCO’s full pet food label guidelines.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also enforces federal regulations that apply to all animal feeds, which include dog food. Visit their website to read pet food labeling regulations. It is worth noting though that some states may have their own regulations regarding dog food labels.

custom oil-painted dog portraits by Poshtraits

What Is the Purpose of Dog Food Labels?

Dog food labels help consumers make a more informed decision when choosing dog food. Based on the label information, pet owners can choose which product best fits the nutritional needs of their pet.

Of course, veterinarians can also provide recommendations to pet owners regarding what information to look out for.

a boy with his dog at the supermarket

What Information Is Included in Dog Food Labels?

Dog food labels typically provide the following information:

Brand Name and Product Name

There are times when the product name features an extension, especially if there are variants.

Full Name and Address of Manufacturer

The manufacturer’s name may differ from the brand name. There are also times when two different brand names might be from the same manufacturer.


Weight (grams, kilograms, pounds), liquid volume (liters, milliliters, ounces) and number of units.

Calorie Content

This statement shows how many calories are contained in the dog food. This information is commonly presented as kilocalories per kilogram (kcal/kg).


These are usually listed according to weight. The first ingredient is the heaviest, while the last one is the lightest.

Guaranteed Analysis

This section shows the nutrients present in the dog food, plus the specific quantity of each nutrient.

Nutritional Adequacy Information

This statement should say that the food is enough as a sole source of nourishment for the dog. This part will also indicate the dog’s recommended feeding age (puppy, junior, adult, mature, senior).

Feeding Instructions

These contain guidelines for appropriate feeding. It may contain details such as the suggested food quantity depending on the weight of the dog. This section also displays the recommended calorie consumption for the dog depending on its age. Instructions for preparation and storage are also included.

dog food

How Do I Interpret the Ingredients List?

Remember that ingredients are listed according to decreasing weight. When looking at the list, you may notice familiar items like beef, lamb, or corn, just to name a few.

You may also encounter terms you do not understand at all. To help you out, we compiled these frequently asked questions when it comes to ingredients:

What is a By-Product?

By-products refer to whatever is left after an animal is slaughtered and its meat harvested for human consumers. Examples of by-products are blood, brains, heads, intestines, kidneys, livers, lungs, spleens, and stomachs.

Are By-Products Good For Your Dog?

Yes, most of the by-products mentioned above are rich in protein and other nutrients. You need to be careful though. There are times when stuff that are not supposed to be by-products are included unintentionally. These may include hair, hides, hooves, horns, and teeth. It is also possible that the product may contain chicken by-products, which are not that nutritious. Examples of chicken by-products are undeveloped eggs, feet, intestines, and necks.

What is Meat Meal?

It comes from animal parts that are not fit for human consumption. These include bones, connective tissues, offal, and leftover meat. They are heated at high temperatures then dried into powder form.

Is Meat Meal Nutritious?

Compared to fresh dog food, a meat meal is considered by many as a less nutritious option. But depending on the needs of your dog, a meat meal can be part of your pet’s diet. Plus, it is cheaper than fresh dog food.

What is BHA / BHT / Ethoxyquin?

These are all examples of synthetic preservatives that can be found in dog food. BHA stands for butylated hydroxyanisole, while BHT stands for butylated hydroxytoluene. Both BHA and BHT can prevent oxidation in fatty substances. They can also help the dog food preserve its color over long periods.

Ethoxyquin can prevent fats from getting rancid, while also protecting fat-soluble vitamins from spoiling. While the FDA has approved the use of these preservatives in pet food, some scientists and veterinarians are wary of these ingredients.

dog with a packet of dog food

What Does Guaranteed Analysis Mean?

This section provides a guarantee that the dog food meets maximum and minimum percentages of certain ingredients. Which ingredients are we talking about? They are:

  • The maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture; the minimum percentages of crude protein and crude fat.
  • The minimum percentages of calcium, linoleic acid, phosphorus, and sodium on some dog food products

Note that the guaranteed analysis information may vary between different types of dog food. Let us take canned dog food versus dry dog food, for instance. Canned varieties typically have at least 75 percent moisture. Dry dog food moisture, on the other hand, usually does not rise above 12 percent.

dog food

What Does Nutritional Adequacy Mean?

The nutritional adequacy statement is one of the most important parts of the dog food label. It is a promise to consumers that the food they are buying is safe as a sole food source for dogs.

There are two methods in which dog food can be proven to be nutritionally adequate for a dog:

  • The product must have ingredients formulated to meet the nourishment standards for a specific animal type.
  • The product must be tested according to the AAFCO’s Feeding Trial Protocols.

Products using the second way should display the words: “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (name of product) provides complete and balanced nutrition for (the life stage appropriate).”

Another important information that needs to be included in the nutritional adequacy statement is the intended life stage information.

Certain dog foods may be labeled as “for growth” that means they are for puppies or young dogs. Others may be labeled “for maintenance” that means they are for adult pets. Products that are intended for all life stages are generally considered safe for maintenance.

women at a pet food store

What Is Included In Feeding Instructions?

