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How to Read Dog Food Labels: Is Your Dog’s Food Healthy?



One of the easiest ways to ensure your dog lives a long and healthy life is to make sure you are feeding a high-quality dog food.  But, with all the available options, where do you start?  Reading the dog food label is the first step when ensuring your dog’s food is healthy.  Listed here is everything a dog owner should know when reading the label on a bag (or can) of dog food.

Which Nutrients do Dogs Need?

Before you learn how to read a dog food label, it is important to know the types of nutrients that dogs require.  While dogs have similar basic needs as humans, the macronutrient ratios required for a dog to thrive varies.


The most important nutrient in a dog’s diet is protein.  Unlike humans, most of a dog’s energy is converted from protein.  In addition, protein is also necessary for supporting a healthy immune system, for muscle growth and recovery, and for every day processes at a cellular level.


Whereas humans only require a relatively small amount of fat throughout the day, dogs require a more complex lipid profile because this nutrient is the second most important form of energy for a canine.  In addition, fat supports healthy skin and coat while ensuring reproductive organs are fully functioning.


While carbs aren’t as essential to dogs as they are for humans, they are still significant.  However, carbohydrate intake should be less for dogs than for humans because this macronutrient does not have as much nutritional significance as protein or fat.

Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamins and minerals are important for dogs to fully thrive.  When a dog is fed a high-quality food, all of his or her needs should be met at each meal.  The final ingredients on the ingredient list typically represent the addition of vitamins and minerals to the formula.

How to Read a Dog Food Label

There are numerous words and phrases found on a dog food label:  what does each one mean, and how should it be read?

Ingredient List

Like human foods, the ingredient list on a dog food label is ordered from highest weight percentage to lowest.  Therefore, if chicken is listed as the top ingredient, the pre-cooked weight of the food is primarily chicken.  However, consumers should be aware that meat is mostly water.  After the cooking process, much of the moisture is removed and therefore the protein source will likely fall lower on the ingredient list once the food is processed.  For this reason, “chicken meal” is often preferable because the moisture content is lower, and the protein content up to 300x higher than an equal amount of raw chicken.

A good rule of thumb is to look for the first source of fat named on the ingredient list.  Every ingredient that precedes the first named fat should be considered the main ingredients.  If these first 7 – 8 ingredients are not high quality sources of protein, fat, or carbohydrates, you should consider a different dog food brand.  The ingredients following the first listed fat source should be sources of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and natural preservatives such as Vitamins C or E.

Guaranteed Analysis

All pet food brands are required to provide a guaranteed analysis to let consumers know the nutrient content in each product.  Crude protein and crude fat represent minimum values, while crude fiber and moisture are maximum values.  If a product does not contain a guaranteed analysis, that means the product is not intended to solely provide protein, fat, or fiber to the dog and should only be used for treat or supplement purposes.

Crude Values

Crude values represent the amounts of protein, fat, moisture, and fiber that the food contains.  However, pet owners should beware that these values represent all sources, whether digestible or not.  For this reason, special attention should be paid to the ingredient list to determine the quality and source of nutrients such as protein and fat.  For instance, tendons and cartilage are not easily digestible by dogs, yet can still wind up in dog food under the label “by-product” or “meat meal.”

Photo Credit: PetMD

How Much Protein and Fat does my dog need?

Crude fat and protein are two of the most important nutrients that your dog will consume.  However, your dog’s needs differ based on life stage and activity level.  Knowing what your dog requires is crucial for ensuring optimal health.


Puppies are growing rapidly, which means they have higher nutrient needs than adult dogs.  A puppy’s food should be roughly 28% protein and 17% fat.  Look for a dog food that is specifically for the puppy life stage if your dog is younger than 1 year old.


Adult dogs require a maintenance formula to maintain muscle mass without gaining weight.  For dogs aged 1 – 8 years that have a moderately active lifestyle, their diet should contain 18% protein and 9 – 15% fat.

Performance Athlete

Many dogs engage in performance activities and / or lead very active lifestyles. These dogs train hard and have additional nutrition requirements necessary for recovery.  Performance canines such as those involved in Agility, Hunting, Flyball, Urban Mushing, etc. require 25% protein and 20% fat in their diets.  For these animals, a dog food labeled for performance or working dogs is required.


As dogs age, their metabolisms decrease and they require fewer calories.  However, contrary to popular belief, their protein requirements do not diminish.  In fact, research suggests that senior dogs require more protein than they did as adults and they should get 25% of their calories from protein.  Pet owners can reduce the portion size of an adult dog food, or look for a high-quality senior blend.

