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How to Read Dog Food Labels

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A survey of 2,000 British dog owners by revealed that an amazing 44% of us find dog food labels difficult and at times “impossible to read”.

Almost a third of us (30%) say that dog food labels make it harder to maintain a healthy diet for our dogs.

Dog looking at dog food labels

We consider feeding our four-legged friends to be vitally important and we want to offer the most nutritious meal possible but the labelling can be so confusing and so small!

For dog foods which aren't such high-quality, there are different methods they can use to camouflage exactly what goes into their foods.

Sometimes it can appear to be a secret language, but like any code, once you know how to crack it, it's easy as pie.

We explore the secret language of dog food labels and help you decrypt those puzzling labels (but you may need a magnifying glass!)

dog food labels



1. Clarity of Manufacturer

Let's start with the manufacturer. In addition to the name and address, look for contact details in case you have any questions or concerns. Reputable manufacturers will make it really easy for you to reach them.

Whilst researching various dog food articles for Smart Bark we've spoken to lots of customer service departments at smaller, independent dog food companies.

Without exception they have all been real dog lovers, extremely helpful and patiently answered our questions. So if you have a query, we suggest, contact them.

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2. Complete V Complementary

Some foods are marketed as ‘complete’, meaning they contain all the nutrients a dog needs, while others are complementary, meaning they can be given to your dog alongside a complete food.

Complete dog food packaging

All complete foods have to meet certain feeding requirements, so your dog will be getting all the nutrition that it needs, regardless of how much that product costs.

So if you are looking for a stand-alone dog food, make sure it says 'Complete'.

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3. Check for Splitting Ingredients

Moving on to the ingredients. Helpfully, these are always listed in descending order by weight. This should make it easy for you to see at-a-glance the relative amounts of each ingredient in the food.

Grain based dog food ingredients list

Some dog food companies are sneaky. Keep an eye out for manufacturers splitting cereals/grains into different groups.

Essentially, by dividing the grains into several smaller groups, they fall further down the ingredients list so the food doesn't look as if it's made up of cheaper 'fillers'.

We suggest that you try to group the cereals together so you can work out whether they are in fact the main ingredient.

Cereals and grains aren't a bad ingredient. Vets who recommend cereal-based dog food are quick to point out that, as long as the cereals are good quality and have been properly prepared, they provide essential carbohydrate energy for dogs.

In fact, studies have shown that grain-inclusive commercial dog foods are more digestible than grain-free foods. So don't discount grains entirely.

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4. Avoid Vague Ingredients

A good rule of thumb is that the more specific the label is, the better. A dog food label should be designed to be clear and easy to understand. If a company is making a great food, it’s only natural to tell the customer exactly what's in it!

A good quality dog food will list all the ingredients by their specific name, rather than vague descriptions of ingredients such as ‘meat and animal derivatives’ or ‘vegetable derivatives’.

Poor quality dog food with vague ingredient list

If your dog suffers from food allergies, then avoid vague descriptions as you can't be sure exactly what they contain. Instead look for a food that only contains one source of meat, protein or grain (single source) to make food trials easier.

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5. Avoid Animal Derivatives/Meal

We suggest, avoiding dog foods with the first listed ingredient is ‘animal derivative’ or ‘meal’ as these products tend to be much lower in quality.

'Meal' is animal by-products that have been heat treated and dried with most of the moisture and the fat removed.

They do provide a concentrated protein source but as mentioned before, it is impossible to work out exactly what the exact ingredients are so may cause issues with allergy tracking.

Dog Food packaging showing list of ingredients

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6. Love More Meat

Generally, high-quality dog foods tend to contain more meat. The higher up the list of ingredients the meat is, the more it contains.

If you see chicken listed as the first ingredient, you’ll know that dog food has more chicken than any other ingredient on the list.

proDogRaw dog food ingredients on packaging

With complete raw diets provided by companies such as Naturaw or Paleo Ridge, the meat component is substantially higher than anything else.

If you are interested in exploring raw dog diets then take a look at our article Best Raw Dog Food Review, where we test and analyse four of the best raw dog food companies in the UK today.

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7. Check the Percentages

If particular attention is drawn to a specific ingredient (e.g. with Salmon), the percentage of that ingredient component must also be listed.

Salmon dried dog food packaging

In this example the front of the packaging claims 'Poached Salmon - 47% Salmon' and on the back of the packaging they have clearly identified how the 47% is made up.

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8. Avoid the Term - ‘Flavour’

Dog food that says it is ‘with chicken’ must contain at least 4% chicken. A dog food that states it is ‘chicken-flavoured’ doesn’t have to contain any at all.

That's right NO CHICKEN is required in a chicken -flavoured product! There's even a picture of a chicken drumstick on the packaging - which isn't in the food ....

Chicken flavoured dog food

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9. Watch the Fats

The majority of dry dog foods contain approximately 9-14% fat. If your dog is prone to weight gain, look out for foods with no more than 10% fat.

You'll be spoilt for choice as dog obesity is a real issue so many manufacturers have extended their range to stock low fat dog foods aimed specifically at overweight pooches like Pooch & Mutt.

Low fat dog food packaging

If you are looking to reduce your dog's calories whilst maintaining a healthy diet, you could explore tailored, delivered dog foods.

Pure Pet Food, Tails, Years, Butternut Box and Different Dog are five companies which offer bespoke foods tailored to your dog and delivered to your door.

They take into account health issues, allergies and weight loss when designing your food so you know that it has an excellent nutritional rating whilst balancing the calories.

Further information including costs, ingredients and deliveries are include in our review of the best delivered dog food companies in the UK.

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10. Organic Claims

A pre-packed product can only be labelled as “organic” if at least 95% of the ingredients are organic.

The organic standards applied to dog food ingredients include : cleaning materials and pest control methods are restricted, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are strictly prohibited and flavourings must be either naturally or organically produced.

Organic dog foods will of course be more expensive than their non-organic counterparts.

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The truth is that dog food is a minefield with hundreds of dog food options available to you, so choosing the right food can be extremely tough.

The best way to ensure a healthy diet is to opt for a complete dog food which has been designed specifically for your dog's stage in life.

After that, it comes down to your preference alongside what works best for your dog.

dogs looking at food labels

Don't forget :

✅ Don't go by looks : There's some fancy packaging out there with claims and photography to seduce us. Ignore it all, turn the packaging over and focus on the ingredients.

✅ Buy the best you can afford.

✅ While we may choose not to eat them, animal byproducts are not necessarily a bad addition in your dog food. They include parts such as liver, which is rich in vitamin A. It sounds gross, but your dog will thank you for it.

✅ If you have a picky dog, look at alternatives to dry kibble : Dogs tend to prefer wet and raw food to dry kibble.

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If you have a picky pup you're not alone. Why not take a look at our article specifically dealing with this problem - Why is My Dog a Fussy Eater ? for some hints and tips.

Hopefully you've found some useful information on reading dog food labels.



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