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Pet Food Labels 101: Kibble

Choosing a kibble is a daunting task. Your best (and easiest) bet is to find an independent pet supply you trust and talk about your options. However, not all pet supply stores are created equal. Some are paid by pet food manufacturers to recommend their foods, even if it isn’t necessarily appropriate for your pooch. Boo. In such a market place, you must arm yourself with a little knowledge.

Before you buy your next bag of chow, vittles, or meat cereal, flip it over and read the ingredient panel. What you see can speak volumes.

I have a compulsion for reading the labels on dog food. Really and truly. I’ve been known to get caught up in the Pet Food aisle of just about any store, flipping bags, snerking and making exclamations to no one in particular. The Husband is a huge fan of this, let me tell ya. Before he manages to wrestle me on my way, I’ll walk you through some of my label reading thought process.

We’ll reference a couple ‘anonymous’ food ingredient listings to illustrate the important points.

The top three. 95% of the time I am most concerned with the first 3 listed ingredients. In fact, I usually stop reading somewhere around the 9 or 10 mark. After that it’s typically more of the same: vitamins, digestive enzymes, the realm of un-pronounceables.

Note: If you have a dog with extensive allergies, particularly to non-protein items, keep reading that label.

Of those top 3 items, I want 2 or even three of them to be meat. Preferably meat meals (more on that in a sec). This is the first thing I look for in a dog food. If it doesn’t pass this criteria, stop reading. Move it along.

A good example:

Lamb meal, deboned lamb, steel-cut oats, peas, whole apples, whole potato, sunflower oil, oat flakes, lamb liver*

Compare to:

Turkey, brewers rice, barley, chicken meal (natural source of glucosamine), dried egg product, brewers dried yeast, animal fat preserved with mixed-tocopherols (form of Vitamin E), oat meal*

Less than good.

*Both ingredient panels snipped for brevity. Another Note: These are ingredient listings from actual foods. Some of the better ones actually. Read labels in any grocery store, you will see much, much worse.

Why do I want to see more meat? Let me count the ways.

Dog metabolize meat more effectively. Like it or not, our dogs are omnivores, with deep carnivorous inclinations. Those short digestive tracts I always make reference to, get more caloric value out of meat than they do the equivalent amount of plant protein. More meat in food means easier digestion. More protein. And more bang for your dog food buck.

Ingredients are listed by weight. Items on the ingredient panel are listed in order of weight. In our second example, there may be more turkey than brewers rice or barley, but is there more turkey than brewers rice AND barley? If only one of the top 3 ingredients is meat, that food likely contains more of the next 2 ingredients combined. Especially in this case, because of…

Ingredient naming requirements. All those ingredient terms are subject to a funny set of regulations created by The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). In my opinion, AAFCO has some ridiculous stipulations. For instance, a whole meat source (ie, chicken, lamb, buffalo) includes the water weight of item prior to cooking. Does any of that water make it into the kibble? Of course not. Meat “meals” (ie, chicken meal, lamb meal, buffalo meal) are rendered (aka cooked) prior to processing. That means ground and cooked down, water not included. It sounds gross, but depending on your sourcing (now more on THIS later), ‘meal’ indicates more meat is actually making it into the food.

Everyone misses this, so let me repeat. Meal is not bad. Meal can mean more meat. It totally depends on the…

Sourcing, not created equal. All companies have to call their cooked down chicken ‘Chicken Meal’. (Again, thanks AAFCO) Regardless of whether that chicken meal is the whole (and I do mean whole) ground chicken its intended to be or a big drum of heads, legs, feathers, and offal shipped over from China. On the label, they are both called the same thing. The quality of the item depends on who makes it and how much the company who buys it cares.

I could go on: plant based proteins (pea protein, potato protein – avoid them), Grain-Free varieties (rotate), protein levels (moderate, also rotate), novel grains and protein sources, synthetic vitamins, extruded foods, processing temperatures, and manufacturing facilities. Most people, their eyes would likely glaze over. They start thinking about what’s for lunch. I know the look. In truth, average Joe or Jane Consumer doesn’t have to know that level of detail.

