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How to Read a Dog Food Label | BetterVet

The Dog Food Label 

Dog food packaging comes with beautiful images, happy dogs, and delicious-sounding ingredients. Sometimes you wonder who’s eating better, your dog or you! With enticing claims of being organic, grain-free, or hypoallergenic, the labels and packaging on dog food are designed to increase sales. 

So, how do you see past the marketing and work out if the diet contains the right amount of nutrients for your dog in their current life stage? As pet parents, we want only the best for our dogs, but working out what exactly is the best diet to feed can be confusing. 

When considering a diet, having an understanding of what pet food ingredients are good for health can be an excellent place to start before learning how to read a dog food label. 

Minimum Requirements of a Dog Food Label

The first part of understanding how to read a dog food label is knowing what things have to be included. Each bag or tin of food you pick up at the pet store or vet clinic should list: 

  • The Brand name 

  • Flavor of food 

  • Ingredients listed by weight 

  • Feeding directions 

  • Contact details for the company e.g. address or phone number

  • A nutritional adequacy statement 

  • Guaranteed analysis of nutrients 

  • Calorific information  

  • Quantity (weight) of product 

The Jargon

The FDA regulates AAFCO, the organization that sets minimum standards for pet food. It can be very confusing to read their websites, as there are lots of technical terms. Sometimes it can feel like you are reading a completely different language! Don’t worry though, our team has created a quick and easy guide quick to understand the jargon behind your pet’s food labels.

Key Terms to Know on Dog’s Food Label:

Quantity

This describes the actual weight – physical or liquid in the packet. This is the value to divide the cost of the product by to work out the cost per meal. 

Guaranteed Analysis 

Is a company confirmation of the ratios of fat, protein, fiber, and water content of the food. This is to follow state regulations on the minimum nutritional value of pet food. If the food advertises a supplement such as glucosamine for joint health, it must be included in the guaranteed analysis to confirm to the pet parent the concentration of this supplement. 

Ingredients

Every ingredient included must be listed on the label which is crucial to check if you have a dog with food allergies for example. The list starts with the product making up most of the food and then continues in descending order. Ingredients must also be listed by their common name, making it slightly easier for us pet parents to understand.

Nutritional Adequacy Statement 

This is important if looking to feed for a certain life stage such as a puppy or adult. The company must prove that their pet food meets the AAFCO minimum nutritional standards and that their food is complete and balanced for the requirements of that life stage e.g. puppy food. 

AAFCO has requirements for growth (puppy) maintenance (adult), gestation, and a rather broad category for ‘all life stages’. Senior diets don’t have a separate AAFCO standard, so always check with a veterinarian before buying a senior brand as you may be buying a product branded for seniors that only meet the requirements for the adult life stage. Senior dogs often have lower protein and salt requirements compared to other life stages, so it’s important to find a diet that reflects this changing need. 

Feeding Directions 

Usually listed in a table, it is a guideline as to how much in grams or cups to feed your dog in relation to their size. Remember that these are guidelines only and your dog may need more or less food depending on their activity levels – check with your veterinarian if unsure.  

Sell-by Date 

Usually not the same as the best before date, this is when the product needs to be sold by so that your pet can safely eat the food volume the packet contains prior without going past the best before date. 

FAQ 

What if the dog food doesn’t have a food label?

Don’t buy it! A pet food that cannot provide information about the ingredients or use by dates is not a recommended food to buy. Food labels exist to inform pet parents that they follow AAFCO standards and are therefore safe and nutritious to feed to your dog. 

My dog has food allergies, can I trust the food label 100%? 

Food allergies in dogs can be serious. If a food label has no chicken in the ingredient list you can be confident there is no chicken in the food. But, the food may have been prepared in the same factory as another brand so it could contain traces of chicken. This may be enough to trigger an allergic reaction. Call the customer helpline on the packaging to check their packaging processes. 

Can I feed dog food past its expiry date? 

No, you should not feed dog food to your pet of any kind- wet, dry, or treats once it is past its expiry date. Even if it smells normal it can still be spoiled on the inside and make your dog very unwell.

What are byproducts in dog foods? 

Byproducts are animal parts that we would not necessarily consider eating as humans, like the brain, blood, bones, or organs like the intestines. These are still nutrient-dense and safe for animals to eat so included in pet food to minimize wastage. 

Summary 

Understanding how to read a dog food label can be a daunting experience. Focusing on the main sections above allows you to understand which terms FDA and AAFCO regulate and control. If you are still unsure about how to read a dog food label, our veterinarians would love to help you understand more about the diet you are considering. A veterinarian can also help with tailoring meal plans to suit individual caloric requirements for  weight loss or maintenance feeding.