How to Read Dog Food Labels
Updated: 5 days ago
Smart Bark is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more
A survey of 2,000 British dog owners by Paws.com 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.
We consider feeding our four-legged friends to be vitally important and we want to succeed in performing to the best of our availability by giving our dogs the most nutritious meal possible.
The European Pet Food Industry, FEDIAF ( that's Fédération européenne de l'industrie des aliments pour animaux familiers for those of you who wondered about the strange initialism) set out guidelines in 2020 to help dog food manufacturers ensure that their labels were clear and easy for us to understand.
Admittedly this is a vast improvement but let's face it, the labelling can still be confusing and so small!
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!
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 trust us, you might well need a magnifying glass!)
Our Guide to Reading Dog Food Labels
Let's start with the manufacturer. In addition to the name and address, look for contact and website 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 emailed and spoken to lots of customer service representatives at smaller 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.
2. Type of Food
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. 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'
3. Ingredients List
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.
But some 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'. 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 actually provide essential carbohydrate energy for dogs, which is particularly useful for active, working dogs.
Studies have shown that grain-inclusive commercial dog foods are more digestible than grain-free foods. Although grain-free foods are higher priced, their nutritional benefits are yet to be proven. So don't discount grains entirely.
For more detailed information take a look at our Grain Free Dog Food - The Inside Story article.
4. Naming Ingredients
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’.
If your dog suffers from food allergies, then avoid vague descriptions as you can't be sure exactly what they contain. In the case of allergies, look for a food that only contains one source of meat, protein or grain (single source) to make food trials easier.
5. Avoid Animal Derivatives/Meal
Try to avoid dog foods where the first listed ingredient is labelled as ‘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.
6. 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.
With complete raw diets provided by companies such as ProDogRaw, Paleo Ridge Raw or Bella and Duke to name a few, 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.
7. Check the Percentages
If particular attention is drawn to a specific ingredient (e.g. with chicken), the percentage of that ingredient component must also be listed. 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.
8. Avoid ‘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 ....
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, many manufacturers have extended their range to stock low fat dog foods aimed specifically at overweight pooches.
If you are looking to reduce your dog's calories whilst maintaining a healthy diet, you could explore tailored dog foods.
Butternut Box, Pure and Different Dog are three companies which offer bespoke foods tailored to your dog. 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 tailored dog food companies in the UK.
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.
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. If you do have a fussy eater, why not take a look at our article specifically dealing with this problem - Why is My Dog a Fussy Eater ? - you're definitely not alone. There are other options available rather than changing foods.... continually.
The best way to ensure a healthy diet is to feed a complete dog food designed for your dog's life stage. After that, it comes down to choice and preference alongside what works best for your dog.
Hopefully you've found some useful information on reading dog food labels. Thanks for dropping by.