Reading Pet Food Labels

Pet food labels can sometimes be misleading and confusing to owners. There are some key parts of the label that can give you information about the diet including the product name, nutrition claims such as “complete and balanced” or “natural”, ingredients, and guaranteed analysis.

It is important to understand the terminology in the product name which gives a description of the diet, such as “chicken dinner”. The terms used in the product name are controlled by AAFCO, a pet food regulatory agency. The term “with chicken” means that at least 3% of the total product is chicken. The terms “chicken dinner”, “chicken platter”, or “chicken entrée” mean that chicken is at least 10% of the total product. The term “chicken” by itself means that at least 70% of the product is chicken.

Similar to human foods the ingredients in pet foods are listed in order based on weight. Unfortunately there are several ways that the manufacturer can augment the list so that it appears that an ingredient, such as chicken, is at the top of the list and an ingredient such as soy is lower down in the list. Since the products are listed based on weight removing water will decrease the weight of an ingredient putting it lower on Reading Pet Food Labels the list. An example of this would be the use of soy protein, which is often a large part of the protein content in many diets. But, when it is dried to soy flour, it appears lower in the ingredient list then a meat such as chicken. Furthermore, a product such as wheat can be broken into several parts such as wheat germ and wheat flour, which are each listed lower in the ingredients than wheat itself would be listed.

Knowledge of nutrition claims is important. The statement “complete and balanced” can only be used if the diet meets the requirements set by AAFCO. The nutrition claim of “natural” means that none of the ingredients can be synthesized except for vitamins and minerals. Listing a product as “organic” is not regulated, unless there is the USDA symbol. The USDA does strictly regulate foods that use their symbol. More information about USDA organic labeling can be obtained at

Guaranteed analysis gives the approximate amount of protein, fat, fiber, and water in the diet. Care must be used in comparing different diets based on the guaranteed analysis. The percentage of protein, fiber, and fat will vary based on the amount of moisture within the diet. As nutritionists we evaluate diets based on what % of the calories is from protein, fat, and carbohydrates. A diet that has 8% protein and 78% moisture may actually have a higher % of calories from protein in comparison to a diet that is 10% protein with 70% moisture.

Labels can be difficult to read and understand. Hopefully this summary of some of the label’s contents will help you to be a more informed consumer.

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