Dog food labels 101

Learn to interpret dog food labels

I'll tell you more about dog food labels. What's in dog food? How to interpret these lists?

You're in front of the dog food isle in the shop. What to buy? The same as last time or are you a first time buyer? Are you perhaps feeling a little overwhelmed by the assortment? Different packages, different designs, eye-catching claims advertising all sorts of additives and health benefits, pictures of fine looking beef and vegetables, and other marketing gimmicks… it is just so much!

Just bear in mind manufacturers market these products with YOU in mind (not your dog), since you are the one that decides. Your dog doesn't care about fancy names, colors, shapes and trends. Try to look at this from his side, though with your brain!

First thing you need to know is which ingredients are inside the bag and how much of them, to make a sound judgment. The quality of the ingredients is the second important point. The dog food label itself won't tell you anything about that. Can your dog digest what’s in his dog food, so he will get the required nutrients in his bloodstream and it's not just passing through to become large you know what.

Pet foods must meet the AAFCO standard in order to be labelled "complete and balanced".

Meeting the AAFCO standards is a minimum requirement since you would want to feed you dog only types of dog food that contain all required nutrients according to this standard.

The dog food analysis (sometimes called guaranteed analysis or typical analysis) usually follows after the ingredient list on the dog food bag. It tells you about the percentages of protein, fat, ash, fiber and moisture in the food.

How to compare dog food labels

Are dog food ingredients listed in a particular order?

By law, ingredient lists on dog food labels must be declared in the proper order of predominance by weight. This is determined as they are added in the formulation, including their inherent water content.

This means that ingredients which contain a lot of water end up higher on the list than they actually deserve! The food may contain far less animal derived proteins than claimed. Because of the variation in water content it is difficult to directly compare labels from different types.

You first need to convert percentages to 'dry matter basis'.

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Comparing dry dog food to canned dog food?

An example: A product with 25% of fresh meat (not dried or dehydrated meat)according to the dog food label, lists meat as main ingredient. Meat typically consists of 75% water. A sample of 100 gram dog food does not contain 25 gram meat-derived protein but only 6 to 7 (25 * (1 - 0.75). As rice and corn contain much less water, these second and third listed ingredients actually appear to be the predominant ones.

This mathematical conversion is very important especially when comparing the protein content of dry to canned dog food.

A product that has meat as third ingredient can actually contain more animal-source protein than a product that has meat listed first. You'd be surprised!

We need to take this one step further as you do need a calculator to really compare dog food. We need to take the energy into account.

Interpreting the marketing lingo

Salmon dog food, with salmon or salmon flavor?

What is the relevance of the different statements on dog food labels like "salmon dog food", "with chicken", "beef flavor"?

These claims are strictly regulated and you read them as follows:

  • "With beef flavor" means the flavor itself is detectable (from beef meal or beef by-products for example), there doesn't have to be any actual beef meat present in the product

  • "With beef" means the product contains at least 3% of beef. Did you ever realize this? Buying a product that says "now with real beef" and you get only 3%!

  • "Beef dinner" requires the product to contain at least 25% of beef

  • "Beef for dogs" then at least 95% of the product must be beef (or 70% when counting the added water)

Other statements on dog food labels you may want to have a cautious look at

Premium dog food, Super Premium dog food, Ultra Premium

Big statements but of little value as labelling products as "premium" or "gourmet" doesn't require anything else than just to comply with the nutritional standards for "complete and balanced" dog food.

Organic dog food

Official rules governing the labelling of products as "organic" are currently being developed. At the time these are not regulated but this won't take very long I presume as I've already seen some initial reports.

Natural dog food

There is no official definition for this claim. Usually the manufacturer uses this to describe the product is free of artificial flavours, artificial colors and artificial preservatives. The first one is rarely used and the second one has no value to your dog anyway.

Artificial flavors

These are rarely added to the product with the exception of artificial smoke or bacon flavors in dog treats.


Naturally anti-oxidants are vitamin C and E. These are more expensive than artificial ones and reduce the shelf live of the product by about 50%. However, it is believed that artificial antioxidants, such as ethoxyquin, play a role in onset of cancer and other adverse effects. Ethoxyquin is already banned from use in dog food in Europe.

Calorie content

Recently manufacturers are allowed to use calorie statements on dog food labels. This is done on a voluntary base. You can roughly calculate it yourself by multiplying the amount of carbohydrates by 4.2 kcal (kilocalories) per gram, the amount of protein by 5.65 and the amount of fat by 9.4 kcal per gram. To go from kilo calories to kilojoules, multiply the total with 4.184.

Price per portion

Products can vary greatly in density. Comparing the price of one bag to another is difficult without doing some math again. Look at the energy values per 100 g or the prescribed amount of dog food per kg dog.

Crude analysis

This statement (often found directly after the ingredient list) merely refers to product presence and doesn't say anything about the quality of the nutrients, the digestibility or the bio-availability.

Choosing the best dog food for your dog often is a matter of trial-and-error. But now you are aware and know how to read the dog food labels on the packages, you can make an informed decision and pick quality dog food. You don't have to try the complete assortment on your dog to find the perfect dog food for your canine companion. And remember, take notes when you change dog food and make the switch gradually.

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