By Emily Gantt
Published: 10/13/2023, edited: 10/13/2023
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Navigating the pet food aisle is tough. With countless brands and dog food commercials stating their formula is the best, picking the right dog food is often a process of trial and error. What works for one dog might be unpalatable or cause problems in another. Plus, most dogs will require dietary changes as they age- after all, the needs of a puppy are very different than those of a senior dog.
I am a new mom of an absolutely adorable middle-aged Lab mix, and I have faced this challenge firsthand. In 3 weeks of having our Shadow boy, we have gone through 3 different food brands (not including the food toppers to try to entice him to eat said recipes), and we are still searching for the right recipe for our pup, who is currently working through weight and allergy issues.
As a writer and researcher within the pet niche, I am well-versed in the science of dog food labels and the marketing strategies some pet foods use to market less-than-optimal recipes as healthy. I am also aware that dog food is no good if your dog won't eat it, no matter how high-quality it is — and the price tag on some of these formulas are nothing to scoff at.
At Wag!, we aim to make parenthood easier and believe wholeheartedly that furbabies ARE family. And why wouldn't you want to feed your furbaby the best food possible? A healthy diet is a huge factor in ensuring your dog has a long, healthy life. With this list, we hope to help pet parents decode sometimes misleading pet food labels to help them pick the best food possible for their furry loved ones.
From gauging protein content to deceptive marketing terms, read on for everything you need to know about pet food labels.
What are the different parts of a dog food label?
- Ingredients list: This is the list of ingredients within the recipe. Like human food manufacturers, dog food companies must list the ingredients in order of weight, with the most prevalent ingredients listed first and the ingredient with the least amount in the recipe last. The ingredients list is typically on the back of the bag or can.
- Guaranteed Analysis: The nutritional breakdown of a pet food recipe which manufacturers denote as percentages — this generally includes protein, fat, moisture, and fiber.
- AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy Statement: The AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy Statement means a formula has undergone feeding trials, been analyzed in a laboratory, or analyzed and found to be comparable to another approved food to ensure it meets the standards for a specific life stage (or all life stages).
- Feeding guidelines: The feeding guidelines are specific to each dog food recipe and indicate the suggested amount and frequency pet parents should feed said food.
- Life stage: The age at which a food is optimal. The three main life stages in which pet food manufacturers formulate recipes for are puppies, adults, and seniors.
Common dog food label terms and what they mean
This glossary of terms can help for a quick reference when looking at those labels!
- 100% organic: This means the food is formulated entirely with plant and animal products that were grown without the use of fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones.
- Animal by-product meal: Products packing plants derive from the non-meat products produced during slaughter, which are unfit for human consumption. If the name of the meat is unspecified (like chicken by-products), then it is likely the byproducts from different livestock species.
- Bone meal: Leftover bones from livestock which that has been heavily processed and ground into a powder.
- Blood meal: Like bone meal, blood meal is the leftover blood from the slaughter that is baked at high temps and ground into a fine powder.
- Crude: This just means the rough estimate of the nutrient content, usually used to describe the protein or fat content.
- Dry-matter basis: This refers to how manufacturers calculate the nutrient content of a food. Dry matter basis means manufacturers dehydrate the food sample before analyzing it. This is the most accurate method of measurement for nutrient content.
- Food allergies/sensitivities: Skin or digestive reactions like hives, hair loss, and diarrhea that stem from eating certain types of food. Poultry and corn allergies are among the most common food allergies in dogs.
- Grain-free: Grain-free means the recipe lacks grains like corn, wheat, rye, barley, oats, rice, and soy (among others). Grain-free does not necessarily mean low-carb, though it can depend on the other ingredients.
- Grain-inclusive: A food containing corn, wheat, rye, barley, oats, rice, sorghum, maize, millet, soy, etc.
- Human-grade: Human-grade dog food is dog food made using ingredients and food processing and packaging practices that are to FDA standards for human foods. But the terms human-grade dog food and human ingredients are not the same. If the packaging claims to use human-grade ingredients, it contains human-grade meats, veggies, and grains, but their processing practices were not up to the FDA standards for human consumption, so they cannot list the final product as human-grade.
- Hydrolyzed protein dog food: Dog food for dogs with severe protein allergies, made using a process to break down the proteins to help dogs not to react to them.
- Hypoallergenic: Hypoallergenic means the food is low-risk for causing allergic reactions in canines. These are typically formulated without common allergens like chicken, corn, wheat, and gluten and utilize novel proteins like venison, duck, and rabbit.
- Made with organic ingredients: This statement means 70% or more of the ingredients in the recipe must be from organic sources, though the final product may not be completely organic.
