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IMPORTANT: How To Read a Pet Food Label

| Published on December 12, 2014

Many of us take for granted that when we read a pet food label, our dog is getting exactly what it says, with ingredients listed in descending order based on how much is in the food. We assume the claims of being approved, certified, etc., are true. And we assume it’s all good for our pet.

But that is a lot of assumptions.  If you don’t know how to read a pet food label, then you may be paying a premium price for food that is really not that much better than the bargain brand.

Order of Ingredients

Let’s start with the order of ingredients. It is true that the foods are labeled with the highest ingredient (by weight) first and then it continues in descending order. HOWEVER….

“What most people don’t know is that if a certain ingredient, let’s say potatoes, is listed in various forms in the [ingredient list] (potato starch, potato protein, potato fiber) the total value of potatoes is actually the most prominent ingredient in the [list], making the pet food mostly made from potatoes in this example, not duck or chicken, [even if they are listed first],” explains Scott Whipple, pet wellness expert and co-founder of CANIDAE Natural Pet Food.

That’s not all!

The ingredient list also does not tell you whether those ingredients where measured dry or wet.

“Purified proteins can be dry and added and would be low on the list, but might be a major source of the protein on the label,” explains Dr. Kathryn Primm, author and owner of Applebrook Animal Hospital in Tennessee.

In her blog, she is explains further, for example, a fresh “wet” chicken weighed against dry ingredients would weigh more due to moisture, but would actually contain less nutrients.

Is Everything Listed?

It is assumed that everything is listed in the ingredient label. It should be listed. But, some labels are purposely vague, using things like “animal by-product,” (what animal?) or natural flavor. Would you eat something that had an undeclared animal part in it? Probably not and I wouldn’t feed it to my dogs, either.

Red Flag Ingredients

There are certain ingredients that, while allowed by law, should not really be in dog food.

“Fillers are always something to look out for, if you notice that most of the food is made up of fractional foods, like Meat and Bone Meal, Wheat Mids and/or corn Gluten Meal and are mainly grain base,” says Whipple. “You will likely be getting a pet food that is less nutritionally dense, meaning it’s mostly filler without giving you pet the dense, digestible nutrients she needs. In the long run, not only will this be less beneficial to your pet, but more expensive as you will need to feed more of the lesser-quality food than you would a food that is rich in protein and nutrients.”

Also be aware of things like:

  • By-products
  • Vague ingredients (as mentioned above)
  • Animal digest (see here for what this is)

Anything you don’t recognize, look up before buying the food. We all have smartphones, just a quick search will usually tell you more than you wanted to know, but need to know for the safety of your pet.

Veterinary Recommended?

Vets are now selling foods and pushing their clients to buy whatever brand they are selling. There are also scads of commercial foods out there that say “veterinary recommended.” By now, however, you should be aware of how marketing works. When you see those diet pills on TV that claim doctors are “shocked at how well they work,” you don’t believe them do you?

Same goes for this label.

According to the Association of American Feed Control Official’s website, “vet recommended” is allowed as long as it is not “false or misleading.” How do you know it’s not false or misleading? AAFCO requires a survey of several vets (not one or two, but no number is really defined). Plus, the pet food company gets to create the survey questions and decide which food it’s being compared to when asking vet if they recommend it over that other food.

In addition, “It should be pointed out that while “veterinarian recommended” requires a survey of a statistically sound number of veterinarians who recommend your product, it only takes one veterinarian to support the claim ‘veterinarian formulated’, or ‘veterinarian developed’, assuming that fact can be sufficiently documented.” (AAFCO) Again, this is not really regulated.

No one really is checking these claims or regulating them. So you have to decide if you trust the manufacturer to be truthful. Image source: Tonystl via Flickr
No one really is checking these claims or regulating them. So you have to decide if you trust the manufacturer to be truthful. Image source: Tonystl via Flickr

Other Claims

Pet foods claim all kinds of things: human-grade, human-quality, all-natural, organic, holistic, hypoallergenic…the list goes on.

But, like vet recommended, these items are not really defined or regulated by anyone. Human-grade/quality is supposed to mean the entire piece of dog food (not just the ingredients) is edible by a human. So if you put human-grade chicken in a pet food with ingredients that are not human grade (like by-product) the entire food becomes non-human-grade and it should not be listed as such.

“If you search the internet for pet food options, you will surely see claims like ‘hypoallergenic’ and ‘super premium’. These tag words are not legally defined,” explains Dr. Primm. “Anyone can claim their diet is highly digestible with high quality ingredients. There is no way to prove or dispute these claims. You just have to assume that they have done some testing or have facts to suggest their label claims. But no one is holding them accountable.”


At the end of the day, we know what you are thinking. But it’s all regulated right? Sure, some of these foods may not have the best ingredients, but they can’t be that bad. And labels must be true (there’s no such thing as false advertising, right?). As we have hinted above, regulation is not something that really happens.

The AFFCO has this bolded statement at the bottom of their site:

AAFCO does not regulate, test, approve or certify pet foods in any way.

AAFCO establishes the nutritional standards for complete and balanced pet foods, and it is the pet food company’s responsibility to formulate their products according to the appropriate AAFCO standard.

Due Your Homework

It’s really all on you to make sure you are feeding your dog a food that is good for him. To do this, you must research, research, research!

The main thing is to check ingredients lists, as your vet about what your dog needs in the way of nutrition, and look for USA made products that are also sourced from reliable places (the US, Canada, New Zealand – not China). If you can’t find the information, call the manufacturer. Taking a few minutes out of your day to do this is definitely worth it; buying a cheap food or a food made with toxic ingredients from another country could shorten your dog’s life and/or leave you with thousands in vet bills.


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