Common Words and Phrases on Dog Food Labels

There are many words and phrases that are found on dog food labels.  What do they mean, and should you trust them?

Complete and Balanced

All dog foods should contain a statement that guarantees the formula provides all necessary nutrients for the animal to thrive.  If this statement is not present, do not assume that your dog is receiving a complete and balanced meal.


In the United States, pet food is regulated by AAFCO, the Association of American Feed Control Officials.  Only purchase food that is approved by AAFCO, which should be clearly stated on the dog food label.

Country of Origin

The country where the food was manufactured should also be clearly stated.  As a rule of thumb, pet owners should purchase food made in the United States or Canada, as regulations for pet food are most strict in these regions.  Avoid foods that are made in China, as there have been several recent incidences of pet poisoning and contamination.


A food that is labeled “natural” should have few chemical preservatives.  However, pet owners should beware that there is no regulation regarding the use of this term, and the ingredient list should be scrutinized to determine if the food meets the pet owner’s standards.


Like “natural” there is no definition for what holistic food should contain.  Use caution when purchasing holistic food, as this term can simply be a marketing gimmick.  Be sure to thoroughly research any added ingredient that is intended for holistic or medicinal use in dogs.


Many dogs suffer from grain allergies.  Grain-free foods should be free of any grains such as wheat, oats, corn, rice, barley, etc.  In general, grain-free foods should be manufactured in inspected facilities to avoid cross contamination.


At present, there is no regulation for organic pet food; however, AAFCO is currently investigating this matter.  Unless the dog food label states the ingredients have been certified organic by a reputable source, use your best judgement when trusting ingredient labels.


Feed-grade and human-grade foods differ considerably in their quality standards.  Human-grade food is safe for humans to eat, while feed-grade food is not, and can contain by-products such as feathers, feet, hooves, heads, skin, etc.  However, the term “human-grade” is not regulated by AAFCO.  Therefore, it is possible for a food that contains “human-grade” ingredients to be made from human-grade meats that have spoiled or are no longer fit for human consumption.  Ultimately, it is important for the consumer to understand that there are few regulations in place when it comes to how a dog food is labeled.

Photo Credit: dogsnaturallymagazine.com

Ingredients in Dog Food

Which ingredients are best (and worst) for your dog?  Here we will discuss the top sources of nutrients for dogs, as well as the lowest.

Top Sources of Protein

No matter your dog’s age, breed, or activity level, protein should be the first ingredient on your pet’s food label.  However, not all protein sources are created equally.  Whole proteins are considered the best sources of meat for your dog.  These include ingredients such as “de-boned chicken,” “chicken meal,” and “why protein isolate.”  Meat based proteins are better for dogs than vegetable sources, because meat contains a more complete amino acid profile that is necessary for your dog’s health to thrive.

Protein digestibility is an important factor that should be considered.  While a dog food’s crude protein listing may be high, it is possible to contain protein sources that are not good for your dog.  These include meat “by-product,” which can contain non-digestible portions of meat such as feathers, beaks, hooves, and claws.

Top Sources of Fat

What are the best sources of fat for dogs?  Without a doubt, the top sources of fat for dogs are named animal fats and plant oils.  These include chicken fat, beef fat, pork fat, lamb fat, fish oil, sunflower oil, and safflower oil.

Less desirable fat sources for dogs include unnamed sources, such as poultry fat, animal fat, vegetable oil, beef tallow, mineral oil, and lard.  The issue with unnamed animal fats is that their sources are not well regulated.  For instance, poultry fat could come from dead farm animals or slaughterhouse waste.  The safest and highest quality fats will be derived from named sources.

Top Sources of Carbohydrates

The best sources of carbohydrates for dogs will be easily digestible.  For dogs without grain sensitivities, rice and oats are top choice due to their solubility in the digestive tract.  White potatoes and sweet potatoes are common in grain free formulas.  There is wide debate over the use of corn as a carbohydrate, however, due to its low digestibility.

Photo Credit: lucypetproducts.com

Do Dogs Need Probiotics and Antioxidants?

Many dog food labels advertise the addition of probiotics and antioxidants.  Do dogs need these added ingredients?  In short, the answer is yes.

One argument against probiotics and antioxidants for dogs is that wolves do not consume these ingredients naturally in the wild.  However, they do – just not in the manner that we expect.  Probiotics are consumed in the form of feces, as well as intestines from their prey.  The same can be said for antioxidants.  When a wolf kills an animal in the wild, it consumes the intestines of the corpse.  The intestines of animals that have been killed (i.e. rabbit, fox, squirrel) typically contain plant-based nutrients in the form of grass, nuts, berries, and seeds.  In this manner, wolves are consuming a balanced vitamin, mineral, probiotic, and antioxidant profile.

