Decoding Dog Food Labels: A Simple Guide to Understanding Canine Nutrition

Canine nutrition is confusing. There, I said it. There’s virtually no regulation, and education is hard to come by. Guaranteed analyses are confusing. Ingredient panels might as well be in a different language. Dried bacillus coaguluns fermentation product? Mixed tocopherols? What is this stuff and why is it in my dog’s food? Deciphering a bag of dog food quickly becomes more daunting than filing taxes or getting a root canal…or filing taxes while getting a root canal. But what if I told you there’s a way to evaluate dog food without needing a master’s degree in nutrition or even having to turn around the bag of dog food. “What kind of witchery is this?” you ask. One word: marketing.  

Understanding the Role of Marketing in Dog Food Labels

Marketing often conjures images of beautiful models and catchy jingles, but in reality it dictates every word on a piece of merchandise, and that includes dog food. When you look at a bag of dog food, the most important words may appear seemingly inconsequential, but if you know what you’re looking for, you can gather a generalized (but accurate!) understanding of a bag’s nutritional content.  

Confused yet? You won’t be in a minute.  

Carnivore Classification and Its Implications

Let’s start with a basic concept. Diets in the animal kingdom are identified as carnivorous, omnivorous, and herbivorous. This means meat-based, meat-and-plant-based, and plant-based, respectively. Dogs are scientifically classified as carnivores; carnivores eat a meat-based diet. Ergo, dogs should eat a diet consisting primarily of meat. This does not mean they can’t eat grains or fruits and vegetables, only that these items shouldn’t provide the bulk of the diet’s nutrition, rather, they should be supplemental to the high inclusions of animal-based protein. 

Discrepancy Between Dog Food and Carnivorous Diet

It seems like a basic concept: carnivores should eat meat. Yet if this is true, then why are most dog foods on the market primarily made from vegetables and grains with minimal meat inclusion? And even more importantly, how can you tell if your dog’s diet is rooted in animal or plant protein? This is where marketing comes into play.  

The Key Marketing Terms for Evaluating Dog Food

The words on the front of a bag of dog food indicate the percentage of meat included. Here are the five words and phrases you need to know to quickly and easily evaluate a diet without even turning around the bag: 

  1. 100% – If you see a product that says 100% on the label, then you know it’s 100% made from that one ingredient, the only exception being there may be added water for processing.
  2. 95% – Much like the 100% rule, if an ingredient accounts for 95% of the ingredient panel, the product can market the 95% on the front label.
  3. Dinner Rule – Words like “dinner,” “formula,” “entrée,” and “recipe,” all indicate that whatever ingredients precede those words on the front of the bag account for at least 25% of the total ingredients. Example: a bag of dog food identifying as a “lamb recipe” uses enough lamb to account for 25% of the overall ingredients.  “25%?” you say. “That sure is a big drop from the 95% in rule 2.” You’re right. Does that mean it’s impossible for a food to have, say, 65% of its ingredient panel come from meat? Of course not! The reality is that there are many wonderful brands going over that 25% marker. How can you tell? They’ll call it out on the front or back of bag that a percentage much higher than 25 accounts for the meat-based protein.
  4. “With” Rule – Let’s say you see a bag of dog food that claims “Healthy Weight Formula with Chicken.” While it might not seem like it, “with” is the most important word on that bag, because “with” means only 3% of the ingredients must come from the protein listed, in this case – chicken.
  5. Flavor Rule – What if you see a bag of dog food that boasts “beef flavor”? Flavors are not required to have any of the actual ingredients included in the diet, provided the ingredient panel identifies the source of the flavor.  

The Takeaway

There you have it: the key words and phrases you need to know to quickly determine the quality of a dog food as it pertains to meat inclusion. Are there other things to consider? Of course. Supportive ingredients and micronutrients are crucial to creating a balanced diet for your pup, but before you delve into the nitty gritty, it’s important to understand main ingredients and if they align with your dog’s carnivorous classification.   

The Retail Store at every The Dog Stop® features premium foods, supplements, treats, chews and toys. Our careful and detailed selection process ensures that every product we carry will create a happy and healthy pet. Every brand of food we carry ranks a minimum of three stars, and many are limited-ingredient, grain and gluten-free, and easily digested. Whether it be a specific product for puppies, seniors, breeds, special diets, or allergy avoidance, we have what you are looking for.