A Guide to Reading Pet Food Labels

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Reading and understanding a pet food label can be confusing. What do terms like “ingredient deck”, “guaranteed analysis”, “daily feeding recommendations” and “Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) statements” even mean?

In this article, we will explain the different components that make up a pet nutrition information label, along with tips on how to decipher it all.

The ingredient deck

All pet food manufacturers are required to provide this list of ingredients. They are listed according to their pre-cooked weight.

Interpretation Tips
  • A highly digestible protein should be at the top of the ingredient list.  That could come from meat as well as vegetable proteins like soy or pea.
  • Ingredients are listed in order of pre-cooked weight which often changes after the cooking process.  This is important to know when you are comparing products with different moisture content.
  • 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 AAFCO Official Publication, which states exactly what the ingredients are and what can be used in pet foods.

Guaranteed analysis

A pet food label must state 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.

Interpretation Tips
  • If you compare the guaranteed analyses of dry and canned foods, for example, you will find that the levels of crude protein and other nutrients are much lower for the canned product.
  • If you look at the relative moisture contents, canned food contains 75-78 percent moisture, whereas dry food contains only 10-12 percent water. So, when buying a canned food, look at the moisture guarantee.
  • 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 to have the appropriate texture and fluidity.

Daily feeding recommendations

This section tells you how much of the food you should feed your pet. At the very least, the label should instruct you to feed a certain amount of cups per specific body weight (pounds) on a daily basis. The label should also say what life stage the food is appropriate for.

Interpretation Tips
  • These are only guidelines. Your pet’s breed, age, health status and other factors can influence food intake.
  • It’s important that you work with your doctor to determine whether to increase or decrease the amount of food that is appropriate for your individual pet’s needs.

AAFCO statements

The AAFCO regulates the pet food industry. The board consists of state and federal representatives, but is not a governing body. Individuals directly involved in the industry sit on the board and help “develop and implement uniform and equitable laws, regulations, standards and enforcement policies for regulating the manufacture, distribution and sale of animal feeds,” according to the AAFCO website. Their regulations establish the minimum amount of nutrients needed to provide a complete and balanced diet.

How can I make sure that I am buying a quality pet food?

Make sure the pet food has high quality ingredients that deliver the right nutrients for your pet’s needs.  Because this can be difficult to determine from the packaging, make sure you buy a brand you trust—a  brand that manufacturers their own pet food to ensure quality control and performs their own product research and development.  When in doubt, rely on your veterinarian’s education and experience to guide you.  

Is corn an acceptable ingredient in pet food?

Corn is an acceptable grain and is not classified as cheap filler. Corn is an excellent source of energy because it contains approximately 80 percent carbohydrate. When comparing corn to other ingredients, few supply such energy. The carbohydrate portion of corn can be more than 95 percent digestible.

Another key nutrient that corn supplies is a blend of carotenoids, which are nutrients that are converted to vitamin A. Biologic functions that involve carotenoids are vision, skin health, reproduction, and bone and muscle growth. They also have a role as antioxidants.

Learn More

Talk to your veterinarian or a nutrition expert to help you find the best food for your pet. You can also find other helpful articles like the ones listed below in our Nutrition Center