A dog and two cats eating.

How to Read Dog and Cat Food Labels

Interpreting the information on a pet food label can be a challenge for many consumers. Pet food labels contain both regulated and required information, as well as marketing designed to appeal to the consumer. Recognizing and looking beyond the marketing can help pet owners make better and more informed choices for their pet.

What Is the AAFCO?

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is the organization that develops the standards, regulations, policies, and definitions for pet food. This organization does NOT, however, certify, approve, test, or regulate pet food. There is NO such thing as an “AAFCO Approved Diet.” The regulation of pet food is generally left up to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and each individual state. You can read more about this organization here.

What Information Is Required on Pet Food Labels?

What If My Pet’s Food Label Is Missing Required Information?

Consider it a red flag if your pet’s food is missing required information on the label, and purchase something else. Pet food quality should not only be reflected inside the bag, but also in the company’s ability to produce pet food and packaging that meet recommended guidelines and laws. This is important not only for the health and well-being of your pet, but for consumer protection.

What is Nutritional Adequacy?

Nutritional adequacy is the intake of essential nutrients to fulfill nutritional requirements and promote health and wellness. A diet is complete and balanced when all required nutrients are present in appropriate amounts. The nutritional adequacy of a pet food is determined through formulation and/or through a feeding trial as described by AAFCO.

The Nutritional Adequacy Statement tells us if a diet is complete and balanced for a specific life stage.

These life stages include:

“Senior” is not a life stage defined by AAFCO. The nutrient formulation of senior diets will depend on the specific manufacturer.

Is Ingredient List A Good Way to Judge the Quality of Pet Food?

It is a misconception that the ingredient list is the best way to judge the quality of pet food. Pet food marketers have done an excellent job perpetuating this myth. One study found the most influential factor regarding selection of pet food was the ingredient list.

This ingredient list can be manipulated by the pet food formulator to favor the consumer. Wet ingredients contribute more water, while dry ingredients contribute more nutrients. Ingredients of equal weight may be listed in the preferred order by the manufacturer, allowing them to rank desirable ingredients (like chicken) above less-alluring components. Using multiple ingredients with a similar nutrient profile or splitting an ingredient into multiple fractions can cause this ingredient to appear lower on the ingredient list and allow more consumer-friendly ingredients to appear higher. For example, rather than listing “lentils,” a company may choose to list brown, green, and red lentils separately, thus pushing them down further on the ingredient list.

Some manufacturers will include numerous consumer-friendly ingredients like fruits and vegetables low on the ingredient list. In certain circumstances, these ingredients contribute very little nutritional value and are added to appeal to consumers. For example, if you find fruits and/or vegetables after “salt” on your pet’s ingredient list, these combined are typically less than 1% of your pet’s diet and are unlikely to be doing more than marketing to the consumer.

The ingredient list also does not tell the consumer about the quality of the individual ingredients and the quality controls or safety surrounding the manufacture of the product.

The bottom line – beware of pet food recommendations that focus solely on ingredients.

Beware of Buzzwords that Do Not Reflect Nutritional Adequacy

It is possible to design a human-grade, organic, holistic, all-natural, grain-free, by-product-free diet that is not complete and balanced for a dog or cat. The above terms, primarily driven by pet food marketers, do not reflect the nutritional adequacy of a diet.

What About Therapeutic Veterinary Diets?

Therapeutic veterinary diets are prescribed by a veterinarian to help diagnose, prevent, or treat disease. The FDA considers these diets to be drugs and they have released specific guidelines for the marketing and labeling of these diets. All therapeutic veterinary diets are required to have a nutritional adequacy statement, however some may be labeled as “intermittent or supplemental feeding only,” even if they may be fed long-term. These are typically foods that have nutrients that do not fall within the established recommendations by AAFCO. For example, diets for dogs and cats with kidney disease will typically have a phosphorus content below the AAFCO minimum recommendation. You should always consult with your pet’s veterinarian prior to feeding a therapeutic veterinary diet.

How Can I Better Assess the Quality of My Pet’s Food?

The first step in choosing a pet food is determining the individual needs of your pet. Your veterinarian can assist you with selecting a food by performing a nutritional assessment. A diet with a nutritional adequacy statement for your pet’s life stage is recommended.

Evaluating the quality of pet food is challenging for pet owners. The pet food label is limited in its information about product safety and quality. The World Small Animal Association (WSAVA) has released a list of guidelines and questions to help consumers select pet food. While these guidelines and questions may not encompass every aspect of quality, they are a good place to start beyond the label.