How to Read the Label on Dog Food

"Bring that bag over here and I'll interpret it for you."
i Martin Poole/Digital Vision/Getty Images

If it feels like you need a doctorate to read Duke's dog food label, take comfort in knowing you're not alone. That small space is packed with information. Exactly whats in a package of dog food is worth understanding, particularly if your dog has special dietary needs.

What is the AAFCO?

When you read Duke's pet food label, you'll probably come across the acronym AAFCO, for Association of American Feed Control Officials. This isn't a government organization, it's a group of federal and state representatives, as well as people working in the pet food industry, that oversees the industry. AAFCO develops standards and regulations for manufacturing, distributing and selling pet food.

Net Quantity Statement

The net quantity statement lets you know how much food you're buying. Though two bags of dog food may look the same size, it's not always the case. For example, two bags of the same size may have different net weights; one bag may hold 16 pounds of kibble while the other bag contains 18 pounds. You could pay a higher price per pound, or the smaller bag may be a more concentrated food, meaning Duke wouldn't need as much to meet his nutritional needs.

List of Ingredients

Ingredients are arranged according to amount by weight before processing. The Dog Food Project recommends looking back from the first named source of fat to learn what makes up the main portion of the food. For example, if the label reads "ground yellow corn, meat meal, chicken fat, ground wheat, chicken byproduct" etc., you'll know that the bulk of Duke's nutrition is coming from corn, meat meal and chicken fat and that everything after chicken fat is for flavor, preservation or some dietary benefit such as a vitamin or mineral.

Understanding Ingredients

One of the most controversial parts of the dog food label is the actual ingredients list. It's up to you to determine Duke's dietary standards, but in general, better foods don't have grains or byproducts as primary ingredients. It's easy to understand "chicken" or "corn meal" on the label, but "meal," "byproducts" and other ingredients can be confusing. Some animal proteins in meal can be of high quality; chicken meal can be the ground carcass, less the feathers, heads, feet and entrails. Byproducts aren't always bad; Duke would probably happily eat chicken liver or gizzards, which are byproducts in a sense but are also good additions to his diet.

Guaranteed Analysis

Dog food labels must list the minimum amount of protein and fat, as well as the maximum percentage of fiber and moisture. According to the National Research Council, a dog's daily diet, by weight, should be at least 10 percent protein and 5.5 percent fat. A guaranteed analysis can help you ensure you meet that goal. Moisture content is also listed here; the higher the moisture content, the less nutritious the food is.

Other Things to Look for

Feeding directions will direct you on the appropriate amount of the food for Duke's size. The nutritional adequacy statement means the food provides the nutritional requirements as determined by AAFCO. Some foods declare themselves premium, natural, organic, gourmet, or human grade. There are no legal definitions for such terms, though if the words pesticide-free, organic or human quality are used on the label, chances are they aren't low-quality ingredients. When you choose Duke's food, consider his age, physical health and energy requirements. If you have questions about the food you're feeding him, let your vet make the decision.

the nest