Pet Food Labels: Unraveling the Fine Print

Key Points

  • Owners have access to a great deal of information and misinformation about pet nutrition online.
  • Veterinary professionals must accurately assess the pet’s nutritional status and educate owners about pet foods.
  • Although ingredients are listed on the label in descending order by weight, many key items have different moisture contents making comparisons difficult and misleading.
  • Don’t believe the hype! Many by-products are excellent sources of nutrition.
  • The guaranteed analysis (crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber, and moisture) provides only a general idea of a food’s nutrient content and is of little value in comparing foods because specific nutrient levels are not given instead values are listed on an “as fed” basis.
  • All pet foods have different moisture levels. To accurately compare nutrient composition of different feeds, convert all guaranteed analyses to a dry-matter basis.
  • Feeding trials are considered the gold standard in determining nutritional claims.
  • The Association of American Feed Control Officials defines “natural” as a feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources that has not been subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any chemically synthetic additives except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.
  • The term “organic” refers to human foods, and pet foods can only be labeled organic when they conform to the standard set for human foods.


A critical component for maintaining the health of all animals is proper nutrition. Every patient, healthy or ill, that visits the veterinary hospital should have an evaluation of their nutritional status and healthcare team members should be ready to make a nutritional recommendation based on this evaluation. Unfortunately the large number of pet foods available can make it difficult for healthcare team members to make a nutritional recommendation and effectively communicate this recommendation to their clients.

Nutrition can be defined as the relationship of food and nutrients to health. Proper nutrient intake is essential to normal development, overall health, and disease management in companion animals. Nutrients have many metabolic roles essential to normal physiologic function that can be compromised by insufficient or irregular intake. Minimum requirements for pets have been determined to achieve optimal nutrition, focusing on the key nutrients for physical development, mobility, immune response, cognitive functions, disease prevention, or target treatment.

Pet owners and healthcare team members today have access to a lot of information regarding pet nutrition via the Internet, news sources, and blogs. With this wealth of information comes sometimes confusing and incorrect nutritional information. Veterinary professionals need to understand companion animal nutrition and sort through the minutiae to educate well intentioned owners on what constitutes proper nutrition for their beloved pet. There is a lot of misinformation regarding pet food, so this paper will take a closer look at pet food regulation and the interpretation of pet food labels.


Pet food labels

The pet food label is the primary means by which product information is communicated from the manufacturer or distributor to pet owners, veterinary health care team members, and regulatory officials (Fig 1). Reading and interpreting pet food labels is one method that healthcare team members and pet owners can obtain information about pet foods. However, it is important to remember that pet food labels do not necessarily provide information about food quality such as digestibility and biological value. Contact pet food manufacturers or nutrition experts for additional information that can be used to evaluate pet food quality.

Pet food labels not only communicate information about the product, but also serve as a legal document. A number of agencies and organizations regulate production, marketing, and sales of pet foods in different countries. Each agency has different responsibilities with varying degrees of authority. Some of these agencies regulate information found on pet food labels whereas others influence the regulatory process. Pet foods are regulated at their point of sale, but foods sold outside the United States must also meet labeling requirements of the country in which the food is sold. Pet foods sold in the US must conform to Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), and state pet food labeling requirements.

Pet food labels include two main parts:

  1. The principal display panel and
  2. The information panel.

Certain pieces of information are required on each part of the label, whereas others are optional.


Principal display panel

The principal display panel is defined by the FDA as “the part of a label that is most likely to be displayed, presented, shown or examined under customary conditions of display for retail sale.” It is the primary means of attracting the customer’s attention and should immediately communicate the product identity. The product identity must include a designator such as “bird food”. The brand name is the name by which pet food products of a given company are identified. The product name is not essential and may be the same as the brand name; it is usually descriptive of the food and is subject to regulations dealing with composition of ingredients. The product vignette is a visual representation of the product and it must accurately depict the contents of the package. Food pictured on the label cannot appear better that the actual product.

Percentages of a specific ingredient can determine product names. For example, the term “chicken” requires that at least 70% of the product contain chicken. A “chicken dinner or entrée” must contain 10% chicken if moist and 25% chicken if dry. “With chicken” means that the product contains at least 3% chicken; “chicken flavor” means that chicken is recognizable by the pet (< 3% chicken).

A nutrition statement may be provided on the display panel; it is usually brief and can include such terms as “complete and nutritious,” “100% nutritious,” or “100% complete nutrition.” The use of these terms implies that the product contains ingredients in quantities sufficient to provide the estimated nutrient requirements of a pet or the product contains a combination of ingredients that when fed to a normal animal as the only source of nourishment will provide satisfactory results.


