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Guide to Reading Pet Food Labels

Guide to Reading Pet Food Labels

Have You Ever Considered What’s in the Food You Give Your Pets?

You can use pet food labels to help you understand the quality of food you're feeding your pets. Unfortunately, some pet food makers manipulate information on labels to make their food appear healthier than it really is. The FDA regulates pet food labeling, but not at the same level as human food. Additionally, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) provides unofficial regulations that are controlled by lobbyists. Although the AAFCO regulations are not laws themselves, a majority of states use some version of those rules as their state laws.

AAFCO Regulations for Pet Food Labeling

Feeding directions are required under AAFCO regulations, for most pet foods claiming to provide complete and balanced nutrition. Qualifying and quantifying pet nutrition is not yet an exact science due to the differences in the various need levels between humans and pet animals, including differentials in the following factors.

  • Activity levels
  • Genetics
  • Environments

Correct Portion Sizes

For proper calorie balance with your pet's weight, directions for feeding should specify how much of the food (either by weight or other unit of measure) is appropriate, per pounds of animal weight, per unit of time for the current life stage of the animal.

Whether a product provides a feeding table or text instructions, its labeling should display the different directions for feeding during these life stages.

  • Gestation/lactation
  • Growth
  • Maintenance

Keep in mind that feeding directions are merely guidelines. Modify the directions on pet food labels to fit your pet's individual needs.

Treats or Snacks

Some pet foods are labeled as Treats or Snacks. If labels on these foods also claim they are complete and balanced, perhaps for one life stage, or for all life stages, then feeding directions must be included on the label.

Therapeutic Diets or Veterinarian Prescribed Foods

Foods prescribed by a veterinarian for medical purposes are not required to display feeding directions on labels, if the label contains the advisement, "Use only as directed by your veterinarian.”

Product and Brand Name

Some products do not have brand names. But, every product is required to display a unique identifier that distinguishes it from any others available on the market.

In the right column below are the explanations of what it means when the pet food label contains one of the descriptions in the left column.



Beef Dog Food

95% of the total weight of the food is beef.

With or Contains Beef

May contain only 3% beef, and 97% non-beef products.

Beef Flavored

May not actually contain any beef at all.

Beef Recipe, Beef Dinner, or Beef Formula

A minimum of 25% of the total weight of the food has to be beef. The food can be largely made of non-beef ingredients (75% non-beef products).


Requirement for Claim of 95%

At least 70% of the total weight of the product, and at least 95% of its weight when not including added water, must consist of ingredients named on the label. (Water is usually added to canned pet foods to facilitate processing.)

Water is also used in dry pet food processing, to facilitate mixing of ingredients, and is largely removed during the drying process. The other 5% of the product's ingredients are necessary added vitamins and minerals or other nutrients, and other ingredients needed for the product's formulation.

Requirement for Claim of 25%

At least 10% of the total weight of the product, and at least 25% of it without the added water, must consist of ingredients named on the label. If additional descriptions, such as “entrée,” "dinner", or “platter”, etc., may be included as part of the product name to indicate that there is more than one ingredient. Any named ingredient must account for at least 3% of the total weight of the product.

Requirement for Claim of "Similar" or “With”

For labels to include the word “similar” or “with”, the product must contain a minimum of 3% of the ingredient indicated. If this minimum percentage is met, then "With" or "Similar" is allowed to be included anywhere on the label and even in the product name.

Flavor Requirement

A pet food product is not required to consist of a large percentage of an ingredient that is used for flavoring. There are three requirements regarding flavoring.

  1. The added flavoring must actually provide the intended flavor in the food.
  2. The flavoring must be provided by an ingredient listed on the label.
  3. If the label includes the name of the flavor, it must also include a version of the word "flavor" in the identical font and with the same prominence on the labeling as the name of the flavor. Example: the words “beef” and “flavored” must be printed in identical font style and size.

Statements of Quantity

This is the statement of the total weight of the food contained inside the packaging. Both dry and liquid unit measures should be included in the statement. And, both metric and English measurements should also be included. Packing density varies among packaged pet foods. For example, if a food is less densely packed, causing the volume of the food to consume more space inside the packaging, then the density can cause a package that may hold 20 pounds of dry cat food to hold only 17 pounds. Comparing costs per pound, or per ounce, can help you avoid confusion from comparing bag sizes.

Guaranteed Analysis

Below are the four essential nutritional guarantees pet food producers are required to provide. This state the maximum or minimum amounts of nutrients contained in the product.

  • crude protein—minimum percentage
  • crude fat—minimum percentage
  • crude fiber—maximum percentage
  • moisture—maximum percentage
  • (maximums and minimums of other nutrients)

Keep in mind that information about percentages of "crude" nutrients does not indicate the quality of the nutrient. For example, "crude protein" can indicate protein from any one of a vast number of sources ranging from good quality sources of the nutrient (like chicken breast meat) to very poor sources of that nutrient for pets (like corn or peas). So, merely listing the maximum or minimum of the nutrient based on a "dry matter" measurement is not by itself very meaningful.

Examine and Compare

Determining what percentage of a 'crude' ingredient is digestible by a pet animal, or how much nourishment it can provide to your pet is currently undetermined. To obtain clearer understanding of quality differences between foods, examine the list of ingredients for each, and compare the actual ingredients as well as the order in which the ingredients appear on the respective labels.

Dry Matter Basis

Dry matter refers to a method for nutritional calculation. It amounts to what would be left of pet food with its moisture content excluded. Moisture levels vary among pet foods. On an "as fed" basis (as served from the package) canned foods may contain up to 80% moisture, whereas dry foods may contain amounts as low as 6%.

To calculate dry matter: 100 – moisture% = dry matter

Calculating nutrients on the dry matter basis helps more accurately determine amounts of crude protein, fiber, fat, etc., between pet food brands, and between dry and canned pet foods. In the latter case, it helps by expressing these values by measuring the foods on the same basis of moisture content.

To calculate the protein content of pet food based on dry matter, use this easy formula:

Reported percentage of protein (for example 20%), divided by total dry matter in a can of food (for example: 50%). Multiply the answer by 100. So, (20 / 50 = 0.4)  X 100 = 40%.

List of Ingredients

Ingredients included must be listed on all pet foods. Ingredients are required to be listed in the order of weight (before the cooking process - if there is one) of each ingredient contained in the food, from the heaviest to the least weight. This is important information for evaluating the food's quality.

By learning a little about ingredients, you'll be prepared to choose foods that are ideally digestible and without any undesired contents.

Don't be misled by pet food producers' approach to minimizing the apparency of lower quality ingredients by breaking some ingredients into multiple smaller ingredients and listing them separately. This is called ingredient splitting. This is done in order to list smaller amounts of each of the poorer quality ingredients, causing these to appear farther down on the list. For example, an ingredients list might show the product contains:

  • Chicken
  • Corn bran
  • Ground corn
  • Corn gluten
  • Other corn products
  • Wheat flour
  • Ground wheat
  • Wheat middling
  • Other wheat products

All of the corn ingredients together, on the list above, may weigh much more than the total of the chicken, or of the wheat in the product. To be as well informed as possible in purchasing pet food, carefully read the ingredients list. And, be aware of the colorings and preservatives on the list too.

Below are listed some of the very common ingredients to avoid in food for your pet.

  • Soy
  • Corn
  • Gluten
  • BHT
  • BHA
  • Ethoxyquin
  • “By-products”
  • Propylene glycol
  • Food dyes
  • Sweeteners

Nutritional Adequacy Statement

This is a very important section of the pet food label. You will need this information to determine whether or not the nutritional contents of the product are a match for your pet’s dietary needs. The information clarifies the kind of pet and the life stage(s) for which the food product is appropriate.

This section also indicates that the product has successfully passed a feeding trial to confirm that it meets the AAFCO Nutrient requirements.



Complete and Balanced

“Complete” indicates that the food product contains all required nutrients. “Balanced” indicates that the required percentages of all required nutrients are contained in the food product.

Life Stages

Refers to the quantities and percentages of nutrients necessary during the particular life stages of animals.

Recognized Life Stages

1) Gestation/lactation, 2) growth, 3) maintenance, 4) all life stages.

Nutritional Adequacy Statement

This required statement is normally displayed in small print on the side or back of the pet food container.


Instructions for Feeding

Every can or bag of pet food should display feeding guidelines or instructions, including recommended amounts per pet weight and growth stage. These guidelines are imprecise, because each animal has its own individual factors which together determine its unique nutritional needs.

  • Physical activity
  • Metabolic rate
  • Environmental temperature

Daily requirements are additionally impacted by age, breed, environmental stresses. Use guidelines for a general starting point for determining frequency and quantity of feedings. For example, if your dog is overweight, or merely nibbles at food, feed less often, and in smaller portions. Or, if he/she is underweight, or is very hungry, feed more often, and larger amounts.

What to Look for on Pet Food Labels

For centuries, cats and dogs have eaten the foods they were naturally constructed to eat—before giant companies making kibble came into existence.

Dogs and cats are biologically constructed to eat:

  • Meat
  • Bones
  • Tripe (stomach lining of prey animals)
  • Organs
  • A variety of raw foods that are rich in moisture 

Dogs and cats were never biologically constructed to eat:

  • High-carbohydrate diets heavy in grains

Based on the biological constructions of cats and dogs, feeding pet animals kibble over a long term leads to declining health and a number of health problems.

Look for pet foods with labels which include the following descriptions.



One or more of these: beef, chicken, or pork (not by-products)

The primary ingredient in the food is a whole food source of protein.

Grain Free

The food is made without soy, wheat, or corn products.

Moisture Rich

It consists of at least 70% moisture.

Minimally Processed Foods

It is made without additives such as antibiotics, hormones, or use of pesticides.


When Changing Your Pet's Diet

While in the process of changing your pet’s diet, avoid giving your pet human foods or other treats, at least for the first 6 weeks. Observe your pet’s progress through these weeks of transition. It may take up to 12 weeks to notice the effects of the new dietary regimen.

For Help Understanding Labels

Pet food labels provide a great amount of useful information. But, information may be unclear, or you may find the meanings of some label items difficult to decipher. And, the vast array of attention-grabbing marketing claims and gimmicks can be easily confused with important information regarding nutrition for your pet's health. If you have questions about your pet food, contact the food manufacturer.

Get Raw Pet Food Delivered to Your Door

At Raw Pet Food, we offer our customers high-nutrition pet food delivered right to your door. We strive to help improve and maintain pets' health by providing healthful nutrition.  Raw Pet Food is raw meat, frozen, and available in these delicious flavors.

Every ingredient in Raw Pet Food pet food products is included in the formula because of its nutritional value. Raw Pet Food for all life stages is fully complete and balanced. We use no fillers and no preservatives that are toxic to pet animals. We make all Raw Pet Food from real meat that is:

  • Free-range
  • Antibiotic free
  • Hormone free

Ready to Go Raw?

Our online raw pet food ordering process is easy to use, making it simple to maintain your pet food delivery service.

More Information on Pet Food

To have a look inside the unregulated pet food industry, we recommend the documentary Pet Fooled. It is available on Netflix or for sale online.

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