Reading A Pet Food Label

When you read the ingredient list on your pet food label, you aren’t really reading in a normal sense of the word. It is nothing like reading the label of human food. The label on pet foods is more akin to a legal document.

The words don’t mean what you think they mean. Every word on a pet food label has a legal meaning.

While AAFCO is not law, AAFCO is after all a private organization, AAFCO is a set of model laws. Most states have adopted the model laws. Which given the nature of the marketplace today every pet food has to follow AAFCO Guidelines.


When you read chicken you might be picturing a chicken breast. This is not the case.

Poultry is the clean combination of the flesh with or without accompanying bone derived from the parts or whole carcasses of slaughtered poultry or combination thereof exclusive of feathers heads feet and viscera. If it bears a name descriptive of its kind it must correspond thereto. If the bone has been removed the process may be so designated by use of the appropriate feed term. It shall be suitable for use in animal food.

Meat is the clean flesh derived from slaughtered mammals and is limited to that part of the striate muscles which is skeletal or that which is found in the tongue, in the diaphragm, in the heart, or in the esophagus; with or without the accompanying and overlying fat and portions of the skin, sinew, nerve, and blood vessels which normally accompany the flesh. It shall be suitable for use in animal food. If it bears a name descriptive of its kind it must correspond thereto. 

Meat by-products is the non-rendered clean parts other than meat derived from slaughtered animals, it includes but is not limited to lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone,  partially defatted low-temperature fatty tissues, and stomach and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair horns teeth and hoofs. It shall be suitable for use in animal food. If it bears a name descriptive of its kind it must correspond thereto.

Not exactly a chicken breast.

Some of the things that go into meat by products are highly nutritious, such as the liver

Platter, Recipe, dinner, formula, entrée, with, Flavor

These all have very specific definitions as well.

Platter, Recipe, dinner, formula, entrée, 25% not including water sufficient for Processing

With ie with blueberries means 3% not including water sufficient for processing

Flavor Sufficient to impart flavor.

Less Lean Low

Lean or low fat contains no more than 9% Crude fat for foods containing less than 20% Moisture, no more than 7% for products containing more than 20 but less than 65. and no more than 4% for those above 65%.

Low Carbohydrates, Dietary starches, and sugar are not allowed. Companies are allowed to say less or reduced as long as it includes information about the comparison.

Methods of Nutritional Adequacy Substantiation

The product meets the nutrient requirements for all life stages and sizes established by an AAFCO nutrient panel.

The product meets the criteria for all life stages as substantiated by completion of the appropriate AAFCO Animal Feeding protocol

The product is a member of a family of a product family which is nutritionally similar to a lead product which contains a combination of ingredients that has been fed to a normal animal as the sole source of nourishment in accordance with the testing procedures established by AAFCO.

Nutritional Adequacy Statement

Name of the product is formulated to meet the nutrient levels established by the AAFCO dog or cat for ________(Lifestage)

Animal Feed tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate ______________________provides complete and balanced nutrition for ________.

Name of the product provides complete and balanced nutrition for __________ and is comparable to a product which has been substantiated using AAFCO feeding tests.

Note on AAFCO Nutrient Guideline

The Nutrient Guidelines for the most part a set of minimums there are very few maximum. There are only a couple of things that need to stay within certain ratios. For example, the Omega 6 to Omega 3 Ratio for dogs can be as high as 30 to 1. The NRC Recommends a ratio between 2.6 to1 and 26 to 1. Many pet foods are between 10 to 1 and 15 to 1. This is still extremely high. There is some research that does show that a high omega 6 to omega 3 ratio causes inflammation. It’s important to note that the guidelines are based on survival not thriving.

AAFCO Feeding Trials

Another Issue is that foods labeled complete and balanced don’t actually have to meet the guidelines. They can get around it by doing a feeding trial, or having it be similar to the lead product.

The issue with just using a feeding trial is the standards for an AAFCO feeding trials are inadequate.

An AAFCO Feeding trial is only 26 weeks and consists of a minimum of 8 dogs, only 75% of which must finish the trial. They do a minimum number of tests.

  • Physical Examination
  • Hemoglobin
  • Packed Cell Volume
  • Serum Alkaline Phosphate
  • Serum Albumin
  • All Medication and the reason for its use must be recorded.
  • How do they fail
  • More than 25% dogs drop out
  • They fail if there are signs of nutritional inadequacy or toxicity
  • No dog loses more than 15% or gains more than 10% of its weight
  • Average Hemoglobin no less than 14 g/fl (no individual less than 12/dl)
  • Average PCV is less than 42 % (no individual less than 36%)
  • Average Albumin is less than 2.8 g/Dl no individual less than 2.4 g/Dl)
  • Average Serum Alkaline Phosphate is less than 150U/L
  • Note the levels cannot be greater than the colony average plus 2.33 times the standard of error

It is completely in the realm of possibilities that a food could very well pass an AFFCO approved feeding trial without actually being complete and balanced. The food could very well provide not enough or too much of specific nutrients. The problem with detecting nutritional deficiencies is that they take a very long time to manifest actual symptoms.