Information panel

The information panel is adjacent to the principal display panel and includes product information. The ingredient statement must be shown on the label and includes a list of ingredients, which must conform to AAFCO names, in descending order by weight. Ingredients are listed on an “as fed basis, which makes interpretation of ingredient lists difficult since many key ingredients are added with different moisture contents. Meats contain more moisture; therefore they may be listed first on the ingredient list however this is often very misleading to pet owners. In reality the primary component of the food is often a mixture of grains. Furthermore, the ingredient statement does not provide information about the quality of ingredients.

One limitation of the ingredient statement is that terms such as “meat by-products” are difficult to evaluate. Many owners are under the impression that foods containing “meat by-products” are inferior to foods containing whole meat.

  • The nutritive value of various meat by-products varies widely. For example, meat by-products such as liver, kidney, and lungs have excellent nutritional value, whereas udder, bone, and connective tissue have poor nutrient availability. Meat by-products do not include hair, horns, teeth, or hooves.
  • AAFCO defines meat on an ingredient label as any combination of skeletal, striated muscle or muscle found in the tongue, diaphragm, heart, and esophagus with or without the overlying fat and the skin, sinew, nerves, and blood vessels that normally accompany muscle. Meat must be suitable for use in animal foods and therefore excludes feathers, heads, feet, and entrails.

By-products are simply secondary products produced in addition to the principal product. Many human foods contain by-products, and the majority of pet foods contain by-products. For example, by-products of human milk production would be ice cream, cheese, and butter. Many by-products are excellent sources of nutrients for pets as well as people.

Food additives in pet foods added by the manufacturer, must be listed in the ingredient statement (Box 1).

Box 1. Food additives in pet foods

  • Vitamins

  • Minerals

  • Antioxidant preservatives

  • Antimicrobial preservatives

  • Humectants

  • Coloring agents

  • Flavors

  • Palatability enhancers

  • Emulsifying agents

Guaranteed analysis

The guaranteed analysis includes crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber, and moisture (Box 2). Additional guarantees are optional and may be included by the manufacturer.

Box 2. Guaranteed analysis includes:

  • Crude protein (minimum)

  • Crude fat (minimum)

  • Crude fiber (maximum)

  • Moisture (maximum)

The guaranteed analysis is a general idea of the nutrient content of a food but is of little value in comparing foods because specific nutrient contents are not given and values are listed on an “as fed” basis.

  • While crude protein is an accurate index of protein quantity, it is not indicative of the quality of the protein.
  • Crude fat may be used to estimate energy density of the food.
  • Crude fiber is an estimate of the indigestible portion of the food that usually underestimates the true level of fiber in the product. Foods that contain higher levels of fiber are generally lower in calories.
  • Moisture content represents the water content in the food. In the United States moisture levels cannot exceed 78%. Foods that exceed 78% moisture must use a different name such as “in gravy,” “in sauce,” or “in aspic.”
Box 3. Example of conversion to dry matter
Lafeber Nutri-Meals® contain 12% moisture; therefore each bar contains 88% dry matter. The label states that Breakfast Nutri-Meal Bars® contain 11% crude protein. Divide 11% crude protein by 88% dry matter to get 12.50% as the amount of protein present on a dry matter basis.

Now that we have this information, we can compare Nutri-Meals® with other products. Harrison’s Bird Food Adult Lifetime Coarse® contains 10% moisture and 15% crude protein. On a dry-matter basis, this product contains 16.67% protein. When comparing these products on a dry matter basis, Harrison’s product has more protein. The same calculations may be used for fat, fiber, and other nutrients on a dry matter basis.

Nutritional adequacy statement

The nutritional adequacy statement on the information panel is often more detailed than the brief statements found on the principal display. Examples include “complete and balanced nutrition for growth of kittens” and “meets…requirements for the entire life cycle of all dogs.” The nutrition statement will help you determine if the manufacturer is making claims for a specific purpose diet as opposed to an all purpose diet.

Pet foods with no statement of adequacy include snacks, treats, and some therapeutic foods. Therapeutic foods have a statement that they are to be used by or under the direction of a veterinarian. No further nutrition statement is required since the complete nutritional profile is usually available to the veterinarian.

The basis of the nutrition claim listed on the pet food label is based on the formulation method, and/or the feeding trial method.

  • Formulation method: The formulation method is simply a laboratory nutrient profile analysis and does not require any feeding or digestibility trials to prove availability of the nutrients in the profile analysis. This method is recognized on a label by a statement such as “meets or exceeds the minimal nutritional levels established by AAFCO” or “formulated to meet the AAFCO dog nutrient profile for…” AAFCO nutrient profiles are published for growth and reproduction as well as adult maintenance.
  • Feeding trial method: The feeding trial method is the preferred method for substantiating a claim and is considered the gold standard when determining nutritional claims. Feeding trials can results in adequacy claims for four categories including: gestation and lactation, growth, maintenance, and complete for all life stages. A food that has successfully completed a sequential growth and gestation/lactation trial can make a claim for all life stages. The required wording for labels that have passed these tests is: “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (brand) provides complete and balanced nutrition for (life stage).” Pet foods that do not meet AAFCO requirements by either of the standard methods will have a nutritional statement as follows: “this product is intended for intermittent or supplemental feeding only.

