Guest post: How to read pet food labels

Jan 13, 2014

How To Read Pet Food Labels
By the North Carolina Veterinary Medical Association

food photo

Just as you read the food labels for what you eat, it is important to read the labels on your pet’s food as well. Upon first glance, pet food labels can be extremely confusing and sometimes misleading. Whether you are getting a new pet or simply switching to a different brand of pet food, there are a few items you should be aware of on the label.

Product Name

When selecting pet food, pay careful attention to the way the product name is worded. Pet food manufacturers must meet standard requirements to name their product a particular way. At a glance, “Salmon Cat Food” and “Cat Food with Salmon” seem like the same product. However, there is a major difference between the two. For a product to be named “Salmon Cat Food,” the product must contain at least 95 percent salmon, excluding the moisture content. When products use the word “with,” it simply means the product must have at least three percent of the listed meat.

If there is a combination of meats in the name, the products combined must be 95 percent with the first ingredient as the larger portion. “Dinner,” “platter” and “formula” are required words when the product’s meat content is less than 95 percent but more than 25 percent. Always read the product names carefully. It could mean the difference between a container of salmon or a spoonful of salmon.


Ingredients describe the product’s components and are listed by weight in descending order. The first five ingredients listed on the label typically make up majority of the product and also tell you which nutrients are in the food. For example, if multiple meat products are listed first, the food is high in protein.

“Guaranteed Analysis”

The “Guaranteed Analysis” provides the minimum or maximum levels of some of the product’s nutrients. Only four nutrients are required on every label: proteins (shown as a minimum percent), fat (shown as a minimum percent), fiber (shown as a maximum percent), and moisture (shown as a maximum percent). These amounts are not exact percentages. The minimum amount guarantee only provides the lowest amount of the nutrient allowed in the product, and the maximum lists the highest amount allowed. The maximum protein guarantee could be six percent, but the product may only contain one percent. Because the exact levels of nutrients are not provided, look for the nutritional adequacy statement or “AAFCO Statement.” Similar to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) sets the nutritional standards for pet food. The AAFCO Statement will indicate whether the product provides complete nutrition for your pet’s particular life stage (growth, adult, pregnant, nursing, etc.) or serves as a supplement to other foods.

Feeding Instructions

Be sure to read the feeding instructions on all pet food labels, as not all products have the same recommendations. Feeding instructions vary from one daily meal to multiple meals throughout a 24-hour period. The instructions will help ensure you are properly feeding your pet so that it remains at a healthy weight and has the nutrients it needs.

Understanding the details of pet food labels can be a difficult task. Consult with your veterinarian about the best nutritional food options for your pet.

The North Carolina Veterinary Medical Association (NCVMA) is a professional organization of veterinarians dedicated to compassionate animal care and quality medicine. For more information, visit, follow us on Twitter at @NCVMA, or call (800) 446-2862 or (919) 851-5850.