Choosing a Dog Food Part 1: Decoding the Label

Decoding the label of your dog food means understanding the ingredient list and guaranteed analysis.

The guaranteed analysis relays the percentages of protein, fat, fiber, moisture, and some vitamins. Some foods also include omega fatty acids, glucosamine, chondroitin, and enzymes in the guaranteed analysis.

The ingredient list appears on the label as a maze of unpronounceable words and generic names for meats and vegetables. It causes much confusion. However, more pet owners are learning the value of decoding the make-up of their dog food. Now it’s your turn.


Decoding the Ingredient List

Ingredients are on the list in order of weight, from greatest to least. These weights come from each ingredient in their whole form. This means water influences the original weight but changes during cooking. This can change the comparison of ingredients later.

Before cooking, “chicken” may be the first ingredient on the list, but after cooking the chicken has lost 70% of its weight by water. This should place it lower on the ingredient list because other ingredients, notably heavier grains, will fill more of the food in the final product.

There is one exception for meat products.  Meat meals are already cooked and have most of their water and fat removed. Therefore, they are said to be a better concentration of protein.

Carbohydrate sources like peas and potatoes show up two or three times with several ingredient names. This puts them in different places in the ingredient list by weight, but when combined they weigh more. This puts their true value higher on the ingredient list.

Consider this since the combined ingredients pea protein, pea fiber and peas will outweigh whole chicken or beef.

Follow the Pattern

The ingredients list often has a pattern, created by the weights of the ingredients.

  1. Whole animal proteins or by-products
  2. Fillers (e.g., grains and peas)
  3. Flavors (e.g., animal digest)
  4. Vitamin, mineral, and amino acid supplements
  5. Colors and preservatives.

You can see the pattern in this ingredient list from a popular food.

Beef, Whole Grain Corn, Barley Rice, Whole Grain Wheat, Chicken By-Product, Corn Gluten Meal, Beef Tallow Preserved with Mixed-Tocopherols, Soybean Meal, Oat Meal, Turkey By-Product Meal, Glycerin, Egg and Chicken Flavor, Mono and Dicalcium Phosphate, Calcium Carbonate, Salt, Poultry and Pork Digest Potassium Chloride, Dried Spinach, Dried Peas, Dried Carrots, L-Lysine Monohydrochloride, Minerals [Zinc Sulfate, Ferrous Sulfate, Manganese Sulfate, Copper Sulfate, Calcium Iodate, Sodium Selenite], Vitamins (Vitamin E Supplement, Niacin, Vitamin A Supplement, Calcium Pantothenate, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, (Vitamin B-6), Vitamin B-12 Supplement, Thiamin Mononitrate (Vitamin B-1), Vitamin D-3 Supplement, Riboflavin Supplement, (Vitamin B-2), Menadione Sodium Bisulfite Complex (Source of Vitamin K Activity), Folic Acid, Biotin], Choline Chloride, Red 40, Yellow 6, Yellow 5, Blue 2, Garlic Oil.

Broken down into the categories the ingredient list above looks like this.


Whole Animal Proteins and Their By-Products

These include beef, chicken by-product, beef tallow preserved with mixed-tocopherols, and turkey by-product meal.

This formula has several cheaper animal protein sources as well as many whole grain protein replacements for animal proteins.



This recipe uses whole grain corn, barley rice, whole grain wheat, corn gluten meal, soybean meal, and oatmeal.


Egg and chicken flavor, as well as salt, and Poultry and Pork digest.

Vitamin, Mineral, and Amino Acid Supplements

L-Lysine Monohydrochloride, zinc sulfate, Ferrous sulfate, manganese sulfate, copper sulfate, calcium iodate, sodium selenite, vitamin E supplement, Niacin, Vitamin A supplement, Calcium Pantothenate, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B-6), Riboflavin Supplement (Vitamin B-2), Menadione Sodium bisulfite complex (Source of Vitamin K activity), folic acid, biotin, and choline chloride.


This is where reading the ingredient list gets confusing. What are all these names?

Most are the fancy names for vitamins and minerals. What’s important to understand about them is their quality.

This recipe contains lots of sulfates and generic  “supplements.” These are not the kind of supplements that have good bioavailability in your dog’s digestive system, which puts your dog at risk for deficiencies.

Some of these synthetic supplements, like menadione bisulfite complex, can be toxic in large amounts.

Look for formulas that do not need to use lots of micronutrient supplementation, because these foods use more whole ingredients to meet vitamin, mineral and amino acid requirements.
Look for selenium yeast, a natural form of selenium, as opposed to sodium selenite which is another supplement that becomes toxic upon build-up.


