How to read a pet food label

Who regulates pet food?

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the US Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine (FDA-CVM), and your state government all work together to regulate pet food. AAFCO sets guidelines and standards for labeling, defines ingredients, and facilitates cooperation between pet food manufacturers and regulatory bodies. The FDA-CVM regulates pet food on a national level, enforces the guidelines set by AAFCO, ensures compliance by pet food companies, and has the authority to fine manufacturers and recall diets if they are substandard. Your state and local governments help the FDA-CVM with pet food regulation, and may pass other laws in addition to those set by the FDA.

The laws, guidelines, and regulations put forth by these entities control pet food labeling, as well as ingredient definitions, marketing, inspection of facilities, and much more. Their control over pet food labeling causes labels to become a type of legal document: everything on the label is there for a reason, and must comply with certain standards. Everything from the name of the food and the pictures used on the bag, to the ingredients list and guaranteed analysis, are regulated. Even font size and color are strictly controlled!

Why reading the label is important

A pet food label is essentially a legal document, and it tells you next to nothing about the quality of the diet within the bag (to determine this, check out How to pick a pet food, part 1). Using a pet food label to select a diet is a poor decision because there is much more information you need to learn about the food that is not on the label. Pet food companies are excellent at marketing, and will include enticing pictures and appealing phrases on their food bags, but ultimately these are poor indicators of diet quality.

Learning how to read a pet food label objectively and systematically is useful because it will help you see through marketing and focus on the truly valuable aspects of the label. There are few pieces of important info on there, and surprisingly, they aren’t the ones people usually home in on! (Hint, the ingredients list is not usually important!)

Brand name

Where to look

Front of bag, should be easily visible.

What to look for

Company name and logo.

Why to find it

The brand name tells who manufactures the diet. This is important because picking a reliable manufacturer is the first step to choosing a pet food (see How to pick a pet food, part 1).

Why it’s there

Legality.

Net quantity statement

Where to look

Front of bag, usually smaller size font, by the bottom.

What to look for

A measurement of how many pounds and kilograms are in the bag (if dry food), or ounces and grams (canned food), or a count (treats). These should be listed in both imperial and metric units.

Why to find it

This is helpful to know how much you’re buying and to compare with other products in terms of price per pound or ounce.

Why it’s there

Legality.

Species

Where to look

Front of bag, should be easily visible.

What to look for

The phrase “Dog food” or “Cat food,” as well as a picture or drawing of the species the food is intended for. Make sure you don’t focus too much on the breed of the pet pictured; the species is sufficient.

Why to find it

The intended species is a good thing to know; you wouldn’t want to be feeding dog food to your cat!

Why it’s there

Legality.

Food name

Where to look

Front of bag, should be easily visible.

What to look for

Usually the food name includes the type of meat used, and can include things like...

  • “100% chicken cat food”

  • “Beef dog food”

  • “Duck and liver cat food” or “Veal and sweet potato dog food”

  • “Salmon entrée dog food” or “Tuna formula cat food”

  • “Cat food with turkey”

  • “Bacon flavored dog food”

Why to find it

Each of these examples has a different legal meaning. Certain wording and phrases used will indicate what percentage of the whole diet these ingredients make up. Keep in mind that ingredients tell you nothing about the nutrient content of the diet; for this info, refer to the guaranteed analysis.

  • 100% chicken cat food” – The 100% tells you this food is made entirely of chicken. Foods that are 100% a single ingredient never have sufficient nutrients to be fed as the sole diet, so they should only be used as a treat or additive on top of your pet’s usual diet.

  • Beef dog food” – Diets that are described by one ingredient are 95% this ingredient by weight when water is removed.

  • “Duck and liver cat food” or “Veal and sweet potato dog food” – The word and means these two ingredients make up 95% of the diet by weight when water is removed, and the first ingredient must make up more percentagewise than the second ingredient.

  • “Salmon entrée dog food” or “Tuna formula cat food” – The terms entrée, dinner, formula, or platter tell you the diet is only 25% of this ingredient by weight when water is removed.

  • “Cat food with turkey” – The word with lets you know the food is only 3% turkey by weight once water is removed.

  • “Bacon flavored dog food” – The term flavor just means that some ingredient in the food should be providing the flavor. There is no percentage requirement for flavors.

Why it’s there

Legality. These phrases are also used for marketing purposes, where the company appeals to what the owner wants to see.

Marketing

Where to look

Front of bag, typically easily visible.

What you'll see

Phrases and photographs used to appeal to you, the owner...

  • Organic, natural, holistic, non-GMO, grain-free, gluten free, human grade/human quality, high protein, gourmet, high quality, premium, prey-based feeding, biologically appropriate – None of these terms are regulated (caveat: if a company wants certain ingredients to be certified USDA Organic or Human-Grade, they must pay to have the USDA inspect their facilities). Furthermore, these terms tell you exactly nothing about the quality of the diet or its ingredients. There is no scientific evidence showing that foods bearing any of these claims have superior nutrition.

  • Pictures of meats, fruits, vegetables, or other enticing morsels – These are strictly for your (the pet owner’s) benefit. These photos don’t legally have to match what’s on the ingredients list, and they are not regulated by the FDA.

Why it's there

Certain colors and font sizes are regulated by governing authorities, but they do not control most of this added “fluff” found on the bag. Most of this is a tool to help sell the product. Companies who use lots of pretty pictures and appealing phrases put much of their profit back into marketing; essentially, you are paying for the marketing, not the quality, of the food!

Check out Pet food marketing for more information.

Ingredients

Where to look

Back or side of bag, easily visible.

What to look for

A box containing a list of ingredients.

Example of an ingredient deck.

Why to find it

The ingredients list is important if your pet has been diagnosed with a food allergy by a veterinarian (see Food allergies for more information). Otherwise, it should not be used to make a decision when choosing a new diet.

The ingredients list gives no indication of nutrition. Nutrients are components of the diet (such as fat, fiber, protein, minerals, and vitamins) which are necessary for life. Nutrients are found within ingredients. Many ingredients provide multiple nutrients, with different proportions. For example, corn provides protein, carbohydrates, and minerals.

It is also very important to keep in mind that ingredients do not tell you anything about the diet’s quality. The quality of each ingredient is indicated by its nutrient profile (i.e., how much of each nutrient that ingredient provides), its digestibility (i.e., how well the animal’s digestive tract breaks it down), and the bioavailability of its nutrients (i.e., how well the animal can actually use the nutrients once broken down). None of these details are described on the bag; the best resource for finding this information is a nutrition textbook. Some pet food companies will actually do studies on their food to test these parameters, and these details are usually outlined in a product catalog.

Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, including water; i.e., the heaviest and most abundant product is listed first. For example, the first ingredient may be listed as “whole chicken breast;” the chicken breast is heavy because it has lots of water included naturally. This does not mean that chicken provides most of the nutrition in the diet; quite the contrary, in most cases. Additionally, when water is removed from the chicken breast during cooking, it will no longer be the heaviest ingredient in the diet anymore. Ingredients listed at the very end, after salt, typically make up less than 2% of the diet. This includes things like vitamins and minerals.

You may notice some ingredients have long or strange-sounding names. All ingredients must be listed in a certain way, so they follow AAFCO’s definitions. For example, this is why you may see chemical names of vitamins or preservatives.

Why it's there

Legality: all ingredients must be defined by AAFCO and approved as safe by the FDA.

Many manufacturers also use the ingredients list as a marketing tool. Companies know that this is the first thing many pet owners look at, so they try to make it look more appealing by putting whole meat and vegetables at the top of the list. However, as stated above, water is lost from these ingredients during cooking, and they may actually contribute little nutrition to the overall diet.

Guaranteed analysis

Where to look

Back or side of bag, easily visible.

What to look for

A box containing values, which may be in a list or table format.

Example of a guaranteed analysis

Why to find it

The guaranteed analysis indicates percentages of the most important and abundant nutrients in the food, including fat, fiber, protein, water, and ash (AKA minerals). (The guaranteed analysis does not legally have to include carbohydrates, so you need to calculate this.) This is important because the food must have certain percentages of each nutrient to meet the AAFCO dog and cat nutrient profiles. It is also important when considering the pet’s lifestyle, and choosing a food with a nutrient profile that meets their demands (see How to pick a pet food, part 2).

To learn much more about individual nutrients, visit Nutrient requirements.

The term “crude” will be used in front of fat, fiber, and protein. This does not reflect the quality or characteristics of the nutrient; it simply indicates the method that was used to determine the percentages.

The word “minimum” will be used in front of fat and protein. This means the diet has no less than X percent of fat or protein. For example, the food above has no less than 16% crude fat and no less than 26% of crude protein. The word “maximum” will be used in front of fiber and moisture. This means the diet has no more than X percent of fiber or moisture. For example, the food above has no more than 4% of crude fiber and no more than 12% of moisture (water). You may see a problem with this: how do we know the exact percentages of these nutrients? Currently, there are no more specific legal labeling requirements for the guaranteed analysis. However, reliable pet food manufacturers will be able to give you this information if you call them and ask (see How to pick a pet food, part 1).

When comparing foods, it is important to read the guaranteed analysis on a dry matter basis (DMB). This means you are considering these percentages minus water/moisture. (On the label, the guaranteed analysis is on an as-fed basis, which includes water.) To do this, you have to do a bit of math. First, subtract the moisture from 100% to get your denominator. Then, put each nutrient percentage in the numerator spot and divide by the new denominator. This will give you the percentage of the nutrient on DMB. See the example below for DMB calculations for the guaranteed analysis shown above.

