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how to read cat and dog food labels

Does “premium” and “gourmet” actually mean anything when it comes to your pet’s food? Are “natural” and “organic” foods really healthier? When it comes to pet food, there’s no one source for comparing the kibbles and bits. But you can learn how to read your cat or dog food label to better evaluate what to feed your four-legged family members.


feast your eyes


Labels typically have two parts: the display panel and the information panel. The display panel includes the brand, name and description of the food, and the information panel is the equivalent of the nutritional facts on people food. It’s not as detailed as the nutritional facts, but here you’ll find the guaranteed analysis, ingredient list, feeding guidelines and nutritional adequacy statement.


the “crude” truth


The guaranteed analysis lists the minimum percentages of crude protein and crude fat, and maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture.


“Crude” refers to the method of measuring that’s used, not the quality of the protein, fat or fiber. These percentages are on an “as fed” basis, so foods that contain more water (like canned foods) appear to have less protein than food with less water (dry foods). That’s usually not the case.


a weighty matter


Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight (not nutritional value). Weight includes the moisture in the ingredient, so some ingredients may appear higher in the list even if lower-moisture ingredients contribute more nutrients.


For example, the first ingredient may be chicken, which weighs more than other ingredients because it could be 70% water. But the food may contain wheat in various forms listed as individual ingredients, like wheat flour, ground wheat and wheat middling. So, the food may actually contain more wheat than chicken.


Bottom line: just because a protein source is listed first doesn’t mean the diet is high in protein.


quantifying the kibble


Feeding guidelines are based on the average intake for all cats or dogs. And while the guidelines are a starting point, a pet’s nutritional requirements vary based on age, breed, body weight, genetics, activity level and even the climate.


If your pet starts getting pudgy, you may need to feed her less, and vice versa. Your vet is your best resource in deciding the appropriate amount.


mind your morsels


The nutritional adequacy statement was developed by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which standardizes pet food nutrient contents (in Canada, the Packaging and Labelling Act regulates the guidelines). This statement assures pet parents that when the pet food is fed as the sole source of nutrition, it meets or exceeds the nutritional requirements for a dog or cat at one or more life stages.


The AAFCO only recognizes “adult maintenance” and “growth and reproduction” as life stages, or if the diet meets both, “all life stages.” Profiles for senior, geriatric, small breed, large breed, weight reduction or weight maintenance don’t exist.


The statement also shows how pet food manufacturers have met the AAFCO’s standards by calculations or feeding trials.


Calculations estimate the amount of nutrients in a pet food on the basis of the average nutrient content of the ingredients or on results from lab testing. Such a food would carry a statement like, “Brand A is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO (Dog or Cat) Food Nutrient Profiles for [stated life stage(s)].”


Feeding trials signify that the manufacturer has tested the product (or similar product from the same manufacturer) by feeding it to dogs or cats under specific guidelines. These foods carry a statement like “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Brand A provides complete and balanced nutrition for [stated life stage(s)].”


a taste for terminology


Less or reduced calories  Food that has fewer calories than another food, and the same rule applies to “less fat” or “reduced fat.” Pet labels aren’t usually required to provide calorie content.
Natural “A feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mixed sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis, or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.”
Organic “A formula feed or a specific ingredient within a formula feed that has been produced and handled in compliance with the requirements of the USDA National Organic Program (7 CFR Part 205).” Even if a pet food is “natural” or “organic,” it usually contains added synthetically-produced vitamins and minerals.
Biologically Appropriate Raw Food (BARF)* “BARF” is food that is made of raw ingredients or, according to the AAFCO, “food in its natural or crude state not having been subjected to heat in the course of preparation as food.”
Gourmet or Premium* Food that is allegedly composed of higher quality ingredients.
Grain-free* Food is that doesn’t contain any grains or grain-derived protein. It implies that the protein comes from animal sources, but doesn’t imply low carb or high protein.
Human-grade* Refers to the quality of the finished product, which is legally suitable and approved for consumption by a human in accordance with the FDA Code of Federal Regulations Title 21.
Whole Foods* Unprocessed and unrefined foods, or processed and refined as little as possible before being consumed, and don’t contain added ingredients like salt or fat.

