In my last article, I shared information about independent, reliable resources on pet nutrition and also debunked some of the common myths about pet food. In this article, I am sharing information on reading and deciphering labels.

Firstly, I will address the regulation of pet-food labeling to give an understanding of the stringent guidelines manufacturers must uphold.

Secondly, I will delve further into the content of the labels, which contain both a vast amount of useful information but also contain eye-catching marketing ploys that often mean little for your pet’s health.

As with food for humans, pet food labels are regulated as to what information they must provide. On a federal level, pet food labels are primarily regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which enforces federal laws pertaining to pet food labels. These laws include the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA). Pet food labels are also regulated at a state level and vary state to state.

The FFDCA requires that the label provides proper identification of product, a net quantity statement, the manufacturer's name and address, and a list of ingredients. A pet food may be considered misbranded if it fails to provide this information, and manufacturers are subject to penalties if found in violation. The ingredients must be listed in descending order of predominance by weight and identified by their common names. The label must list any artificial flavoring, artificial coloring, or chemical preservatives. If the food is to be used only under certain conditions, or only with other foods, this must be stated on the label, along with any other necessary information. 

The FPLA contains additional regulations designed to prevent unfair or deceptive packaging and labeling, and to help make it possible for consumers to make value comparisons between products

The FDA also reviews specific claims on pet food, such as “maintains urinary tract health,” “low magnesium,” and “hairball control.” The FDA has lengthy specific testing protocols for foods making such claims to ensure that pet owners are not being misled.

State regulations vary greatly. Most states require registration of each product and a label review or registration of the company prior to placing the product on the market. The label is reviewed to determine whether or not it meets the specific requirements of state laws in terms of necessary information and to assure that there are no false or misleading statements on the label.

Many states have adopted the pet food regulations of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), whose website defines it as a voluntary membership association of local, state, and federal agencies charged by law to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds and animal drug remedies. AAFCO standards go above and beyond those of the FDA, and require eight items on a pet food label. They are: the Guaranteed Analysis, the ingredient statement, the nutritional adequacy statement, feeding directions, and the manufacturer’s name and address.

Now that we know what must be on a label, what does it all mean?

Let’s start with ingredients, as they tend to be of most concern and the area of most confusion for pet owners. All ingredients are required to be listed in descending order by weight. The weights of ingredients are determined in the state in which they are added to the food, including their inherent water content. Remembering that water weight is included is important when evaluating relative quantity claims, especially when ingredients of different moisture contents are compared.

One pet food may list "meat" as its first ingredient, and "corn" as the second ingredient. The manufacturer doesn't hesitate to point out that its competitor lists "corn" first ("meat meal" is second), suggesting the competitor's product has less animal-source protein than its own. However, meat is very high in moisture (approximately 75% water). Without that water weight, the meat probably would fall lower on the ingredient list.

Meat meals, such as chicken meal or meat and bone meal, are different; most of the water and fat have been removed, which concentrates the animal protein. In the end, it is more important to compare percent of protein than simply look at which ingredient is listed first. 

Further down the ingredient list, the "common or usual" names become less common or usual to most consumers. The majority of ingredients with chemical-sounding names are vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients. Other possible ingredients may include artificial colors, stabilizers, and preservatives. 

Next, let’s move along to the Guaranteed Analysis. Per AAFCO standards, the Guaranteed Analysis lists the percentage of each of the nutrients in the food. The minimum percent of crude protein and crude fat, and the maximum percent of crude fiber and moisture are always required. Note that "crude" refers to the analysis method, rather than the quality of the nutrient. Guarantees for other nutrients may be required to support claims made in labeling (such as "High in calcium and vitamin A"), and manufacturers may include voluntary guarantees for other nutrients. The guarantees must be given in a particular order, in specified units and as a minimum or maximum, depending on the nutrient.

Why does the Guaranteed Analysis matter? Your veterinarian can review your pet’s health history with you and advise what nutrients are needed for your pet’s best benefit. For example, with some conditions, magnesium and phosphorus levels are important to monitor in order to maintain organ health. Additionally, when a pet needs to gain or lose weight, your veterinarian can guide you as to the number of calories needed per day while maintaining adequate protein.

Akin to the Guaranteed Analysis is the Nutritional Adequacy Statement. This statement also indicates if the food is complete and balanced for a particular life stage, such as adult maintenance, growth, reproduction, a combination thereof, or if it is intended for intermittent or supplemental feeding only. Products that are specifically identified on the principal display panel as a snack, treat, or supplement are exempt from this.

While it may seem pretty simple, feeding directions are also required if a food is labeled as complete and balanced for all life stages. These directions must, at a minimum, state, “Feed (amount of product) per (weight) of dog/cat.” Feeding frequency must also be stated. I would advises that you consult with your veterinarian about the amount you feed your pet as I have often found that the quantity listed on the pet food is too much.

Okay, so what do we do with all of this information?

Knowing how to read and interpret the meaning of all those little words on your pet’s food helps you to make more informed choices, based on the ingredients and nutrients best suited for your pet. As you speak with your veterinarian about your pet’s specific nutritional needs, you can research, understand what the labels are telling you, and make an educated decision as to the food you choose. While labeling can be flashy and often misleading to indicate that one product is superior to another, you now know that the most important information is in the fine print. 

For additional information, you can also visit the websites used as references for this article: