How to Read a Dog Food Label

By PetMD Editorial on Sep. 27, 2012

Choosing Best Dog Food & Ingredients

By Vanessa Voltolina

With numerous terms making their way onto your pooch’s pet food label — “natural,” “beef flavoring,” and “gluten-free” among the many — how do you know which ones to say yes to, which to avoid, and which ones are just marketing?


Learn how to decipher 10 important statements your pet’s food label, with expert advice from Ashley Hughes, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at American Animal Hospital Association-accredited Friendship Hospital for Animals in Washington, DC.

#1 Check the Guaranteed Analysis

This is the mandatory guarantee that your dog’s food contains the labeled percentages of crude protein, fat, fiber, and moisture. Keep in mind that wet and dry dog foods use different standards (the percentage of protein in a wet food isn’t the same as in a dry food). Convert wet food to dry matter to compare two different types of food (it’s easy to do online) or ask your vet for the low-down.


For instance, 8% protein in a canned cat food isn’t the same as 8% in dry food (wet will be a lower percentage), since canned food contains 75-78% moisture and dry only has 10-12% water. Here is an example:


Divide the reported amount of protein (in this case, 8%) by the total amount of dry matter (25%). Then, multiply the result by 100.


Dry Matter Protein = (8/25) x 100 = 32%

#2 Choose Dog Food that Fits

Size-specific formulas can be helpful in determining what food is the right fit (read: an adequate amount of calories and nutrition) for your dog. A dog food labeled “Small breed formula” caters to toy dogs like Chihuahuas with kibble that’s tinier and a serving size that’s lower in calories; a large breed puppy formula would provide nutrients geared at minimizing diseases such as arthritis for a big dog down the road.

#3 Examine Allergy Needs

Does your pooch have an allergy? Hughes cites beef and dairy as the most common food allergies in both dogs and cats, while wheat tops the charts for dog allergies. While there is no legal requirement on dog food labels that tout food as wheat- or gluten-free, Hughes says it’s normally a trustworthy claim. If in doubt, scan the ingredient list the first time you buy to make sure.

#4 Find the Protein

Ingredients on dog food labels are listed in order of weight, starting with the heaviest. Since your pup needs plenty of good protein sources in his diet, including chicken, beef, fish and lamb, double check that these are listed within the first few label ingredients. Hughes says chicken meal (chicken that’s dehydrated) packs more protein than fresh chicken, which is 80 percent water. The same goes for beef, fish and lamb. So, if chicken meal or beef meal are number one on the ingredient list, you can be sure your dog is getting an appropriate amount of protein.

#5 Figure Out Flavor ingredients

Additions such as “beef flavoring” can help dogs look more favorably upon some foods, giving them a meatier, richer taste. However, pet foods with ample amounts of high quality protein usually make additional flavorings unnecessary. Be sure proteins are in the first few ingredients and that a flavoring is not being used to cover up a grain-heavy formula. If a dog food has flavorings, opt for specifics like “beef flavoring,” instead of “meat flavoring.” This offers a better idea its origins.

#6 Find Daily Doggie Serving Size

Whether you have an active puppy or a geriatric pooch, daily feeding recommendations on packaging are good guidelines, says Hughes, but don’t take them as gospel. “The pets [on which guidelines are based] are not your average couch potatoes,” Hughes says. “They’re active and get more exercise than the average pet.” Ask your vet about the correct portion size for your dog, and reference the American Animal Hospital Association National Guidelines to see where your dog stands nutritionally.

#7 Opt for 'Natural' Dog Foods

Feeing Fido food labeled “natural” means that all ingredients haven’t had any chemical alternations, according to FDA guidelines. While natural dog foods can be beneficial, be wary of foods touting a “holistic” label. Hughes cautions due to its lack of legal definition, it likely means nada when slapped on a pet food label. Looking to go organic? Like human products, dog food should tout an official organic label from the USDA.


If the seal says "organic" it must contain at least 95% organic ingredients, not counting added water or salt. If it says "Made With Organic Ingredients" it must contain at least 70% organic ingredients, not counting added water or salt.


If a manufacturer wants to show that a product has some organic ingredients, but they make up less than 70% of the total, it can denote those ingredients as “organic” in the ingredient list, but no seal is used.

#8 Determine AAFCO Nutrient Profile

Dog foods are generally marked with one of two AAFCO labels, “All Life Stages” or “Adult Maintenance.” All Life Stages is formulated to meet requirements for a growing puppy (or a lactating dog), and are generally higher in calories, calcium and phosphorus. All other healthy adult pets should eat “adult maintenance” foods, says Hughes.

#9 Find the Nutritional Adequacy Statement

Shop for dog food that meets minimum nutrition requirements, and has a label that confirms this: “[Name] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog (or Cat) Food Nutrient Profiles for [life stage(s)]".


Even better, look for a food that meets the minimum nutritional requirements “as fed” to real pets in an AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) defined feeding trial. Then you know the food truly delivers the nutrients that it is “formulated” to. AAFCO feeding trials on real dogs is the gold standard. Brands that do costly feeding trials (including Nestle and Hill’s) will indicate it on the dog food package.

#10 Take Caution with Supplemental Food Sources

Dog food that’s labeled “supplemental” isn’t complete and balanced, says Hughes. Unless you have a specific, vet-approved need for it, it’s not something you want to feed your dog for an extended period of time, she says. Check with your vet if in doubt.