How to Read Pet Food Labels: Our Top Tips

Pet food labels can be confusing, but they are essential. Learn how to read these labels and choose the best food for your furry companion.


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Updated 16 November 2021
How to Read Pet Food Labels: Our Top Tips
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Sections on this page
  1. Pet Food Labels: What to Look For
  2. How to Read the Guaranteed Analysis
  3. How to Read the Ingredients List on Pet Food Labels
  4. Feeding Instructions on Pet Food Labels
  5. Frequently Asked Questions

Our pets aren't just pets, they're family members, and we want to keep them as healthy as possible. With so many different pet food options to choose from (including over 600 dog food brands), it isn't easy to choose the right one for your pet. Reading pet food labels seems like the intelligent thing to do, but how do you even make sense of it? 

Pet Food Labels: What to Look For

On all types of pet food, whether it's kibble, canned food, or treats, you'll see a label that clearly outlines the ingredients and sometimes more analysis into the nutritional value of the food. 

In the U.S., pet food is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which requires all pet food to clearly show:

  • What the product is (e.g., dry food for adult dogs)
  • The quantity of food in the package (the net quantity statement)
  • The manufacturer's name and address
  • The list of ingredients used

Some states have their own additional regulations around pet food labeling, requiring manufacturers to clearly list things like:

  • Nutritional value of the food (the guaranteed analysis)
  • Nutritional adequacy statements (to indicate the food is intended for specific life stages or health purposes)
  • Feeding directions 
  • Calorie statements

The most important things to understand on pet labels are the:

  • Guaranteed analysis
  • List of ingredients
  • Feeding instructions

Cat food label.

How to Read the Guaranteed Analysis

The guaranteed analysis is a breakdown of the nutritional components of the food, shown in percentages. You'll notice that they're shown as minimums and maximums as it's difficult to tell precisely how much of each nutrient is in each package. 

The purpose of this label is to show you how much protein, fat, and fiber is in the food, and to prove any claims made on the packaging. For example, if the bag of kibble says it's "High in Vitamin E" then the guaranteed analysis label is required to show the percentage of Vitamin E. 

For dog and cat food, you'll usually see (at minimum) percentages of:

  • Crude protein
  • Crude fat
  • Moisture

Crude Protein & Fat

Crude protein is an excellent source of amino acids for dogs and cats and much easier for them to digest compared to the protein found in grains, vegetables, and fruit. Therefore, it's an essential component of dog and cat food and should be the primary source of protein. 

Optimal Minimum Percentages for Dog and Cat Food

Type of Pet Food Crude Protein Crude Fat
Dry Dog Food
(For growth & reproduction)
22.5% 8.5%
Dry Dog Food
(For adults)
18% 5.5%
Dry Cat Food
(For growth & reproduction)
30% 9%
Dry Cat Food
(For adults)
26% 9%

Source: AAFCO Methods for Substantiating Nutritional Adequacy of Dog and Cat Foods (2014)

You want to find pet food that meets these minimum standards to ensure your pet gets sufficient protein and fats needed for growth, development, and health maintenance. 

Moisture: Important When Comparing Wet & Dry Food

The moisture percentage in pet food is important as it gives you a better idea of exactly how much nutritional value the food has. Yes, the protein levels are already provided, but they're presented in percentages. You need to take out the moisture content to get an accurate idea of how much protein and fats are in the food you're feeding your four-legged friends. 

For example, when comparing a wet dog food label to a dry dog food label, it looks like the dry dog food contains much more protein. However, once you do the math, you'll realize the wet food contains more protein—it's the moisture content that throws you off. 

Let's look at two different labels: one for wet dog food and one for dry dog food. 

Wet vs dry food guaranteed analysis on pet food labels.
Guaranteed analysis of wet dog food (left) versus dry dog food (right).

At first glance, it looks like wet dog food has significantly lower protein levels than dry food. But let's do the math. 

First, let's take out the moisture content so we get a proper understanding of how much actual food we're dealing with. Then we need to divide the % of protein and fat on the label by the % of dry ingredients to find the true values.

  Wet Dog Food Dry Dog Food
Moisture 79% 10%
Dry Ingredients 21% 90%
True Crude Protein Content 38% 31%
True Crude Fat Content 19% 15.5%
True Crude Fiber Content 3% 4.5%

Looking at the true numbers of protein, fat, and fiber, you can see that wet dog food actually has more protein and fat than dry food after taking out the moisture content. 

How to Read the Ingredients List on Pet Food Labels

The ingredients list found on pet food labels displays everything that goes into the food. Manufacturers aren't required to list measurements or percentages as they do with the guaranteed analysis, but they are required to list the ingredients in order of weight, from most to least. 

When looking at the ingredients, the key things you want to look for are:

  • The top three ingredients (if you want to feed your pet a healthy diet of meat, then the first ingredient should be meat)
  • Harmful ingredients (see examples below)

You may also find a statement on the packaging saying the food meets the nutritional standards set by AAFCO. This means the dog food meets the minimum requirements, as we outlined in the table above. 

Ingredients in dry dog food on pet food labels.

Meat and Protein

Looking at the ingredients list above, we can see that this particular brand of dry dog food is high in protein, with the main ingredients being organic chicken and chicken meal. Further down the list, you'll see other animal products like:

  • Chicken fat
  • Dried egg product
  • Fish oil
  • Turkey

All of which are healthy and beneficial to a dog's diet. There is some controversy around meat meal—although it's safe for your pet and contains higher protein levels, many question how nutritious it actually is for pets since it's highly processed.

