How To Decipher Pet Food Labels

How To Decipher Pet Food Labels

Practical advice on how to decipher pet food labels from Obe

One of the most common questions I get is, “What should I feed my pet?” Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as simple as many pet owners would like it. I don’t have a single recommendation that works for every pet. Rather, I believe owners should select food based on both their personal preferences and their pets’ needs, and how the family lives in the real world.

The first step in selecting a pet food is to understand the labels, which isn’t always straightforward. Pet food labels are regulated by several organizations with the major players being the Association of American Feed Control Officers (AAFCO), the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). With so many organizations playing a role in labeling, it’s easy to see why it is complicated!

Let’s look at some of the key label rules and how you can figure out what they mean:

95% Rule

Foods that are named “Beef for Dogs,” or “Chicken Cat Food,” must contain at least 95% of the named ingredient (not including water).

If the label lists two ingredients (“Chicken and Beef Dog Food”), the combination of the two ingredients must make up 95% of the total weight of the food, with the first listed ingredient being more prevalent.

The 95% Rule only applies to animal products; therefore, if the label says “Lamb and Rice Dog Food,” the food must contain 95% lamb.

You almost never see this type of pet food anymore.

25% Rule

Commonly referred to the “dinner rule,” it also includes foods named “Platter," "Entree," "Nuggets" and "Formula" or others. These foods must contain at least 25% (not counting water) and less than 95% of the named ingredient.

Secondary ingredients listed in the name of the food (e.g., “Salmon and Lobster Dinner”) must account for at least 3% of the food’s weight and add up to 25%. This applies to non-animal products as well.

The problem with the “dinner” rule is that a pet food called “Beef and Rice Entrée” may contain 12.6% beef and 12.4% rice. To the uniformed reader, it sounds like a mainly-meat diet when it may not be.

3% Rule aka “With” Rule





Flavor Rule

Also known as the “with” rule. This rule was originally adopted to allow a food to emphasize an ingredient outside the product name (such as “Chicken Dinner — with cheese!”).

Over time AAFCO changed it to allow “with” in the main product name of the food, indicating that it contains only 3% of the “with” ingredient. “Premium Cat Food with Salmon” sounds like a fish-based diet – only it isn’t.


Gradually even 3% meat was too much and too expensive so many pet food manufacturers began looking for ways to boost profits. Enter “the Flavor Rule.”  “Mother Earth’s All-Natural Beef Flavor Dog Food” sounds pretty wholesome. Trouble is, it doesn’t contain any beef, only a flavor. In fact, the beef flavor doesn’t even have to be from beef (it usually isn’t). Where’s the beef in that?

Sadly, this is the most common pet food label you’ll see today in your grocery store.



Here are some real life examples:

Label says:

What it means:

Beef dog food

The food must contain 95% beef by weight. The same goes for chicken, tuna or any other meat in the product name.

Salmon cat food dinner

Contains at least 25% salmon.

Cat food with chicken

Contains at least 3% chicken.

Chicken ‘n’ Rice formula

Chicken and rice must add up to 25% with rice being at least 3%.


This term has no official definition in the pet food world, but AAFCO does have a set of “Guidelines for Natural Claims.” Unfortunately, “Granny’s Country Kitchen Dog Treats with Natural Cheese Flavor,” while certainly sounding healthy and natural, is probably a synthetic chemistry experiment gone awry. All is not as it seems in the “natural” world of pet foods.   


There are no official guidelines governing the use of this term in pet food despite AAFCO’s promise over the past few years to address this issue.

Human Grade

No legal definition in pet foods. In fact, AAFCO and the FDA discourage pet food companies from using these terms because they are not controlled and may be used to confuse consumers. It really depends on how honest a company chooses to use the term. Do your pet a favor and call the company to discuss where and how they obtain their “human grade” or “human quality” ingredients.

Weight Control Cat Food

The terms “weight control” and “weight management” have no AAFCO definition. You read that right; AAFCO doesn’t define these foods. In fact, a “weight management” diet can be the exact same formulation as a normal diet – and usually is. Good grief. No wonder our pets are getting portly.  


After you have deciphered the labels, the next step is to examine the ingredients. For most pets, you want to see a form of meat listed as the first ingredient unless your dog is on a vegetarian diet or requires a special therapeutic food. You also want to avoid as many “meals” and “by-products” as possible. In general, you should be able to recognize the ingredients as foods, not as a high-school chemistry experiment. Preservatives and chemicals such as BHA and BHT, ethoxyquin, artificial colors and flavors should also be avoided whenever possible. Contaminated glutens were the issue in the 2007 pet food recall so try to minimize these ingredients whenever you have the choice. Sodium (salt) and sugar are also being added in excessive amounts to many pet foods and treats. Both of these ingredients can lead to health issues including obesity and high blood pressure and should be minimized.

The next step is to find a manufacturer you trust. After the 2007 pet food recall, this became one of my chief concerns when recommending pet foods. Don’t be afraid to mix it up when it comes to brands. I recommend you changing pet foods every one to two years. Even if you don’t change brands, at least try a different formulation.

Be prepared to pay a little extra when it comes to feeding your pet a high-quality food. If we “are what we eat” (and we are), then your pet is worth it. Let food be your medicine.

Decoding pet food labels and deciding what to feed your best friend are challenging. Your best source of information is always your family vet. Be wary of websites and labels making amazing claims. If the reality you see in the bowl doesn’t match the images you see on the bag or ingredient list, it’s time to pick a different food.


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