Reading Food Labels


While there is certain basic information all pet food labels must have on them by law, manufacturers can still be quite ‘creative’ in trying to convey attributes of their products on packaging. After all, pet foods, like most other goods purchased by people, ‘compete’ in a very competitive marketplace. That is why the history, philosophy, reputation, integrity and leadership of the company is so important in helping your team make the correct nutritional decisions for your practice and for your clients. This module will help you understand pet food labels, making you even more valuable as a resource for accurate information.


A pet food label is divided into two main parts:

  • The Principal Display Panel
  • The Information Panel

The principal display panel is the primary means of attracting the pet owner’s attention to a product and should immediately communicate the product identity (see Figure 1). The information panel is defined as “that part of the label immediately contiguous and to the right of the principal display panel” and usually contains important information about the product. In the United States and some other countries, several items are required by law to be included on the principal display panel and information panel (Table 1).


Figure 1. A product identity example for
Hill’s® Science Diet® Adult Lamb Meal
and Rice Recipe dog food:
Hill’s® is the manufacturer’s name,
 Science Diet® is the brand name,
and Adult is the product name. 

Product Identity

The product identity is the primary means by which pet owners identify a specific pet food. In the United States, the product identity must include a product name, but may also include a manufacturer’s name, a brand name, or both. The brand name is the name by which pet food products of a given company are identified and usually conveys the overall image of the product. The product name provides information about the individual identity of the particular product within the brand.

Pet foods are best assessed initially by looking at the product name on the principal display panel. The product name is usually descriptive of the food and in the United States is subject to AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) regulations about composition of ingredients. Percentage rules are important. Let’s use beef ingredients as an example:

Figure 2. Examples of labels
with different “Beef” designations.
  • The term “Beef” in a product name requires that beef ingredients be 95% or more of the total weight of all ingredients (exclusive of water used in processing). 
  • The term “Beef dinner,” “Beef platter,” “Beef entree” or any similar designation requires that beef ingredients be at least 25% but not more than 95% of the total weight of all ingredients (exclusive of water used in processing). 
  • The term “With Beef” requires that beef ingredients be at least 3% of the total product (exclusive of water used in processing). 
  • Figure 3. Different terms with “Beef” designations
    have varying percentages of beef.
  • The term “Beef flavor” only requires that beef is “recognizable by the pet.” The beef flavor. designation usually indicates that beef is less than 3% of the total product. An ingredient that gives the characterizing flavor (e.g., beef digest, beef by-products) can be used instead of the actual named flavor, beef.

In the United States, the maximum moisture content in all pet foods should not exceed 78% unless they consist of stew, gravy, broth, juice, or a milk replacer that is so labeled. High-moisture pet foods in cans, trays or pouches will have a product name with the terms “in sauce,” “in aspic,” “in gravy,” “in meaty juices,” or some similar designation.


The words “dog food” or “cat food” or some similar terminology is called the Designator or Statement of Intent and must appear conspicuously on the principal display panel of pet foods sold in the United States. These terms clearly identify the animal for which the product is intended and that the product is not for human consumption.

Figure 5. Example of Designator
and Net Weight on the Principal Display Panel. 

Net Weight

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations state that the principal display panel shall bear a declaration of the net quantity of contents. The term net weight is used most often. Net weight descriptions must be placed on the principal display panel within the bottom 30% of the panel in lines generally parallel to the base of the package.

Product Vignette

The term product vignette refers to a vignette, graphic, or pictorial representation of a product on a pet food label. The picture or other depiction of the product or ingredients on the label should not look better than the actual product or ingredients.

Bursts and Flags

Bursts and flags are areas of the principal display panel that are designed to highlight information or provide specific information with visual impact. New products, formula or ingredient changes, and improvements in taste are most often highlighted. The time allowed for a burst or flag to be on the label varies with the type of information. “New” or “New & Improved” can only appear on the label for six months, whereas a comparison such as “Preferred 4 to 1 over the leading national brand” can remain on the label for one year, unless re-substantiated.