- Maximum: The greatest amount of an ingredient or macronutrient possible in a recipe. Dog food labels usually list proteins and fats as a minimum or maximum percentage.
- Meat: Meat is the skeletal muscle on an animal carcass.
- Meat by-products: Select leftover products in an animal carcass after stripping the meat — this includes certain organ meats like the heart, lungs, intestines, liver, and kidneys.
- Meat meal: Meat meal is leftover meat bits cooked at extremely high temperatures and ground down into a meal.
- Minimum: The least amount of an ingredient or macronutrient possible in a recipe.
- Moisture: How much water remains in a recipe after processing.
- Natural: The term “natural” is a complex one. Food labeled as “natural” is said to contain few, if any, synthetic ingredients. However, there is no governing body controlling the use of this word. The Association of American Feed Control Officials definition is “A feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subjected to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices and formulated without unnatural additives like pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, or hormones.”
- Organic: If a label says organic, 95% of the ingredients in the recipe must be from organic sources, grown without pesticides, fertilizer, antibiotics, or steroids, and the meat must have been fed an organic diet.
- Raw: Raw can mean completely uncooked food products or lightly cooked or dehydrated to kill certain bacteria.
Tips for reading labels
Notice the order of the ingredients
The ingredient label isn't a jumbled list of ingredients; it is carefully crafted based on the weight of each ingredient added to the recipe, with the ingredient that comprises the majority of the recipe listed first, the following ingredients are listed in order of how much is added.
For instance, if a food contains 20 grams of rice, 10 grams of pumpkin, 100 grams of chicken, and 5 grams of chelated minerals, the order of the ingredients would be chicken, rice, pumpkin, and chelated minerals.
Unfortunately, this isn't always accurate since some manufacturers will weigh meat products based on their raw rather than dry weight, which is substantially heavier than processed meat — this is why you have to pay attention to words like "dry matter basis," which manufacturers weigh after drying and better reflect the quantity of the specified protein.
Know how to assess the food quality and amount
Dog food product names and labeling terms directly correspond with their nutrient content. Contrary to common belief, "organic," "organic ingredients," and "100% organic" do not mean the same things. These seemingly arbitrary variations are intentional and indicate how many ingredients are organic. Food only has to be 70% organic to be labeled as "organic," and the same goes for words like "dinner," "entrée," or "platter," which sound appetizing for pet parents but may be marketing terms to hide a less than optimal ingredient list.
Here is a breakdown of what these terms mean:
- Named meat with no modifiers ("chicken") - If a food says "X recipe" (i.e., chicken recipe), that protein must comprise at least 70% of the food.
- Meat + dinner/entree/platter (" chicken dinner") - If a food contains words like "dinner," "entrée," or "platter," it only has to contain 10% of the specified protein listed.
- With + Meat ("with chicken") - If the label says "with X" (i.e., puppy recipe with salmon ), that food only has to have 3% of the stated protein.
- Meat + flavor ("chicken flavor") - If the label says "X flavor" (i.e., puppy recipe with salmon flavor), that food can contain less than 3% of said protein.
Pay attention to the grain content
Grains aren't the enemy, but they shouldn't comprise the majority of the food. Grains are an excellent source of complex carbohydrates and fiber, which pups need for energy and healthy digestion.
Grain allergies in canines are more rare than most people think, and unless your dog has been diagnosed with a grain allergy by a vet, there is no reason to feed them a grain-free diet. In fact, there is evidence to link grain-free diets and excess legume consumption with a higher risk of dilated cardiomyopathy in some dogs, though research is still ongoing.
So, what should you look for in grain-inclusive dog food?
- No fillers like corn, soy, and wheat gluten
- Healthy grains like brown rice, barley, oats, and quinoa
- Grains should never be the first ingredient listed on a food. The first ingredient should always be a named meat source.
How to read a dog food label: Quick checklist
- Take note of the first ingredient — it should always be a named meat ingredient (i.e., chicken, beef, salmon, or lamb)
- Make sure the life stage (i.e., puppy, adult, senior) reflects the life stage your pet is in.
- Check for an AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement.
- Avoid excess fillers. Look for foods with healthy grains rather than fillers like soy, corn, and wheat gluten. (Unless your pet has a grain or gluten allergy. Always ask your vet before switching to a grain-free diet)
- Opt for a recipe with natural preservatives like rosemary and tocopherols (vitamin E) rather than artificial preservatives like BHA and BHT.
- Pay attention to the phrasing on the label. Marketing terms like "meat entree, platter, dinner, and with meat flavor" can indicate less than optimal protein content.
- Know "human-grade ingredients" and "organic" is not the same as "human-grade" and "100% organic."
- Avoid foods with unspecified meat by-products — instead, go for a recipe with specified animal proteins.