Feeding directions

Dog and cat foods labeled as complete and nutritious for any or all life stages must list feeding directions on the product label. At minimum, feeding directions should include the instructions “feed (weight/unit) per (weight) of dog or cat” and frequency of feeding. However, it should be recognized that these feeding directions are general guidelines and should serve as a starting point. Adjustments may be needed to maintain optimal body condition. Therefore, as a veterinary professional the amount to feed should be calculated to attain a more accurate food dose dependent upon species, lifestyle, life stage, etc.


Natural vs. Organic vs. Holistic


The term “natural” has been defined by AAFCO as:

A food or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal, or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis, or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts which might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.”

This definition does not include the use of any synthetic preservatives, flavors, and colors in products labeled as “natural.” However, most added trace nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and taurine are chemically synthetic, AAFCO guidelines do allow use of trace nutrients in “complete and balanced” pet foods. This is done by adding a disclaimer similar to the following: “natural ingredients with added vitamins and minerals”.



The term “organic” refers to the process by which ingredients are grown, harvested, and processed. Currently the term organic encompasses human foods and can only be used in pet foods, if the standards set for human foods are met. For example, “organic beef ” must come from cattle raised under certain conditions without the use of drugs such as hormones and antibiotics. Currently, pet foods meeting the human standard can display the USDA organic seal (Fig 2) if the contents of the package meet specific requirements (Table 1).

Table 1. USDA organic seal package categories
CategoryDefinitionProduct label can display USDA organic seal
100% organicLabeling term that indicates food has been produced through methods that foster cycling of resources, ecological balance, and biodiversityYes
Organic≥ 95% of content is organic by weight excluding water and saltYes
Made with organic≥ 70% of content is organicNo; the front product panel can display the phrase “made with organic” followed by no more than three specific ingredients or glasses of ingredients

When less than 70% of content is organic, the label may list only those ingredients that are organic on the ingredient panel with no mention of organic elsewhere on the label. These products may not display the USDA organic seal.

USDA organic label

Figure 1. Pet foods that meet specific human food requirements may display the USDA organic seal.

Holistic” is a term that has been used in a number of pet foods with a variety of ingredients and characteristics. Holistic is not legally defined or regulated by pet food regulations therefore this term is meaningless. The term is also considered misleading in that it may falsely imply therapeutic benefit.


Manufacturer information

In the United States the name and address of the pet food manufacturer, distributor, or dealer must be found on the label, generally on the information panel. The following phrases: “Distributed by…” or “Manufactured for…” or “Imported by…” are indicative of a company other than the one selling the product has manufactured the pet food. With private label brand pet foods, this is fairly common. In these instances the manufacturer is referred to as a co-packer.

Regulations in the US also require that the manufacturer’s information be accompanied by “Product of (country of origin)”, if the product is manufactured in a country other than where it is sold. Additionally, many manufacturers will include a universal product code (UPC) or bar code on the label, although this is not a legal requirement. Other important information frequently found on pet food containers or labels are batch numbers and date of manufacture. This type of information assists both the purchaser and the manufacturer when communicating about product in a specific container. Finally, a freshness date (e.g., “Best before [date]”) or a list of other guarantee policies may be found on the product’s packaging.



Pet owners at present want and expect the very best for their pets. However, the information that pet owners are given although well intentioned can be misleading. The veterinary healthcare team should focus on proper nutrition for every pet that presents to their hospital. To do this, the healthcare team must perform a complete nutritional history and patient assessment and be knowledgeable about the wide variety of foods that are on the market today. Not all foods are created equal and pet foods labels can be misleading and misinterpreted. The veterinary healthcare team must familiarize themselves with properly reading a pet food label and understanding how the pet food label can affect the nutritional recommendation being made.




American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), Inc. 2012 Publication. AAFCO. Available at Accessed on December 28, 2012.

Crane SW, Cowell CS, Stout N, et al. Commercial pet foods. Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, 5th ed. Topeka: Mark Morris Institute, 2010;157-190.

Roudebush P, Dzanis D, Debraekeleer J, Watson H. Pet food labels. Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, 5th ed. Topeka: Mark Morris Institute, 2010;191-206.

Wortinger A. Nutritional myths. J Am Anim Hosp Assoc 2005;41:273-276.

Zicker SC. Evaluating pet foods: how confident are you when you recommend a commercial pet food? Top Companion Anim Med 2008;23:121-126.

To cite this page:

Burns K. Pet food labels: Unraveling the fine print. LafeberVet web site. December 14, 2012. Available at