Comparing on DMB is important because foods may have different levels of moisture which can throw off the “actual” percentages of nutrients. For example, canned food may only list 6.6% crude protein as-fed, but excluding inherent moisture (80%), the protein is actually 33% on DMB. See the table below for comparisons between dry and canned examples.

Why it's there

Legality. Not usually used as a marketing tactic, but can be confusing when comparing foods of different moisture contents.

Calorie statement

Where to look

Back or side of bag.

What to look for

A statement like: “This food contains X kilocalories (kcal) per standard 8oz measuring cup” or one with similar wordage. The text is usually small; you may have to search for it.

Example of a calorie statement

Why to find it

The calorie statement is important when determining how much to feed your pet. The number of kilocalories per cup varies greatly between foods: it varies based on size, shape, and weight of the kibbles, as well as the diet’s nutrient profile. The most accurate way to ensure your pet is getting the right number of kcal is to weigh the food on a gram scale (visit How to accurately measure your pet's food for more info). Check with the manufacturer to see if they provide grams per cup (can be on the label, website, or you may have to call them).

Why it's there

Legality.

Feeding guidelines

Where to look

Back or side of bag.

What to look for

List or table depicting how much food should be given to pets of certain weights.

Example of a feeding guide. Notice that the manufacturer provides pet weight in both pounds and kilograms, and food measurements in both cups and grams.

Why to find it

The feeding guidelines are just that: guidelines. They are not right for every pet; they do not (and cannot) consider the age, breed, size, health status, or activity level of every pet. You can use the guidelines as a rough estimate, but you will likely need to adjust. See How to calculate your pet's calorie needs for instructions.

Why it's there

Legality.

Nutritional adequacy statement

Where to look

Back or side of bag.

What to look for

A short statement, such as:

  • “This diet is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for adult maintenance.”

  • Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that this diet provides complete and balanced nutrition for adult cats.”

  • “This diet provides complete and balanced nutrition for adult dog maintenance and is comparable to a product which has been substantiated using AAFCO feeding tests.”

  • “This diet is for intermittent or supplemental feeding only.”

Why to find it

The nutritional adequacy statement tells who the diet is intended to feed, in terms of species and life stage. Puppies, adult dogs, and pregnant or lactating bitches all require different nutrition. The same is true for different life stages of cats. (See How to pick a pet food, part 2 for more information on choosing a diet for life stage.)

  • Diets that are formulated to meet AAFCO nutrient profiles demonstrate that their recipe or formula contains the necessary percentages of each nutrient outlined by AAFCO. This is a good baseline to make sure the diet has the right amount of each nutrient and shows the diet will probably meet the needs of a healthy animal.

  • AAFCO-approved animal feeding trials require that a group of dogs or cats in a particular life stage eat the food for a specific period of time. This is a good way to make sure that the animals can digest and absorb the nutrients, that the nutrients are bioavailable, and that the animals do not get sick on the food. It is also a way to find any toxic properties of the food that may have been missed on formulation. Manufacturers that do feeding trials in addition to meeting AAFCO nutrient profiles have put extra time, effort, and money into producing their diets (see How to pick a pet food, part 1 for more information).

  • Diets that are comparable to a product that follows AAFCO procedures are usually labeled as such because they are in a “family” of products which are nutritionally similar. The diets’ formulations are different enough for them to be considered separate diets, but their nutrition does not differ at all. This type of labeling is not used very often.

  • Foods that are labeled for intermittent or supplemental feeding are important to take note of. Sometimes, the food will come in a can or bag that gives you every indication that it is meant to be fed as the pet’s sole diet, but it can have nutrient deficiencies and toxicities when fed as the only source of nutrition. Foods labeled like this should only be used as treats or food toppers (see Treats, table scraps, and food toppers for more information).

Why it's there

Legality. Dogs and cats each require over 40 nutrients to be in their diet so that they can live a healthy life. AAFCO has nutrient profiles for dogs and cats of different life stages, which list the nutrients and percentages that must be in the diet. On a pet food label, AAFCO recognizes these different types of statements for complete and balanced pet food, to ensure the diet is meeting the average pet’s nutritional needs.

Other important information

Where to look

Back or side of bag, usually in small text.

What to look for and why to find it

  • Best-by date – This is a guide, not a definite expiration date. Always check your pet’s food for spoilage, strange smells, or abnormal textures. (See Food storage for more info.)

  • Lot number – If there is ever a recall or problem with your pet’s food, the lot number identifies the batch, location manufactured, and other details about the diet. This can help the manufacturer figure out the problem and recall associated foods, and it will help you figure out whether or not your bag is in the batch being recalled. (To learn more about recalls, click here.)

  • Manufacturer info – If you ever have questions, concerns, or problems regarding your pet’s food, you should be able to call or write to the manufacturer at the phone number or address printed on the label.