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Posted on 11-14-2014

Reading Pet Food Labels

Reading a pet food label can be confusing – ingredients versus nutritional facts, guaranteed analysis, AAFCO statement. It all looks the same? A pet food label is a legal document regulated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and is the primary communication between the pet food manufacturers and pet owners. We understand these labels can be confusing.  We hope this information will help you make informed decisions regarding your pet’s diet.


Ingredients provide nutrients that support life and are metabolically useful. Some ingredients provide more nutrients than others.  For example, lamb is an ingredient that provides nutrients such as protein, fatty acids and vitamins. Ingredients are listed on the label in descending order by weight prior to processing (cooking). Ingredients such as chicken, beef or lamb contain more than 50% water. Their high water content makes them weigh more than dry ingredients such as grains, meat/poultry meal, minerals and vitamins, so they are listed first. 

Meat meals (and even some by-product meals) can be very high quality and nutritionally dense.  These meals are the end product of cooking or processing.  For instance, chicken meal has about 300% more protein than raw chicken, simply cooking away the water portion of the meat.  If a specific animal is identified for the meat meal it is likely to be extremely good quality and beneficial for your pet.  Any meat meal is only as good as the product used to start with.  Large brand name companies use high standards to ensure that the meat meals they use are safe and nutritious.

Guaranteed Analysis:

The guaranteed analysis indicates minimum or maximum levels of nutrients such as protein, fat and fiber in the product. It is important to remember that the guaranteed analysis is not an indication of the actual nutrient content of the food. For example, a minimum fat guarantee may be 8%, but the product can legally contain 15% fat or more. Likewise, a product with a maximum guarantee of 5% fiber may only contain 1%.

Nutritional Adequacy Statement (AAFCO Statement):

This portion of the label verifies if the food meets nutritional requirements of AAFCO. It also indicates if the food provides complete and balanced nutrition for growing animals, pregnant and nursing mothers, adults, or seniors. In some cases it may say that the product is nutritionally adequate for “all lifestages”. Caution should be used when considering foods identified for all lifestages. They likely contain inappropriate levels of some ingredients, as the needs of a puppy or pregnant pet are much different than adult or senior animals.

     Formulation versus Feeding Trial Method

     A pet food will identify if it meets AAFCO standards by formulation or feeding trial.  The formulation method identifies that the diets recipe has ingredients that should meet the nutritional requirements of AAFCO.  This method is less expensive, less accurate and results are determined more quickly.  There is no guarantee of pet acceptance or nutrient availability when utilizing this method.  Processing alone can diminish or destroy a number of nutrients making them unavailable to your pet, but still show up on the food label.

     The feeding trial method is the “gold standard” for determining nutritional adequacy. To use this nutritional statement, the manufacturer must perform an AAFCO protocol feeding the food being tested as the sole source of nutrition. Feeding trials are the best way to document how safe, effective and nutritional a diet truly is. 

Manufacturer’s Toll-free Number:

The package label should contain the manufacturer’s name and phone number. We encourage you to call the companies to learn more about their products, including place of manufacturing, actual nutrient content, if they have a veterinarian nutritionist on staff, calories and palatability of your prospective pet food choice.  If they can’t answer your questions you probably need to buy a different brand of food!

What’s It All Mean?

Understanding pet diets and labels is tough and not made easier by corporate marketing.  Companies like Royal Canin, iVET, Science Diet, Wellness, and Eukanuba use the highest quality ingredients and safest manufacturing processes.  They are committed to improving veterinary medicine and your pet’s health.  Make sure to ask your veterinarian about diet questions or concerns that you have.  Another great resource is petdiets.com.  You can “ask a veterinary nutritionist” your questions and get an expert opinion on you specific problem.

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