Pets have been our trusted companions for many years. Since the domestication of dogs and cats, it’s difficult to pinpoint when dogs and cats transitioned from full time hunters, into loyal and dependent pets. But now that pets are dependent on us for food, it’s our responsibility to read the labels, and understand them to find the best pet food out there.

Knowledge of pet food requires knowing your furbaby, his nutritional needs, how to read dog or cat food labels and how to choose the best pet food. When understanding pet food labels, pet owners need to be critical and know the difference between ingredients and nutrients when looking at pet food labels. Some pet food may be packed with various ingredients but contain no nutritional value. Pet parents need to be cautious in looking for the right nutrients when looking at pet food labels to identify the best kind of pet food for their furbaby.


How to read pet food labels

Source: @lilmissrue


Despite labels being displayed on every product, it seems there is a pet food label jargon that many don’t understand quite quickly. Here is a pocket guide to pet food labels and the list of major ingredients to look out for.

Pet food label requirements are regulated by law. On every pet food label, there are panels of information: the principal display panel (front) and the information panel (back). The principal display panel is faces the front of the shelf, while the information panel includes the product name, a net quantity statement and the description of the product.

The most obvious informative piece of information is the product description. When checking canned food, it will claim to be made from a specific meat (eg. Beef, chicken, lamb), which means that at least 95% of the content was made from it. On the other hand, canned and dry food use the 25% or the “dinner rule, which means that at least 25% of its ingredients make up the pet food. Knowing this will make it easier for pet parents to understand the pet food ingredient list or the composition of the pet food.   


4 Tips on How to Read Pet Food Labels

1. Protein first

Dogs and cats are carnivorous. Take one look at their chompers, and you’ll see a sharp pair of incisors where evolution dictates that those were made for tearing off animal flesh. Dogs and cats need protein, specifically animal protein, as it is their source of energy and is essential to a healthy heart and body. Common animal proteins include:

  • Chicken
  • Beef
  • Salmon
  • Lamb
  • Whitefish
  • Duck
  • Venison
  • Bison
  • Turkey
  • Pork

Protein for puppies


Unlike humans, pets metabolize protein differently; it is converted into the energy they need for their health and survival, very much like how humans break down carbohydrates for energy. A daily portion of protein must be given as pets do not store protein in the body. Interestingly, the carnivorous makeup of our furbabies cannot be ignored.

While protein can be found in grain and vegetables, pets require animal protein. Without getting too scientific, furbabies lack the enzymes to metabolize protein from a plant source, hence an animal form of protein should be the first ingredient listed on the pet food labels and choose real, named meat and fish. The chosen source of protein must be good quality as those deemed as lower quality can be damaging to the body.


2. Check for By-products

Pet food labels sometimes list ingredients as by-product (eg. Chicken by-product, beef by-product). This means that it could be any clean non-rendered part of slaughtered animals, not deemed edible for human consumption. This includes: lungs, spleen, bones, kidney, blood, intestines and many more. A few exemptions include giblets (livers, hearts, gizzards and necks). These scraps are considered the lowest quality protein available for your pet. When evaluating pet food labels, avoid products labeled as by products.


3. Not all ‘meat meal’ is made the same

We’ve all read the term ‘meat meal’ in many, if not all forms of pet food. This concept may be a bit more complex when evaluating pet food labels. While all pet food should contain protein, buyer beware, not all ‘meat meal’ is made the same! In most commercial pet foods, as several exposes have uncovered, meat meal refers to the rendered mixture of various, often unsanitary and rancid, carcass parts. Meat meal, as we are led to assume, is fresh meat from a specific animal.

However, this does not always apply to commercial pet food. In commercial pet food, ‘meat meal’ usually comprises of 4-D meat, used restaurant grease, euthanized animals, spoiled/unsold supermarket meat, road kill, etc. Essentially, meat that is unfit for human consumption are sent to a rendering plant, and turned into ‘meat meal’, which in turn go into commercial pet food formulas.

Rendering process entails mixing the tissues (no blood), hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents one or more kinds of meats at 220-270 degrees Fahrenheit. This makes it safe for pets to consume. For example, before rendering, a whole chicken contains 70% water and 18% protein. After completing the process, dried protein is added as “meal”, making it “chicken meal”, which now contains 10% water and 65%.

Wondering how you can tell if it’s lower or higher quality meat meals? Low quality meat meals will include the words “by-products” and do not identify the specific meat it contains, while higher quality meat meals will tell you how much of each specific meat it contains. The bottom line: Raw materials used to make meal products will always be better.


How pet food is made


4. Grain is not for all furbabies

Did you know that when you read ‘grain’ on commercial pet food labels, it actually acts as a cheap filler to make pets feel full. This grain is usually sourced from corn or wheat, which can give your furbaby allergies, and cause all kinds of diseases because they don’t have the enzymes to digest the cellulose plant cell wall properly. When reading pet food labels, ensure that grain only makes up only 5%-10% of their pet food and are good quality grains.

Approximately 10% of dog allergies ae a result of food allergies. Although it’s treatable, you still wouldn’t want your furbaby to suffer. Typically, food allergies cause pets to suffer itchy, red, flaky skin and a dull coat. Specifically, pets with wheat allergies may manifest symptoms such as: ear inflammation, licking front paws, vomiting, diarrhea, flatulence, anal itching, etc. It is possible for pets to develop allergies and/or show symptoms later in their life.

So for pet parents who read ‘grain’ on the pet food label, especially of the first ingredient listed, it’s best to know what grain really means, for the sake of your furbabies health! But before deciding to put your pet on a grain-free diet, consult your veterinarian first.

Grain free dog food benefits

Reading pet food labels can be tricky. No two pet parents will agree on what is the best pet food, but with the right knowledge to guide one’s choice, pet parents will be able to easily evaluate pet food labels. Having the ability to read pet food labels and know what to look for will help your pet get the right nutrition he needs.


Guide to reading pet food labels

Source: @sergeantpepper


So how can you differentiate from one pet food formula to another? Simply read the labels and look for third party certifying bodies. The easiest way is to look for foods that were made in the USA with USDA certifications and reviewed by the FDA. With these labels, you’ll know that the listed ingredients indeed comes from fresh and good quality meat, and not anything else you wouldn’t want your furbaby eating!