Although many pet owners read the nutrition guides on their own grocery items, they don’t always check them on pet foods. All pet food labels should contain the following information:

  • Ingredient list
  • Guaranteed analysis
  • Statement of nutritional adequacy
  • Daily feeding guide

Read on for an explanation of each, and definitions that will help you make the best decisions when choosing food for your four-legged family members.

  • The ingredient list in pet food
    Clearly, this list includes all the ingredients contained in the pet food. Pet food labels list content by weight, starting with the heaviest item.

    • Meat — If the first item listed is a meat, such as beef or pork, the meat is not dehydrated and may contain 75% water. In other words, the food contains more water than meat.
    • Bone or chicken meal Meal” describes a concentrated protein product that has most water and fat removed. Meal products may contain dehydrated muscle meat and byproducts.
    • Byproducts — Byproducts are animal tissues other than muscle meat, such as blood, liver, kidneys, and other organs, but not hair, horns, hooves, or neurologic tissue. Because blood and organ meats contain essential vitamins and minerals and dogs and cats find them delicious, they are perfectly safe to feed. However, some pet owners prefer to avoid them. 
    • Preservatives — To improve pet food shelf life, several FDA-approved preservatives are commonly added, including high fructose corn syrup, which you may recognize from your own groceries. Others, such as the synthetic preservatives BHA, BHT, and ethoxyquin that prevent fats from turning rancid, may be less familiar. Their safety is controversial, and ethoxyquin, in particular, has garnered concern because canine liver damage and cancer are thought to result when ingested in large quantities. Several manufacturers now substitute natural preservatives, such as tocopherol, a Vitamin E derivative, and ascorbic acid (I.e.,vitamin C).  
  • Guaranteed analysis
    This analysis is included on labels because pet food companies are required by law to list the food’s protein, fat, fiber, and moisture content. Some companies provide additional information, such as calcium and phosphorus percentages. Dogs and cats require a diet with at least 10% protein and 5.5% fat. Pet foods designed for weight loss will be closer to these minimums, and will contain higher fiber amounts to make the food more filling without adding calories. Caloric content, unfortunately, is rarely listed, which can complicate comparisons between different foods.
  • Statement of nutritional adequacy
    This statement is not always included—only pet food companies that follow the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) regulations include a statement of nutritional adequacy. AAFCO is a non-profit, voluntary membership organization comprising local, state, and federal agencies that regulates animal feeds, defines how ingredients are listed on pet foods, and provides nutritional guidelines to manufacturers based on scientific research. A pet food company that follows AAFCO guidelines will list, for example, at which pet life stage (i.e., young or adult animals) the food is appropriate. Be aware that AAFCO has not yet recommended any food appropriate for senior dogs and cats, and any pet food label suggesting that is the case is not using AAFCO information.
  •  Daily feeding guide
    Feeding guides are found on the pet food container or the manufacturer’s website, which is often the case with cans because of their small label. Guides are organized by pet weight, which means you should use your pet’s weight, rather than guessing, to feed them accurately. The amounts listed cover a 24-hour period and include only the food in the container. Anything else, such as treats and supplements, are excluded.

Beware advertising, not science, on pet food labels

Oftentimes, labels on pet food will claim the food is holistic, natural, premium, or super-premium, but no rules specify what these terms mean. Be wary, too, about pet food labeled “Organic.” With human foods, this means the contents follow the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations, but this is not the case for pet foods. Other terms, such as “human-quality ingredients” or “made in a USDA-inspected facility” are often strictly marketing terms, and hard to confirm as truthful.

At Palisades Veterinary Hospital, we want your pet to eat the most healthy diet possible, and we are happy to guide you toward the best choices for your pet. Contact us If you have any questions about your pet’s diet, or you need help interpreting the information on a pet-food label.