Manufactured For, Distributed by, Made for

Co-packing and private labeling are extremely common in the pet food industry.

Many products that you see on the shelves of any pet stores are actually manufactured by a relatively small number of companies you are probably not familiar with.

Calorie Information

The energy density of dog food can range from the low 300s calories per cup all the way into the mid to high 600 calories per cup.

It doesn’t help that on most foods the information is in small print. While the cups to feed is fairly large. It also doesn’t help that we concentrate too much on how many cups to feed instead of how many calories.

I believe that we as pet parents need to pay more attention to the amount of calories we are feeding, and that we need concentrate more specifically on how many grams of a given food should be fed. Considering the research that shows many of us are not the best at measuring out food. See the study conducted by (Coe, et al 2019) et all. The study shows owners either measure out too little or much often the case too much food.

I’ve heard countless people say that my dog struggles to keep weight on this food or he struggles to stay at a healthy weight on this food.

Many times these owners are feeding the exact same amount with different foods. Not considering one food is 350 calories per cup while the other is 500 calories per cup.

I believe this is a major flaw in the way we feed our pets.

Why It’s Important to read the whole label.

Ingredient Splitting

Many companies out there will split ingredients into their parts. This disguises the amount of an ingredient in the food. It moves them further down so you don’t realize how much is actually in the food. Peas are a common example. They will list pea protein, pea starch, pea gluten etc. When you add them together it would more likely than not be much higher on the list.


Sometimes you might see foods commonly considered to be superfoods on the front of the label. This is a reason why it’s important to look at the whole ingredient list don’t just stop reading once you hit the words you can’t pronounce because that is often where you will find said superfood. When looking at the ingredients list if it is listed below salt you may as well act like it isn’t there. Everything listed below salt is less than 1% of the food. I’m sure there is some outlier. The reason being cat food requires .2% Sodium on a dry matter basis for dogs the number is .3 for growth and .08 for adult maintenance So it is relatively safe to assume everything below salt is less than 1%. So it may say or shows blueberries, kale, or any number of other Superfoods on the front of the label that does not mean it is included in an actual amount that will provide the benefit attributed to said superfood.


Labels do not include the number of Carbohydrates. In order to find out how many carbohydrates are in the food. You need to look at the analysis. For Dry food Add up Protein, Fat, Fiber, Moisture, and Ash. If they don’t list Ash you can estimate 7. I know of at least one popular brand of food where the ash content across many of their formulas is 10. Then subtract that number from 100. That will tell you approximately how many carbs are in the food. This is an aaproximation because the guaranteed analysis doesn’t add up to 100 as certain things are listed as minimum while others are listed as maximums.

For Wet Foods, and raw foods you will normalize to a dry matter basis. This is done by subtracting moisture from 100. The number you get is what you will divide each number by to get the percent of fat and protein. When you get the percent’s you add them up and then subtract from 100. This will tell you approximately what percentage of the food is carbohydrates.

Protein and fat are typically listed as minimums whereas moisture fiber and ash are listed as maximums. It is important to note that numbers are calculated using Modified Atwater values which are 3.5 Calories per gram for Carbohydrates, and Protein; while fat is 8.5 calories per gram.

There is however a growing body of evidence that the modified atwater factors may underestimate the energy content of different foods.

Download the Food Comparison Sheet. Note the Calories may not line up exactly with what is listed on the website or label but is an approximation. Unlike the guaranteed analysis the calorie content is an average based on multiple analyses.

What is Ash in dog food?

Ash is an important part of any pet food. Ash is basically the total mineral content of the food. While mineral content is for specific minerals. It is what would be leftover if you incinerated the food. It is the total amount of inorganic compounds such as calcium, phosphorous, sodium etc.

Probiotics in Dry and Freeze-Dried Pet Foods

Research suggests that in order for there to be a benefit the minimum requirement is Ten Million CFU’s per day. The ideal number however is One Billion CFU’s a day of Bifdobacterium Animalis AHC7. AHC7 has been demonstrated to survive the dog’s gastrointestinal tract as well as commercial processing. This might not be the case for many other strains of bacteria that are commonly used in dry and freeze-dried pet food. In a brief look at various pet food companies, One food had twenty million CFU’s per pound, another had eighty million per pound, and most did not even include the CFU’s. Most of the Probiotics listed were also not the AHC7 strain that is known to survive processing. This means that by and large, the inclusion of Probiotics in dry and Freeze-Dried pet Foods is very minimal, and the likely effect even smaller.

Coe JB, Rankovic A, Edwards TR, Parr JM. Dog owner’s accuracy measuring different volumes of dry dog food using three different measuring devices. Vet Rec. 2019 Nov 16;185(19):599. doi: 10.1136/vr.105319. Epub 2019 Aug 13. PMID: 31409751; PMCID: PMC6902066.