How to Read a Pet Food Label

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Reading cat and dog food labels is confusing and tricky.  Are you sure you are feeding your pet the healthiest and most nutritious food money can buy?  I’m still trying to figure that out for myself and my westie, Yuki, but here are some facts I’ve learned along the way about production and labeling regulations.

white westie sitting on a mat

It’s my dinner time!

Who’s in charge?

Pet food is regulated both federally and at the state level with standards determined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).  The AAFCO is responsible for establishing nutritional standards for each species and lifestage (ex: X% of protein for a senior cat).  The manufacturer is responsible for formulating their product to meet AAFCO standards, and the government is responsible for ensuring that manufacturers are actually doing so.

There’s no doubt that some brands and formulations of pet food are better than others.  However, AAFCO standards exist so that any brand of food you buy through any honest retailer should contain, in theory, the vital nutrients your pet needs.  Though standards are strict, they are also minimal, meaning as long as manufacturers meet regulations, they have some wiggle room in how their product is presented to pet owners.

100% All Natural?  The FDA hasn’t defined the word “natural” or its derivatives, and therefore cannot regulate the use of the word on product packaging.

Veterinarian Recommended? In order to use this term, the manufacturer must conduct a survey that proves a statistically significant number of veterinarians actually do recommend the product. However, “Veterinarian Formulated” or “Veterinarian Developed” only takes one veterinarian to provide proof to the claim.


It’s important to distinguish between ingredients and nutrients.  Ingredients contain the nutrients that are essential for growth and health.  For example, chicken meat contains proteins that help build and maintain body tissues.  Feeding your pet the right ingredients is the foundation of providing them with the nutrients they need.

On the label, ingredients are listed by weight.  Since the first five ingredients usually make up the bulk of the product, meat should be one of the first three ingredients listed to ensure adequate protein levels.  However, manufacturers could try to deceive you by listing all the components of one grain, such as corn, as separate ingredients under different names.  After adding up what is essentially one ingredient, you may find that the grain takes up more mass than the meat.

Guaranteed Analysis (Nutrients):

This section lists the minimum or maximum amount of each nutrient in the product, not the actual amount.  A product with a 10% fat minimum guarantee can actually contain double that percentage, which is unsettling for pet owners with overweight dogs or cats.  This section also does not guarantee nutrient quality.  Look back at the ingredient list.  Is the food made with meat or by-products?  Chicken beaks and feet are poor sources of protein in comparison to muscle meat that will give your cat or dog the whole suite of amino acids it needs.  However, passing up all food containing animal by-products may be excessive, as liver and other organs are great sources of protein for pets.  The only way to really find out what’s in the by-products is to call the manufacturer.

AAFCO Statement:

This statement verifies that the product has met AAFCO standards for a specific species and lifestage.  I learned to be wary of food guaranteed for “all lifestages” as it must contain high levels of nutrients for healthy growth in kittens and puppies, but are excessive and detrimental to the wellbeing of my senior dog.  You should consult your veterinarian to find out the specific needs of your pet before buying a new batch of food.

pet food label chart

Infographic by Petco

Editors Note: We originally wanted to write this blog to make it easier for pet owners to choose quality food.  Once we started researching, we realized the labeling process is full of deceptive practices and choosing healthy food based on the nutritional label is easier said than done. Perhaps this is why so many pet owners are turning to artisan pet food companies or home cooking their pet food.

Do you have any tips on how to read a pet food label? Leave a comment below!

6 Responses

  1. Isolde says:

    I buy expensive cat food for my cats. It lists “Chicken Meal” as first ingredient. I would rather see “Chicken” as first ingredient. I would appreciate if someone would tell me what is chicken meal, the whole ground up chicken? Thanks. Isolde.

    • Estelle W. says:

      Hi Isolde: Here is what Wikipedia says about chicken meal. Depending on the brand, they may or may not use certain parts in the rendering process. If you want to know how much and what parts of the chicken are included in your cat’s food, I would start with the manufacturer’s website. Oftentimes, you can find specific ingredient breakdowns, and even where the ingredients are obtained. If you can’t find the information you seek on their website, look for an email address to where you can send your inquiry, or message them through Facebook. Good luck!

  2. Sabra says:

    This is a good article, but yeah, I still feel confused about the whole labeling thing. There are so many kinds of food, and I have wondered before about just cooking my own. I use a “premium” brand right now, but it does appear that just spending more money doesn’t guarantee that it is a quality food. Thanks for the article, gonna have to do some homework!

  3. Marla dwartz says:

    AAFCO….you know when the last one was written…..1983.

  4. Lyn says:

    Continuation of vegan cat food description.

    Guaranteed Analysis
    Crude Protein (Minimum)……….28.0%
    Crude Fat (Minimum)…………….14.0%
    Crude Fiber (Minimum)……………3.5%
    Moisture (Minimum)……………..10.0%
    Ash Content (Minimum)…………..6.0%

    Ingredients: non GMO oats, Non GMO whole Oats, Corn Gluten Meal, Soybean Meal, Soybean Oil, Molasses, Dicalcuim Phosphate, Carrots, Dried Tomato Pomace, Calcium Carbonate, Potassium Chloride, DL-Methionine, Dried Potato, Choline Chloride, Yeast Extract, Taurine, L-Lysine, Garlic, Yeast Culture, Minerals (Iron Proteinate, Zinc Proteinate, Copper Proteinate, Manganese Proteinate, Cobalt Proteinate, Magnesium Proteinate, Ferrous Sulfate, Zinc Sulfate, Zinc Oxide, Sodium Selenite, Mineral Oil, Calcium Iodate, Cobalt Carbonate), Salt, Vitamins (Vitamin A Acetate, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, Niacin, D-Calcium Pantothenate, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Pyrrolidone Hydrochloride, Folic Acid, Menadione Sodium Bisulfate [Vitamin K], Biotin, Vitamin B12), Kelp Meal, Inositol, L-Carnitine, Vitamin C, L-Tryptophan, Rosemary Extract, Yucca Schindigera Extract

  5. Lyn says:

    What about vegan cat food?

    - Natural Protein (without animal by-products or diseased animals) from non-bloat inducing soy.

    – No growth hormone, antibiotic or fecal residues. Growth Hormones and Antibiotics have been directly linked to various forms of cancer in animals and humans.

    – Pure polyunsaturated vegetable oil with complete fatty acids (no saturated animal fat and no cholesterol like all flesh based pet foods have). Cats can die from heart disease, strokes, and cancers related to fats, antibiotics and growth hormones just like people, so Evolution avoids the unhealthy ingredients that can contribute to health problems.

    – Added Taurine and Carnitine, two essential nutrients for cats health.

    – Added specific proteins for health of heart and urinary tract.

    – Added vitamins and herbs to enhance immunity and increase life expectancy.

    – Low Mineral Ash, Low Magnesium; High Methionine to prevent kidney obstruction.

    – All products are 100% complete for all life stages. If you have different aged cats for example, you don’t have to feed them separate foods.

    – Live Enzymes and Acidophilus and Bifidus microbes to aid digestion and utilization of food.

    – Hypo-Allergenic.

    – Vitamin A Acetate Especially needed by cats.