What to Look for in Dog Food Labels

By: Caitlin BoyleUpdated:

What to Look for in Dog Food Labels

Dog Food Labels and Dog Nutrition

Your dog is your best friend, and that’s why you should want to feed them the very best. Although you may have good intentions when choosing your pet’s food, labels on pet food can be confusing, and it’s hard to know if you’re providing optimal dog nutrition.

“Pet food labels can make everyone’s head spin!” says Dr. Laurie Coger, DVM, CVCP and owner of HealthyDogWorkshop.com. It is challenging to separate science from marketing, so becoming label-savvy is crucial if you want a healthy dog.

Read the Entire Package

Pet food labeling is regulated on two levels: federal guidelines from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which establishes standards for proper identification of ingredients and net quantity statements, as well as other basic rules; and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which has specific rules that pet food manufacturers must follow.

The term “natural” is often used on pet food labels, although the term does not have an official definition. According to AAFCO, “natural” can be construed as equivalent to a lack of artificial flavors, artificial colors or artificial preservatives in the product. “Natural” is not the same as “organic,” which refers to food produced through approved farming methods that prohibit the use of pesticides, genetic engineering, added hormones and antibiotics.

But beyond these terms, it’s important to read the entire package, not just the front of the bag or can, to really understand what’s in the food. “Almost everything—the text, the pictures—on the front is for marketing purposes. Other than the name, quantity and the brand, there is not necessarily useful information on the front,” says Dr. Coger.

Marketing claims like “premium,” “ultra-premium,” “joint healthy,” “human-grade,” or “immune supporting” are frequently placed on the front of pet foods but have no legal definition under AAFCO.  The organization does have strict product name labeling guidelines, however. For example, a product named Cat’s Lobster and Salmon Harvest cannot contain more salmon than lobster or more chicken than seafood.

“To really figure out what’s in a pet food, you have to flip over the bag and read the list of ingredients and nutritional analysis,” says Dr. Coger.  “That’s the useful information.”

What to Look for in Ingredient Lists

AAFCO requires that all pet foods meet basic pet nutrition needs, but some pet foods are comprised of higher-quality ingredients than others. If you’re wondering what to look for in dog food, the answer is simple: real food! Just like humans, our pets do not want to eat fake colors, fake preservatives or low-quality proteins.

All ingredients are required to be listed in order of predominance by weight. This can be tricky, as the weight of a whole meat includes its water content, making it heavier, but not necessarily due to nutritional content. While other ingredients are measured dry, like chicken meal, a product that lists beef first and chicken meal second can contain more chicken meal than actual beef protein.

Many healthy pet foods contain animal ingredients like organs and bones, a natural part of your furry friend’s ancestral diet. When produced correctly, these ingredients are perfect for cat and dog nutrition—it’s the questionable production process of some meat meals that makes many veterinarians nervous.

Meat meal is the dried end-product of rendering, a cooking process that converts ground meat—typically including flesh, skin and bone—into a concentrated protein powder that manufacturers commonly add to commercial pet food. Meat meal is a more highly concentrated source of protein than whole meat, making it easier for your pet to digest.

Not all meat meals are good for dog nutrition, however. Products that list “animal meal,” or “by-product meal” in their ingredient list may include questionable parts of an animal, like gizzards or feathers. The key is to look for the specific source of the meat meal to be named, like lamb meal, chicken meal or turkey meal.

Instinct by Nature’s Variety Original Grain-Free Recipe contains multiple meat meals, and real chicken is listed as the first ingredient. The added turkey, chicken, salmon and Menhaden fish meal give this food high protein levels and expose your pet to multiple protein sources.

Other ingredients to avoid to ensure a healthy dog include preservatives such as BHA and BHT, and artificial colors. Many veterinarians, including Dr. Coger, recommend avoiding grains such as corn, wheat and soy, as neither dogs nor cats have any nutritional requirement for these typically genetically modified starches.

If you want to give your pet a diet without grains, try American Journey Salmon & Sweet Potato Recipe Grain-Free Dry Dog Food, which features real, deboned salmon and contains no corn, wheat or soy. For treats, try Zuke’s Mini Naturals Chicken Recipe Dog Treats, which are wholesome, bite-size treats featuring chicken as the very first ingredient and crafted without corn, wheat, soy or other fillers.

On ingredient lists, you’ll commonly find added minerals and vitamins; during processing, these nutrients may be destroyed, making it necessary for manufacturers to add them back in.

If you find yourself questioning any ingredient, the power to truly understand is at your fingertips! “Call or email the company and do research online,” says Dr. Coger. “This knowledge will allow you to make the best decision possible about the product.”  Remember that the answer to “What do dogs eat?” is always real food, so search for products that contain ingredients you can easily recognize.

What is the Guaranteed Analysis (GA)?

AAFCO requires that manufacturers guarantee the minimum percentages of crude protein and crude fat. The “crude” term refers to the approximate amount of protein in foods that is calculated from the determined nitrogen content. While this percentage suggests the amount of protein in the food, it does not provide insight into the quality of the nutrient itself.

To make a meaningful comparison against wet and dry pet foods, you must remove the moisture content from the GA. For example, if the GA on a dog food says the food is 70% water, you know there is 30% dry matter. If the dog food label indicates that it has 10% crude protein, it actually has a dry matter protein level of 3% (10% of 30%).

Feeding Directions for Optimal Dog Nutrition

Pay careful attention to the feeding directions, which tell you how much food should be given to your pet to maintain a healthy weight. Dog nutrition needs vary by breed, age and activity level, so use the feeding guidelines as a starting point for determining the proper serving size for your pet. Cut back or add food accordingly to maintain proper weight and growth.

By: Caitlin Boyle
Caitlin Boyle is a writer from Charlotte, North Carolina. Her hobbies including trail running and planning fantasy vacations. She has two dogs, Maggie and James, and a cat that believes he’s a dog, Ferguson.


By: Caitlin BoyleUpdated: