How to Read Dog Food Labels: A Practical Guide

Last Updated: February 26, 2024
Reading Dog Food Labels

Choosing the best food products for your canine companion is crucial. What your dog eats directly impacts their health and well-being. Fortunately, commercial dog food has come a long way from the cheap, filler-filled options from yesteryear.

Today, dog food comes in varying prices and qualities. Plus, you can choose between standard dry kibble, wet canned food, frozen meals, dehydrated products and more.

If you're searching for that perfect food, you may quickly be overwhelmed by the many options available. So, you start looking at dog food labels to better understand your purchase. But do you know how to read those dog food labels?

Labels are informative, providing important data about the formula and its nutritional qualities. However, deciphering all that information isn't as easy as it looks! 

To make things easier, we've put together this practical guide breaking down everything you need to know, ensuring you're well-equipped to make decisions about your dog's health and nutrition.

How are Dog Food Products Regulated?

Let's start with dog food regulation. Human food has many strict rules regarding safety, packaging and more, especially in the United States. There are several government entities to maintain food safety throughout the country. Even individual states have additional regulatory bodies.

But what about dog food?


Of course, dog food has different rules and standards that manufacturers must comply with. In the United States, most regulations come from the Association of American Feed Controls Officials, or the AAFCO.

If you've ever researched canine nutrition, you've likely come across AAFCO data before.

The AAFCO is the entity that sets guidelines for manufacturers to follow. Despite what many believe, the AAFCO is not a government entity. It's an independent organization that's been around for over a century!

Because of its long-standing history, most states use AAFCO standards for regulating feed products like dog food.

The organization modeled laws and regulations that most manufacturers stick to. The AAFCO has also developed nutrient profiles, recommendations and guidelines that have helped shape the entire industry.


Another important regulatory body is the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), an entity within the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The CVM is responsible for regulating pet food manufacturing.


Finally, there's the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Their role in pet food production and regulation is minimal. However, the USDA does inspect ingredients to ensure proper handling and has strict rules about labeling to avoid consumer confusion between animal food and human food products.

What Dog Food Labels Should Include

Look at a bag of dry kibble, and you'll see tons of information! Dog food manufacturers must provide several key pieces of information about their products to help consumers like you.

Most of the details below are legally required. However, some details, such as freshness dates and calorie content, aren't legally required.

Even still, most manufacturers provide them. Here's what you'll usually see on a dog food label. Below, we'll go into greater detail about what some of these items mean.

  • Product Name
  • Species Food is Formulated for
  • Quantity
  • Guaranteed Nutrient Analysis
  • Nutritional Adequacy Statement
  • Ingredients
  • Calorie Statement
  • Feeding Instructions
  • Manufacturer Contact Information
  • Date of Production
  • Best By Date

Product Naming Conventions

Dog Food in a bag without labels

Did you know that a product's name provides useful information beyond branding?

Manufacturers like to get creative when developing product names. But there are several rules that they must follow to ensure that they're providing clear information about what the food is for.

Most dog owners don't know these naming conventions, so pay attention! Understanding the naming rules set forth by the AAFCO can help you identify products you're looking for at a glance.

The 95-Percent Rule

This rule dictates when a manufacturer can use an ingredient in the name. For example, you might see food labeled "Beef for Dogs" or Chicken Dog Food."

To use a name like that, the AAFCO states that the named ingredient must be at least 95 percent of that ingredient.

In our examples above, those foods must be 95 percent beef or 95 percent chicken.

The named ingredient must be at least 70 percent of the food for dehydrated products or anything that needs water.

This rule only applies to meat. That means if you see a product called "Beef and Brocolli for Dogs," the beef would still need to make up 95 percent of that food.

Conversely, two named meats would have to have a combined percentage of 95 percent. For instance, in a "Beef and Chicken for Dogs" product, the beef and chicken ingredients must collectively total 95 percent of the formula.

The rule gets even stricter with two named meats. In addition to being 95 percent as a combination, the meat with the highest percentage weight in the formula must be named first!

The 25-Percent "Dinner" Rule

Have you ever seen those foods that like to market themselves as an "Entre" or "Dinner?" That's not just fancy branding. They're examples of the 25-percent AAFCO rule!

When a named ingredient doesn't constitute 95 percent of the product, manufacturers must include an additional word, such as:

  • Dinner
  • Entre
  • Meal
  • Platter
  • Formula

The 25 percent rule applies to named ingredients that make up at least 25 percent of the formula but less than 95 percent. That percentage doesn't include water for processing. Like the 95 percent rule, manufacturers can have two or more named ingredients. But, they must collectively make up 25 percent or more of the recipe.

The "With" Rule

So, what if the named ingredient is present in less than 25 percent?

The AFFCO's third rule forces manufacturers to use the word "with." 

For example, "Dog Dinner with Beef." The "Dinner" indicates that beef doesn't make up 95 percent of the formula, and that small "with" shows that it doesn't even contain 25 percent!

Brands can use "with" when the named ingredient is at least three percent of the formula.

Flavor Rule

Finally, there's the flavor rule. This rule applies to manufacturers that can't or won't provide a specific percentage of the named ingredient.

This may occur when the named ingredient makes up less than three percent. Or, it may not contain any of it at all, using artificial flavors instead.

In these cases, the manufacturer must use the word "flavor," which must appear in the same size, font and color as the named ingredient. For example, you might see dog foods called "Chicken Flavor Dog Food."