Grains

Unless you choose a grain-free product, almost all cat and dog food will contain some kind of grains, such as:

  • Rice
  • Barley
  • Oats
  • Sorghum
  • Quinoa
  • Corn
  • Chia seeds

These grains are added for two main reasons:

  • To provide your pet with vitamins, minerals, and fiber (that they can't get from meat and other produce)
  • To help the food keep its form and texture

Contrary to popular belief, grains aren't just a filler, and they're generally not harmful to cats and dogs. In fact, they're beneficial, as long as your pet doesn't have an allergy to them. 

If your pet has issues digesting grains, then there are plenty of grain-free food options available. However, be sure to check the ingredients on the label first, as there are many low-quality grain-free pet foods out there. They'll usually substitute the grains for other carbohydrates, such as potatoes, instead of more nutritional ingredients like meat. Too many carbohydrates can lead to things like:

  • Digestion issues
  • Obesity
  • Skin conditions

Fruits and Vegetables

It's very common for dog food to contain various fruits and vegetables. The brand above has several, including:

  • Beets
  • Pumpkin
  • Cranberries
  • Apples
  • Blueberries
  • Carrots
  • Alfalfa
  • Coconut
  • Spinach
  • Turmeric
  • Parsley

Fruits and vegetables can be an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, while also being low in fat. The quantities found in pet food are usually safer than feeding them the actual produce, as some fruits may contain too much sugar for pets, so moderation is needed. 

While it's unlikely that your pet food will contain toxic ingredients for your pet, you should always check to ensure the food is safe (especially if your pet has special dietary requirements). 

There are foods that both dogs and cats should avoid in general, such as chocolate and some fruits.

Other Ingredients

The bulk of the ingredients listed on pet food will likely not mean a lot to most of us. These are things like:

  • Calcium carbonate
  • Sodium selenite
  • Thiamine mononitrate
  • Copper sulfate

Most of these are additional vitamins and minerals to keep your pet healthy, while those with more chemical-sounding names (e.g., DL-Methionine) are used as seasoning/flavoring and to enhance the consistency of the food. 

The ones you want to look out for and avoid include:

  • Melamine: Toxic.
  • BHA, BHT, Ethoxyquin: Preservatives used to extend the shelf life of pet food that can cause cancer. 
  • Propylene Glycol: Artificial additive to keep pet food moist and soft.
  • Poligeenan: Thickener in wet food that can lead to cancer.
  • Sodium Hexametaphosphate: Added to food to improve dental health but can cause adverse effects when ingested.

Different Pets Have Different Nutritional Needs

There is no "one-size-fits-all" food options for pets. For example, young pets and older pets generally need different diets. Even different breeds have different nutritional needs, so you need to do your research or consult your veterinarian when choosing the right food to feed them. 

Feeding Instructions on Pet Food Labels

In addition to reading about what your pet food contains, it's important to follow the feeding instructions correctly. Not all pet food is created equally. For example, your previous dog food may have contained more calories than a new brand you're trying—if you feed your dog the same number of cups of the new food, you may be underfeeding them. 

Dog food feeding guidelines on pet food labels.

If you regularly feed your dog other treats in addition to their regular food, you'll need to adjust how much food you give them during their regular meals, so you don't overfeed them. 

Look for the calorie count on your pet food packaging and make sure you're keeping your pet's caloric intake at a healthy level. 

Calorie count in dog food pet food labels.

Caloric Intake for Cats

For the average, healthy cat, these are the general feeding guidelines:

  • Indoor cats: 20 calories per pound of bodyweight.
  • Outdoor cats: 25 calories per pound of bodyweight.

Of course, if your cat is overweight, you'll need to put them on a diet. You can use the same formula above, but do the calculation as if your cat weighed 2 lbs less than they do (or just minus 40 calories from their diet). 

Some cats may also need more or fewer calories depending on their metabolism and other health factors. 

How Much Should My Cat Weigh?

As a guide, average domestic cats should weigh between 8-10 lbs. However, some cats may weigh more or less depending on several factors, such as build and breed. Consult with your veterinarian to determine what a healthy weight for your cat is.

Caloric Intake for Dogs

As a general guide, dogs should be fed the following calories, depending on their body weight.

Weight of Dog Recommended Daily Calories
10 lbs 200 - 275 calories
20 lbs 325 - 400 calories
50 lbs 700 - 900 calories
70 lbs 900 - 1050 calories
90 lbs 1100 - 1350 calories

Again, these are guidelines and don't take into account the individual needs of your pet. Discuss with your veterinarian what you should be feeding your dog.  

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Frequently Asked Questions

How are ingredients listed on a pet food label?

On pet food labels, the ingredients are listed in order of weight—from most weight to least weight. So the first listed ingredient has the most weight compared to all other ingredients on the list. 

How do I read pet food labels?

You want to pay attention to the ingredients list, the guaranteed analysis, and the recommended feeding instructions. You want to make sure your pet is getting the right kind of proteins and calories.

What agency regulates pet food labeling?

In the U.S., the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates pet food manufacturing and labeling. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) also provides guidelines for labeling pet food and is a voluntary membership association. 

What is the "Guaranteed Analysis" on pet food labels?

The guaranteed analysis section on pet food packaging is where the manufacturer guarantees the nutrients found in the food. Use this to see just how much protein and fats are included in your pet's food. 

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