how to read pet food labels
Updated February 21, 2019
Does “premium” and “gourmet” actually mean anything when it comes to your pet’s food? Are “natural” and “organic” foods really healthier?
When it comes to pet food, there’s no one source for comparing the kibbles and bits. But you can learn how to read your pet food label to better evaluate what to feed your four-legged family members.
What's on a pet food label?
Labels typically have two parts: the display panel and the information panel. The display panel includes the brand, name and description of the food, and the information panel is the equivalent of the nutritional facts on people food. It’s not as detailed as the nutritional facts, but here you’ll find the guaranteed analysis, ingredient list, feeding guidelines and nutritional adequacy statement.
The “crude” truth
The guaranteed analysis lists the minimum percentages of crude protein and crude fat, and maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture.
“Crude” refers to the method of measuring that’s used, not the quality of the protein, fat or fiber. These percentages are on an “as fed” basis, so foods that contain more water (like canned foods) appear to have less protein than food with less water (dry foods). That’s usually not the case.
A weighty matter
Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight (not nutritional value). Weight includes the moisture in the ingredient, so some ingredients may appear higher in the list even if lower-moisture ingredients contribute more nutrients.
For example, the first ingredient may be chicken, which weighs more than other ingredients because it could be 70% water. But the food may contain wheat in various forms listed as individual ingredients, like wheat flour, ground wheat and wheat middling. So, the food may actually contain more wheat than chicken.
Bottom line: just because a protein source is listed first doesn’t mean the diet is high in protein.
Quantifying the kibble
Feeding guidelines are based on the average intake for all cats or dogs. And while the guidelines are a starting point, a pet’s nutritional requirements vary based on age, breed, body weight, genetics, activity level and even the climate.
If your pet starts getting pudgy, you may need to feed her less, and vice versa. Your vet is your best resource in deciding the appropriate amount.
Mind your morsels
The nutritional adequacy statement was developed by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which standardizes pet food nutrient contents (in Canada, the Packaging and Labelling Act regulates the guidelines). This statement assures pet parents that when the pet food is fed as the sole source of nutrition, it meets or exceeds the nutritional requirements for a dog or cat at one or more life stages.
The AAFCO only recognizes “adult maintenance” and “growth and reproduction” as life stages, or if the diet meets both, “all life stages.” Profiles for senior, geriatric, small breed, large breed, weight reduction or weight maintenance don’t exist.
The statement also shows how pet food manufacturers have met the AAFCO’s standards by calculations or feeding trials.
Calculations estimate the amount of nutrients in a pet food on the basis of the average nutrient content of the ingredients or on results from lab testing. Such a food would carry a statement like, “Brand A is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO (Dog or Cat) Food Nutrient Profiles for [stated life stage(s)].”
Feeding trials signify that the manufacturer has tested the product (or similar product from the same manufacturer) by feeding it to dogs or cats under specific guidelines. These foods carry a statement like “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Brand A provides complete and balanced nutrition for [stated life stage(s)].”
Pet food label terms
|Less or reduced calories||Food that has fewer calories than another food, and the same rule applies to “less fat” or “reduced fat.” Pet labels aren’t usually required to provide calorie content.|
|Natural||“A feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mixed sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis, or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.”|
|Organic||“A formula feed or a specific ingredient within a formula feed that has been produced and handled in compliance with the requirements of the USDA National Organic Program (7 CFR Part 205).” Even if a pet food is “natural” or “organic,” it usually contains added synthetically-produced vitamins and minerals.|
|Biologically Appropriate Raw Food (BARF)*||“BARF” is food that is made of raw ingredients or, according to the AAFCO, “food in its natural or crude state not having been subjected to heat in the course of preparation as food.”|
|Gourmet or Premium*||Food that is allegedly composed of higher quality ingredients.|
|Grain-free*||Food is that doesn’t contain any grains or grain-derived protein. It implies that the protein comes from animal sources, but doesn’t imply low carb or high protein.|
|Human-grade*||Refers to the quality of the finished product, which is legally suitable and approved for consumption by a human in accordance with the FDA Code of Federal Regulations Title 21.|
|Whole Foods*||Unprocessed and unrefined foods, or processed and refined as little as possible before being consumed, and don’t contain added ingredients like salt or fat.|
*Not an official term
Hungry for more?
Pet food labels are required to include the manufacturer’s contact information. As a consumer, you have the right to contact the company and ask for more information, such as:
- • Do you have a Veterinary Nutritionist or some equivalent on staff in your company? Is he/she available for consultation or questions?
- • Who formulates your diets and what are their credentials?
- • What specific quality control measures do you use to assure the consistency and quality of your product line?
- • Can you give me the caloric value per can or cup of your diets?
If you contact a manufacturer and they do not provide sufficient answers to your questions, then you should consider feeding your pet a different diet.
When all is read and done, there is no one “best” dog or cat food. It’s up to the pet parent, with the help of a veterinarian, to find what works best for your family and your pet. Try choosing a diet that’s been evaluated using feeding trials, and see how it reacts with your pet.
On an appropriate diet, your pet should have formed stools – not too much, not too frequently. Your pet’s coat should be rich in color and not dry or brittle. He should have good energy, ideal weight and good muscle tone. Vomiting, loose stools and picky eating aren’t normal – consider re-evaluating your pet’s diet if any of these signs occur and contacting your veterinarian for an exam.