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DOG / nutrition

How to Read a Dog Food Label

Decoding the complicated language of pet food


What to look for on a dog food label

Most dog food labels don’t just have a list of ingredients. In fact, they come with a lot of information, which at first makes no sense at all. Here’s a cheat sheet:

  • AAFCO Seal. Food with this designation is approved by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. This organization’s labeling recommendations are usually adopted and enforced by state Departments of Agriculture, assuring you that your dog’s dinner is nutritionally sound.
  • “Life stage.” Is your dog a puppy? An adult? A senior? A dog’s nutritional needs change as they get older. The label will tell you whether the food is right for your dog’s age.
  • Special diet. If the food addresses other needs, such as your breed, ingredient sensitivities or even coat type, the label will make that clear.
  • Portion size. The label will also likely recommend how much to feed your dog, based on your pet’s desired weight.

Ingredient decoder

The way ingredients are listed on a dog food tell you a lot about how much of that ingredient is actually in the food. To show you, we’ll use “beef” as an example.

If the label says...

“Beef” (or some other single ingredient)

That means...

Beef makes up 95% of the food’s total weight before cooking, or 70% after.

If the label says...

“Beef and Chicken” (or some other combination of ingredients)

That means...

The listed ingredients make up 95% of the food’s total weight before cooking, or 70% after. Since ingredients are listed by the highest percentage first, there is probably more of the first one (in this example, beef) than the second one (in this example, chicken).

If the label says...

“Beef Dinner,” “Beef Recipe” or “Beef Formula

That means...

Beef makes up 25% of the food’s total weight. In other words, the food is mostly made of ingredients other than beef.

If the label says...

“With Beef”

That means...

The food could be as little as 3% beef and 97% other stuff.

If the label says...

“Beef Flavored”

That means...

The food may not have any beef in it at all.

What is “Guaranteed Analysis”?

This means that the food was tested by a lab and is guaranteed to have the listed percentages of protein, fat, fiber and moisture.

Keep in mind that the concentrations of these ingredients are very different depending on whether the food is wet or dry, which is one reason why the portion sizes for wet and dry food are so different.

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