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Pet food labels are evaluated by the FDA and AAFCO. In order for a label to get the AAFCO stamp of approval, there are hundreds of standards that must be met. In fact, there are so many rules that AAFCO holds annual workshops to provide animal feed manufacturers with all the necessary information on how to properly label their products.

To simplify their standards, AAFCO breaks them down into 8 basic requirements:

  • Name & purpose – The packaging must state whether it is meant to be a food, supplement, or treat. AAFCO even has suggestions and standards as to how foods are named, based on how much of an ingredient is used. For example “Chicken Dog Food” has more actual meat than “Chicken Flavor Dog Food.”
  • Name of the animal species the product is for – It must be conspicuously displayed on the packaging as to which species of pet the food is meant to feed.
  • Net Quantity Statement – This shows the measure of how much food comes in the container.
  • Guaranteed Analysis- The percentage of nutrients (protein, fat, fiber, moisture, etc) in each serving of food must be listed.
  • Ingredient Statement – Your pet food must list its ingredients in a specific order. The first ingredient on the list must be the one that makes up the highest percentage of the food by weight.
  • Nutritional Adequacy Statement- When foods call themselves “complete and balanced,” it means that there aren’t any extra supplements or components that you need to feed your pet, in order to provide a healthy diet. Your pet’s food is required to list if t is meant to provide complete and balanced nutrition for only a specific life stage (such as seniors, nursing mothers, or puppies/kittens.)
  • Feeding directions- There must be instructions on what amount of food should be given to an animal-based on its weight, and how often it should be provided.
  • Manufacturer’s Name and Address- In order for people to be able to contact the manufacturer, they must provide their information somewhere on the packaging.


There is an abundance of information on any given pet food label and it can seem like a daunting task to try to make sense of it. AAFCO requires a food’s ingredients to be listed by weight, so when reading your pet food’s ingredient list, the first five items will be what makes up most of your pet’s food. Upon first glance, this will enable you to determine the food’s quality and nutritional value, and can often help you make a quick, educated decision.

If any of the first five ingredients on the list are ones that are also mentioned as harmful or questionable in the previous chapter, you should probably choose a better quality food. Due to the sub-par contents of the formula, you will not even need to consider other important information such as the protein content, feeding directions, guaranteed analysis, or any of the other parts of the food label.

Basically, the truth about the quality of your pet’s food is revealed when you read those first five ingredients. No fancy marketing, celebrity endorsements, or flashy packaging can cover for a food with harmful or questionable ingredients!

This food is inexpensive and is sold at local convenience stores throughout the US. On the front of the package is a happy pet surrounded by lots of pictures of healthy-looking ingredients, including beef. By reading the label on the food, we can plainly see that real meat is not even one of the main ingredients. In fact, the only meat-related items are beef & bone meal. “Meals” are cooked and dried before they are added to the kibble dough. This means that they have been heated before being added to the kibble mixture and then baked again at the final stage of production. Many pet owners are trying to avoid over-processed foods and food ingredients, because it is believed that vital nutrients are lost each time the food is heated. Beef and bone meals are made of leftover scraps from human food which have been deemed “not suitable for human consumption.”  These by-products are rendered into a “meal” which boosts protein levels in the guaranteed analysis. Even though this food shows pictures of green vegetables on the front label, there are no vegetables listed in the first five ingredients. The food contains animal fat,  wheat, corn, and soy, which are ingredients that a lot of pet owners have rightfully started to avoid. Needless to say, this food, like many other cheap, readily available foods, is not up to par and is decidedly unsatisfactory.

Compare those unhealthy ingredients to a food (which ironically comes in a fairly plain package with no pictures) that lists it’s first 5 ingredients as: Chicken, chicken broth, chicken liver, carrots, peas. There are no red flag ingredients on this list, and they are all wholesome, nutritious, and simple. AAFCO requires a label to describe the processing of the meats within, so, being listed as “chicken” means that it is just that- not cooked, dried, or processed.

When comparing the labels on these two foods, we can plainly see that the second food choice is a better one. The formula does not have any “mystery” components or ingredients that are controversial or potentially hazardous. Now by just focusing and reading that small part on the bag of food, you have the knowledge to see past the packaging and marketing ploys.

Once a food passes the First Five test, you can move on to considering other aspects of the formula. You may be looking for a number of various things. Perhaps a higher protein content, lower carbohydrates, a grain-free formulation, or a food specifically made for senior pets. Once you see that the foundation of the food is based on high-quality ingredients, you can delve deeper into the other analytics on the food label.

It might seem obvious, but the main goal of your pet’s food is to supply a complete and balanced nutrition to ensure that your pet lives a long and healthy life. In order to provide your pet energy and longevity, the food should have the right proportions of essential nutrients. Proteins and healthy fats are the most vital components of an animal’s diet.

Protein is one of the most important nutrients that is found in your pet’s food. The recommended protein requirements between species varies.  Adult cats should eat a food that consists of 25% – 30% protein, while adult dogs need their food to contain 15% – 30% protein. It is completely acceptable to feed a healthy dog or cat a food that has a protein concentration that is higher than 30%. High energy pets will use up those extra proteins in their daily activities. Proteins that go unused are excreted in urine, which is totally harmless for most animals. High levels of proteins are not recommended for dogs and cats with kidney issues. Your veterinarian will advise you if your pet requires a low-protein diet. This isn’t typical.

It’s important to note that the protein content of your pet’s food is not only about having a correct percentage. Corn, feathers, and deboned turkey all contain protein. However, in terms of quality, there is no question that the deboned turkey would provide the most nutrients to your pet. This is because the deboned turkey has the highest biological value. Biological value is a measure of how much protein from the food gets absorbed into the animal that eats it. Basically, the biological value tells you how much of the ingredient gets used in a pet’s body. Ingredients like egg, fish, milk, beef, and other whole meats tend to have the highest biological value. Things like hair, feathers, by-products, and glutens are all sources of protein, but they are much lower in biological value. When looking at a food label and taking protein percentages into account, it’s important to remember not only how much protein there is, but what kind.

After proteins, fats are the most important percentage of a food to consider. Adult cats need their diet to consist of 15% – 20% fat, whereas adult dogs should have 10% – 20%. It is necessary to check the fat content of a food to make sure that it has a good balance of fat as it compares to the other ingredients. It’s also important to remember what portion size you are supposed to be feeding your pet. Even if your pet’s food has a healthy fat percentage, if your dog or cat eats too much of it, they will ingest too much fat in their daily diet. Too much fat in your pet’s diet, whether from overfeeding or consumption of a food with a high fat content, can cause obesity, which has numerous negative side effects. Obese dogs and cats can face issues like joint pain, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Pets who are obese are less active and live shorter lives. Feeding a well-balanced diet in compliance with a food label’s feeding instructions is a good way to prevent obesity.

Fats, in general, get a bad name, but healthy fats are actually required nutrients for pets. It is not a good or healthy decision to feed a dog or cat a fat-free diet. Healthy fats provide a source of energy, increase food palatability, and carry vitamins and essential fatty acids. Without fat in your pet’s diet, your pet can have decreased ability to recover from wounds, dry and scaly skin, and in younger pets, growth deformities.


In order to simplify understanding a pet food label, remember to pay close attention to the first five ingredients in the food. If these are not nutritionally beneficial, then the rest of the food is likely low-quality as well. You should also make sure the food has the right proportion of protein and fat to give your pet a well-rounded diet.