Understanding Ingredient Lists

dog food label ingredients list

The ingredients list is among the most important parts of a dog food label to read. It tells you what's in the formula, and there are several rules that manufacturers must comply with when creating labels.

The AAFCO requires dog food makers to name every ingredient individually.

Brands can't use descriptive terms for collective proprietary formulas. For example, you won't see things like "Vitamin Blend" or "Proteins."

Some brands do use proprietary ingredients. One of the most famous examples is Blue Buffalo's LifeSource Bits. But if you look at the ingredients list, you'll notice that Blue Buffalo named everything in the LifeSource bits.

The FDA adds another rule that manufacturers must follow. 

The government entity forces brands to name ingredients in descending order by weight. That means that the first ingredient on the list is the most prevalent in the formula. What follows is the second-most prevalent, and so on.

The FDA also requires manufacturers to use the chemical names of vitamins and minerals. However, most brands will include the common name next to it in parentheses.

Deciphering Guaranteed Nutrient Analysis Panels

The guaranteed analysis panel displays the percentage of specific nutrients. Many states have required minimums for certain nutrients.

The guaranteed analysis panel is how states ensure that products meet the mark. They also help dog owners like you find foods that can meet your pup's dietary needs.

There are many nutrients that this section can provide. However, the most important are:

  • Crude Protein
  • Crude Fat
  • Crude Fiber
  • Moisture

These figures can vary from formula to formula. You'll also see dramatically different percentages between dry kibble and wet food.

You may also see additional percentages for nutrients like carbohydrates, glucosamine, omega fatty acids, etc. Those aren't legally required unless the manufacturers claim that additional supplements.

For example, dog foods marketed for joint pain or arthritis must have details about glucosamine, chondroitin and other ingredients that help give that product those properties.

About Nutritional Adequacy Statements

The nutritional adequacy statements help owners match a product to a dog's dietary needs. This statement is usually on the back or side of the packaging and in small print. It can be difficult to find, but you should look for it to better understand what a product can do for your dog.

You'll see many dog foods claiming to do X, Y and Z.

For example, you may encounter formulas that say "100 Percent Nutritious" or "Complete Nutritional Balance." You should turn to the nutritional adequacy statement to ensure those claims are true.

The fine print will tell you what life stage the food is for. As mentioned earlier, the AAFCO sets guidelines for dog food manufacturers. They use those guidelines to formulate products that meet specific canine nutrient profiles.

Formulation is more affordable than full-on lab testing. Therefore, they use the nutritional adequacy statement to identify which standards the product meets.

The AAFCO has strict rules for this statement, and brands must conform to only a handful of formats.

Typically, the statement will look like this:

"(Product Name) is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AFFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for (Life Stage)."

There are four stages that the AAFCO recognizes. They include Gestation/Lactation, Growth, Maintenance and All Life Stages.

Many other specialty formulas exist, such as those for senior dogs and specific breeds. However, there's no concrete information about what senior dogs, individual breeds and specific health problems need. Therefore, there are no rules governing manufacturers from making those statements.

Brands can experiment and include supplements that may benefit older dogs, breeds and conditions. But they must also meet the nutritional guidelines from one of the four aforementioned life stages.

So, if you look at dog food marketed towards senior pets, you'll see on the nutritional adequacy statement that it meets the minimum for adult maintenance.

Other Important Descriptive Label Terms

Dry Dog Food ingredienst

Now that you understand the basics, let's go over some common descriptive terms dog food companies like to use.

Dog owners are more cautious about what their fur babies eat than ever before. As a result, brands are producing innovative formulas with unique characteristics. Here are some of the most common.


No official regulations are surrounding the labeling of organic foods for pets.

They're in the works, and the USDA may announce rules in the future. But for now, dog food manufacturers must comply with the USDA's National Organic Program requirements. It's the same rules used for human foods.

When you see something labeled organic, it must be free of preservatives, coloring, flavors, antibiotics, and growth hormones. It can only have minimal fillers, too.


If your vet recommends your dog go on a diet, you might shop for low-fat foods.

To be considered low-fat, the AFFCO requires that dog food manufacturers show that their products have significantly reduced fat or calories. 

They must provide a percentage of that reduction compared to another named product, such as another formula in their line or a competitor.


More dog owners are switching to so-called human-grade foods in an effort to give their pups the very best. But what does "human-grade" really mean?

To have that label, the food must be edible to humans. Not only that, but it must also have approval for human nourishment. That means manufacturers need to follow strict FDA and USDA standards.

The AAFCO sets other guidelines that make it more difficult for brands to meet the mart. According to the AAFCO, every ingredient in the product needs to be human-edible to carry the "human-grade" label.

Furthermore, manufacturers must follow human food federal regulations surrounding manufacturing and packaging.


Grain-free labels are among the most prevalent in today's market. For many years, grain-free feeding was thought to be the way to go. However, there's little science to support that going grain-free has major benefits. In fact, there may be increased risks for certain health problems.

The research is ongoing, and the FDA is currently reviewing potential links between grain-free foods and heart conditions.

The AAFCO has no rules regarding grain-free labeling. However, the general rule that manufacturers follow is to include those labels whenever the product lacks any grain or grain byproducts.

Always Read the Fine Print

Dog food labels are there for a reason! You should make a habit out of reading them. Labels provide crucial information about a product's qualities. If you're unsure about a particular product, consult your vet.

Your dog's diet plays a big part in their overall health and well-being. Being label-conscious allows you to understand the ins and outs of what your dog consumes, making it easier to make informed decisions about your pup's health.

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