Dog Food Labels: Why is It Important to Recognize Them

Just like labeling food for people, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates pet food labels and even the names of products. However, they don’t require any pre-market approval from the agency. So, learning how to read those dog food labels is important for caring properly for your pet. They can prove a bit tricky unless you know what to look for and how to translate it, however.

Pet food labels have many of the same requirements as the labels on people food. However, you will a few significant differences. In order to find the best food for your dog, you need to understand the label. You should learn how to read those dog food labels so your furry friend gets the best you can provide.

AAFCO Labeling Regulations

If you’re having trouble learning how to read those dog food labels, you should understand the regulations in place. Some make it very easy for an unethical pet food manufacturer to make their dog food seem healthier than the ingredients list implies.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials, also known as AAFCO, is a voluntary organization that incorporates local, state, and federal agencies that regulate pet and animal foods. They guide the sale and distribution of both animal foods and animal drug remedies. They also provide guidelines for pet food manufacturers for labeling their products.

In order to make pet food labels easier for consumers to understand exactly what they’re getting, AAFCO uses four rules that dictate the way ingredients in dog food are named and listed. These rules keep the labeling accurate and easy to understand for pet guardians. In this way, they can better understand the ingredients and nutrition provided in the feed they purchase.

When manufacturers label a pet food as containing a specific type of food, like “Salmon for Kittens,” or “Beef for Puppies,” the “95 percent rule” applies to the labeling. In these cases, at least 95 percent of the package must contain the food item mentioned in the title. You’ll find that this can be a bit deceptive, however. This percentage changes with the inclusion of additives such as water, vitamins, or minerals. These are considered “condiments” under the current regulations. And under these conditions, the actual percentage of beef in a product called “Beef for Puppies” can be as low as 70 percent after you remove the “condiments.”.

Just as in food labeling for people, manufacturers must list the ingredients on the label in descending order of its weight prior to cooking. In our example, “Beef for Puppies,” beef will have to be the first ingredient listed on the label. The ingredient in the name should be the first one listed in the ingredient list on the label. If the dog food has two ingredients in the name, such as one labeled “Chicken and Rice for Dogs,” both ingredients combined must account for at least 95 percent of the total weight of the contents. In this case, the item with the highest pre-cooked weight must be listed first on the label.

The “Dinner Rule” comes into effect when title ingredients make up more than 20 percent but less than 95 percent of the total product. This excludes condiments or water. In this case, the manufacturer will give it a title such as “dinner,” “entrée,” “platter,” “formula,” “nuggets,” or one of the other accepted terms. With our example above, “Beef for Puppies,” the manufacturer would now label it as “Beef Dinner for Puppies.” While the difference is subtle, it still indicates a very specific distinction.

In the Dinner Rule, the named label ingredient (after water has been added for processing) must be at least 10 percent of the total contents. Also, under this rule, the named ingredient does not have to be the first one listed. In our example, the manufacturer could put beef third, fourth, or even fifth among the ingredients.

Be careful with this kind of pet food. Because of this labeling rule, it may contain more of an unwanted ingredient than the one in the title. Our “Beef Dinner for Puppies” may have “beef” listed below cornmeal, water, and peas. And the manufacturer could still call it “Beef Dinner,” as long as beef makes up a minimum of 25 percent but still less than 95 percent of the contents. If the product name contains more than one ingredient, such as “Chicken and Rice,” the combination of the two ingredients must make up a minimum of 25 percent of the product.

The manufacturer must still list the ingredients by weight prior to cooking. Also, each ingredient named in the food title must make up at least 3 percent of the product. So, even though our “Chicken and Rice Dinner” must have 25 percent chicken and rice combined, that ratio can be 22 percent rice and only 3 percent chicken. The same rule applies to “Chicken with Beef.” There must be at least 3 percent beef, but, by this regulation, there doesn’t have to be any more than that.

By applying this rule, “Puppy Food with Chicken” only needs to have 3 percent chicken. On the other hand, food labeled “Chicken Puppy Food” must contain at least 95 percent chicken. You can see a considerable difference, as in the first example there may be a large amount of possibly non-nutritious fillers.

Under the “Flavor Rule,” the actual percentage of an ingredient is not the primary consideration. The product must have enough of the ingredient so that it can be detected, however. AFFCO stipulates several regulations regarding the labeling of these products. For example, the actual word “flavor” must appear in the same typeface, color, and size as the associated product to avoid confusion. If the label states “Chicken Flavor,” it does not have to be actual chicken. Instead, it can also be one of the many products that taste like chicken, as long as it has the taste of chicken. In many instances, manufacturers add chicken stock or chicken broth to achieve this effect.

Usually, the first thing that most pet owners look at after the brand or type of food in the container is the list of ingredients. Ironically, the list of ingredients can prove the most difficult thing to really understand. For example, if one label lists chicken first, and another lists “chicken meal” first, your natural inclination leads you to think the one listing “chicken” is better. However, that “chicken” is roughly 75 percent moisture, and the chicken meal has already had the fat and water removed to make it about 10 percent moisture. This means that the chicken meal is mostly minerals and protein. You will actually get more protein for an equal amount of chicken meal than from chicken.