5 Rules for Protein

Use these five rules to determine how much of your dog food is animal proteins approximately versus fillers.


100% or “All” Rule:

“100% Beef Jerky Treats” means exactly what it says. No other ingredients are in the product.

95% Rule:

If a manufacturer wants to have more than one ingredient, they should comply with the 95% rule. This means that 95% of the total weight of the product had to be that main ingredient.

So, if your dog treats are “Chicken dog treats,” then 95% of the total weight of those treats should be chicken. The remaining 5% can be additional supplements, grains, vegetables, and flavorings.

As you can imagine foods and treats with this high meat content can be expensive. Meat is not a cheap source of protein. Most manufacturers want to spend less to make their product, so they use the 25% rule.

25% Rule:

Dinners, entrees, formulas, recipes; they all fall under the 25% rule. These products have at least 25% of their weight in the stated ingredient: chicken, beef, lamb, duck, etc.

This is where the dry matter comes into play. Once the ‘chicken’ in the “dinner” cooks, the percent by weight changes from 25% to about 7%. That leaves lots of room for other non-meat ingredients.

Now, the last three rules have only applied to animal proteins. If your dog food is a “chicken and rice formula” it will comply with a different standard.


3% Rule:

Also known as the “with” rule, if your dog food is “Dog Chow with peas and carrots” AAFCO only requires the food to contain 3% in total weight to be the two “with” ingredients (peas and carrots).

Some products may state more than two ingredients such as “lamb, sweet potato, and rice formula.” This food would only have to contain a minimum of 3% of the total weight in lamb, 3% sweet potatoes and 3% rice.

The Flavor Rule:

Beef flavor, bacon flavor, steak flavor, tuna flavor, this is the rule of enhancement. The fancy recipe names give you the impression of the food containing a juicy steak, strips of bacon or fresh chunks of beef in gravy, right? Guess again, because these ingredients are too expensive to be “flavor” and rarely are used for “nutrition” either.

These foods contain only as much as is necessary to flavor the kibble, much less than 3%. This ingredient has no nutritional value.

Ingredients like bone meal and animal digest to enhance the appeal of the food. The flavoring can also be “natural flavors” or “artificial flavors” and constitute 0% of the food.

Manufacturers spray these flavorings on the kibble with the fat and vitamin-mineral supplements. This places the flavoring only over the surface of the kibble and requires less “flavor” than if it was throughout the product.

(Check out this article to find the quality of the meat used in your dog’s food! Feed or Food?)


Dry Matter Basis

Surprisingly, you might find two average “I-hate-math” students voluntarily converting nutrient percentages from pet foods by subtraction and multiplication. At times this is what you might see us doing on an afternoon.

Dry matter basis is a mathematical method you can use to compare dry food nutrients to wet/canned food nutrients. Protein, fat, fiber and moisture percentages look like they vary by a long shot between these two kinds of food.

Once you put them on the same moisture basis, they compare more easily. So how do you do it?

Subtract the total moisture (found on the guaranteed analysis) from 100. The remainder is the “dry matter.”

From the dry matter, you can find the total protein, fat, fiber, and carbohydrate percentages.

Example: If your canned dog food has 75% moisture that leaves you 25% dry matter. Now if the protein percentage says it’s 11%, then that’s 11% of the dry matter. To find the protein percent of the dry matter follow this simple equation:

Dry Matter Protein Content: (11/25) x 100 = 44%

You divide the protein percent (11) by the dry matter (25). Multiply that by 100 for your total dry matter protein content.

So, your canned food would be 44% protein, leaving a 56% combination of fat, fiber, and carbohydrates.

To use the formula on dry foods, follow the same steps. If your dog food has 10% moisture, that leaves 90% dry matter basis. If the guaranteed analysis reads 26% protein, then following the Dry Matter Protein Content formula, the food would be 29% protein.

In the end, lots of canned or wet foods contain much more protein than dry kibble.


Find more about carbohydrates in your dog’s food! “Carbohydrates Contributing to Canine Disease” 



In conclusion, the value of understanding the guaranteed analysis and ingredient list comes down to determining the quality of the ingredients.

It’s crucial that you learn to understand the guaranteed analysis and decode the ingredient list so that you can find quality nutrition for your best friend.

We know our dogs can survive on less than optimal nutrition, but we want them to thrive.

No one wants to be the reason their dog get diabetes or any other disease. Every pet owner wants to be the reason their dogs live long and break the trend of cancer and arthritis!

We can do this by understanding what we are feeding them and choosing to give them the very best that we can.




 – Cassy Kay


Keep learning more about the ingredients in your dog’s food!


dogs, dog food, choosing a dog food, part two






Related Posts