How To Read A Dog Food Label

Picking out a food for your dog can be confusing and overwhelming. Dog food ingredient lists are long and filled with words that are hard to pronounce. The internet is full of conflicting information about what should and should not be on the ingredient list. In this article, I will give you a crash course in reading ingredient labels and what to look for when selecting a dog food.

The Anatomy of an Ingredient List

Let’s start by looking at the ingredient list for “I and love and you” Lovingly Simple Lamb & Sweet Potato.

lamb, menhaden fishmeal, peas, chickpeas, sweet potatoes, pea protein, pea starch, sunflower oil (preserved with mixed tocopherols), natural flavors, chicory root, minerals (zinc proteinate, iron proteinate, copper proteinate, manganese proteinate, cobalt proteinate, sodium selenite), Vitamins (choline chloride, Vitamin A supplement, Vitamin D3 supplement, Vitamin E supplement, niacin, d-calcium pantothenate, pyridoxine hydrochloride (source of Vitamin B6), thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin supplement, folic acid, Vitamin B12 supplement), dried Lactobacillus acidophilus fermentation product, dried Lactobacillus casei fermentation product, dried Bifidobacterium thermophilum fermentation product, dried Enterococcus faecium fermentation product.

It is easy to look at this label and feel intimidated. To simplify, each ingredient list can be divided into food ingredients, vitamins/minerals and probiotics.

lamb, menhaden fishmeal, peas, chickpeas, sweet potatoes, pea protein, pea starch, sunflower oil (preserved with mixed tocopherols), natural flavors, chicory root, minerals (zinc proteinate, iron proteinate, copper proteinate, manganese proteinate, cobalt proteinate, sodium selenite), Vitamins (choline chloride, Vitamin A supplement, Vitamin D3 supplement, Vitamin E supplement, niacin, d-calcium pantothenate, pyridoxine hydrochloride (source of Vitamin B6), thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin supplement, folic acid, Vitamin B12 supplement), dried Lactobacillus acidophilus fermentation product, dried Lactobacillus casei fermentation product, dried Bifidobacterium thermophilum fermentation product, dried Enterococcus faecium fermentation product.

Food Ingredients

These are the first ingredients and make up the majority of protein, fat and carbohydrates. These ingredients are listed in order by weight. So, the first ingredient makes up the largest percentage of the recipe by weight.

Meat meal vs. real meat

There is much debate about the merits of meat meal compared with real meat. Meat meal is made by cooking meat down like a stew until it’s dried. The advantage of meat meal is that it is rich in protein by weight compared with real meat. Meat is largely made of water and therefore has less protein by weight compared with meat meal. A possible disadvantage is that meat meal may be less digestible. A recent study showed that chicken meal may be less digestible compared with other forms of chicken like raw and steamed (1).

Takeaway: Meat meal is not necessarily inferior to real meat in an ingredient list.

Grain Free

A quick Google search about grain free diets for dogs will surely leave you feeling confused. I see dogs thriving on both diets with and without grains. In my practice, dogs with allergies often do better on a raw diet without grains. Some dogs with chronically loose stools, or dogs that have trouble maintaining weight, improve on diets with grains. I recommend using rice and other ancient grains (quinoa, millet, amaranth) instead of wheat, corn, and soy.

Takeaway: Grains are not necessarily bad for all dogs, however, avoid wheat, corn and soy.

Meat By-Products

Most pet food companies have moved away from using meat by-products. However, meat by-products may have more nutritional value than muscle meat. Meat by-products include organ meats, intestines, and fat. These tissues are rich in nutrients and have more vitamins and minerals compared with muscle meat. Meat by-products do not contain hair, feathers or hooves.

Takeaway: While most pet food companies do not use meat by-products, they aren’t as bad as they sound.

Vitamins and Minerals

The names for vitamins and minerals can be the hardest to pronounce. It’s important that you see these in the ingredient list and that the food is balanced by AAFCO standards. This means that the food contains all the vitamins and minerals needed to provide your dog with a balanced diet. You should be able to find a statement on the bag that looks like this:

LOVINGLY SIMPLE(TM) WITH LAMB + SWEET POTATO DOG FOOD is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for all life stages, including growth of large size dogs (70 lbs. or more as an adult).

Takeaway: While the names of vitamins and minerals look scary, they are important for your dog’s overall health and well being.

Probiotics

Many dog foods now contain probiotics to help support digestion. These beneficial bacteria are usually listed at the end of the ingredient list. Common names are Lactobacillus, Enterococcus, Bacillus and Bifidobacterium.

Ingredients to Avoid

The following are list of ingredients that you should avoid:

  • Corn
  • Wheat
  • Soy
  • Ethoxyquin (preservative)
  • Butylated hydroxyanisole - BHA (preservative)
  • Butylated hydroxytoluene - BHT (preservative)

What questions do you have about ingredients in your dog food? I would love to hear from you in the comments below!

With love,

Dr. Angie






  1. Oba PM, Utterback PL, Parsons CM, de Godoy MRC, Swanson KS. 2019. Chemical composition, true nutrient digestibility, and true metabolizable energy of chicken-based ingredients differing by processing method using the precision-fedcecectomized rooster assay. J Anim Sci. Mar 1;97(3):998-1009. doi: 10.1093/jas/sky461.

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