Nutrition Statements

Nutrition statements appearing on the principal display panel are usually brief. Examples include “complete and nutritious,” “100% complete nutrition,” “Dogs 1-6 years” or some similar designation. A nutritional adequacy statement on the information panel must substantiate nutrition claims such as these on the principal display panel. Manufacturers can substantiate these nutrition claims by meeting the appropriate AAFCO nutrient profile or successfully completing a protocol feeding trial. Nutrition claims substantiation is discussed in more detail below.


Ingredient Statement

The ingredient panel provides general information about which ingredients were used to make a given pet food and their relative amounts. Pet foods sold in the United States must list each ingredient of the food in the ingredient statement. Ingredients are listed in descending order by their predominance by weight according to the product’s formula. AAFCO has established the name and definition of a wide variety of ingredients. The ingredient names must conform to the AAFCO name (e.g., poultry by-product meal) or should be identified by the common or usual name (e.g., beef, lamb, chicken).

The ingredient panel can be useful if specific ingredients are contraindicated for certain animals or an owner has an ingredient concern. This is especially important if a pet has an allergy to an ingredient in a food. However, reviewing a pet food label provides no information about the quality of the ingredients used. Contacting the manufacturer or nutrition experts for additional information is the best way to compare the quality of pet foods.

The nutritive value of ingredients cannot be identified from the ingredient statement. A pet owner must rely on the reputation or word of the manufacturer to assess the nutritive value of the ingredients appearing on the list. Pet food additives such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidant preservatives, antimicrobial preservatives, humectants, coloring agents, flavors, palatability enhancers, and emulsifying agents that are added by the manufacturer must be listed in the ingredient statement.

Guaranteed Analysis

In the United States, pet food manufacturers are required to include minimum percentages for crude protein and crude fat and maximum percentages for crude fiber and moisture. Guarantees for other nutrients may follow moisture, but a nutrient need not be listed unless its presence is highlighted elsewhere on the label (e.g., “contains taurine,” “calcium enriched”). These percentages generally indicate the “worst case” levels for these nutrients in the food and do not reflect the exact or typical amounts of these nutrients. See Figures 10 and 13 for Guaranteed Analysis examples from Science Diet® products.

Crude Protein (Minimum % on label)

  • Crude protein refers to specific analytical procedure that estimates protein content by measuring nitrogen. Crude protein is an index of protein quantity but does not indicate protein quality (amino acid profile) or digestibility.
  • Crude Fat (Minimum % on label)
  • Crude fat refers to specific analytical procedure that estimates the lipid content of a food. Because fats have more than twice the energy density of protein and carbohydrates, crude fat can be used to estimate the energy density of the food. If the moisture and crude fiber content of two foods are somewhat similar, the food with the higher crude fat guarantee will usually have the higher energy density.
  • Crude Fiber (Maximum % on label)
  • Crude fiber represents what remains (mostly cellulose and lignin) after plant material has been treated with certain solutions. Crude fiber is an estimate of the indigestible portion of the food.

Moisture (Maximum % on label)

Figure 11. Small differences in water content
greatly affect a canned food’s dry matter content.
A food containing 72% water has 28% dry matter;
a food containing 82% water has 18% dry matter.
Foods with less water contain more non-water nutrients. 

Figure 12. Food A from Figure 11 has 10%
more nutrients on an as fed basis,
which equates to 56% more non-water
nutrients on a dry matter basis than Food B.

Small differences in moisture content of canned pet foods can result in marked differences in dry matter content and therefore the economics of feeding a given pet food. The dry matter content of the food contains all of the nutrients except water.

What appears to be a small difference in water content of a food produces a marked difference in dry matter content. Guarantees are usually expressed on an “as is” or “as fed” basis. It is important to remember to convert these guarantees to a dry matter basis when comparing foods with differing moisture content (e.g., canned vs. dry foods). The Commercial Pet Foods module covers this concept more fully.


