What To Look For In A Prepared Pet Food

The goal in feeding a pet is to provide all the nutrients your cat or dog needs. Like humans, our pets need proteins, carbohydrates, and fiber in addition to nutrients such as essential amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. A complete food should supply all the calories your pet needs along with all the essential nutrition in the proper amounts and balanced ratios.

You should also consider the age of your pet. A puppy or kitten needs different ratios of nutrients than an elderly animal. This life stage information is usually on the front of the can or bag.

The recognized life stages for both dogs and cats are:

  • gestation/lactation (pregnancy and nursing)
  • growth (includes kittens and puppies)
  • maintenance
  • all life stages

Pet Food Has Labels Like Human Food

A starting point in finding the right food is looking at the label. It’s a lot like the labels we humans see on our prepared foods. If a can or bag of food carries the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) Nutritional Adequacy Statement then you can be assured it meets the minimums for complete and balanced nutrition.

However, AAFCO does not regulate, test, approve or certify pet food. FDA regulations require that there is proper product identification, the net quantity of food, and identification of the manufacturer or distributor and business location.

Check The Label Before Buying

Looking further on the label you will see a listing of all ingredients in the product by descending order of weight. You will also see feeding directions, the guaranteed analysis of contents, and calorie statement. It is very important to examine the feeding suggestions. Some foods are more calorie dense than others, meaning that a smaller amount will give the same number of calories as what you may have been feeding.

dog-bowl-feeding station

Feeding stations where bowls are elevated help some dogs.

Ingredients are listed by the name and definition established by AAFCO. If meat is listed in the ingredients it must be from cattle, pigs, sheep or goats unless the label specifies the meat another species (turkey, venison or rabbit). Names such as meat by-products or poultry by-product meal should be avoided. Terms such as natural or human grade are defined by AAFCO while terms such as holistic or biologically appropriate are not.

A can or bag of kibble labeled as “beef dog food,” would be expected to be mostly beef meat as that’s what the regulation requires.  If the label says beef, chicken or mackerel, the name must be true to its major ingredients. It can’t rely on less expensive byproducts, meals or flavors. For example, a beef dog food must be mostly beef meat, not beef meal or beef byproduct.

Claims about the food, such as “proven to…” are not allowed unless there is scientific evidence.

Labels Can Be Misleading

Many brands or product names emphasize the presence of an ingredient or ingredients in the pet food. However, AAFCO allows product names to be used even when it is present in a small amount. This can be misleading if you expect a particular food to contain a majority of the named ingredient.

Here’s how it breaks down according to AAFCO:

  • The 100% Rule: A food labeled all-beef must contain nothing but beef with the exception of any water added for processing, substances added to color the product so that it is not mistaken for human food, and trace amounts of preservatives and condiments. Usually, only a treat will meet the 100% rule.
  • The 95% Rule: Spots Beef Dog Food and Kitty Chicken and Rice Cat Food are examples of names that indicate an ingredient makes up most of the product. Because chicken is listed first in the name, there must be more chicken than rice in the recipe. These named ingredients must be at least 70% of the total product by weight, and at least 95% of the product by weight, not counting added water. (Water is added to canned foods during processing. Dry foods have water added during processing to help mix ingredients, but that water evaporates when the product is dried.) The remaining 5% of ingredients are required for additional nutritional purposes, such as vitamins and minerals.
  • The 25% Rule: Kitty’s Chicken Dinner, Beef Entrée for Mature Dogs or Lamb and Rice for Puppies are examples of the 25% rule. The ingredient(s) named must make up at least 10% of the total product by weight and at least 25% of the product by weight not including the added water. If there is more than one ingredient, all named ingredients cannot be less than 3% the total product by weight. Think of this as like a restaurant meal we would eat. The dinner entrée includes vegetables, potatoes, salad—not just the sirloin or the salmon.
  • The “With” Rule: Including the words with or similar on the label means an ingredient must be present at a level of at least 3%.  Jax Dog Food With Chicken should contain at least 3% chicken, while Kitty’s Super Cat Food with Tuna and Rice should contain at least 3% tuna and 3% rice.
  • The Flavor Rule: Saying a food is flavored can be done as long as the ingredient provides the flavor.  Chicken-flavored dog food should have chicken fat or another ingredient providing the chicken flavor listed on the label.

