How to Read a Dog Food Label

By: Yvonne VillasenorUpdated:

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Chewy Studios

How to Read a Dog Food Label

When shopping for your pup’s food, have you ever read the label and thought, “What does that mean?” With so many terms and phrases on dog food labels, like “complete and balanced,” “natural” and “meat byproducts,” it can be downright confusing to differentiate between marketing buzzwords and key information.

We spoke with veterinary experts to help decipher what each common term and phrase on a dog food label means. That way, you’ll know exactly what’s in different pet foods and can pick the best one for your doggie (with your vet’s help, too, of course).

What’s on a Dog Food Label?

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A dog food label is filled with all the information needed to determine if it’s the perfect choice for your pooch. This information includes:

  1. Product and brand name
  2. Intended species
  3. Net weight or volume
  4. Guaranteed analysis
  5. Ingredients list
  6. Calorie content
  7. Feeding guidelines
  8. Nutritional adequacy statement
  9. Manufacturer or distributor
  10. Best by or expiration date

1Product and Brand Name

We’re immediately able to distinguish between different types of dog food thanks to the brand and product name on the packaging of your dog’s kibble or wet food. The brand and product name tells pet parents what company makes the food and the specific product line, which indicates the food’s primary ingredients or dietary focus, says Dr. Sabrina Kong, DVM, certified canine rehabilitation practitioner at Jules Veterinary Center in Tracy, California, and veterinary consultant at

2Intended Species

Whether you shop for dog food in-store or online, food is categorized based on the type of pet. “Intended species” refers to the specific animal for which the food is formulated. This is to ensure the nutritional content is suitable for that particular species.

3Net Weight or Net Volume

Trying to decide what size of dog food you need? The net weight or volume indicates the total weight or volume of dog food the package contains. This is generally listed in pounds or ounces, and metric units. 

4Guaranteed Analysis

The guaranteed analysis is a chart that breaks down the levels of key specific nutrients, such as crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber and moisture content to ensure the pet food meets nutritional requirements. (You’ll notice these amounts may differ between dry food and wet food.) 

5Ingredients List

Just like with human food labels, you’ll find every ingredient the dog food contains on the ingredients list. All food ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, providing insight into the quantity and types of ingredients, Dr. Kong says.

The first ingredient should always be the protein source; followed by carbohydrates, fats and fiber; and vitamins and minerals, says Dr. Ray Spragley, DVM, CVA, CCRT, owner and founder of Zen Dog Veterinary Care in Tuckahoe, New York. Some common sources of protein in dog food are chicken, lamb and beef. In plant-based dog foods, common protein sources are corn gluten meal and soybean meal. 

A few ingredients Dr. Spragley recommends avoiding include:

  • BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole)
  • White flour
  • Artificial food coloring
  • Corn syrup
  • Nitrates

6Calorie Content

Knowing your canine companion’s calorie intake is essential to managing their weight and making sure they’re getting enough energy throughout the day via their meals. Calories statements indicate how much energy the food provides, and is typically listed in kilocalories per kilogram and per cup, can or biscuit.

7Feeding Guidelines

The feeding directions on a dog food label come in handy when trying to determine how much food to feed your dog (as opposed to how much they want you to feed them!). These are general suggestions based on dogs with average activity levels and on a dog’s weight and lifestage. You can always consult with a vet to learn exactly how much your pooch should be eating based on their individual needs.

The resting energy requirement (RER) formula is used to estimate a dog’s daily calorie needs by using the dog’s weight in kilograms raised to the ¾ power, then multiplied by 70, Dr. Kong explains. 

Below is a rough estimate of the daily calories required for dogs of different weights:

Weight (pounds)
Weight (kilograms)
Daily calories required
Weight (pounds)


Weight (kilograms)


Daily calories required


Weight (pounds)


Weight (kilograms)


Daily calories required


Weight (pounds)


Weight (kilograms)


Daily calories required


Weight (pounds)


Weight (kilograms)


Daily calories required


Weight (pounds)


Weight (kilograms)


Daily calories required


Weight (pounds)


Weight (kilograms)


Daily calories required


Weight (pounds)


Weight (kilograms)


Daily calories required


Weight (pounds)


Weight (kilograms)


Daily calories required


Weight (pounds)


Weight (kilograms)


Daily calories required


Weight (pounds)


Weight (kilograms)


Daily calories required


Weight (pounds)


Weight (kilograms)


Daily calories required


Weight (pounds)


Weight (kilograms)


Daily calories required


“Of course, these are approximate values, and individual needs can vary,” Dr. Kong says. “For example, an active, young dog may require more calories than an older, less active one. Also, dogs with specific health conditions might have different dietary requirements.”

