Dog food labels contain an enormous amount of information about what’s in the can, pouch, or bag—if you can decipher the lingo.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine regulates the content and wording of dog food labels, but those rules are far from self-evident to the average buyer.
How to Read Dog Food Labels Properly
Mass-market commercial pet food manufacturers are so adept at painting idyllic pictures of “Freshness“, “Wholesomeness” and “Healthfulness” on the fronts of their packages that you half expect sunshine to pour out when you open them.
So, we’re going to forget the marketing hype and get to the nutritional facts, which are contained on the back. Below are explanations and translations of the three most important sections of dog food labels:
- The variety or flavor name;
- The guaranteed analysis;
- The ingredient list.
The Variety or Flavor Name
More modifying words mean less of the main ingredient, according to the FDA’s naming rules.
- To be called Beef, a food must contain at least 70 percent beef by weight. Only three or four superpremium canned foods contain this much meat.
- To be called Beef & Liver, a food must contain at least 70 percent beef and liver by weight, and there must be more beef than the liver.
- To be called Beef Dinner, Entree, Platter, Nuggets, Formula, or a similar name, a food must contain at least 25 percent beef by weight.
- Something called Dog Food with Beef needs to contain only 3 percent beef by weight.
- Something called Beef Flavor Dog Food must only have a detectable beef flavor.
The take-home message? The simpler the name, the more beef (or chicken, lamb, or turkey) you’re getting.
Grain-free Dog Food
Grain-free: Grain-free dog food is one of the fastest-growing segments of the commercial pet food world because more pet lovers are concerned about the high percentage of grains in traditional kibble.
Can dogs eat grain? Certainly. But dogs have a tougher time digesting grains than humans do, partly because they lack the enzymes in their saliva to start digestion.
Some dogs might even be allergic to grains (although dogs can definitely have allergies to beef, chicken, and other meats as well).
How to Read Guaranteed Analysis on Dog Food
This lists the minimum amounts of protein and fat and the maximum amounts of fiber and moisture the food contains.
- More protein and fat aren’t necessarily better—the best levels for your dog depend on his age, activity level, and ideal weight. For example, puppies require a minimum of 22 percent protein and 8 percent fat, but the diet of a large-breed puppy at risk of developing hip dysplasia should contain a maximum of 32 percent protein and 15 percent fat, even though some puppy foods have higher levels than that.
- Adult dogs require a minimum of 18 percent protein and 5 percent fat. An extremely active dog—think sled dog here—may need a lot more protein and fat than that for muscle repair and energy, but an overweight couch potato does not.
- The fiber level isn’t a major concern for most dogs. But canned-food buyers, take note of your food’s moisture level—it’s probably between 72 and 78 percent. So when you buy canned food, three-quarters of what you’re paying for is water. That’s why dry food is a more economical choice.
Guaranteed Analysis Dog Food
Pet food’s guaranteed analysis must contain the following:
- Minimum percentage of crude protein.
- Minimum percentage of crude fat.
- Maximum percentage of crude fiber.
- Maximum percentage of moisture.
The word “crude” refers to how the nutrient was measured (crude protein is based on nitrogen analysis, while crude fat is measured by ether extract); it does not mean that the nutrient is inferior.
Bear in mind that “Minimum” and “Maximum” levels listed don’t necessarily match the actual amount contained in the food, so if your dog has a medical condition that requires specific nutrient levels, be sure to contact the company and ask for the “average” level of that nutrient.
The Ingredient List
Here’s where it really gets interesting. The ingredients are listed in descending order by their weight in the finished product, just like in people’s food. Two key facts to remember here:
- Wet foods, like fresh meat, weigh more than dry foods, like ground corn, so wetter foods will naturally wind up near the top of an ingredient list;
- Manufacturers can downplay how much of a particular ingredient is in the food by using different forms of it. A food whose ingredient list includes flaked corn, ground corn, and cornmeal, for example, contains a lot more corn than you might have thought at first glance.
What ingredients are good and bad in dog food?
- First, generalities. Meat provides all the amino acids (the building blocks of protein) a dog needs, so meat should be one of the first three ingredients in dry dog food and the first ingredient in canned dog food.
- Second, dogs don’t need sweeteners (such as corn syrup or molasses) or artificial colors in their food, so avoid foods that include them.
Ingredients must be listed in descending order according to their weight, with the ingredient weighing the most listed at the top. This can be deceiving, however, because ingredient weights are listed on an “as fed” basis, which includes the original water content prior to any cooking or drying.
To accurately compare the nutritional value of two foods we must mathematically “remove” the water content and convert the ingredients to a “dry matter” (DM) basis.
Dog Food Ingredients Explained
Now the specifics. Here’s a glossary that explains some common dog food ingredients. Meat and other animal products provide protein, fat, and calcium. Beef is used below as an example, but the definitions also apply to the other meat sources.
- Animal fat: Fat from any combination of cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats.