Figure 13. Example of Ash designation
on a Science Diet® product,
including some of the important constituents of ash.

Ash consists of all noncombustible materials in the food, usually salt and other minerals. Some companies just list ‘Ash’ (which is legally acceptable). Others, like Hill’s®, break down the ash content on the label even further (calcium, phosphorus, magnesium…). A high-ash content in dry and semi-moist foods may indicate a high magnesium content. Excessive magnesium intake may be one risk factor for feline struvite urolithiasis.

Nutritional Adequacy Statement

Since 1984, regulations in the United States have required that all pet food labels, with the exception of products clearly labeled as treats and snacks, contain a statement and validation of nutritional adequacy (product description). When a claim of “complete and balanced,” “100% nutritious,” or some similar designation is used, manufacturers must indicate the method and lifestage that was used to substantiate this claim.

AAFCO regulations allow two basic methods to substantiate claims.

  • The Formulation Method requires that the manufacturer formulate the food to meet the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles or Cat Food Nutrient Profiles.
  • The Feeding Trial (protocol) Method requires that the manufacturer perform an AAFCO-protocol feeding trial using the food as the sole source of nutrition.

AAFCO nutrient profiles are published for two categories: 1) growth and reproduction and 2) adult maintenance. The formulation method allows the manufacturer to substantiate a “complete and balanced” claim by calculating the nutrient content of a food using standard nutrient information about ingredients. Table 2 lists some of the wording that connotes this type of claim. The formulation method is less expensive and time-consuming, but has been criticized because it does not account for acceptability of the food or nutrient availability.

The feeding trial (protocol) method is the preferred method for substantiating a claim. Feeding tests can result in a nutritional adequacy claim for one or more of the following categories: 1) gestation and lactation, 2) growth, 3) maintenance, and 4) complete for all lifestages. AAFCO has published minimum testing protocols for adult maintenance, growth, and gestation/lactation. A food that successfully completes a sequential growth and gestation/lactation trial can make a claim for all lifestages.

The required terminology for labels of pet foods that have passed these tests is as follows: “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (brand) provides complete and balanced nutrition for (lifestage).” The inclusion of the term “feeding test,” “AAFCO feeding studies,” or “AAFCO feeding protocols” in a nutritional adequacy statement supports the idea that the food has successfully completed a minimum feeding protocol (Table 2).

AAFCO feeding trials are minimum protocols. This type of test will usually detect nutrient deficiencies but might not detect some nutrient excesses that may be harmful when fed over a longer period.

Commercial pet foods that have undergone AAFCO-prescribed feeding tests provide reasonable assurance of nutrient availability and sufficient palatability to ensure acceptability (i.e., food intake sufficient to meet nutrient needs).

Pet foods that are clearly labeled as snacks or treats may make a nutritional adequacy claim but are not required to do so. Pet foods that do not meet AAFCO requirements by either of the standard methods will have a nutritional statement as follows: “This product is intended for intermittent or supplemental feeding only.”

There are certain products (such as Hill’s® Prescription Diet® formulas) that are intended for use by, or under the supervision or direction of a veterinarian. These products will state this fact, which is important in regards to keeping the client in contact with the veterinary health care team. The food must include a supplemental feeding statement or the appropriate AAFCO lifestage claim.

Few, if any, homemade recipes have been animal tested according to prescribed feeding protocols.

Feeding Guidelines

In the United States, dog and cat foods labeled as complete and balanced for any or all lifestages must list feeding directions on the product label. These directions must be expressed in common terms and must appear prominently on the label. Feeding directions should, at a minimum, state, “Feed (weight/unit of product) per (weight unit) of dog (or cat)” and frequency of feeding. These feeding statements are general guidelines at best. Because of individual variation, many animals will require more or less food than that recommended on the label to maintain optimal body condition and health. Feeding guidelines should always be considered starting points only. Once again, that is why your involvement in helping your clients with feeding recommendations and follow up is so important.

Pets: Good for Your Health?

