Decoding Dog Food Labels: The Essential Diagram Take This With You When You Shop for Dog Food and Never be Confused Again

Decoding Dog Food Labels: The Essential Diagram
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vet verified Dr. Joseph J. Wakshlag, DVM Associate Professor of Clinical Nutrition

Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Ithaca, NY

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Regulations surrounding the making and packaging of dog food are complicated, and that means that what ends up printed on a dog food package can be confusing or even misleading. Take a look at this diagram of a dog food label and what everything means.

We all want to feed our dogs the best, but sometimes that can be hard to find. Especially considering that some dog food labels are harder to read than ancient Sanskrit.

There are a lot of rules out there when it comes to dog food -- companies are required to put certain terms, numbers, and labels on their packaging, and specific phrases can actually carry a lot of meaning. Then again, there's still plenty on a dog food label that is not regulated, so some phrases could actually have no measurable or guaranteed meaning at all. There are also these speciality food products. For instance, there are specific products for large breed puppies such as the Purina Pro Plan Large Breed Puppy dog food. Here, we break down the essentials and rules of dog food labels, so you can follow along when choosing the best food for your pooch.


1: A Dog Food "With"

Labeling like this is a tricky business. Many dog foods have ingredients like chicken and rice in them, but a label like this certainly doesn't mean that there's nothing else. In order to list ingredients at the top like this, the food only has to contain 3% of each ingredient.

2: Fancy Food

We often see things like "ultra premium," "holistic," or "all-natural" on dog food packages. Since there's little regulation on using words like this, they can't be guaranteed to mean anything about the actual makeup of the food. There are, however, regulations on certain health claims and on using the term "improved." To call a dog food formula "improved," this has to be substantiated by some evidence. Additionally, food cannot state health claims about preventing or treating a disease, and must instead be more vague, with phrases like "helps in the management of urinary tract disease," for example.

3: AAFCO Statement

The American Association of Feed Control Officials is a legislative body that has representatives in each state government. These representatives approve all foods made for animals. They typically utilize information from the National Research Council and other literature to ensure that dog and cat foods are complete and nutritionally balanced. If this statement is not on a bag or can of dog food then it's likely not adequate for long term feeding. Treats, for example, won't have this claim.

Here are the typical messages that mean the dog food is appropriate for feeding as a regular, everyday food: “Meets the nutritional requirements of dogs established by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO),” or “Complete and balanced nutrition for dogs based on AAFCO feeding trials” mean that the food has met AAFCO standards as a daily food for dogs.

4: Net Weight

All packages of dog food must have an accurate weight on the label. Bags of dog food could range from 4 lbs to 40 lbs while can typically come in 3, 6, and 12 ounces.

5: Manufacturer Information

All pet foods need to list the company's contact address so that consumers can contact the companies if they need to. Phone numbers and websites are optional, but nearly all pet food companies list these as well.

6: Feeding Instructions

Feeding instructions are required on every package of dog food. Manufacturers do not have to stick to any strict regulation here though, other than providing reasonable instructions based on the stage of life that the food is designed for.

If it's a dog food for all life stages, then typically it will list feeding directions for puppies and adults, and sometimes gestation (pregnant dogs).

For an indoor, inactive dog who is a bit of a couch potato, though, these feeding directions are often excessive, leading to obesity.

7: Ingredients List

The ingredients list has to be in a descending order, in which the ingredient with the highest weight is listed first. This applies whether the ingredient is a wet or dry one.

What does that mean? Well in many cases when a label lists chicken as the first ingredient, in all actuality the major protein source may be a meal that is second, third, or fourth on the ingredients list. This makes ingredient labeling a bit difficult to understand. Learn more about reading dog food ingredients lists.

8: Guaranteed Analysis

The guaranteed analysis is required on dog food packages. It allows consumers to see what the basic substrate concentrations are in the food. The above four items listed: protein, fat, moisture, and crude fiber, are the only four things required on a guaranteed analysis, but many companies add others in the list. Find out more about the guaranteed analysis.

9: Calorie Count

What we usually think of as "calories" are actually "Calories" with a capital "C," or kilocalories. If kilocalories are listed on a dog food label, they must be labeled as kilocalories per kg of food. This is not very useful to the average dog parent wondering how many calories are in a scoop or cup, but many companies list the kilocalories per cup or can as well, which is currently optional. Recent regulations will soon require kilocalories per cup or can to be on all AAFCO approved foods.

More on Dog Food

What Are Natural Dog Food Flavors?
What is Packaged Raw Dog Food?
Your Dog Food Questions Answered

This article was written by PetCareRx Consulting Nutritionist Dr. Joe, a board certified veterinary nutritionist and graduate of Cornell University's program for Veterinary Medicine. The information contained, however, is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian.

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