- Beef: The muscle tissue of cattle. Along with the kind of muscle we know as steak and ground beef, it may include the tongue, heart, and muscle from the esophagus and diaphragm. Fat and skin (minus the hair) that are attached to the muscle and blood vessels, nerves, and connective tissue within the muscle can be included.
- Beef by-products: The non-muscle tissue of cattle, which may include the internal organs (liver, kidneys, spleen, lungs, intestines, and brain), udder, bone, blood, blood vessels, cartilage, and tendons.
- Bone meal: Cooked and ground bones. A source of calcium.
- Casein: The main protein in milk.
- Chicken: The muscle, skin, and bones of chickens, minus the feathers, heads, feet, and internal organs.
- Chicken by-products: The heads, necks, feet, and internal organs of chickens.
- Digest: Meat and organs that are partially digested with enzymes and used as a flavor coating on dry food.
- Dried egg product: Dried whole eggs, minus the shells; a source of protein and fat.
- Dried whey: The portion of milk that remains after cheese is made, in dried form. A source of protein and minerals.
- Meal: Any ingredient that has been ground or otherwise reduced to small particles.
- Meat: Muscle tissue from any combination of cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats. Dog food that contains meat from another source must list it explicitly: “venison,” “rabbit,” or “horsemeat,” for example.
- Poultry: The muscle, skin, and bones of a variety of poultry, including chickens, turkeys, ducks, and so on.
- Poultry by-products: Like chicken by-products but from a variety of poultry, such as chickens, turkeys, and ducks.
Non-animal Protein Sources
Non-animal protein sources are used because they’re less expensive. They don’t contain as broad a range of amino acids as meat does, so they shouldn’t be the only protein source.
- Alfalfa meal: The high-protein portion of the grain alfalfa.
- Brewer’s dried yeast: Yeast that is filtered from a fermented beverage and dried. A source of protein and B vitamins.
- Brewer’s rice: The high-protein fraction of rice after most of the starch has been fermented away in brewing.
- Germ: The innermost portion of grain seeds, often removed when grains are ground into flour. A source of protein and fat.
- Gluten: The protein fraction of grain, with most of the carbohydrate and fiber, removed.
- Soy flour, soybean meal: The high-protein portion of soybeans often used to make textured vegetable protein, which can be formed into the “meaty chunks” or “carved slices” that resemble meat in canned dog food.
Grains and vegetables
Grains and vegetables provide mainly carbohydrates, fiber, or both. Many are commonly eaten by people as well as dogs, so I’ve listed only the less familiar.
- Bran: The outer coating of grain seeds. A source of fiber.
- Cellulose: The fiber portion of plants.
- Dried beet pulp: The material that remains after sugar is extracted from beets.
- Dried kelp: A source of carbohydrates.
- Flaxseed, flaxseed meal: A source of carbohydrates and fat.
- Millrun: The hulls of grain are removed when it is ground into flour. A source of fiber.
- Pomace: The skins and seeds of vegetables or fruits after they have been juiced. A source of fiber.
Preservatives in Dog Food
Preservatives prevent mold and bacteria from growing in the food. BHA, BHT. Preservatives widely used in human food as well as pet food.
- Citric acid: An antioxidant is a natural preservative.
- Ethoxyquin: A preservative that in the 1990s was the focus of a widespread myth that it could cause health problems ranging from allergies to cancer. Studies have found no connection between ethoxyquin and cancer or any other health problems in dogs, and it continues to have FDA approval.
- Potassium sorbate: Prevents mold growth.
- Tocopherols: Antioxidants that are a natural preservative.
The feeding directions indicate the manufacturer’s recommended daily intake, usually expressed by X cups or X cans per amount of the dog’s body weight.
Since these recommendations typically overestimate the amount you should feed, use them only as a general guideline to keep your dog at his ideal weight and body composition.
Remember, however, that dogs who are nursing or in the late stage of pregnancy should eat ad libitum (as much as they desire).
We prefer feeding fresh, wholesome foods rather than commercially processed products whenever possible. But if you do give your dog kibble or canned, knowing what’s in the food by understanding what’s on the label can help to optimize your dog’s health.
Manufacturer’s contact information
Companies must provide their name and mailing address in dog food labels, but are not required to include a telephone number.
When reading a label, pay close attention to the exact wording, as there is a big difference between “manufactured by…” and “manufactured for…” If the statement “manufactured for…” or “distributed by…” precedes the company name, this tells you that the food was made by an outside source (US FDA, 2010).
Although the name on the label indicates the “responsible” party, once manufacturing is outsourced, the company loses its ability to maintain strict oversight on quality control. In the past, many pet food recalls have involved brands that were outsourced and traced back to one manufacturer.
- Segal, M. (2008). Deciphering Dog Food Labels: A Guide to Buying a Better Commercial Food.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USFDA). (2010). Pet Food Labels-General.
- Canine Nutrition and Choosing the Best Food for Your Breed of Dog, William D. Cusick, Adele Publishing, 1990.