Not all dog food will have the calories listed on the label. Most manufacturers include them to give the consumer a more detailed label. This, hopefully, influences their choice of pet food. If you can’t find this data on the label, it will usually appear on the manufacturer’s web page. However, when it is there, calorie information will generally be listed in association with the feeding directions. Because many older dogs can become overweight, it is essential to know precisely how many calories your dog’s food contains. This will allow you to better monitor their caloric intake.

Most of the calories in dog food come from fats. Because fats can make the food taste better to your dog, they are more likely to eat it with enthusiasm. This, in turn, will make you more inclined to purchase it again. The fat content in dog food can vary widely from a minimum of 5 percent (recommended by AAFCO), up to as much as 40 percent in some premium brands. Dogs love it. In addition, manufacturers can save a lot of time and money by not removing it.

Like fat, the calories in dog food can vary widely as well. There are no requirements that calories fall within a particular scale or under a set number. Also, different companies use different scales to determine calorie content. Some manufacturers determine calories by the cup. Others state the calories by ounces. Some even figure calorie counts using the metric system. You may need to look closely in order to figure out exactly how many are in your dog’s meals.

Net quantity

All pet food labels must include something called the “net quantity” of the food. This number indicates how much of the actual product you’ll find in the package. For example, a medium size bag of kibble may weigh slightly more than a large bag and have the same amount of product. This can occur when the medium has a more compressed product. The large bag may have more air in each piece of kibble. Having an accurate net weight can help you determine which package is the best overall value.

Feeding directions

Feeding directions should tell the pet parent exactly how much of a particular product they should give their dog as well as how often. Some packages will offer more feeding information than others. Additionally, you can usually go to the company’s web page for more detailed and specific feeding directions.

Sometimes you will encounter hyperbola on your label that sounds impressive, but actually carries no real information that will be helpful to you. You will see advertising tropes such as “gourmet,” “extra-tasty,” or “premium.” These terms have little to do with either the quality or the contents of your dog’s food. They are merely advertising tricks used to imply that their products are measurably better than some others.

One term, in particular, that sends up red flags is “natural” or “all natural.” This term has no official definition and means nothing concerning the food in the package. It can, however, indicate the type of feed when applied to specific ingredients in the dog food.

According to AAFCO, the term natural only applies to unprocessed plant, animal, or mined ingredients added the final product. This means they haven’t been chemically processed or produced, such as synthetic vitamins or other nutrients. When applied to specific ingredients, “natural” usually indicated that those ingredients contain no artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives.


Manufacturers can only use the “organic” used under very specific conditions according to the FDA. Producers must grow organic ingredients using very specific practices. Those conditions include no use of pesticides, no genetic modifications, no irradiation, nor the use of artificial fertilizers. To label dog food organic, producers can only feed the animals they slaughter on organic feed. They can’t treat them with any hormones or antibiotics, and they must also allow the animals to go outdoors.

Keep in mind, “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean 100 percent organic. When it comes to organic, labeling regulations for pet foods mirror those for human food. The USDA provides several different levels of “organic” conditions that apply to situations.

100 percent organic: Products labeled “100 percent organic” means they contain no ingredients that don’t qualify as organic.

Organic: The label “organic” means that 95 to 99 percent of the ingredients are organic.

Made with organic ingredients: The manufacturer can use “made with organic ingredients” if the product contains 70 to 94 percent organic ingredients.

Less than 74 percent organic: The final category is “less than 74 percent organic.” Most organic dog foods on the market fall into the “made with organic ingredients” and the “less than 74% organic” categories since many manufacturers find that producing a 100 percent organic dog food is difficult and cost prohibitive.

Hormones and Antibiotics

Some dog food manufacturers try to give the impression that they’ve made their dog food with some special “hormone-free” chicken or pork. While producers still use antibiotics in chicken and pork, law dictates that all US chicken and pork is hormone free. Touting their dog food as “hormone-free” is just another way for advertisers to try to glorify their products. Some may consider this misleading, if not deceptive, advertising and labeling.

Manufacturer’s Name and Address

All dog food companies must list either the manufacturer or the distributor of the food. The company listed is ultimately responsible for the quality, content, and the safety of the product in the package. The distributor may or may not have been the manufacturer. However, if they are on the package, that makes them liable for recalls and refunds.

In some cases, they are a go-between to the actual manufacturer and the retailer. But in any case, they are the first point of contact. You’ll usually find a toll-free number listed for questions, complaints, or inquiries on the label. Although not mandated by law, the company must legally have a number obtainable through directory assistance or a city directory.

There is undoubtedly a great deal of valuable information to be gleaned from the label of your dog’s dinner, but you need not stop there. If you go to the company web page, you can generally find much more detailed and helpful information. You can often find everything from specific feeding amount charts based on the size and weight of your pooch to levels of calories and protein in their food per serving.

Manufacturers are usually quite happy to give as much information as they possibly can to make you more likely to choose their brands. Additionally, most major manufacturers are happy to answer any questions you may have concerning their products if you call their toll-free numbers on the packaging.

And in our experience, if you send them a very positive e-mail or praise their product on their web pages, companies are very appreciative. Some are so grateful for your feedback that you may just get a free sample or discount coupon in your mail or inbox.

Learning how to read those dog food labels can be confusing. Not only is the data itself difficult to understand, but deceptive marketing tricks also make them even less transparent. Some dog food is labeled with misleading descriptions, and others are just plain deceptive. That’s why every guardian should try learning how to read those dog food labels. They can be hard to interpret, but your pet will benefit from your efforts.