There’s no doubt that Americans love their pets. A new survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) shows that more than 57 percent of U.S. households own one or more animals. But can having pets actually provide health benefits? Yes, say experts, as long as you’re not allergic to animals or terrified of them. “Pet ownership is good for your health both physically and psychologically,” says Connecticut psychologist Herbert Nieburg, author of “Pet Loss: A Thoughtful Guide for Adults and Children” (HarperCollins).
Sure, pets provide companionship and unconditional love. But research has shown that they can also help reduce stress and blood pressure in owners, increase longevity in those who’ve had heart attacks, and even relax and improve the appetites of Alzheimer’s patients. “Any disease condition that has a stress-related component to it, we believe pets could ameliorate stress and moderate the situation,” says biologist Erika Friedmann, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing. “It’s providing a focus of attention that’s outside of someone’s self. They’re actually letting you focus on them rather than focusing inward on yourself all the time.”
Many four-legged pets, especially dogs, can also get owners off the couch. “They’re there to greet you when you come home at the end of the day, and they’re ready for some play and attention,” says veterinarian Scott Line, associate editor of the “Merck/Merial Manual for Pet Health.” “They need to exercise, so it propels people out the door.” These walks also force pet owners to socialize instead of sitting around feeling sorry for themselves, which can help improve their mood. “It gives people a routine, a thing to do. You have to get up and take care of the dog. You can’t lie in bed all day,” says Friedmann.
Those walks can also help owners stick to a regular exercise routine and slim down. Rebecca Johnson, director of the Research Center for Human Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri’s College of Veterinary Medicine, has been studying 18-to-87-year-olds in the “Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound” program in Columbia, Mo., in which participants take shelter dogs for a walk each Saturday morning. “They lost weight, they felt great, and they were doing something wonderful,” Johnson says.
Pets can help prevent loneliness, too. Indeed, the AVMA survey found that nearly half of respondents considered their pets to be companions; only about 2 percent considered them to be property. “The human-animal bond is becoming increasingly strong in our society,” says veterinarian and veterinary surgeon Kimberly May of the AVMA. In fact, Alan Beck, director of the Center for Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, found in a study that 97 percent of people talk to their pets. “The other 3 percent lied,” he quips.
Families with allergies can still get a pet if they can commit to allergy shots. But those shots typically need to be taken every week for about half a year and then every two to four weeks after that. They require a significant time commitment and should be discussed with an allergist, says Dr. Mitchell Lester, an executive committee member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’s allergy and immunology section. Families may choose furless and featherless pets instead, like turtles, iguanas, fish and snakes. Though, of course, it’s tough to “cuddle up with a snake in front of a TV,” says Lester.
Another option for kids with allergies who want a pet? Bring home a stuffed animal instead. A study in the January issue of the AAP journal Pediatrics found that a “Huggy-Puppy” doll actually eased the stress and improved outcomes for 2-to-7-year-old children in Israel who were exposed to violence during the Israeli-Lebanon war in 2006. (And stuffed pets won’t make a mess on your floor!)
If you opt for a live animal, make sure to do plenty of research before you bring one home, and choose one whose personality, size and requirements fit your needs, abilities and living situation. And don’t think adding more pets will bring more health benefits. Beck says that for many people one or two is plenty—more animals do not mean more health (often, just more responsibilities). Finally, as many benefits as pets bring, it’s important not to become too dependent on those animal companions, cautions psychologist Alan Entin, past president of the American Psychological Association’s division of family psychology. Though they make great companions, in the end pets are still no substitute for human friends and family.

Bees and Wasps in September

We tend to see a lot more bees and wasps buzzing around picnics during September than any other month of the year. Because they become bigger pests, it’s important to make sure that your pet is safe! If you suspect your pet has been stung by a bee or a wasp, monitor them for symptoms for the next 24 hours. You should see swelling near the sting site, and should notice that your pet is uncomfortable. Apply an icepack wrapped in a towel, if possible, to reduce swelling. If symptoms persist, please seek veterinary care with us immediately!