How to Read a Dog Food Ingredient Label
Whether you’re a new pet parent or have been dishing up dog meals for years, finding the perfect food for your pet among the rows of bags in the store and all the online options can seem overwhelming. But regardless of the reason you’re thinking about switching up your dog’s diet—a change in their life stage or weight, a recommendation from your veterinarian or perhaps because a new furry friend has joined the family—your mission remains the same: find a nutritious dog food option you’ll feel comfortable serving and that your dog will love eating.
Learning the language of dog food labels is the perfect place to get started. Here’s what you need to know.
How to read a dog food label
As you peruse dog food bags and cans, look at the labels. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) requires all dog food in compliance with their standards to adhere to specific labeling formats, so it’s helpful to understand what they are telling you. These include:
What dog food names mean
1. The 100% rule.
For a dog food to meet AAFCO’s 100% rule, the ingredient it calls out in the name must make up 100% of that particular product, minus water and trace amounts of preservatives. This is usually expressed on product packaging with the word “all.” It’s more common on treat labels—All-Turkey Jerky Treats, for example—than on dog food labels since a well-rounded dog food requires additional ingredients to be considered a nutritious meal.
2. The 95% rule.
This dog food labeling rule usually applies to products that contain a limited number of ingredients. The product—Beef and Liver Dog Food, for example‚—is typically named specifically for those ingredients. If you spot a dog food with this label, it means 95% of the product is made up of the named ingredient(s), not including any water that might be added for processing. If there is more than one ingredient in the name (like in our example), you can tell by the name that the first ingredient makes up more of the recipe than the second and that, together, the two named ingredients make up 95% of the total weight.
3. The 25% rule, aka the dinner rule.
The most common AFFCO guideline you’ll spot on a dog food label is the 25%, or dinner, rule. It applies to many canned and dry products on the market. A product with this label includes ingredients comprise at least 25% of the total product—again, not including water for processing—but less than 95%. Products of this type must also include another descriptive term in the label such as dinner, platter, entrée or formula. Since the particular ingredient named in this type of food may make up only 25% of the total ingredients, it will likely be listed third or fourth in the ingredient list on the back or side of the package. If you have more than one ingredient in the dinner product, then the combination of all of those ingredients must total at least 25% of the product, and they would need to be listed in the same order as they are on the ingredient list. Additionally, each of those ingredients would need to make up at least 3% of the total product. One example might be Chicken Dinner for Dogs. This product would include 25% chicken, and the first couple of ingredients might include water, along with another substantial ingredient, like a meat byproduct, and then chicken.
4. The 3%, or with, rule.
While AAFCO recently modified regulations for this particular rule, the general idea remains the same: When you come across a food that labels the product as “with” an ingredient, that means that at least 3% of that particular ingredient has been added. This label can be tricky since it might appear as an added value to the food (Beef and Chicken Dinner with Liver) or as a headliner (Dog food with Liver). In both of these label examples, only 3% of the overall ingredients in that particular product needs to be liver.
5. The flavor rule.
The flavor rule is perhaps the most ambiguous since a product can make this claim on a label as long as a sufficient amount of a particular flavor can be tested (AAFCO doesn’t have a minimum percentage requirement). For example, the flavor in Chicken Flavor Dog Food, might be chicken but it could also be something else that has a similar flavor, such as chicken meal or a chicken byproduct. By reading the ingredient label you can better understand what is actually included within the food.
6. Natural, premium, gourmet and organic labels.
While separate from the above-listed labeling rules, these types of food labels outlined by AAFCO are also worth paying attention to:
- Natural: A food with this labeling cannot contain any chemically synthesized ingredients, except in vitamins and minerals and what might occur during the manufacturing process.
- Premium: No specific standard must be met in order for a dog food brand to call itself “premium,” although it might contain higher-quality ingredients.
- Gourmet: As with premium, there is no specific standard for using the word “gourmet,” but it could contain higher-quality ingredients. Since there are no specific guidelines, read the ingredient list for more information.
- Organic: A package containing a certified organic seal must meet certain requirements.
What a nutritional adequacy statement means
AAFCO’s website states, “The nutritional adequacy statement is perhaps the most important part of a label. It is the key to matching a pet’s nutritional needs with a product.”
Typically found in small print on the back or side of a dog food package, a nutritional statement identifies the type of pet the food recipe is intended for. These statements fall into one of two categories:
- Complete and Balanced. This statement means that the food has been shown to provide the required nutrients in the necessary ratios for your pet’s needs.
- Life Stage. If formulated for a particular life stage, the food is meant to provide the appropriate nutrients for dogs who fall into AAFCO-recognized life stages, which include:
- All life stages
- Growth and reproduction
In order to list one of the nutritional adequacy statements on a dog food package, the brand must meet one of AAFCO’s dog food nutrient profiles or pass a feeding trial. These statements follow a consistent format, as laid out by AAFCO:
“[Product name] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for [Life Stage].”
“Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that [Product Name] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [Life Stage].”
How to read a dog food ingredient list
Now that you’ve tackled the dog food label, it’s time to move on to the ingredient list, usually found on the back or side of the package. As you already know from the label lesson, ingredients on a can or bag of dog food are listed in order, from greatest percentage by weight to least. The first few ingredients listed are the most important ones to consider— look for animal and plant names that you recognize. The last few ingredients will likely be in small or trace amounts within the food and include preservatives, emulsifiers and stabilizers as well as other chemical, coloring or flavoring agents, depending on the type of food you’re buying.
What ingredients to look for in dog food
Now that you understand the label and ingredient rules for dog food, you’re well on your way to creating a nutrition plan to help keep your pet happy and healthy. Your vet can advise you about your pet’s specific dietary needs, but in general you’ll want to look for a dog food that includes the following:
- Protein: Since protein is one of the most important components of a quality canine diet, look for it in the first few ingredients. Keep in mind that while meat, poultry and fish are traditional sources of protein—it can also come in plant-based forms such as beans and corn. We recommend meat as the first ingredient, but whatever dog food you choose, be sure that any non-meat protein options are paired with a meat one for a complete meal.
- Carbohydrates: Raw carbohydrates can be difficult for animals to digest, so dog foods often include processed carbohydrate sources like rice, oats or potatoes instead.
- Fat: Fat is an important part of your pup’s diet because it is the ultimate energy source that keeps them running. Essential fatty acids can come from fish sources such as salmon and tuna or plant-based sources such as nut or flaxseed oil. Eggs are another excellent source of fat.
- Vitamins and minerals: Your dog requires a variety of vitamins and minerals to stay healthy. Minerals such as calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium should be available in large amounts in your dog’s food.Other minerals such as iron, zinc, iodine and manganese are important too but in smaller quantities. Many common fruits and vegetables include the vitamins that are needed for your dog’s diet, including vitamin E and vitamin A, among others.
Ingredients to avoid in dog food
Almost as important as what should be in your dog’s food is what shouldn’t be in it. Petco makes it easy to shop for the dog food brands you can trust by setting a strict standard for nutrition. To that end, as of May of 2019, Petco has completely phased out dog food brands containing benzaldehyde, FD&C Red No. 3, methyl anthranilate, butylated hydroxyanisole and many other artificial ingredients*.
By feeding dogs food that doesn’t contain unneeded additives, dog parents can continue doing their best to support their pet’s overall well-being. When you’re ready to put your ingredient knowledge to the test, Petco can help guide you to the best dog food for your pet.