When looking at dog food labels, which probiotics and antioxidants are best?  Since dogs have different digestive systems than humans, they have different probiotic needs.  The following are the best probiotic sources for pups:

  • Bifidobacterium animalis
  • Bacillus coagulans
  • Enterococcus faecium
  • Lactobacillus acidophilus
  • Lactobacillus casei
  • Lactobacillus plantarum
  • VSL#3

While there is no research that suggests dogs cannot tolerate the same probiotic strains that humans typically consume, there is a growing body of research that these probiotic cultures are best for the harsh environment found in a dog’s stomach.

Top antioxidant sources for dogs include:

  • Apples
  • Barley grass
  • Beans
  • Berries
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Pecans
  • Plums
  • Prunes
  • Russet Potatoes

These ingredients are high in digestible antioxidants.  Look for whole food varieties in dog foods and avoid those that don’t have a naturally high vitamin and mineral content, as some foods simply use a vitamin-rich spray to coat the dry kibble after production.

Which Ingredients Should be Avoided in Dog Food?

When reading a dog food label, which ingredients should you steer clear from entirely?  These include filler ingredients, low-quality ingredients, indigestible foods, dyes, and preservatives such as:

Meat and Bone Meal

“Meat and bone meal” should not be confused with ingredients such as “chicken meal,” which is significantly higher quality than meat and bone meal.  According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials, meat and bone meal is a “rendered product from mammal tissues, including bone, exclusive of blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents.”  Additionally, meat and bone meal is less digestible than other meat meals that are commonly found on dog food labels.


By-products (i.e. chicken by-product, beef by-product, etc) is another low-quality and potentially dangerous ingredient.  According to the National Agricultural Law Center, byproducts can contain “dead animals from farms, ranches, feedlots, marketing barns, animal shelters, and other facilities; and fats, grease, and other food waste from restaurants and stores.”  Even more alarmingly, byproducts have been found to contain pentobarbital, which is used during the euthanasia process.  At present, there is a lawsuit implicating Kibbles ‘n Bits for their use of ingredients that contained pentobarbital which resulted in death and illness among family pets.

Difficult to Digest Ingredients

Dogs have different digestive systems than humans.  Corn, soy, and wheat products are not as easy for dogs to digest and should be avoided, especially for dogs that are prone to allergies.

Chemicals / Preservatives

There are several chemicals that are used to preserve dog food that can be harmful to a pet.  Many of these ingredients cause symptoms in dogs such as red skin, itchy ears, and excessive paw licking, as well as harm to reproductive organs.  These preservatives include:

  • Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA)
  • Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)
  • Ethoxyquin
  • Propylene Glycol

While ethoxyquin is illegal for human foods, it is still allowed in pet foods, in the form of fish meal.  When choosing a pet food, look for natural preservatives such as Vitamin C or Vitamin E.

Artificial Dyes

Food dyes are known to contribute to numerous side effects in humans and animals, including allergic reactions, changes in behavior, and cancer.  Caramel color, which contains 4-methylimidazole, is especially harmful for animals as it is a known carcinogen.  Ultimately, pet owners should avoid food colorings and dyes, as there is no benefit to their use in dog food.

Rendered Fat

Rendered fat is a sub-par fat source in dog food.  As an unnamed fat, there are few quality controls in place during manufacturing.  In general, rendered fat is obtained from low-quality sources such as deceased farm animals.  This fat source is used to add flavor to kibble, but due to the low quality of manufacturing, is often contaminated with bacteria such as Salmonella, or environmental toxins, such as heavy metals.

Ultimately, there are numerous things pet owners should keep in mind when reading dog food labels.  For instance, the quality of protein and fat ingredients matters significantly, and you should beware that there are few regulations regarding the words found on dog food labels.  The first 7 – 8 ingredients are most important, and protein should be listed as the first ingredient.  Avoid unnamed fats and proteins, and look for foods that are high in naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

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Anna Weber


  1. Becky says:

    That’s a lot of information to take in, thank you for this article!

    I have been told that ingredients on people food labels are listed in order from the most of to the least of. Is this true with dog food labels too?

    Thanks again for such a great post!

    • Vince says:

      Hi Becky, it is a lot of information 🙂

      Yes, you are correct on your assumption. It is listed in the article above, it may have got mixed in with all the information provided.

      Thanks for the comment!

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