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Reading Pet Food Labels

Wednesday, August 07, 2002

Pet food labels give basic information as to the ingredient content, nutrient guaranteed analysis, feeding information, net weight, the name and address of the manufacturer or distributor and, many times, other facts about the product. The guaranteed analysis, the list of ingredients and a statement of nutritional adequacy and feeding directions are required on all pet food packages. Packaging information is based on Model Pet Food Regulations established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) composed of feed officials from each state. These regulations have been endorsed by the Pet Food Institute and the American Feed Industry Association. Most states have elected to use the Model Pet Food Regulations or informally use them as guidelines. A pet food company that sells a product which does not meet a label guarantee can be subject to a warning, a fine, removal of the product from the sales shelf, or cancellation of product registration. This latter regulatory action can prohibit marketing the product in that particular state until the violation has been corrected.

Guaranteed Analysis

The nutrient guarantees that are required on the labels are

  • Crude protein (minimum percentage)
  • Crude fat (minimum percentage)
  • Crude fiber (maximum percentage)
  • Moisture (maximum percentage)

The reason for the word "crude" is that the minimum and maximum amounts shown are determined by laboratory assay and not by feeding studies conducted with dogs and cats. Additional nutrient guarantees can be listed if the manufacturer desires. All ingredients used in the manufacture of a pet food must be listed in the ingredient list on the label in descending order of predominance by weight. The guaranteed analysis and the list of ingredients become the manufacturer's assurance that the product has the nutrient assay and ingredient contents declared on the label.While laboratory assay of the guaranteed analysis can verify that these nutritional values are in the diet, these components may not be readily available to the pet. The nutritional performance of a pet food can accurately be determined only by feeding studies with a large number of dogs or cats conducted by the manufacturer in accordance with recognized testing procedures such as those established by AAFCO. To be certain that the pet food you feed has undergone actual feeding tests, look for a statement on the label that the food has been tested according to AAFCO feeding standards.


Two types of additives are included in pet foods - those that are nutritional and those that add other benefits to the food. Nutritional additives include vitamin supplements such as A, D 3 , E and B-complex; essential minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, salt, iron, and other trace minerals; and amino acids such as lysine. These are added to supplement and/or provide nutrients in addition to those provided by the primary ingredients in order to help achieve the high degree of nutritional balance found in good quality pet foods.Ingredients such as BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin or mixed tocopherols are added at extremely low levels as anti-oxidants to help prevent fat rancidity. Fat in the process of going rancid can cause an unpleasant odor and may cause the pet to refuse to eat the food. Rancidity may also destroy the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and K. These anti-oxidants have been approved for use in pet foods by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Preservatives such as sorbic acid, and potassium sorbate are added to semi-moist foods to prevent spoilage. Ingredients of this type are approved for pet foods as well as human foods. Certain flavorings are added to help make foods more appetizing to dogs and cats. Some may be listed as artificial flavor or natural flavor and others, such as garlic and onion, are also used. Artificial color at very low levels is used in some pet foods to give the product a more desirable and consistent appearance or to differentiate between flavors used in the same product. Colors used in pet foods are the same as those used in human foods and have been approved by the FDA.

Flavor Designations

Sometimes pet food labels can cause confusion as the pet owner questions the differences among products called beef flavor, beef dinner, beef or 100 percent beef (or fish, liver, etc.). When a flavor designation is made, such as "beef flavor," the words "beef" and "flavor" must be in the same size, color and type of lettering. The source of beef flavor must be shown on the ingredient listing. This could be "beef" or "beef and bone meal" or other beef source ingredients. If the product name includes the words "beef dinner," "beef dish," or words of similar meaning, at least 10 percent beef must be in the product and the source must be shown on the ingredient list. When the name includes only the word "beef," such as X Brand Beef Dog Food, this means the product contains at least 70 percent beef and the word "beef" would be first on the ingredient list. If the name is "X Brand Fish, Liver, and Chicken Cat Food," the product must contain a total of at least 70 percent of all three of these ingredients with equally as much or more fish than liver or chicken and equally as much or more liver than chicken. This product can also be formulated for complete and balanced nutrition. "All" or "100 percent beef" means that the ingredient is the total content of the product. The "100 percent" or "all" does not permit the addition of nutrients other than water for processing and trace amounts of preservatives and condiments. Such products cannot be formulated to be a complete and balanced diet.

Feeding Recommendations

The label should indicate whether or not the product provides complete and balanced nutrition and is adequate for all life stages or just for a particular life stage, such as maintenance of the adult cat or dog. If the product does not contain complete and balanced nutrition, the label should have a statement such as "not to be fed as a sole diet" or for "intermittent feeding only" or indicate if the product is only a snack.The label will also indicate if a product is formulated to meet a specific nutritional need. For example, Purina® Kitten Chow® brand kitten food and Purina® Puppy Chow® brand puppy food were developed to meet the special nutritional needs of kittens and puppies respectively during their periods of rapid growth and development. The Purina® brand Hi Pro® dog meal label defines the purpose of this diet: to provide higher levels of protein and energy for hardworking dogs as well as complete and balanced nutrition for all life stages.

Feeding Instructions

Instructions concerning the amount to feed the pet should be included on the label. These instructions are a "rule of thumb" or a starting point, as the actual feeding amount will depend upon the pet's age, activity, environment and body metabolism. Start with the feeding instructions on the package. After feeding for a period of time, observe the pet's body condition and, if necessary, adjust the amount accordingly.

Labels Do Not Tell The Entire Story

Pet food labels provide the pet owner with a great deal of information. However, labels do not tell everything one might want to know about the various pet foods. It is necessary to rely on the manufacturer's testing, research, and overall reputation to ensure that the pet food is of high quality and provides complete and balanced nutrition. The reputation of the manufacturer is perhaps the best assurance that the research behind the product proves its nutritional merit by actual feeding tests and that high quality assurance standards are maintained. If pet owners have questions about the food, they should write to the manufacturer or distributor