*Not an official term


When all is read and done, there is no one “best” dog or cat food. It’s up to the pet parent, with the help of a veterinarian, to find what works best for your family and your pet. Try choosing a diet that’s been evaluated using feeding trials, and see how it reacts with your pet.


On an appropriate diet, your pet should have formed stools – not too much, not too frequently. Your pet’s coat should be rich in color and not dry or brittle. He should have good energy, ideal weight and good muscle tone. Vomiting, loose stools and picky eating aren’t normal – consider re-evaluating your pet’s diet if any of these signs occur.

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Posted by Kathy Holland
on April 06 2016 00:05

I found a website that, after entering my dog's ideal weight (as per the Vet) and activity level, calculated the # of calories my dog should eat per day. I feed Acana Kibble (vary the flavors to vary the protein sources) and a small amount of canned twice a day. I googled the specific foods I feed and obtained the caloric content. I then figured out exactly how much to feed per day and have been able to keep my dog at his ideal weight for over a year now. It took some research but it works!

Posted by Ag Waring
on April 05 2016 15:56

Read all labels carefully. In the vitamins listed if it says Manadione do not buy. Menadione is a cheap substitute for Vit. K and is toxic. As for Purina...don't trust them. They put toxic things in their foods like Menadione. I haven't tried Blue Buffalo but it has high ratings. I would trust them.

Posted by Mary Ann Dalton
on January 26 2016 17:08

Since my pet now has to have a prescription diet, I cannot find anyone that can tell me how to hand make that same diet. Many of the ingredients in the prescription diets are absolutely necessary - they just have large names for items such as Vitamin D, etc. But why a dog would need corn meal or products such as that puzzle me. All the vets will tell you is that you're dog needs a certain prescription diet because of a problem they have had. Obviously, the diet cannot cure, but may be able to maintain somehow. Yet, it's a secret to tell you because big food industry doesn't want you to do it yourself. I have found a few sites that will tell you, but it's for a fee. Isn't it always that way? What did we do before the so-called prescription diets? Pets didn't just up and die because they were not available.

Posted by Len Chel
on January 26 2016 16:29

Wayne Allen, www.dogfoodadvisor.com has been my go to for dog food listings. Not perfect but one of the more reliable sources.

Posted by Mandy Barre
on January 26 2016 15:54

Good info but this site does a great job in explaining various dog foods and their relative quality: http://www.dogfoodadvisor.com/

Posted by Dave England
on January 26 2016 13:59

dogfoodadvisor.com is a really good source of information.

Posted by angelica garcia
on January 26 2016 13:52

very helpful article...thank you

Posted by Mary Kelleher
on January 26 2016 13:08

My cat is insured with Pet Plan. I have been feeding her Blue Buffalo dry cat food for some time. She appears to be healthy and happy. I have become aware of the lawsuit brought by Purina against Blue Buffalo pet foods. I am concerned and wondering if I should change foods. Does Pet Plan have any knowledge of this law suit and if so what are their recommendations regarding Blue Buffalo dry cat food. Thank you, look forward to your response.

Posted by wayne allen
on January 26 2016 11:40

So is there a website that says based on quality of food it lists what are the better foods to buy? One that is not sponsored by a dog food company of course

Posted by Nancy Parris
on January 26 2016 11:26

Thank you for a very timely article. I have been searching for a good food but decided I didn't know what I was looking for. I was correct. However, a list of good foods would have helped.

Posted by Robert Thibault
on January 26 2016 10:39

I find the Blue Buffalo product line to be great

Posted by elsie stevens
on January 26 2016 09:49

I can see that it's a difficult decision trying to find a dog food suitable for our 7 pound morkie. Not fully understanding what is in the food's, even reading the labels are confusing when what your reading may not be what you think it's means. Can you suggest a good healthy brand of dry and canned dog food for our dog. Thanks Elsie Stevens

Posted by dr. sydra robinson
on January 26 2016 09:48

I have made copies and sent to all my friends with pets...thank heavens I have had a good experience with the life-spans of all my pets...I thoroughly read labels, don't just fall for what's on sale..get all my pet's food from reputable purveyors and do a little cooking to add to the mix...this has worked for me and my 'babies'and I have reaped the joy of watching them grow to adulthood in good health.

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