A Guide to Helping Your Clients Read Pet Food Labels


Reading pet food labels can be confusing for your clients, but it’s important that they know what ingredients are in the foods they are feeding their pets, as well as the nutritional value of those foods.

This guide explains some of the ingredients typically found in dog or cat food, what other nutritional information your clients should be looking for on the label, and how that information can benefit their pets.

The Ingredients List

All pet food manufacturers are required to provide a list of ingredients. Ingredients are listed in descending order by their precooked weight, which often changes after the cooking process.

Communicating the Importance of Protein

A highly digestible protein should be at the top of the ingredients list, although sometimes starches or fibers are listed first. Protein could come from meat, poultry, fish, egg, meat meal/chicken meal or other sources, as well as vegetable proteins like soy or pea.

Chicken, beef and lamb have a higher water content than dry ingredients such as grains, meals, vitamins and minerals, which is why they are often listed first.

Meat meal/chicken meal is a concentrated source of protein, minus the water, fat and bone. Meat meal does not have a high water content, but it can still be a good source of protein.

Ingredient Names

In addition, ingredients must be listed by their common or usual name, and most ingredients on the pet food labels have a corresponding definition in the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) Official Publication, which states what the ingredients are and what can be used in pet foods.

Helping Your Client Look for the Right Ingredients

When your clients are choosing a food for their pet, they should keep in mind that the ingredients should be selected for nutrients, quality and taste. There should be a balance of ingredients to meet their pet’s nutritional needs, and no one formula is ideal for all breeds. Stress that their pet’s diet should be based on age/life stage, lifestyle, breed or health status.

Table 1: A Sampling of Common Cat and Dog Food Ingredients

Animal protein Often meat, chicken and fish Essential for muscle tone/development and healthy skin
Ground whole corn Essential amino acids, linoleic acid, fiber and carbohydrates Great source of energy; good for lean muscles
Meat and bone meal Concentrated essential amino acids, calcium and phosphorus Helps maintain lean muscles, strong teeth and bones
Corn gluten meal Concentrated essential amino acids, antioxidants Builds, maintains and repairs tissue; also helps the immune system, skin and coat
Wheat gluten Highly digestible source of amino acids Supports cell and tissue functions and helps maintain muscle mass
Animal fat Fat Promotes energy, healthy skin and coat
Ground whole wheat Carbohydrate Great source of energy and fiber
Meat or chicken by-product meal Concentrated essential amino acids, glucosamine and Supports lean muscle, the immune system, and bone and joint health
Beet pulp Soluable fiber source Aids in digestion
Vegetable oil Source of linoleic acid Good for healthy skin and shiny coat
Brewer's rice Carbohydrates and fiber An energy source that aids in proper digestion

In addition to the ingredients list, there are a few other noteworthy terms listed on most pet food labels that you can help your clients understand:

Guaranteed Analysis

A pet food label must include guarantees for minimum percentages of crude protein and crude fat, and maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture. The term “crude” refers to the specific method of testing the product, not to the quality of the nutrient itself. 

If you compare the guaranteed analyses of dry and canned foods, for example, you will find that the levels of crude protein, crude fat and crude fiber are much lower for the canned product. If you look at the relative moisture contents, canned food contains 75 to 78 percent moisture, while many dry foods contain only 5 to 8 percent water. 

The maximum moisture content for a pet food is 78 percent, except for products labeled as a “stew,” “in sauce,” “in gravy” or similar terms. The extra water gives the product the qualities needed for appropriate texture and fluidity.

Daily Feeding Recommendations

This portion of the label tells how much of the food should be fed to the pet. At the very least, the label should specify a certain amount of cups (or cans or packets, depending on how the product is packaged) per specific body weight (pounds) to feed on a daily basis. Advise your clients that these are only guidelines and their pet’s breed, age, health status and other factors can influence food intake.

AAFCO Statements

This section of the food label is actually the nutritional adequacy statement. It determines who the product is intended for (both species and life stage) and how it was determined to be complete and balanced for those animals. 

There are different ways to determine nutritional adequacy, including formulating the diet to meet AAFCO minimum and maximum nutrient requirements, as well as animal feeding tests or “feeding trials.”

Organic Certified  AAFCO Statements

A Word on Natural, Organic and Other Label Claims

The term “natural” is often used on pet food labels, but do we really know what that means?

According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials, the approved definition of “natural” is:

"A feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subjected 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.”2

“Organic” refers to the conditions under which the plants were grown or animals were raised. There are no official rules governing the labeling of organic foods for pets at this time. However, there are rules for organic pet foods in general that are set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA is currently developing regulations dictating what types of synthetic additives, such as vitamins and purified amino acids, may be used in pet foods labeled as organic.

In addition to these terms, many pet foods are labeled as “premium,” “super premium” and even “ultra premium.” Other products are touted as “gourmet.” According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), products labeled as “premium” or “gourmet” are not required to contain any different or higher quality ingredients, nor are they held up to any higher nutritional standards than are any of the other complete and balanced products.

If you have a client who is particularly concerned about product claims and simply needs more information, you can also go over the latest pet food trends and common myths to provide additional clarity for a more informed decision.

Other Pet Food Label Resources

If your clients want even more information about what’s on a pet food label and what’s in the food, direct them to the FDA website. The FDA is the agency that requires that all animal foods, as with human foods, are safe to eat, produced under sanitary conditions, contain no harmful substances and are truthfully labeled2. The FDA also reviews specific claims on pet food, such as “maintains urinary tract health,” “low magnesium,” “tartar control,” “hairball control” and “improved digestibility.” 

In addition, the FDA is in charge of product recalls, which are usually associated with a safety issue such as having more of a nutrient than what is on the label and safe, or due to a contaminant in the food. As a veterinary professional, it’s important for you to understand that AAFCO isn’t the organization that enforces recalls, although many of the FDA regulations are based on a model provided by the AAFCO. 

Above all, use your education and experience to guide you when helping your clients choose a quality pet food.


  1. Cat and dog food ingredients: Know what’s in their food. Banfield Pet Hospital®. Portland, Ore. 2013. Read the article about food. Accessed Jan. 29, 2015.
  2. Pet Food. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Read the report, opens in new tab. 2014. Accessed Nov. 25, 2014.

Nina Silberstein

Nina Silberstein graduated from the State University of New York College at Buffalo with a BA in journalism. She joined Banfield in 2008 as a medical writer/editor on the Marketing team. She and her husband, David, have one son, Graeme, and a black cat named Blackie.

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