Do you know how to read a pet food label? Part 1

You're scanning the pet food label and you see DL-Methionine, L-lysine monohydrochloride, and calcium pantothenate... What?  You're supposed to feed that to your best furiend?  You can't even pronounce half of these, much less know what they are.  Don't worry, we've been there, and we're here to help you navigate these pet food labels!

How to Read a Pet Food Label


Let's start here.  You might be surprised to learn that many people don't know one important rule to all food labels, pet or human: Ingredients are listed in descending order based on weight prior to processing.  This means that the first ingredient listed is the most prevalent in the food product.  A good rule of thumb is that the top five ingredients generally make up the majority of the pet food.  

Seems easy right?  Not so fast.  Be wary of ingredient stacking!  For dogs and especially cats you always want a meat based product, but how do you tell?  Unfortunately just looking at the first ingredient isn't enough.  If an ingredient panel starts with chicken followed by several starches or grains the product is actually made more of plant material than meat!  This is especially true as "chicken" is mostly water when it's weighed before being processed. If there is only one source of meat on the whole label, a named meat meal (such as chicken meal) is actually better as it is more concentrated.

So, make sure to take a close look at first few ingredients as opposed to just the top!  Don't be fooled by the producer's marketing strategy, imagery, or attempts to get around the rules (more on this in Part 2).  

The Rules of the Label

Under the rules of AAFCO (for those of you who read last week's pupdate this should be a familiar name, and for those of you who didn't they are the American Association of Food Control Officials) a pet food label must list the following criteria: 

  • Product name and Brand name
  • Species the food is designed for
  • Product quantity in the lower 1/3
  • Ingredient statement
  • Guaranteed analysis
  • Nutritional adequacy statement (This is the “Complete and balanced for” all life stages/growth/adult maintenance, etc)
  • Feeding instructions
  • Manufacturer/Distributor name and address

Most of these seem pretty straightforward, except for "guaranteed analysis."  This is the breakdown of what the food contains.  According to the AAFCO rules, it must contain: Crude Protein min, Crude Fat min, Crude Fiber max, and Moisture max.

What they don't have to tell you: Carbohydrates, Ash, Animal or Plant protein, sugar, sodium, omega 6 or 3 fatty acids, phosphorus or magnesium levels, glucosamine, probiotics, mineral levels, etc.

The AAFCO also has minimum requirements for all nutrients for both cat and dog foods designed for different life stages.  These minimum requirements are basically the bare minimum for the animal to not die of malnutrition.  That's nice of them right?

That's all for Part 1!  Hope you learned something, check in for Part 2 next week!