How to Read Dog Food Labels - Kennel to Couch

To maintain the health of the dog, it is essential to provide the animal with an adequate amount of balanced food on a daily basis. There are certain nutrients that an animal cannot lack (e.g., proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, fibers, water). As a dog owner, you have a serious responsibility to your dog. Be sure you know how to read dog food labels to provide him the best life possible. 

Choosing the best food for your dog from hundreds of brands seems like an impossible task, especially when you turn the bag of food over and you notice the food label. The cryptic label is on all kinds of food: wet, dry, age-specific and restricted diet food. Let’s decipher the dog food labels!

Product and Brand Name

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has produced guidelines to help manufacturers with labeling:

  • 95% rule – This rule applies when the main, meat ingredient is listed first in the food’s name (Lamb and rice, for e.g.). In this case the product must contain 95% of the named meat ingredient on the label.

This same main product must be at least 70% of the total product, after adding the water for production. The remaining 5% of the ingredients are left for nutrients. 

  • 25% rule – when the product is not composed of 95% main ingredient, the minimum for the named ingredient must be 25%. In this case the product name must include a qualifying term such as “chow”, “dinner”, “entrée”. 
  • “With” rule – a food with the word “with” in its description must contain a minimum of 3% meat ingredient listed. 
  • “Flavor” rule – this rule states that if the word “flavor” is in the same font size and color as the ingredient name, the product is required to contain a sufficient amount of meat only to be detected.


This is the most important part of the label and it can be overwhelming. An ingredient list is required to to display all ingredients from most to least weight. All major ingredients are at the top of the list (animal and plant names), while the rest follow (minerals, vitamins and other nutrients, preservatives, stabilizers, coloring or flavoring agents). 

The basic four are: protein, fat, fiber and water. The labels must display the crude ingredients of the product. The “crude” term refers to the specific method of testing the product, not to the quality of the nutrient itself.

If while reading the label you come across the names of by-products, don’t be alarmed, that is perfectly normal and some by-products can be quite nutritious. 

Essential Vitamins

A balanced dog food should include all of the essential vitamins your dog needs. 

  • Vitamin A (Beta Carotene) – It is a fat-soluble vitamin that improves vision, bone growth, reproduction, cellular differentiation and immune response in dogs.
  • Vitamin B1 (Thiamine) – The brain and other high energy organs require thiamine for proper function because it is used for carbohydrate metabolism (converts carbohydrates into energy).
  • Vitamin B3 (Niacin) – helps digestive enzyme function.
  • Vitamin B4 (Choline) – Helps liver and brain function. 
  • Vitamin B7 (Biotin) – improves skin and coat.


Artificial Flavors and Colors

The more natural ingredient the food has, the better it is for your dog. Dog foods made with cheap ingredients contain artificial flavors and colors for the sake of appeal. Processed foods are a lot different than the natural food that it’s supposed to mimic. Thanks to them, the food smells, looks and tastes good or even better. 

These ingredients can cause or exacerbate allergies and may even be carcinogenic.

The following are the common artificial additives:

  • Any added flavor
  • Propylene glycol
  • Corn syrup
  • Caramel
  • Blue 2, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 dyes

Artificial Preservatives

It stands to reason that processed food needs to be preserved and last as long as possible. Dry dog food, for example, can’t last long without it. 

However, there are natural supplements for chemical preservatives – citric acid and rosemary oil do a marvelous job at that.

The following are the common artificial preservatives:

  • Ethoxyquin
  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
  • Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
  • Propyl gallate
  • Tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ)


Fillers describe unhealthy ingredients in dog food that have little or no nutritional value. In most cases a filler is an ingredient added to provide dietary fiber, bulk or some other non-nutritive purpose. 

The following are fillers to avoid:

  • Corn 
  • Wheat
  • Peanut hulls
  • Cellulose
  • Soy
  • Apple or grape pomace
  • BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole)
  • BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene)
  • Ethoxyquin

Nutrition Claim


A nutrition claim on the label means the product has met specific standards determined by AAFCO. The food provides complete and balanced nutrition for all life stages of an adult dog. A dog food labeled “complete and balanced” means it contains the right ratio of nutrients essential for a healthy dog

The nutrition claim identifies the life stage of the dog it is appropriate for:

  • Lactation
  • Maintenance 
  • Growth and
  • All life stages

If your dog is in either of the above stages, look for the appropriate food for him/her. The nutrition claims are in standardized formats so you can compare them easily. 


Chelated Minerals

Calcium and zinc are common ingredients in dog food, but in order for your dog to be able to absorb them, these minerals need to be made into an organic form and those are the chelated ones. Chelated minerals are chemically bonded to a protein or amino acid, thus making them easier for digestion. 

These complexes are seen with the suffix ‘-ate’, like calcium carbonate. 

Organic Dog Food

Organic dog food is defined the same way as organic human food. The term refers to the conditions under which the plants were grown or animals were raised. 

The food must not contain the following:

  • No artificial preservatives, flavoring and coloring
  • The meat must be free of antibiotics and growth hormones.
  • No fillers

Feeding Chart

The feeding charts on the back of the packaging are guidelines to how much you should feed your dog. Following the chart depending on the dog breed it is self explanatory. The chart either lists the weight of the food per pound or mesures the food per cup. Food intake is influenced by factors, such as, breed, temperament, environment. For e.g., a Corgi will eat much less than a Great Dane. 

By Annie Butler

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