Reading Food Labels

posted: by: Dawn, RVT Tags: "Clinic Specials" "News" 

What should I feed my pet?  There are so many different kinds of pet foods today, so how do I decide?

As with buying food for yourself, it's important to read the labels on your pet's food.  Pet foods range in formulas, brands, and prices.  As with most things, cheaper is not always better.  Nor is expensive always the way to go.

First of all, consult your veterinarian.  Check to be sure that your pet does not require a prescription food or specific food for health reasons.  Often times a prescription weight loss diet or food for specific medical conditions works better than commercial pet food formulas for the same condition.  Ask your veterinarian what food or formula he or she recommends for your pet.

There are 3 organizations that have a role in regulating pet foods:

1)       AAFCO-Association of American Feed Control Officials: made up of local, state and federal agencies that regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds and animal drug remedies.

2)       FDA-Food and Drug Administration: primarily responsible for product claims

3)       USDA-United States Department of Agriculture: primarily responsible for ingredient regulation


Today everyone is reading labels for everything, including pet food.  Pet food labels must include certain information regarding ingredients, nutritional value and feeding guidelines.

-          Ingredients: listed in descending order by weight.  Usually the protein source (chicken, beef, etc) is listed first because it contains more than 50% water, therefore making it heavier.  It does not mean that it is the 'best' ingredient in the food.

-          Guaranteed Analysis: gives the minimum or maximum levels of nutrients in the food (ie: minimum protein 30% means it could have more protein, and maximum 2% fiber means it has no more than 2% fiber, although that amount may actually be less than 2%)

-          Nutritional Adequacy Statement: verifies that the food provides complete and balanced nutrition for whom the product is intended.

-          Manufacturer's Name and Contact Number: There must be contact information for the manufacturer listed on the food.

-          Feeding Guidelines: these are usually based on age and average weights.  These are just guidelines, however, and you may have to adjust the actual amount you feed your pet if your pet is overweight or underweight.

Some pet foods, especially wet foods, are labeled as 'beef platter' or 'chicken dinner.'  What does this really mean?

-          Foods labeled as 'Chicken, Beef,' etc, must contain at least 95% of that ingredient

-          Foods labeled as 'Dinner,' 'Entree, or 'Platter,' must contain at least 25% of that ingredient

-          Foods labeled 'with Chicken,' 'with Beef', must contain at least 3% of that ingredient

-          Foods labeled as 'flavored' have no specific percentage requirement, but they must list the source of the flavoring

Diet Foods

Many commercial pet foods advertise formulas that are reduced calorie or low fat.  Read and compare labels carefully.  If a product says it's proven, than it must be backed by scientific evidence (food trials, etc).

For a pet food to be considered 'Light' or 'Lite' it must contain less than a set amount of calories:

            Dog: dry food less than 3100 kcal/kg; wet food less than 900 kcal/kg

            Cat: dry food less than 3250 kcal/kg; wet food less than 950 kcal/kg

Products claiming to be:

            Less or Reduced Calorie: must list comparison product and percent of calorie reduction

            Less or Reduced Fat: must list comparison product and percent of fat reduction

            Lean or Low Fat: Crude Fat must be less than 9% for dry dog food, 4% for wet dog food, 10% for dry cat food, and 5% for wet cat food.


Pet foods should be formulated for different life stages (growing animals, adult animals, senior or geriatric animals).  Like with people, nutritional requirements change as animals age, and their food should change also.   For example, puppies and kittens require more protein than senior animals.  Some foods are labeled as good for 'All Life Stages.'  These foods aren'™t necessarily good for older animals as they contain too much protein for senior pets, or too much fat for adult pets, etc.

Organic & Natural

Organic and natural foods are gaining popularity as people strive to avoid what's perceived to be harmful or excess chemicals or products in not only their own food, but in their pet's food also.  However, don't let the labels fool you. 

Foods can only be labeled organic if they follow the USDA rules for organic foods.  Unless it says 100% Organic, it is likely not 100% organic.  For a food to be able to carry the USDA Organic Seal, it must be 95-100% organic.

Organic does not mean natural, and vice versa.  AAFCO defines the term natural as consisting only natural ingredients without any chemical alterations.  Unless it says 100% Natural, it is likely not 100% natural.

Holistic is not legally defined pertaining to pet foods.  Anybody can claim the pet food is holistic regardless of what is in the food.

Today, many people are concerned about by-products in food.  A by-product is a part or secondary product produced in addition to the principle product.  Yes, beaks, feathers, etc are considered by-products, as are the heart, liver, etc.  However, anything taken from the original product is considered a by-product.  Chicken bones are a by-product of chicken.  Chicken wings are a by-product of chicken.  Ribs are a by-product of pigs.  So by-products are not necessarily a bad thing in pet food.

Raw Diet

So maybe I should just skip the commercial pet foods and cook for my pet so I know exactly what he's eating.  Before you do this, consider these couple points.

1)       Risk of food poisoning-As with all raw foods, there is the risk of contracting food poisoning either during preparation or from the foods being under-cooked.  Dogs and cats are at risk along with humans.

2)       Nutrition-For a raw diet to have complete nutrition for your pet, ingredients other than just meat and a carbohydrate source must be used to ensure your pet gets needed vitamins, minerals, amino acids, etc.  Cats, for example, require an amino acid called Taurine that their bodies cannot make, so it must be included in their diet.  Are you willing to add in everything required for your pet to have complete and balanced nutrition?

An important point to remember: The quality of pet food is determined by the nutritional value of each ingredient blended together that makes up the food specific for the pet's age or condition.  Just because a food contains this or that ingredient does not mean that it's the best food or the worst food.  What's more important is the quality of that ingredient in the mix of all other ingredients to provide a nutritionally balanced food.

Cats and dogs are carnivores, and commercial pet foods are formulated with that in mind.  Pets require a good, quality protein source as well as a good quality carbohydrate source.  Pet foods are formulated to meet the nutritional requirements (proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, etc) pets require to live a healthy life.  What your pet eats affects all areas of your pet's life and body from inside out.

All of this being said, what pet food is the best choice for you and your pet?  Ultimately that is up to you, but we urge you to use your veterinarian's recommendations as well as the above information to compare pet food labels.  Please remember if your veterinarian recommends or prescribes a prescription diet, it is in your pet's best interests to follow through with that pet food.  Prescription diets are formulated for specific health issues to help decrease or delay the severity of symptoms.

Final Thought

As stated above, cheaper is not always better.  Quality pet food companies use quality ingredients, and therefore have little need for fillers.  Many of the 'cheaper' brands have a lot of fillers.  The more fillers that are in the food, the more your pet needs to eat of that food.  Compare feeding guidelines for the foods you are considering.  Even though that 30 pound bag of store brand dog food is only $20 compared to another brands' 30 pounds that costs $35, look at how much they tell you to feed your dog according to age and weight.  If you have to feed more of the 'cheaper' food, are you really saving money in the long run?