understanding pet food labels

Make healthier and more informed pet food choices for your dog or cat by learning how to read and interpret pet food labels.

 Trying to decipher pet food labels is more than a little intimidating. How do you make sense of all those fancy names and ingredients, let alone decide whether or not a particular product is good for your dog or cat? This article will give you some insight into reading pet food labels so you’re better able to make healthy and informed choices for your four-legged friend.

Start with the food’s name

When buying food for your dog or cat, start by looking at the product’s name. The FDA and AAFCO have rules about how a product can be named, but these rules can mislead pet owners. There are many ways to imply a product contains primarily one type of protein and they don’t all mean the same thing.

For example, “Tuna Cat Food” does not mean the same as “Tuna Dinner for Cats” or “Cat Food With Tuna” or “Tuna Flavored Cat Food”. The quantity of tuna in each of these foods ranges from 95% in “Tuna Cat Food” to barely detectable in “Tuna Flavored Cat Food”. The one thing that is consistent is that if two foods are listed in the name (like tuna and shrimp), the food will contain more of the first food than the second. But in something like “Salmon and Shrimp Dinner” there can be more of another ingredient (like tuna) than salmon or shrimp, even though it’s not on the label.

The names “Beef Dinner” or “Chicken Platter” on a commercial pet food label may make it sound as if the diet contains only beef or chicken, but in actual fact it often contains a mix of proteins of which beef or chicken may comprise anywhere from 25% to 94% of the total.

What if a pet food contains only 3% of a particular ingredient, yet it’s something very special that the company wants to point out, such as lobster? Companies are now allowed to say “with” in the product name, such as “Tuna Dinner with Lobster”. The tip-off here is to read the list of ingredients. If the lobster is listed towards the end of the ingredients, your pet will probably not even be able to detect it. To make things even more confusing, manufacturers can say something like “Dog Food with Chicken”, which does not mean the same thing as “Chicken Dog Food”. The first can contain as little as 3% chicken, whereas the second one contains 95% chicken.

The word “flavor” in a pet food name is even worse. All it means is that there’s something in the food that can be detected by the dog or cat, which is somehow related to the protein the flavor relates to. For example, “Beef Flavor” often refers to something like beef by-products or beef digest rather than beef itself. Digest is a protein that has been treated with heat, enzymes, and/or acid (often phosphoric acid) in a way that concentrates its flavor. Digest is a flavor that comes from meat, and the way it is made enables a manufacturer to say “No Artificial Flavor”. But it is certainly not what I would consider a “Natural Flavor”.

The ingredients list and guaranteed analysis

The ingredients list shows all the ingredients in a pet food. They’re listed by weight, from the most to the least. This is another area that can be a little confusing, especially when it comes to dry food. If the food contains one source of protein, and one source of carbohydrates, and the protein is listed first, then you can trust there is more protein than carbohydrate in the food. But if there is one source of protein (such as beef) along with several sources of carbohydrate (such as potatoes, oatmeal and quinoa), the amount of total carbs might add up to be more than the amount of beef.

One clue to what is going on is the guaranteed analysis. If you are comparing two bags of dry dog food, and want to know which has more protein, you just compare the percentage of protein in the guaranteed analysis on each bag. However, you can’t make a true comparison by comparing a dry food with a wet food. For that, you need to do a little math so you are comparing only the dry part of the food, and not the water it contains. Otherwise, the wet food will almost always appear as if it has less protein than the dry food, when it really doesn’t.

Watch out for artificial colors and preservatives

You do not want any artificial colors or preservatives in your pet’s good. These ingredients will appear at the end of the ingredients list. Colors are easy to spot: they will say something like “Red #5” or “Yellow #40”. Put the product down and look for another brand. In commercial canned foods, sodium nitrate may be added to salmon products to make them look pinker. Avoid these as well.

Preservatives that even AAFCO has recognized as problematic include propylene glycol and ethoxyquin.

  • AAFCO no longer allows propylene glycol in cat food because it has been associated with red blood cell problems in felines. In my opinion, it should also be removed from dog food.
  • AAFCO has also lowered the allowable limit of ethoxyquin, so they are moving in the right direction. But since this artificial preservative is also associated with health problems, it is best to avoid anything with ethoxyquin added to it.
  • Vitamin E and rosemary are often used as natural preservatives. Because of their health benefits, along with their preservative properties, they are acceptable in pet foods.