The feeding instructions section should include clear directions on how much to feed the dog. Specifically, it should use these words (or similar versions) in tandem:

  • Number of cups of dog food to offer daily
  • Per pounds or kilograms of dog’s body weight

For example: Feed (x) cups per (x) pounds of weight.

Pet owners should also mind the expiration date of the dog food. The expiry information may or may not be included within the feeding instructions. So make sure to completely check the packaging to search for this information.

Also, the exact wording structure denoting expiry may vary depending on the brand. Some may use the “Best Used Before” phrase, while others might use the “Consume By” phrase. Sometimes it is simply an “Expiring on” phrase.

dog waiting for his food

Terms and Phrases You Should Be Mindful About

You may come across these words when examining a dog food label or packaging:

  • Grain-Free. This means that the dog food was made without using any barley, maize, millet, oats, rice, rye, sorghum, triticale, or wheat.
  • Human-Grade. This means that the dog food is approved for both dog and human consumption. The US Department of Agriculture and the FDA are both tasked with regulating all human-grade food in the country.
  • Lite / Low-Fat / Low-Calorie. The AAFCO has special regulations governing dog food products claiming to be lite, low-fat, or low-calorie. Their dog food label must display the decrease in percentage for fat or calories.
  • New Proteins. This means that the proteins contained in the dog food were not sourced from the usual beef or chicken sources. Instead, these proteins may have come from exotic meats such as bison, rabbit, or kangaroo.
  • Natural. This means that the dog food has zero synthetic preservatives and zero artificial flavors.
  • Organic. This term is often used interchangeably with “natural” but should not be used as such. Organic means that the source plants and animals for the dog food ingredients were not genetically engineered. It does not only have zero preservatives and flavors, but the food production is also free of antibiotics, herbicides, and pesticides.


Score Sheet for Determining Dog Food Quality

This score sheet, derived from Dr. Brad Evergreen from the Evergreen Holistic Veterinary Care, aims to assign a quality score to the dog food you purchase. Quality score is computed based on the ingredients listed on the food label. A high score denotes good quality, a low score means bad quality.

Here’s how the scoring works:

Begin with a total score of 100 points.

Add or deduct points based on the ingredients listed in the table below.

Ingredient Points to Add or Deduct
Animal fat (except fish oil) Deduct 2 points
Artificial color, flavor, preservative, sweetener Deduct 3 points
Beef Deduct 1 point
BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin Deduct 10 point
By-product Deduct 10 points per by-product
Corn appears in the first 5 ingredients Deduct 2 points
Grain ingredient appears twice in the first 5 ingredients Deduct 5 points
Ground corn or whole grain corn Deduct 3 points
Lamb is the sole protein source (unless hypoallergenic) Deduct 2 points
Non-specific animal source Deduct 10 points per source
Non-specific grain source Deduct 5 points
Protein sources are not meat meals or only one meat in the first 3 ingredients Deduct 3 points
Salt Deduct 1 point
Soy or soybeans Deduct 2 points
Wheat Deduct 2 points
Animal sources without hormones and antibiotics Add 2 points
Baked (not extruded) Add 5 points

Barley Add 2 points
Specific animal protein source Add 1 point for each
Flaxseed oil (not flax seeds) Add 2 points
Fruit Add 3 points
Glucosamine and chondroitin Add 1 point
Nutritionist endorsement Add 5 points
Oats or oatmeal Add 1 point
Organic meat source Add 5 points
Probiotics Add 3 points
Sunflower oil Add 1 point
Vegetables except corn or other grains Add 2 points
Vegetables are pesticide-free or tested for pesticides Add 1 point

Scoring Guide:

Score Range Letter Rating
100 to 94 A
93 to 86 B
85 to 78 C
700 to 70 D
69 and below E

dog food at a supermarket

Dog food labels are important because they provide information that will help you choose the right product for your dog.

The parts of dog food labels usually include the brand and product names, name and address of the manufacturer, quantity, calorie content, ingredients, guaranteed analysis, nutritional adequacy statement, and feeding instructions.

Here are a few things to remember when reading dog food labels. The ingredients are always listed according to weight, with the heaviest first. The guaranteed analysis section tells the maximum and minimum percentages of ingredient items.

The nutritional adequacy is a guarantee that the dog food is enough as your pet’s sole source of nourishment. Finally, feeding instructions give specific directions for preparation and feeding. While reading dog food labels, be aware of the terms used and their meanings.


Food & Diet dog food dog food labels

Previous Article

The Different Types of Labrador Retrievers


Meet Paul, a devoted dog dad to the delightful French Bulldog, Cofi. With a flair for humor and a deep understanding of Frenchie quirks, Paul brings a lighthearted touch to his writings. His relatable stories and practical insights are a blend of laughter and valuable advice and resonate with fellow dog owners.

Through his words, Paul aims to celebrate the joys and challenges of being a dedicated pet parent, reminding you that life is simply better with a four-legged, snorting sidekick by your side.