Decoding the Pet Food Bag

The Great Debate

Everybody has an opinion on what the "best" pet food brands are and what you should be feeding your pet.  The truth is that there are many good quality pet foods on the market and knowing which food is best for your pet can be a tough decision.   The key to buying the right pet food for your pet is to:


If you can understand what the labels mean than you can make an informed decision.

Pet Food is regulated primarily by the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine or CVM (federal) and The Association of American Feed Control Officials or AAFCO (State).  The FDA’s CVM regulates the proper Identification of the product, net quality statements, manufacturers’ address, and proper listing of ingredients.  The AAFCO regulations, which state regulations are generally based on, control the product naming/labeling, the guaranteed analysis, the nutritional adequacy statement, feeding directions and calorie statement. 

REMEMBER: When in doubt or if you still have questions ask your veterinarian.

Product Name Regulations: "95% Rule"

  • If meat, poultry and fish is identified in the name of the product it must contain 95% of that meat source (not counting the water added for processing)
    Example: Bob’s Salmon Cat Food must contain 95% Salmon (If you account for the water it must be 70% of total product)
  • If there are 2 meat sources listed the total of both must add up to 95% where the first meat source listed must be greater that the second.
    Example: Bob’s Chicken & Tuna Cat Food The chicken and tuna together must add up to 95% and there must be more chicken than tuna.  This rule only applies to meat sources.

    Example: Bob’s Lamb & Rice Dog Food must contain 95% lamb.

  • FYI: Since pet food ingredients are listed by weight the primary meat source should be your first ingredient followed by water added for processing.

Product Name Regulations: “25% or Dinner Rule”

  • If the Primary ingredient is less that 95% but more than 25% is must include a qualifying descriptive word.  Some of the most commonly used words include, but are not limited to, Dinner, Platter, Entrée, Nuggets and Formula.
    Example: Bob’s Tuna Dinner for Cats must contain between 25% and 95% Tuna

    Example: Bob’s Cheese Entrée for Dogs must contain between 25% and 95% cheese

    CAUTION: For these foods the named ingredient is usually listed 3rd or 4th on the ingredients list.  This means that it is not always the ingredient in the greatest quantity.

    Example: Bob’s Tuna Dinner for Cats could contain more chicken than tuna.
  • If two ingredients are identified they must be at least 25% combined and the first ingredient must be in greater quantity that the second.
    Example: Bob’s Ocean Fish and Tuna Dinner for Cats must be at least 25% of ocean fish and tuna combined, the ocean fish must be in greater quantity that the tuna
  • The second ingredient must follow the “3% or With Rule” that states it must be at least 3% of the product.  *Unlike the 95% Rule this rule applies to ALL ingredients.
    Example: Bob’s Chicken Formula Cat Food with Cheese must contain at least 3% cheese.
  • FYI:The 3% rule also applies to Bob’s Ocean Fish and Tuna Dinner for Cats.  It must contain at least 3% tuna.

Product Name Regulations: The “Flavor Rule”

  • No specific amount is required, but it must be detectable by animals trained to that specific flavor, and the word “Flavor” must be the same size, style and color as the identified flavor.
    Example: Beef Flavor Dog Food. The word “Flavor” must be the same size, style and color as the word “Beef”.

    CAUTION: Beef Flavor does not have to have beef as an ingredient.  It could be beef meal, beef by-product, or any combination of ingredients that give the food the same characterizing flavor as beef.

    Example: Digests are where the meat source has been treated with heat, enzymes and/or acids to form a concentrated flavor.  It takes a very small amount of Beef digest to produce a Beef Flavor Dog Food with no added beef.

Nutritional Adequacy Statement:

Be sure to look for the AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement. There are 2 ways for a pet food to be listed as a “complete and balanced” diet.

  1. The food must contain ingredients formulated to provide levels of nutrients that meet an establish profile set up but the AAFCO. The statement should read: “Bob’s Tuna Cat Food is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Cat Food Nutrient Profiles.”
  2. The food must be tested following the AAFCO feeding trial protocols.  This means that the product has been fed to cats or dogs under strict guidelines and found to provide proper nutrition. This statement should read: “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Bob’s lamb & Rice provides complete and balanced nutrition."

The nutritional adequacy statement will also tell you which life stage the product is suitable for.  These statements must meet the nutritional requirements of the most active of defined life stage.

Example: “For all life stages”- must meet the more stringent nutritional needs for growth (puppies/kittens) and reproduction (pregnant females), and therefore may be insufficient or too high in fat content and/or other ingredients for an adult animal with normal activity.

FYI- There are no specific rules for Senior pets diet requirements therefore foods labeled as such must meet the requirements for adult maintenance, but no more.

Net Quantity Statement:

The net quantity statement tells you how much product is in the container (can, bag, pouch etc).  Meaning two containers of equal size could have 2 very different amounts of food in them.  This becomes especially important when comparing cost.

Examples: NET WT: 5.5oz (156g) or NET WT: 6 lbs (2.72kg)

Guaranteed Analysis:

The manufacturers are required to provide guarantees for the Minimum Percentage of Protein, Minimum Percentage of Fat, Maximum Percentage of Fiber, and Maximum Percentage of Moisture.  (Some manufactures include guarantees for other ingredients as well.)

