Reading dog food labels correctly can be challenging at first, but knowing what to look for is an easy way to make sure your dog is getting the right nutrition and good quality ingredients. With so many food and treat options out there and some misleading marketing tactics, learning to read the label correctly is a must have skill. Imagine if you couldn't read human food labels? Would you know how to shop for yourself? Same goes with your dog. We put together this guide to set you and your dog up for nutrition success.
First thing first, if there is no label then don’t even bother assessing further. All dog food, including treats, should be labeled. Although it is not legally required for treats to be labeled, not including a label on the item with nutritional information is a red flag. Below is a list of everything a label includes.
- Product and brand name or unique identifier
- Amount of product in the package, either by product weight, liquid measure, or count
- Quantity of each ingredient listed in descending order of weight
- Amount of specific nutrients (guaranteed analysis)
- Calorie statement
- Nutritional adequacy statement, backed by testing that proves the food provides a certain level of nutrients
- Life stages the food is appropriate for if applicable
- Feeding guidance
- Manufacturer’s name and address
What does the product name tell me?
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has rules around product name wording. This is great news for pet parents, because the product name will provide actual information about the ingredients in the food. It’s not all a marketing tactic!
Pet parents should use the product name rather than the ingredient list or crude protein % to determine how much of the protein is in the food.
There are four rules around product naming:
- The 95% rule: In order to name the food after an ingredient, at least 85% of the product must be made up of that ingredient. For example, if you see a dog food named “Beef for Dogs”, 95% of the food must be beef before the water is accounted for. It also must be at least 70% of the product once added water is accounting for. The remaining 5% of ingredients will account for the vitamins, minerals and small amounts of other ingredients required for nutritional reasons.
- The 25% Rule: The 25% rule applies to foods that have a qualifying term, such as dinner, entree, or platter. An example would be “Chicken and Rice Entree”. For these foods, the named ingredient, must be more than 25% of the food, but less than 95% (all before counting added water). Once added water is taken into account, it must be at least 10% of the product. If more than one ingredient is included in the food, the combination of the named ingredients must meet the 25% threshold and be listed in the same order as found on the ingredient list.
- The “With” Rule: The “With” rule in a dog food label only requires the product to have 3% of the named ingredient. For example, “Puppy Dinner with Salmon”, would only require 3% salmon in the product. Pretty significant drop!
- The Flavor Rule: Foods labeled as flavored with an ingredient have no requirement on the amount it must contain. Their rule is that the product must contain enough to be detected. For example, “Chicken Flavored Food” has no minimum amount of chicken required, only that the word “chicken” must be the same size as the word “flavor”.
What is the guaranteed analysis? What can it tell me?
The guaranteed analysis tells you the amount of crude protein and crude fat the pet food contains, as well as moisture and crude fiber content. The FDA has specific requirements for certain guarantees, such as low fat food or if a food claims a specific amount of nutrients. Dog food has to display the amount of crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber and water.
What about the ingredients and by-products?
The ingredients portion is a vital part of the dog food level. Ingredients are always listed individually and in descending order of product weight (same for humans!). The AAFO prohibits any collective terms from being listed on the label and asks that all ingredients are listed by their common or usual name. Here you can find a list of ingredients in dog food by the AAFCO and more information on what names they are listed under and what they contain. https://talkspetfood.aafco.org/whatisinpetfood
Byproducts have a bad reputation, but they are not necessarily a detrimental addition to dog food. Byproducts can include ingredients such as blood, liver and brains, which will likely be appetizing to your puppy. When it comes to byproducts, educate yourself on which ones the food you are assessing contains.
Feeding guidelines are not regulated and are often overestimates of your dog's true caloric requirements.
They are nothing more than rough guidelines, so you should consult your vet to determine how much to feed your dog. These are presented as ranges on the packaging and are often an overestimate of how much your dog needs to be eating.
Often overlooked, dog foods do have a “sell-by” or “best-used-by” date on their packaging. Expired dog food can be rancid and have harmful bacteria growth that can sicken your dog.