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3 Hacks for Understanding Pet Food Labels

By Rebekah Olsen

Can you pronounce the complicated names on your pet’s food label? Is the ingredient list incredibly long? In many pet foods, aside from water, chicken and corn, the rest of the words may sound like they belong in a petri dish, not your dog’s belly. 

And even though Mr. Snugglesworth won’t hesitate to eat the rotted hamburger stuck to the sidewalk, it’s important to understand the ingredients your pet is consuming on a daily basis. Whether it’s kibble, wet food, dehydrated food or a base mix, the food label is there to help you compare your pet’s food to other brands.

Pet food labeling is regulated on two levels. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enforces federal regulations and many states have also adopted the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). These regulations cover several aspects of animal feed labeling, but you only need these three easy hacks to quickly determine if your pet’s food is up to snuff.

If you’re at home, go ahead and grab your pet’s food so you can follow along while reading this post!

1. Read the Ingredient List

All pet foods must list ingredients present in the food in descending order of weight. Unfortunately, this won’t tell you exactly the proportions of each ingredient contained in the product, but you can use the these two rules below to find out if the primary ingredients of your pet food are nutritious, healthy and balanced:

~ First Source of Fat Rule: Find the first named source of fat on the ingredient list, such as “chicken fat”. Anything listed before that, and including it, makes up the main proportion of the product. While this rule of thumb is generally preferred, some foods don’t contain a source of fat, so use the next rule as an alternative.

~ The First Five Rule: What are the first five ingredients in your pet food? Anything past that contributes only a small amount to the food’s total proportion. You want the first ingredients of your pet’s food to include real meats and vegetables.

“You should be able to read those first ingredients and have it be an actual protein, instead of a by-product--which is one thing you definitely want to avoid. That automatically means it’s not high quality,” says Dr. Kristal Turner, a veterinarian at Animalia Health and Wellness in Franklin, TN.

Other ingredients that sound like chemicals, such as Benzoic Acid, should be low on the list. These are typically conditioning agents, emulsifiers or preservatives. The AAFCO offers this quick guide to deciphering these ingredients if you’d like to take your sleuthing a little further or learn how to avoid those chemicals all together.

2. Check out the Product Name

Did you know that the name of your pet’s food is more than just a quirky attempt to catch your attention? It also tells a story about the ingredients in the product.

If the product's name or tagline includes an ingredient, then it must meet AAFCO rules. You want to aim for pet foods that contain 25 to 95 percent meat, which means products named, “Beef for Dogs”, “Grain Free Lamb Recipe”, or “Tuna Dinner” for example.


Turner says that choosing the percentage of meat in your pet’s food will vary based on your pet’s health, but in general, a healthy dog or cat should eat a protein-packed meal.

This can get a little tricky, so you should also consult the ingredient list. For example, “Chicken Dinner for Cats” follows the 25% Rule. The cat food must contain anywhere from 25 percent to 94 percent chicken.

Now, let’s check the ingredient list. Is chicken listed first, second or third? If it’s first, then there’s a much higher percentage of chicken in the product.

If it’s listed second or third, then another product, such as corn or even fish, could actually be the primary ingredient, even though it’s not listed in the product's name. (In other words, that "Lamb Dinner" might have more corn than it does lamb.) This could leave you with a low percentage of meat. If your cat is allergic to corn or finicky about fish, you also might accidentally feed her the wrong type of food.

Bottom line, always compare your ingredient list to the product name and avoid pet foods with the word “with” (i.e., Made with Chicken) or “flavor” (Flavored with Beef).

3. Decipher the Label Claims

Many products tout claims such as “premium”, "natural",  “gourmet” or “veterinarian approved” but this doesn’t mean that the product is of any higher quality. Be careful that you don’t fall for a marketing trap with these catchy labels!

Below is a list of these claims and their definitions as regulated by the AAFCO and FDA. Do any of these phrases appear on your pet food?

~ Terms like "premium" and "gourmet" are not required to contain any different or higher quality ingredients than any other product.

~ The term "natural" requires a pet food to consist of only natural ingredients, meaning they are without chemical alterations, except for vitamins, minerals and other trace nutrients.

~ Organic refers to how the ingredients and products were handled and processed. Pet foods and treats must comply with the USDA's National Organic Program regulations.

~ The term "holistic" has no legal definition and is unregulated with regard to pet food. Any pet food could use the term "holistic" in marketing their product.

~ The phrase "human grade" means the food is made in a plant approved for manufacturing human food.

~ The phrase "supplemental use only" means the food is not nutritionally complete and balanced and you don’t want to feed your pet this product for an extended period of time. It may be used as a topper to your pet's regular food, or in short-term cases where you may need to entice your pet to eat.

~ The term "veterinarian recommended" requires a statistically sound number of veterinarians to recommend the product.

~ Meanwhile, "veterinarian formulated" or "veterinarian developed” only requires one veterinarian to recommend the product.

~ A label claiming a food is "complete and balanced" means that the pet product must either pass an AAFCO feeding trial or meet one of the dog or cat food nutrient profiles established by the AAFCO.

To find the highest quality of pet food for your furkid, look for a complete and balanced product that lists one or two digestible meats as the primary ingredients. If you can identify all of the ingredients in the list as healthy, natural products then you really have a winner!

PS: The label is just one important aspect of deciding on the best diet for your pet. Be sure to keep an eye out for our October 2015 issue when it hits stands to learn more about kibble vs wet vs raw foods, to explore the world of supplements and to get the scoop on the benefits of rotating your pet's protein source. It's all coming up in our fall issue, which hits stands October 1. 

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