Medical Diet Foods

Pet foods labeled as therapeutic diets and/or veterinary medical foods also require a statement of nutritional adequacy. Many of these products are complete and balanced for adult maintenance. However, some of these diet foods limit certain nutritional factors to levels below what is necessary for normal animals in order to mitigate disease, for example, Hill’s kidney diet.

They are labeled with an intermittent or supplemental nutritional adequacy statement because they are not complete and balanced nutrition for a healthy pet. Do not purchase these diets unless you have consulted a veterinarian.

Obesity is a huge problem in dogs and cats

Even if you select the right pet food, if your dog or cat eats too much or too little it isn’t receiving a complete and balanced diet.

fat Rottie

Obese Rottweiler

Some pet food products provide feeding guidelines in graphic tables while others give written instructions. Directions for a complete and balanced food must specify the amount (usually in cups or cans) to give for different weights, life stage and how often to feed. A label may suggest that a 10– 15 lb. adult dog should eat ½ cup twice a day.

These are suggested guidelines. As such, they may need revising based on a particular animal’s activities and condition. For example, if your dog or cat is gaining or losing weight for no medical reason, it is either getting too much or too little food.

It’s up to us owners to adjust the amount we feed in order to keep our pets at a proper weight. A good rule of thumb for judging a healthy weight is you being able to feel the ribs when running your hand over the animal’s flank. Alternatively, looking at your pet’s silhouette is another good clue. Both dogs and cats should have a slight indentation between the end of the rib cage and the hip bone.

Treats and Supplements Are Not Complete Foods

Chihuahua being treated

A Chihuahua looking for his treat.

Pet food products sold as treats and supplements are not intended to be a complete food. They are intended to be fed in addition to a complete diet. Treats and supplements are labeled with some basic nutritional information, but won’t contain a nutritional adequacy statement from AAFCO.

Too many treats are responsible for much of the overweight seen in our pets today. My mother-in-law inadvertently taught her West Highland White Terrier to bark by always giving it a treat when it began to yap. The dog barked more and more often and she fed it treats every time until the poor thing was waddling instead of walking.

Chews, Bones, And Other Bits

Flavor-coated and unflavored chews, bones and toys for pets are not required to be labeled or have a nutritional adequacy statement unless the manufacturer claims it provides nutritional value or can be used as a pet food. This includes using words in advertisements or on the packaging such as “digestible” or “high-protein.”

These products include:

  • All chews, bones, toys, and exercisers made of animal skin, hide, wood, or manmade materials
  • Hooves
  • Ears
  • Animal Bones
  • Ligaments
  • Snouts
  • Pizzles (penises)
  • Antlers
  • Horns

Jerky products, particularly chicken-jerky strips, are commonly marketed as treats. These products are not exempted regardless of the country of origin and must be fully labeled.

wrong type of rawhide

This is the wrong type of rawhide chew.

Recently there are many cases of dogs and cats becoming ill or dying after eating jerky treats manufactured in China. Many pet owners purchase only jerky treats made in the USA until Chinese practices improve.

Rawhide products made in China have also been linked to pet illness and even death. Although you may carefully purchase only rawhide that is derived from US animals and manufactured here, the types of bones that are wrapped can easily be taken apart and swallowed whole. This can lead to intestinal blockage and emergency surgery or even death.






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  1. I like the layout of your site. The white background I think matches your subject to me. I am new here at WA so I might not know what I am talking about:)
    To me the article here is too long ….I think you probably could get 2 or 3 posts out of this long post?
    Congrats on getting your site up!

    • Thanks for visiting Pet Nutrition Center, Dustin.
      As you go through training in developing a website, you’ll learn that posts should be around 1,000 words. Shorter than that and content is often not useful. Educating people and giving them value for the time they spend on your site is key to gaining readers.
      Best of luck in developing your own website!

  2. Jason

    This article was great. I love my dog, and I am always trying my best to keep her healthy. I’ll ee sure to check her food against the AAFCO designations.

    Are there any brands out there that you would trust or recommend?


    • Hi Jason,

      Thanks for visiting Pet Nutrition Center and commenting. The first thing I look for in either a dog or cat food is to verify there are no grains or other fillers in it. I plan on doing an article about this soon, so please stay tuned.

  3. Really thorough and detailed advice on understanding pet food labelling, including the things to avoid. Also really nicely tied into the issued faced by pet owners in caring for their animals to keep them healthy. Very informative!

  4. David

    What a fantastic article packed with information and a must read for all who want to properly feed and take care of their cats and dogs. Thank you so much.

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