How To Read Pet Food Labels


Buying a good healthy diet for your pet can get confusing. With all kinds of different information out there, it’s hard to decide what is actually good for your dog or cat. There is also a lot of misinformation out there. I am here to help you weed through all of that information so you can decide which diet is best for your furry friend. First, we need to look at pet food labels and learn how to properly read them.

The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) regulate what information should be on your bag of pet food. Finding a proper diet starts with the name of the food. AAFCO has four rules when it comes to naming a diet.

1. The 95% Rule. These products tend to be canned foods and have very simple names. Some examples would be "Chicken for Dogs," "Beef for Dogs," and "Chicken Cat Food." With these examples, 95% of the product must be chicken. If you look at the ingredient list, chicken should be number one.  If the name consists of a combination such as "Chicken ‘n Liver," the two ingredients need to equal 95% together. This rule only applies to meat products.

2. The 25% Rule. This rule applies to both canned and dry products. If the ingredients are at least 25% of the products but less than 95%, the name needs to include a term such as "dinner." Examples would include things like “Dinner,” “Platter,” “Entrée,” “Nuggets,” and “Formula.” If you come across a product that has these in the name (such as "Chicken Dinner"), chicken only needs to be 25% of the product and would be listed farther down on the ingredient list.

It is always best to check the ingredient list since these products don’t always name the number one ingredient in the diet. There may be other food sources that are more abundant in the diet that your pet doesn’t like or even has an allergy to. If there is more than one ingredient listed, like "Chicken n’ Fish," both chicken and fish must total 25% with at least 3% equaling fish. This rule doesn’t just apply to meat products. It also applies to things like rice.

3. The 3% Rule. This rule is used so companies can point out a minor ingredient in their products. These labels often contain the word “with.” Examples would be "Beef with Cheese"; only 3% of this product has to contain cheese. This can cause some confusion in buying a pet food product. If you compare this rule with the 95% rule, you can see how products that seem similar are actually very different. Think of "Chicken Dog Food" verses "Dog Food with Chicken." While these two products may sit next to each other on the shelf and sound the same, they are in fact VERY different.

4. The Flavor Rule. The only requirement for the flavor rule is that the product flavor must contain an amount that is detectable. Some examples would be "Chicken Flavor Dog Food." Flavor must be the same size, style, and color as the word chicken. To determine if the flavor is detectable, they test the food on animals that are trained to prefer certain flavors over others. These products may not even have any real chicken in them but something that gives the product a chicken flavor like a broth.

Picking out the proper pet food starts with the name of the food but that is not all you have to look at. Next week, I will write about the ingredient list.

If you have any questions about pet food labels, please contact me, Kacey Reilly, CVT, at Badger Veterinary Hospital and I will help you out.