If I could leave you with just a few take aways, they’d be

Read that label in the first place. You might be appalled with what you find.
Look for meat. At least, two of the top three ingredients should be meat.
Be cool with ‘meals’. They aren’t as bad as you think, just make sure you…
Know your kibble manufacturer. As much as possible, familiarize yourself with their philosophy and sourcing practices.

The food you choose really depends on you and your dog. Cost? Convenience? Allergies? Energy level? Just be sure you use the tools readily available to you to make the most informed decision for both of you.

Do you know whats in your dog’s food? How do you choose a kibble? Anyone else a die hard label reader?

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very helpful info, thanks!


Any ol’ time. 😉


Haha, I totally relate to the “husband” comment, and this topic doesn’t only apply to dog food. I didn’t know what a lot of the stuff on the cat food label was until I read the Omnivore’s Dilemma. In the catfood aisle of one of the big retailers, I was reading a label to him, saying, “Chicken Meal, corn, corn, corn, corn… Baby, cats are carnivores!” He still argued with me. Permanent note to self: buy pet food without the hubby. I feel most comfortable when all of the first few ingredients are both words I can pronounce and define.

Btw, I switched my dog to Acana per your recommendation, and not only does he love it, but the cats are also very interested. I might have to switch them up, too!


Glad to hear the Acana is working out! They make a great cat food too.

The Husband is pretty well trained in these things, so he accepts a certain amount. I just get a commentary of “You are surprised?” “Is this anything you don’t know?”. I consider it free entertainment though. Want to be really appalled, flip over a bag of beneful. Worst. Ever.

Kimberly C

I really appreciate the information about meat meals! This post lead to me losing over an hour of my morning to researching dog kibbles. Reading your posts has inspired me to do research into my dogs and really advocating for their health, so thank you. :) Slowly but surely introducing some raw meals in here and there, making raw bones at least a weekly thing, picked up probiotics, and now thinking about rotating kibbles. I’ve already been a die-hard label reader for human food, so it’s not a stretch to be obsessive about dog food!


HA! It is pretty easy to get lost on the weeds on kibble research. At least you lost an hour at your desk instead of wandering around a store aimlessly for an hour. Or so. Not that I’ve done that.

I agree Pet Food is a natural extension of food advocacy in general. Just one often over looked.


I work for a large chain pet store. I love my job, my clients, and my company. However, before I worked there I thought the people with the food samples worked for the company. If you are in a large chain pet store and someone is wearing a shirt or apron and doing a demo or handing out samples they DO NOT WORK for the large chain pet store. They are a pet food rep and are paid by the food company. They will only recommend their food and tell you the 900 ways it is better than than others. Most of the time they are talking out their butt or doing demos that make no sense. “My food floats! Other food sinks. Sinky food = bad.” What the heck? If you have questions, please speak to someone who works for the store itself. We will be honest with you. We will direction you away from the bright yellow bags of garbage and discuss protein content, meals, sources of foods and ingredients. If we don’t carry an appropriate food we will send you to the specialty store because we know what they carry because we often shop their ourselves!

So that’s a lot, but I wanted to share. Personally, I rotate out several high quality kibbles and supplement with raw meat and bones, yogurt, fish oils and other yummy things.


Sinking vs. floating food cracks me up! Thanks for sharing that! And pointing out that yes, those in store demos are often worthless, depending on the venue in my opinion. Always follow it up with a store employee. Hopefully one, knowledgable like you!


Yeah, that demo is for the food that uses highly processed corn as its main ingredient. The rep is here all the time trying to get people to believe corn is the best thing ever. (LMAFO).

I guess I just wanted to share that those of use who work for big box really do support local smaller stores too. I refer out all the time for specific foods and items that we don’t carry. I’ll try to help, but if I can’t, I know enough about my community to tell you where to find the item you need, or who can help you find it whether it be a food, toy, specific treat, or where to swim your dog for therapy:)

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