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.
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.
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.
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.
Dog food labels typically provide the following information:
There are times when the product name features an extension, especially if there are variants.
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.
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.
This section shows the nutrients present in the dog food, plus the specific quantity of each nutrient.
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).
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
You may come across these words when examining a dog food label or packaging:
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|
|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 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.
A digital marketing expert by profession, Andrews is a gifted writer and animal lover at heart. A self-confessed "pawrent", Andrews is well-versed in all things dogs. He uses his years of experience of raising puppies into show-quality dogs to help guide first-time pet parents. He believes in spreading the joy that comes with being a dog dad and advocates more families to adopt pets.