Unfortunately, pet food labels and their nutrition facts are not as useful and easy to understand as they are for human foods, but they still provide important information for evaluating your pet’s diet. By learning how to evaluate a diet based on the label information—and by contacting the manufacturer, if needed—you can choose a well-balanced diet that meets your pet’s nutritional needs.

Follow along as our Greenfield Veterinary Clinic team breaks down each part of a pet food label, so you can make an informed decision about your pet’s diet.

Pet product name

The product name usually gives you an idea of the food’s main ingredients and flavor. However, pet food manufacturers know that many pet owners make their purchase based on a specific ingredient, which they often place in the product name, no matter how little of that ingredient is actually in the food. 

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has four rules concerning pet food product names:

  • The 95% rule — At least 95% of the diet must be the named ingredient, which must be at least 70% of the total product when the added water is included. For example, a food labeled “chicken dog food” must consist of 95% chicken.
  • The 25% rule — The best way to understand the 25% rule is a comparison with a dinner entrée. When the label describes the dish as a steak “dinner,” “entrée,” or “platter,” the meal includes other key ingredients, such as a side salad, potato, and other side vegetables. In pet food, the named ingredient must comprise at least 10% of the total product by weight, and an additional descriptor (e.g., dinner, platter, entrée) must appear in the product name.
  • The “with” rule — Including the word “with” in the product name allows adding an ingredient at 3%. This means that a diet made “with chicken” can contain only 3% chicken.
  • The flavor rule — A flavor designation may be used as long as a listed ingredient provides the flavor. For example, chicken-flavored dog food must contain chicken fat, chicken meal, or some other ingredient that provides chicken flavor.

Ingredients list in pet food

People believe that the ingredient list is incredibly important, but the list can easily mislead pet owners, because ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, with the heaviest ingredient, including the ingredient’s water weight,at the top. So, while whole chicken may be listed first on a bag of dry kibble, much of the moisture content is removed during cooking, leaving a much smaller amount of chicken.

The ingredients list generates another common nutrition myth—many people believe animal byproducts are diseased, contaminated, or otherwise inedible, but they’re simply the parts of an animal people generally do not eat. However, these parts are safe for pet consumption and provide substantially more key vitamins and minerals than muscle meat. Animal byproducts include organs, feet, and bone, and not inedible parts, such as feathers, hair, horns, or hooves. All byproducts used in pet food are inspected for safety and quality by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Guaranteed analysis on pet food labels

The guaranteed analysis provides the minimum and maximum percentages of key nutrients, including protein, fat, fiber, and moisture. The nutrient levels must align with your pet’s specific needs based on factors such as age, breed, and activity level.

Nutritional adequacy statement for pets

The nutritional adequacy statement on a pet food label is important information that indicates whether the diet meets the nutritional standards established by AAFCO. Look for phrases like “complete and balanced” for all or specific life stages (e.g., “for puppies”) to find an appropriate diet for your pet.

Pet feeding guidelines

The feeding guidelines recommend the amount of food your pet requires based on their weight. However, keep in mind that these guidelines are generous and often designed for highly active, intact pets rather than the typical house pet who spends a good portion of their day lounging on the couch. While the guidelines are a good starting point, you will need to adjust the portions according to your pet’s individual needs, such as their activity level and metabolism.

Caloric content in pet food

The calorie statement is expressed in terms of kilocalories per kilogram of food as fed, as well as kilocalories per familiar unit (e.g., per can, per cup). Knowing the number of calories in your pet’s food is essential to correctly calculate how much to feed them so they maintain an ideal weight.

Manufacturer information on pet food labels

Turn to the manufacturer for any additional questions you have about their product. Useful information-gathering questions include those listed by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA).

Decoding pet food labels can be tricky, as manufacturers are not always transparent with their ingredient and nutrition claims. For help choosing the optimal diet for your pet’s specific needs, contact our Greenfield Veterinary Clinic team.