By Kyle Holgate

Dog owners that want the best for their companion need to do more than casually browse the pet food aisle for a brand name they recognize. To really understand what you’re feeding your dog, you need to read the gritty details of the nutrition label.

Human food we buy to feed ourselves are typically very simple and straightforward –just a handful of ingredients and we all understand what we’re eating. Dog food is a much different story. The average dry dog food kibble contains over 47 different ingredients, with some having more than 80! Clearly there’s a lot going on inside those big bags of dog food that you haven’t thought much about.

While manufacturers must ensure their dog food meets the nutritional needs set by the FDA, how they get to those nutritional requirements varies greatly. Every dog owner should take a minute to better understand everything they can learn from reading the label of their dog food.

The Name it’s All It’s Cracked up to Be

When dog owners are picking out a dog food they typically put a lot of significance on the main ingredient or protein source of the food. When you see a dog food named “Adult Dog Food With Beef”, or one called “Grilled Beef Flavor”, you think that beef is the main ingredient and protein source in the dog food, right? In reality that may not be the case at all!

Regulations allow phrases like “With Chicken” and “Chicken Flavor” to be used when there is little to no chicken in the dog food at all. Often time the first ingredient listed is some form of corn.

It’s clear that you can’t judge a dog food by its name. You need to read the actual ingredient list which is required by law to be ordered by whichever ingredients are most heavily used (as measured by the ingredient weight), so the first items to appear make up more weight of the food than those that follow.

Do Some Math on the Nutrients

Nutrients in your dog’s food like protein and fat can be seen on the label with a catch. The numbers given on the bag will be the guaranteed analysis which keeps moisture in the equation. Given that moisture contents can vary between dry dog food, freeze-dried dog food, and wet canned dog food. It’s important to factor the moisture levels out of the equation so you’re making a fair comparison. This is called using the dry matter analysis.

The formula for finding the dry matter from a guaranteed analysis label is easy.

Dry Matter = (Guaranteed Analysis % / (100 – Moisture %)) * 100

So if a bag of dog food has a guaranteed analysis of 20% protein with 8% moisture, the dry matter protein will be 21.7%. That means that a can of dog food with 9% protein and 70% moisture content has a dry matter protein of 30%.

Now you can confidently compare different bags of dog food and know which has more protein and fat than others! It’s important to note that growing puppies and pregnant dogs need higher protein content than a normal adult dog.

Using dry matter analysis I have found that raw dog foods have nearly twice as much protein and more than twice as much fat than dry kibble! If healthy proteins and fats are in your wish list for your dog’s food you should really be looking to raw sources.

Read the Full Ingredient List

An ingredient list may look intimidating, but it’s important to read through it at least once before you start feeding your dog. You may find some nasty surprises hiding in that list! Some dog foods use controversial food dyes which is a big red flag that indicates a low quality dog food.

Another easy indicator is something called “natural flavors”. It turns out that “natural flavors” can really be just about anything! It’s a mystery ingredient that you’ll never learn the truth behind.

If your dog has an allergy it’s also very possible for the allergen to unexpectedly be in your dog’s food somewhere. One of my dogs gets hot spots if he eats dog food with chicken in it, and it turns out some part of chicken is in nearly every commercial dog food! Even those with a main ingredient of beef or fish will often use chicken meal or chicken fat in their formulas.

Be a Great Dog Parent and Examine That Label!

At the end of the day we are ultimately responsible for what we choose to feed our dogs and they have no say in the matter. As dog parents we need to be thoughtful about their diet. With so many great dog food brands out there today and as much information at our fingertips, there’s no excuse to settle for what’s cheapest or most convenient. Do the research and your dog will thank you!


Kyle Holgate writes about all things dog on his website Woof Whiskers. He’s most passionate around researching and analyzing dog food nutrition and how pet owners can better care for their pets. His articles have been featured on websites like Pet Food Industry and Business Insider. He owns two mixed breeds – a Golden Retriever/Australian Shepard mix named Kartoffel and a Husky mix named Pidgy. Kartoffel and Pidgy love helping Kyle with paws-on reviews of all the latest and greatest pet products for the site.
Follow him on Instagram @itswoofwhiskers.