8Nutritional Adequacy Statement

If a product bills itself as complete and balanced, the nutritional adequacy statement, or AAFCO statement, is important. It confirms the food’s nutritional levels meet the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) standards, and is considered complete and balanced for specific life stages (e.g., puppy, adult, senior). As your pup grows, make sure to purchase food that’s appropriate for their stage of life.


The manufacturer/distributor is the company that makes or distributes the dog food. You’ll find the pet food manufacturer’s or distributor’s name—and often the contact information—listed, which is useful for inquiries or in the event of a recall, Dr. Kong says.

10Best By or Expiration Date

Just as our food has a “best by” or “use by” date, so does dog food. Dr. Kong explains that the freshness date indicates when the food is considered to be at its optimal quality and nutritional value.

Terms to Know on Dog Food Labels


The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) recognizes food for different nutrient profiles: puppies and pregnant and nursing pets; adult maintenance; growth (includes puppies); and all life stages, Dr. Spragley says. When shopping for high-quality dog food, look for the nutritional adequacy statement (typically on the back or side of the label) to ensure it contains all essential nutrients your canine companion needs.


Seeing “ash” on a dog food label can be puzzling. Not to fear! The ash level simply refers to the amount of minerals in pet food, such as calcium, iron, copper, phosphorus, zinc, etc. Dr. Spragley says it’s more affordable to measure ash rather than the individual minerals; this is measured by burning the feed, which burns off all organic materials like fat, protein, fiber and vitamins, and leaves only the minerals remaining.


One question many pet parents may have when reading a label is, “What are byproducts in dog food, exactly?”

Byproducts in dog food are typically ingredients left over from human food production after it’s been processed. This can include trimmings, kidneys, liver, spleen and lungs, Dr. Spragley says.

Crude protein

Crude protein is the gold standard of protein in dog foods, Dr. Spragley says. Crude proteins are protein molecules divided into small units, aka peptides, and are easier for dogs to convert into individual amino acids. Dogs require different levels of crude protein based on their life stage and activity levels.


If you see “human-grade” on a label, Dr. Spragley says,  this means the dog food abides by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and often the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) safety and quality standards for human food. This also applies to how and where the food is prepared.


The terms “poultry meal,” “beef meal,” “lamb meal” and meat byproduct meal are commonly seen in dog food. But what is meal in dog food?

This means protein in byproduct meal is derived from parts of animals that aren’t typically sold for human consumption. These parts are then rendered into a protein powder and include residual meat, connective tissues, internal organs and bones. Meat meal is a more cost-effective alternative to serving fresh meats.


“‘Natural’ on a dog food label means the pet food has been made without added artificial colors, flavors or preservatives,” Dr. Spragley says. “The ingredients can only come from plants, animals or minerals.”


Much like organic human food, an “organic” seal on pet food indicates the food meets the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) production and handling requirements, and contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients.

How Is Pet Food Labeling Regulated?

The AAFCO provides guidelines as to how dog food (and cat food!) should be labeled, Dr. Spragley says. “AAFCO does not have direct regulatory authority but is made up of officials from government agencies, which have direct control over regulations,” he says.

The AAFCO requires the following on pet food product labels:

  • Product and brand name
  • Intended species
  • Net quantity statement
  • Guaranteed analysis
  • Ingredient statement
  • Nutritional adequacy statement
  • Feeding directions (if needed)
  • Manufacturer’s name
With countless dog food options, knowing what each term means can help you choose the best high-quality dog food to meet your best furry friend’s nutritional needs.
Expert input provided by Dr. Sabrina Kong, DVM, certified canine rehabilitation practitioner at Jules Veterinary Center in Tracy, California, and veterinary consultant at; Dr. Ray Spragley, DVM, CVA, CCRT, owner and founder of Zen Dog Veterinary Care in Tuckahoe, New York.
With countless dog food options, knowing what each term means can help you choose the best high-quality dog food to meet your best furry friend’s nutritional needs.


By: Yvonne VillasenorUpdated: