How To Read A Pet Food Label

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How To Read A Pet Food Label

There is an overwhelming number of pet foods in stores, so, how do you know which one is right for your pet? It can be confusing. Learning how to read the pet food labels is a good place to start. Let’s walk our way around a label.

Product Name

Marketing and packaging can influence which pet food owners buy so there are rules created by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) about what manufacturers are allowed to do/say when it comes to naming a product.

1) 95% rule

Take the name "Chicken for Dogs”. In order for this name to meet regulations the product must have at least 95% chicken not counting the water added for processing. Counting the added water, chicken still must comprise 70% of the product to list it in the product name. This rule only applies to meat products. If there are two ingredients like "Chicken and Salmon for Dogs”, those two ingredients combined have to add up to 95%.

That is pretty easy to understand but that seems like a pretty high percentage of meat needed which would likely be pretty expensive for the manufacturer. So, how do manufacturers deal with it?

2) 25% rule

Adding a descriptive term like "dinner” or "nugget” or "formula” drops that percentage down from 95% to 25%. So, calling a dog food "Chicken Dinner for Dogs” now means the product only has to contain 25% chicken (not counting the water for processing). You can see that 75% of the product can be other ingredients but the name includes the word chicken which can lead a consumer to believe that chicken is the main ingredient. In fact, chicken could be the third or fourth ingredient so it is very important to read the ingredients list.

3) 3% rule

If you use the word "with” in a product name, you only need 3% of the product to contain that ingredient. So, when the product name changes to "Dog Dinner with Chicken”, that product is only required to be 3% chicken. That means that 97% of that food is comprised of other ingredients so you really need to read the ingredients list.


Chicken for Dogs = 95% chicken
Chicken Dinner for Dogs = 25% chicken
Dog Dinner with Chicken = 3% chicken


1) Percentages

So, now you turned the bag over and are looking at a bunch of ingredients and percentages. All ingredients are required to be listed in order of predominance by weight. The weights of ingredients are determined as they are added in the formulation, *including* their inherent water content. This fact is very important when evaluating relative quantity claims, especially when ingredients of different moisture contents are compared. Meat has a lot more water (about 75%) than meat "meal” (about 10%). You can have an ingredient come higher up on the list but it is mostly water.

2) Names of ingredients

It is a rule that ingredients must be listed by their "common or usual" name, which makes sense when you see "chicken" or "brown rice", but what is "meat meal”? "Meat meal" is "the rendered product from mammal tissues, exclusive of any added blood, hair, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents.” You may also see "chicken meal” or the like where all the parts are rendered from one specific animal.

A note about rendering: Modern slaughterhouses create a massive volume of inedible, unwanted waste that is unfit for human consumption such as necks, bones, eyeballs, entire carcasses from diseased and disabled animals, etc. Rendering is the process of boiling these ingredients into a mixture that is then sold to manufacturers for final use in, among other things, animal feed including pet food.

Guaranteed Analysis

This is the most basic, rudimentary breakdown of the contents of a pet food, listed on the package. It lists items such as "crude protein,” "crude moisture,” "crude fat” and "ash.” Guarantees are declared on an "as fed" or "as is" basis, that is, the amounts present in the product as it is found in the can or bag. This doesn't have much bearing when the guarantees of two products of similar moisture content are compared (for example, a dry dog food versus another dry dog food). However, when comparing the guaranteed analyses between dry and canned products, one will note that the levels of crude protein and most other nutrients are much lower for the canned product. This can be explained by looking at the relative moisture contents. Canned foods typically contain 75-78% moisture, whereas dry foods contain only 10-12% moisture.

Practical math: The amount of dry matter in the dry food is about four times the amount in a canned product. To compare guarantees between a dry and canned food, multiply the guarantees for the canned food times four first.

Other Words

1) "Premium” or "Gourmet”

Products labeled as premium or gourmet are not required to contain any different or higher quality ingredients, nor are they held up to any higher nutritional standards than are any other complete and balanced products.

2) "Natural” or "Organic”

The term "natural” has no official definition but can be construed as lacking artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives. There are no rules governing the use of the word "organic” when it comes to pet food.

3) "Complete” or "Balanced”

Any claim that a product is "complete," "balanced," "100% nutritious," or claims of a similar nature must be substantiated by the AAFCO for nutritional adequacy. Products that pass should have the nutritional adequacy statement "Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (name of product) provides complete and balanced nutrition" printed on the bag.


There is actually more that can be on a label but these are the most important parts with which to be familiar and knowledgeable. It can be challenging to know what food is best for your pet which is why we are always happy to answer any questions you may have.

source: FDA
Posted Thursday, August 20, 2015