Mother Earth Living

How to Read Dog Food Labels

Learning how to read dog food labels can help add to your pet’s happiness and health.
By Henrietta Morrison
April 2014
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Buying the best dog food you can afford is worth it in the long run, but knowing how to read dog food labels plays an integral part in making that decision.
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Author Henrietta Morrison knows a thing or two about fussy pets from her own dog, Lily, who was plagued by earaches and skin problems until Morrison started cooking for her and the symptoms disappeared. Dinner for Dogs (The Experiment, 2012) is her answer to these problems, and more. Morrison offers 50 simple, nutritious recipes for a happier, healthier dog—at any age. The following excerpt discusses the importance of knowing how to read dog food labels.

Purchase this book from the Mother Earth Living store: Dinner for Dogs.

How to Read Dog Food Labels

It’s handy to know what to look out for when you are looking for a ready-made food for your dog. Price is generally a good indicator: If a food is cheap, it’s because it’s made with cheap ingredients. Buying the best you can afford for your dog will be worth it in the long term—their health and happiness depend on it!

• Make your own dog food with this recipe: Peanut Butter Dog Treat Recipe

Dry Dog Foods

Dry foods were invented as a way of getting rid of waste material that food factories produced. Dry dog foods usually have a very pungent smell because they have had so many flavorings and fats added to encourage your dog to eat them.

All dry foods are not the same and you really do get what you pay for. More expensive dry foods made with whole ingredients include a wide variety of ingredients and chelated minerals, which your dog will be able to absorb better, rather than chemical compounds that do not get properly absorbed and just pass through the body.

Here’s an indication of what those ingredients on the label actually mean, so that you can navigate your way through the pet food aisle and choose exactly the kind of food you want your dog to eat.

Chicken by-product meal/powdered chicken/dry chicken/cooked chicken: These are all descriptions for an ingredient that is used in almost every dry food on the market today. Chicken by-product meal is made by boiling chicken by-products such as carcass, skin and feathers, siphoning off the fat to make tallow, and drying what is left at a very high temperature, then grinding it into a fine powder resembling dark sand. It produces a high level of protein, but dogs have trouble digesting it. This together with poor ingredients is what makes your dog gassy. Chicken and other meat meal is preserved with very heavy-duty artificial preservatives. When you are looking for a really good dry food, look for one that has fresh meat, rather than meat meal, listed as the first ingredient.

Ash: The percentage of ash provides a helpful indicator of the quality of the dry food you are buying. The lower the ash content, the better: Look for a dry food that has between 3 and 4 percent. Any dry food that contains more than 5 percent ash will have a lot of chicken by-product meal in it (see earlier in the article). More than 8 percent ash is a worrying amount.

Tomato Pomace: This is simply tomato skins, which, as any nutritionist will tell you, are made of indigestible fibers.

Oils and Fats: Dogs love fat! It’s cheap and it’s tasty—and it’s the only thing that tastes good to them in a kibble. Fat is sprayed onto the outside of the kibble to encourage dogs to eat up. Some dogs have figured this out and just lick the outside. Around an 8 to 10 percent fat content is healthy; dry foods containing more than 12 percent should be avoided.

Additives: Most dry foods use a long list of chemical additives to preserve them. The worst offenders are the semi-moist dry foods, which contain lots of preservatives to stop the moist pieces from getting moldy. The statement “No added preservatives, colors or flavorings” on a label may, in fact, be meaningless, as only the ingredients added during manufacturing legally have to be declared, not the preservatives that have been added to these ingredients before they arrive in the factory!

No Substitute for Brushing!

Some vets will tell you that dogs must eat only dry food to clean their teeth and prevent dental disease. But this alone won’t ensure clean teeth. If you speak to the veterinary technician, he or she will tell you that the only thing that really keeps your dog’s teeth clean is regular brushing!

Wet Dog Foods

Choose a food with lots of whole ingredients—pieces of food that you can recognize—chunks of real meat and real vegetables. Ideally, you want a food that resembles something you would make at home but that is also a complete food, i.e., with the precise balance of ingredients and nutrients your dog needs.

Most wet dog foods are made either as a “chunk and jelly” or as a “chunk and gravy.” When I first fed Lily wet food, I thought that the chunks in wet food were in fact pieces of meat; actually, they had no meat in them at all! What are made to look like chunks of meat are often in fact waste products and flour that have been formed into chunks. The best way to identify the chunks is to pull one out from the food and squeeze it to see if you are left with a powdery mush or a real piece of meat.

The “gravy” or “jelly” is usually a highly flavored water-based fluid that usually contains a wide variety of additives and sweeteners to entice your dog to eat it.

Now that you know the basics on how to read dog food labels, go one step further and try this Peanut Butter Dog Treat Recipe.


Excerpt from Dinner For Dogs: 50 Home-Cooked Recipes for a Happy, Healthy Dog, copyright © Henrietta Morrison, 2012. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold. Purchase this book from our store: Dinner for Dogs.


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