Taking Charge of Your Pet’s Nutrition: How to Understand Pet Food Labels

Growing concern over dog and cat nutrition has led to a profusion of pet food options, all claiming to be “healthy” for your pet. Which ones should you choose? At PugetPets, we want to help you make informed decisions about what to feed your dog or cat. In this post, we’ll take a look at how to decipher the often confusing information on pet food labels.

Why is the Label Important?

Pet food labels are subject to both federal (FDA) and state regulations. In addition, most states have adopted model guidelines established by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Because the pet foods we buy typically adhere to these guidelines, some knowledge of how labels are regulated provides a wealth of information on what’s in our pets’ foods.

What’s in a Name?

Four AAFCO rules govern the naming of multiple-ingredient pet foods, requiring that names reflect how much of any named ingredient is present in the food. Think about some common dog food names such as “Liver for Dogs,” “Liver Entree for Dogs” or “Gourmet Dog Food with Liver.” They’re all essentially the same, right? Far from it! In fact, these names provide a treasure trove of “hidden” information about what’s inside the package. In the examples above, the first food must be at least 95% liver (plus water for processing), the second need only be 25% liver, and the third only 3%. A food or treat called “liver flavored” has no percentage requirement at all. (1, 5)

Words such as “premium” and “gourmet” are not regulated. These terms are used for marketing purposes and provide no information about the content of your pet’s food. The terms “natural” and “organic” are similarly unregulated, though the FDA is considering guidelines for the latter.

The Ingredients List

Order of Ingredients

Pet food ingredients must be listed in order by weight. In other words, if “tuna” is the first ingredient on the list, the food contains more tuna by weight than other products. Be aware, though, that manufacturers often break up less desirable ingredients so that they will appear lower on the ingredients list. For example, a label may list “ground corn,” “corn bran,” and “corn gluten meal” separately to keep “corn” from being the first ingredient on the list. For this reason, it’s important to read the entire ingredients list. (2)

Fillers and Mystery Meat

Grains, grain meals and grain protein concentrates provide a cheap source of low-quality proteins.  They are essentially fillers that allow food to be sold at a lower price. Your carnivorous dog or cat has no biological requirement for grain.

Meat and poultry by-products contain organs, blood, bone, fatty tissue and intestines. Meat “meal” is meat by-product with the fat and water removed. While some of these may not seem terribly appetizing to us, they can provide necessary nutrients to our pets. However, it’s best to opt for more specifically named ingredients over more general terms (“chicken” versus “poultry by-product  meal” or “animal fat”). The less specific the ingredient name, the more likely it is to have come from a rendering plant, a factory designed to grind animal carcasses and scrap meats into pet food. A wide variety of contaminants, from veterinary pharmaceuticals to metals and plastics, also makes its way into the mix, as these large-scale operations simply aren’t equipped or able to remove them prior to rendering.


Two of the most common preservatives you’ll find on a pet or human food label are BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butyl hydroxytoluene). In sufficient quantities, they are both known to have health risks. However, in the quantities used in pet foods, they are considered by the FDA to be Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS) substances. However, current FDA opinion on both is that “uncertainties exist, requiring that additional studies be conducted.” (3)

A controversial preservative that may be in your pet’s food, but which you won’t find on the label is ethoxyquin. It is typically used to preserve fish before it arrives at a pet food manufacturer’s facility, so it will not usually appear on a food label. If you are concerned, you should contact the manufacturer.

Tocopherols (Vitamin E) and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) are naturally occurring preservatives. Keep in mind that these do not have the same shelf-life as chemical preservatives and be sure to check the product’s sell-by date.

The Guaranteed Analysis

Many state regulations require that pet food manufacturers guarantee the minimum percentages of certain nutrients. This can usually be found in a separate box on the back or side label. According to the FDA, the amount of dry matter in dry food is about four times the amount in canned food. So to make a meaningful comparison of nutrients in wet versus dry foods, multiply the guarantees for the wet food by four. (1)

The Nutritional Adequacy Statement

This is a requirement that prevents manufacturers from using terms that would suggest their food is suitable as a sole source of pet nutrition if it is not. Claims that a food is “balanced,” “complete,” or “100% nutritious” and/or suitable for particular life stages, must be substantiated by one of two means detailed by the AAFCO. Foods that do not meet the standards must be labeled for “intermittent or supplemental feeding only” or be conspicuously identified as snacks or treats. Read the fine print to find the AAFCO statement on the label. (1, 4, 5)

The Power of Knowledge

We all want to provide our furry family members with the highest quality nutrition, and pet food labels can be our best tool. With a little knowledge and the time it takes to read a bag or can, we can take charge of our pet’s diet and be reassured that we are keeping our loved ones as healthy and happy as possible!

(1) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) online publication, “Resources for You: Pet Food Labels,” http://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/ResourcesforYou/ucm047113.htm
(2) PetEducation.com
(3) FDA Select Committee on GRAS Substances (SCOGS) Opinion: Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA), SCOGS Report Number 55
(4) PetMD.com
(5) AAFCO online publication,  “Reading Labels,” http://talkspetfood.aafco.org/readinglabels