How to Read Pet Food Labels


Feed Your Pets Right

Your furry companions are important members of the family and it is essential to ensure that you are feeding them high quality food in order to protect their health. There are a lot of different pet foods for sale and, like people food, these pet foods are of varying quality and provide differing nutritional benefits. Also like people food, pet food has labels that give you important information about ingredients and about what nutritional value the food provides.

To ensure that you are giving your animal companions high quality food products, here are some tips on reading a pet food label.

Five Steps to Reading a Pet Food Label

When you are in the grocery store or pet store looking at pet food labels, be sure to remember these five steps to reading the label and understanding what you are feeding your pet:

1.   Look at the pet food’s name.

According to the FDA, four rules govern the names of ingredients for dogs. For example, the 95 percent rule consists of foods labeled as meats, fish or poultry. For example, if a dog food is named “Beef for Dogs,” at least 95 percent of the product must actually consist of beef. The simple-name can indicate that the pet food is a simple product without a lot of added ingredients.

  • If the food contains the word “dinner,” on the other hand, then the food has less of the named ingredient. For example, a product named “Beef Dinner for Dogs” will have less than 95 percent beef. It must, however, have at least 25 percent beef in order to have that label.
  • If a combination of ingredients is listed, then the combined named ingredients need to total at least 25 percent of the product and need to be listed in the order found on the list of ingredients.

Each named ingredient also needs to compromise at least three percent of the product. For example, a Chicken and Fish Dinner for cats would need to have at least 25 percent combined chicken and fish, and there would need to be at least three percent chicken and at least three percent fish.

2.   Use the “Guaranteed Analysis” on the pet food label to determine the amounts of protein, fat and fiber.

The Association of American Food Control Officials (AAFCO) provides only minimal requirements for pet food labels, so you need to look beyond pet food labeling and carefully examine the nutritional info on the food in order to understand what is actually in it.

  • The “Guaranteed Analysis” on the pet food label provides specific information on the protein, fat and fiber found in the food. Each of these percentages are measured based on the current state of the food, but pet foods have different moisture levels so to compare apples-to-apples, you’ll need to compare the food on a dry matter basis. Because moisture levels in pet food can range between around six percent to as high as 80 percent, you need to first convert the food you are comparing so all are measured on a dry matter basis.
  • To convert to a dry matter measurement, determine how much dry matter is in the food by subtracting the moisture percentage from 100. For example, if moisture accounts for 20 percent of the food, then the dry matter content is 80 percent. You can then consider the protein, fiber and fat percentages accurately by dividing the percentages written on the label by the amount of dry matter you just calculated.

So, if the pet food says it contains 30 percent protein and you have 80 percent dry matter, you would divide 30 by 80 to get around 37.5 percent protein.

Perform this calculation for the protein, fat and fiber percentages on each of the foods you are considering so you can perform a side-by-side comparison of each.

3.   Read the ingredients list on the food.

The pet food you are buying should have ingredients listed by eight. Here is a guide for the best pet food ratings: Pet Food Products

  • The first five ingredients typically make up the majority of the food content, so they should be top-quality and healthy ingredients. Meat should definitely be one of the first ingredients listed. You also will see grains such as whole wheat, corn or corn meal, barley and rice in order to provide added nutrition and improve the taste and texture of the food.
  • Many pet owners want to see “human-grade” ingredients listed on pet food labels, and this can help you to ensure your pet is getting top-quality sources of meat and protein. However, internal organs and liver can also be good sources of nutrients such as amino acids that your dog needs (these are usually listed as “animal by-products.”) You want to avoid artificial colors, sugars, flavors and chemical preservatives such as BHT and BHA so look for these on the labels. Avoid these foods that can kill your pet.

4.   Check for a label guaranteed balanced nutrition

In order to ensure that the pet food is nutritionally adequate for your animal check for these two criteria:

  • Guarantee on the package. For example, the pet food might indicate that it is specially formulated to meet nutritional levels established by the AAFCO food nutrient profiles for dogs or for cats.
  • Pet foods will also be specially formulated to different life stages, such as for puppies, adult and senior dogs. You want to ensure that the pet food label specifies that the food is nutritionally balanced for an animal in your pet’s life stage.

5.   Find the manufacturer’s name and address.

This will tell you who made the food.

  • Pet Food Recalls. This will be important in the event of pet food recalls by specific manufacturers so you will know if the food has been recalled.
  • Online Information. You can also find information online about the manufacturer including whether they have a past history of problems with pet food quality.
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