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How to Read & Understand Pet Food Labels

pet food labels

Understanding Ingredients on Pet Food Labels

Taking care of pets means understanding ingredients on pet food labels, knowing what to look for on pet food labels, and why the ingredients matter. While most of us scan the basics of the packaging, labels are cluttered with information and small print, so it’s not always easy to tell what’s most important. All claims on pet foods are required to be truthful, and every product must undergo regulatory scrutiny and approval on federal and sometimes state-by-state levels before it ever lands on retailer shelves. The front of a package must include brand and product name, species the food is intended for, and the quantity statement. It will often feature bright logos, graphics, and enticing photos or illustrations. The back and side panels will contain a variety of other information, including the food label and nutritional breakdown. Here’s a simple guide to reading food labels that can help take the guesswork out of pet food and treat purchases.

Guide to Reading Food Labels

All pet food labels follow the same basic format, but they can still be confusing for many customers. Once you know the most important things to look for, you’ll be able to choose the right foods and treats for your pet. If you’re not sure what food is right for your pet or if they have particular conditions or special needs like weight control, always consult with your veterinarian.

What Must Be on Pet Food Labels

  1. Product and brand name, species, and/or other unique identifiers. Many pet owners will base their buying decision on a specific ingredient their pet likes, like chicken, beef, or salmon. Most brands will try to highlight that particular ingredient in the product name. 
    • Words to watch for on pet food labels: AND, WITH, flavor, and descriptive qualifying terms like dinner, entrée, feast, stew, or platter. Each of these differences correlates to percentages of ingredients by weight or volume. These words tend to signal smaller primary and individual ingredient quantities, so understanding ingredients and how they are listed and described is essential.
    • The 95 Percent Rule: In order to name a product that includes a specific ingredient, i.e. Savory Chicken Dog Food or Salmon Cat Food, the food must contain 95 percent of the named ingredient by weight and must be at least 70 percent of the total product when added water is factored in. 
    • The 25 Percent Rule: Products named Chicken Dinner for Dogs, Salmon and Sweet Potato Entrée, or Lamb and Vegetable Stew, for example, must contain at least 25 percent of the product (not counting the water for processing), but less than 95 percent. In this case, the product name must include a qualifying term, such as dinner, entrée, or platter. When counting added water, the named ingredients must comprise at least 10 percent of the product. If more than one ingredient is included in a “dinner,” the combination of the named ingredients must total 25 percent of the product and be listed in the exact same order as found on the package ingredient list.
  2. Product weight, liquid measure, or count, depending on the food formulation. Savvy pet food purchasers know that these measures will vary by the type and density of the product. These are included in metric measures by law. If you’re not sure if a particular food or treat is worth the price tag, do a cost-per-ounce or cost-per-pound comparison between your choices. It’s OK to choose something in the middle range.
  3. Guaranteed Analysis: Specifies the number of specific nutrients from crude protein to crude fat to moisture, vitamins, and minerals and any added flavors or ingredients. Guarantees for other nutrients may be required to support any claims made in labeling (High Calcium Formula or other benefits). These can include voluntary guarantees for other nutrients. All guarantees must be given in a particular order, specified units, and as a minimum or maximum, depending on the nutrient.
  4. Ingredients listed in order of highest weight to lowest. Understanding ingredients is easy but can get more complex if you really dig into the details of “defined names” for added flavors and colors. By law, the ingredient making up the highest percentage of the total weight is always listed first, followed by the next highest, and so on. All ingredients used must be GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe), approved food additives, or otherwise sanctioned for use in animal feeds (i.e., as defined by AAFCO, a pet food industry regulatory body). Ingredients must also be declared by the correct AAFCO-defined name if it exists. If not, the “common or usual” name customers might expect must be used.
  5. Nutritional adequacy statement. These must be backed by professional lab testing that confirms the food provides a certain level of nutrients suitable for consumption. These may also include values for the appropriate life stages (puppy/kitten, adult, senior, weight control, etc.).
  6. Feeding directions and guidelines by weight range. Feeding frequency must also be clearly stated. All pet foods labeled as “complete and balanced” for life stages or general use must include feeding directions stating “Feed (XX amount of product) per (weight) of dog/cat” per day. Feeding directions are optional for treats, but all must be labeled as snacks or treats.
  7. Manufacturer name and address. This may also include a general number for customer service contact. If someone else makes the product for the company, the words “manufactured for” or “distributed by” will be included before the address.

Remember, marketing for pets is very similar to that of people, and everything on pet food labels is carefully worded and designed to attract the buyer’s attention. Since pets don’t have wallets and they can’t really shop for themselves (unless it’s helping themselves to enticing treats or toys in open boxes at lower levels at the pet store), it’s up to each pet owner to choose the best foods and treats to meet the dietary needs of their pets throughout their lifetime. If you’re still unsure how to read pet food labels and choose the right food for your pet, consult with your veterinarian.

Disclaimer: Not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinarian advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding the medical condition of your pet. If you think your pet has a medical emergency, call or visit your veterinarian or your local veterinary emergency hospital immediately.

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