Demystifying the Dog Food Label


PetMD Editorial

Updated Aug. 16, 2022

When shopping for a dog food, do you ever wonder just what some of the information printed on the label means? Do you understand what the nutritional information really means for your dog’s health?

To help you make sense of it all, petMD, in partnership with Hill’s Science Diet has developed a special tool to teach dog owners about balanced diets. This tool is called MyBowl, an interactive method of teaching dog owners what to look for on the dog food label.

VIEW SLIDESHOW: Demystifying the Dog Food Label


Look at the Label

There is a wealth of information to be found on a dog food label. The two main parts of a label are the principal display panel (PDP) and the information panel. The PDP is the part of the label that is typically shown facing out on the retail shelf. Information required by law to be included on a dog food label includes:

  • The product name
  • The amount of product in the container (net quantity statement)
  • Words describing the type of product (i.e., "dog food" or "cat food")

Other information that is optional and may be found on the label include various claims, graphs or pictures, veterinary recommendations, and more.

What’s in a Name?

Labeling for dog food in the United States is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has established specific rules and regulations relating to product labeling. These regulations are enforced by individual states.

The AAFCO has rules for how names are applied to dog foods. Take, for example, a name like "Beef Food for Dogs." Proclaiming beef in the product name means it must be made up of 95 percent beef (not including water for processing). Dog foods with this amount of meat in the product name are usually canned foods.

The 25 percent, or "dinner" rule applies to both canned and dry dog foods. In this case, products including a descriptor in the product name, such as a "dinner," must be made up of at least 25 percent of the ingredient in the name. Descriptions other than the word "dinner" can also be used with this rule, such as "entrée," "formula," "platter," etc. 

The "with," or 3 percent rule applies to ingredients used, such as "Dog Food with Chicken." The AAFCO allows the use of an ingredient with the term "with" as part of the product name, as long as the product is made up of at least 3 percent of the ingredient (in this example, chicken). The "flavor" rule doesn’t specify any certain percentage of the named ingredient to be present, but there must be enough of that ingredient to be detected by specific testing methods.

How Much is in There?

The net quantity statement (usually on the front of the bag) tells the consumer the amount of product in the container. The FDA regulates how this statement is printed on the container so that it is consistent among brands. Dog owners can use this statement to compare the cost of different sized products.

Ingredients are Important

On the ingredient list found on the back of the bag, consumers will find all the ingredients used to make the product. Ingredients are listed in order of predominance by weight. The weight of each ingredient is determined by including its water content. This is important to note, as fresh meats are very high in moisture, while products like meat meals are only about 10 percent moisture. This is why comparing products on a dry matter basis (not including water in the ingredients) helps provide a true comparison of ingredients. We will discuss how to calculate this in the next section.

Typically, ingredients must be listed by their common, or "usual" names. Vitamins and mineral supplements are added in addition to natural sources. Other ingredients might include colorings, preservatives, or stabilizers.

Guaranteed Nutrition

Regulations require that all dog food containers show the minimum percentages of protein and fat, and the maximum percentage of fiber and moisture contained in the product. Manufacturers may choose to include guarantees for other nutrients on their label. Sometimes ash guarantees are present, an especially important ingredient for cat foods.

It is important to look at moisture content when comparing dog foods. For example, when looking at protein, the dry dog food with the higher moisture content actually will contain less protein in the product, even if it is listed with the same minimum percentage on the ingredient panel.

Complete and Balanced

The AAFCO requires that any dog foods proclaiming that they are complete and balanced meet specific nutritional profiles to ensure complete nutrition. Foods can either be formulated to meet these requirements or be tested in animals according to specific AAFCO-dictated procedures. This statement must describe which life stage the product is meant to be suited for, such as for "growth," "maintenance," etc. It is important to note that not all pet foods that meet the AAFCO standards are necessarily properly balanced.

Feeding Instructions

Another important part of the dog food label is the feeding instructions, which tell the dog's caregiver how much of a particular food should be given to the dog on a daily basis. Owners should modify the amount fed based on the animal’s particular needs and body condition.

Calorie Statement

Dog foods can vary considerably in calorie content, so a calorie statement can help owners compare products based on the calories provided in a daily meal. The AAFCO does not require a calorie statement on all dog foods, so some manufacturers will voluntarily include a calorie statement on their products. Calorie statements are based on an "as fed" basis, so corrections for moisture content must be made, as with guarantees.

Manufacturer's Name and Contact Information

The manufacturer (or responsible party) for the dog food must by law include their contact information on the product. Most dog food companies will include a toll free phone number for customer service inquiries and/or a website address.

Using the information provided on the label, advice from your veterinarian, and the MyBowl interactive tool, you should be able to find the best possible food for your dog’s best possible nutrition for life.

More to Explore

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