Example:  11% crude protein, 4% crude fat, 1% crude fiber, 78% moisture

To calculate the true percentages you must first calculate the dry matter by deducting the moisture percentage (78%) from 100. (100 - 78 = 22%).  Now, using the amount of dry matter (22%), recalculate the amount of each of the other components

Protein: 11 divided by 22 x 100 = 50%
Fat: 4 divided by 22 x 100 = 18%
Fiber: 1 divided by 22 x 100 = 4.5%

REMEMBER:When comparing the guaranteed analysis between dry and canned foods be sure to compare the dry matter percentages for both.

CAUTION: With only minimums and maximums listed 2 foods could have the same guaranteed analysis and not be the same quality of food.

Ingredients List:

Pet food ingredients are listed by weight from highest to lowest. However that doesn’t always mean that product A (1st listed ingredient meat) has a higher source protein level than product B (1st listed ingredient corn).  See the Guaranteed Analysis. 


  • Meat (chicken, beef, lamb, turkey, etc): May include striated skeletal muscle, tongue, diaphragm, heart, esophagus, overlying fat and skin, sinew, nerves and blood vessels normally found in that flesh.
  • Meat By-product: May include lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, liver, blood, bone, some fatty tissue, and stomach/intestines cleaned of their contents.  (It does not include hair, horns, teeth or hooves)
  • Poultry By-products: May include the head, feet, heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and intestines cleaned of their contents. (It does not include feathers.)
  • Meat meal: the rendered (cooked) product of mammal tissue where the water and fat have been removed. (it does not include blood, hair, horn, hide trimmings, stomach or intestines)
  • Fish Meal: cleaned, ground tissue of whole fish or fish cuttings. (may or may not extract oil)
  • Ground Corn: entire corn kernel ground or chopped
  • Corn gluten meal: the dried residue after the removal of the bran, germ and starch
  • Brewers Rice: small fragments of rice kernels separated from larger kernels of milled rice
  • Brown Rice: the unpolished rice left over after the kernels have been removed
  • Soybean Meal: dry matter left over from the production of soybean oil
  • Ethoxyquin: Chemical preservative
  • tocopherols: (Vitamin E) Natural preservative
  • BHA: (Butylated hydroxyanisole) a fat preservative
  • GRAS: Generally Recognized ASafe

Manufacturer Address:

  • “Manufactured by…” identifies the party responsible for the quality and safety of the product and its location.
  • “Manufactured for…” or “Distributed by…” states that the product was manufactured by an outside source.  However, the Name on the label is still the responsible party

Feeding Directions:

Feeding directions are the manufacturers recommendations on how much product should be given to an animal. However they should only be used as a starting point. The pets breed, temperament, activity level and environment should also be taken into consideration.

Example: Feed ____ cups per ___ pounds of body weight daily for growing or adult animals.

CAUTION: Take note as to which life stages are listed in the Nutritional Adequacy Statement or in the feeding directions themselves.  Younger animals have higher caloric needs that older animals and therefore may not be appropriate for your pet. 

When in doubt ALWAYS consult your Veterinarian first.

Other label claims:

  • “Premium or gourmet”, foods labeled as such are not required to contain any different or higher quality ingredients.  They are not held to any higher nutritional standards than that of any other “complete and balanced” diet.
  • “Natural” – This is usually equivalent to a lack of artificial flavors, colors and preservatives. HOWEVER there is no official or defined standard for a product to be labeled as natural.  (Natural is NOT organic)
  • “Organic”- refers to the conditions under which the plants were grown or the animals were raised, HOWEVER for now there are no official rules that govern the labeling of pet foods as organic either.
  • “Lite” or “low calorie” – To be labeled as “lite” or “low calorie” a dry food cannot contain more than 3,100 kcal/kg for dogs or 3,250 kcal/kg for cats. Canned foods cannot contain more than 900kcal/kg for dogs and 950kcal/kg for cats.

    Companies can put a less than comparison statement on foods that have less calories than their regular food, but NO NOT have a low enough calorie content to be labeled as “Lite”.
    Example:  Bob Weight Management Dog Food has “20% less calories than our regular formula”! (However this food may still have more calories that the regular diet of a competitive brand)

    Even on a “Lite” food pets can still gain weight.  When putting your pet on ANY weight management diet or program it is best to first consult your veterinarian.

    “Lite” and “low calorie” labels (for calorie content) and “lean” or “low fat” labels (for fat content) are the only weight management terms that are held to specific standard.

  • “Healthy skin”, Clean teeth”, “Maintain a healthy urinary tract” “For joint health”- Labels that pertain to specific health issues can only claim to maintain the health of a pet not improve it in any way. Therefore a pet on a proper “complete and balanced” diet should have all of these qualities.
    Example:  Bob’s Cat Food for Lower Urinary Tract Infections can only claim to “help maintain health urinary tract” Claims to “improve” urinary tract health must meet the same standards as a drug or medication.

Treats and Chews

  • “Treats” and “snack” must meet all the FDA and state regulations for labeling of pet food however they do not need to include the AAFCO nutritional Adequacy Statement.  Therefore foods labeled as “snacks” or “treats” are only to be offered on an occasional basis and are NOT to be fed in place of a regular diet.
  • Rawhides/ bones, pig ears etc are considered food and therefore must be comprised of materials that are consumable to pets, however as long as they do not claim to have any nutritional value they do NOT have to follow AAFCO regulations

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