Vitamins and minerals

Some people get confused because vitamins and minerals may be listed by their chemical names instead of well-known names like “B12” and “calcium”. They are therefore afraid that the product has a lot of chemicals in it, whereas the list is just using scientific names for healthy items. If you are worried, carry this list of chemical names with you, so you can double check.

Chemical names for common vitamins and minerals


Vitamin A                               Retinoic acid, retinol, carotenoids, retinyl ester, retinoids

Vitamin B1                             Thiamine

Vitamin B2                             Riboflavin

Vitamin B3                             Niacin, nicotinic acid

Vitamin B5                             Pantothenic acid

Vitamin B6                             Pyridoxine

Vitamin B7                             Biotin

Vitamin B9                             Folic acid

Vitamin B12                           Cobalamin

Vitamin C                                Ascorbic acid, ascorbyl-2-polyphosphate

Vitamin D                               Ergocalciferol

Vitamin K                               Menadione


Calcium and phosphorus     Calcium phosphate

Potassium                              Potassium chloride

Copper                                   Copper sulfate

Manganese                             Manganese sulfate

Iodine                                     Calcium iodate

Selenium                                Sodium selenite

 What do pet food names really mean?

Note: We’re using chicken as an example in this table, but the same principles apply to any meat.

Name                                                 What’s actually in it?
Tuna Food 95% tuna
Chicken and Liver Food 95% total chicken and liver; more chicken than liver, at least 25% of each.
Chicken Dinner

Chicken Platter

Chicken Entrée

Chicken Nuggets

Chicken Formula

From 25% to 94% chicken, mixed with other things, including fish, which may be listed second or third on the ingredients list.
Chicken and Liver Dinner (etc.) At least 3% of each ingredient, totaling at least 25% of the food. More chicken than liver.
Chicken with Lobster 3% of the “with” item (lobster).
Chicken Flavor Food Detectable amounts of some kind of chicken product.
Digest A protein that has been treated with heat, enzymes, and/or acid (often phosphoric acid) in a way to concentrate its flavor. Qualifies as “natural” and as “flavor”.


A number of minerals are chelated, which makes them more absorbable. You’ll see this in the form of “X” amino acid chelate – for example, zinc amino acid chelate.

How to compare wet and dry foods – guaranteed analysis

When comparing wet and dry foods, you do not want to measure the water content. What you need to do is compare the percentages of dry protein. Even though canned food looks like it has less protein, they often have more than dry food when you take the water out.

  1. Find the guaranteed analysis on the pet food labels.
  2. Using the table below, fill in the percentage of guaranteed minimum protein.
  3. Fill in the percentage of guaranteed maximum moisture.
  4. Figure out the percentage of dry matter (100 – maximum moisture).
  5. Divide the minimum crude protein by the dry matter percentage, then multiply by 100.

The example in the table below compares a canned and dry version of the same food brand:

Factors Food 1 (canned) Food 2 (dry)
Minimum crude protein % 8.5 % 34 %
Maximum moisture % 78 % 10 %
Dry matter % 100-78 = 22 100-10 = 90
Protein level % 8.5/22 x 100 = 38.6% 34/90 = 37.8%

By being a savvy shopper and understanding something about pet food names, ingredient lists, and the guaranteed analysis, you can help ensure that you’re feeding your dog or cat a safe and healthy food.


A graduate of veterinary medicine at the University of California, Davis, Dr. Nancy Scanlan has used nutraceuticals since 1969. She became certified in acupuncture by IVAS in 1987 and followed up with education in chiropractic, Chinese herbs, Western herbs, and homotoxicology. This led to 16 years as the only holistic practitioner in a 7-person practice. After retiring from practice, Dr. Scanlan served as executive director of the AHVMA for 3 years before stepping into her current role as executive director of the AHVM Foundation. Dr. Scanlan is a consultant, author of a text on complementary medicine for veterinary technicians, and writer and lecturer about complementary and alternative veterinary medicine. She is currently enrolled in a masters degree program on integrative cancer treatment at the University of South Florida’s medical school.