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Understanding Pet Food Labels

Figuring out what all the information on your pet’s food means can be really confusing. Here are some useful explanations to help you better understand exactly what you are feeding your pet.


Pet food labels contain a lot of information including details that are required by federal and state regulations as well as information specific to the product. Although the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has no regulatory authority, it is made up of representatives from government agencies in the US, Canada, Costa Rica, and Puerto Rico that do regulate pet food and other animal feed. AAFCO provides guidance to the agencies with its Model Pet Food Regulations, which many states have incorporated into their own state regulations. According to the AAFCO Model Pet Food Regulation, pet food labels should contain the information below.


What certain words mean:


There are a lot of terms used on foods, and many people don’t always know exactly what they mean. This is a small guide to the most common terms:


  • Derivatives – derivatives are used usually to describe the meat content in food. A lot of people see the term as negative. However, it isn’t necessarily. Derivatives are any parts of an animal used for food that is either deemed surplus to human consumption, or parts of the animal not normally consumed by people because we don’t find them appealing. All meat used in pet food comes from the same animals used for human consumption and is handled in the same way as the food we eat. Using the parts we don’t reduces waste and also lowers the cost of pet food by not using meat from the human food chain that can be expensive. Derivatives are usually cooked or dehydrated before being added to food.


  • Meal/meat meal: this refers to meat that has been dried and then ground up. It reduces the particle size of the meat.


  • Crude: crude simply refers to the method with which food ingredients have been analyzed in a laboratory. This is done to check the nutritional value of the food.


  • Ash: Ash is the residue created from analyzing food. It is made up of minerals.


  • Fixed formula: a fixed formula food is one where the ingredients are sourced from the same place every time it’s made. It can be more expensive but keeps the food quality consistent. Fixed formulas are good for pets with allergies or intolerances because they reduce the risk of them being exposed to something they can’t digest.


  • Open formula: this is a food that changes where it sources its ingredients. This makes the food cheaper but means there are sometimes different things in it.


  • Dry matter: this is the content of the food minus any water content or moisture. It is usually used to measure the nutritional value of the food.


Flavoring/Ingredient Terms:

  • Flavored with: contains less than 4% of the ingredient

  • With: contains at least 4% of the ingredient

  • Rich in: contains at least 14% of the ingredient

  • Dinner: contains at least 26% of the ingredient


Terms that have no regulation: There are words that are not regulated when used on packaging.


  • Hypoallergenic: unless on the label of a prescription diet used for specific medical conditions this term is fairly irrelevant. It tends to mean that the product either has a single protein source or uses ingredients that pets are less likely to be allergic to such as potato and salmon. Prescription hypoallergenic diets have been formulated in a way that the molecules in the diet have been made small enough to be easily digestible without any adverse reaction (hydrolyzed). This isn’t the case in all foods labeled hypoallergenic.

  • Human grade: all pet food is made from ingredients that are human-grade. This is a requirement for this country. For example, all meat must come from animals used and slaughtered for human consumption. This is done under the observation of a qualified vet to ensure animal welfare and that animals are fit for use.


Other useful facts:


  • Ingredients are usually listed in descending order of the weight of the ingredient. Ingredients may be grouped into types e.g. protein instead of the specific meats used, this can be because there is more than one type of meat in the food.


  • Pet foods can contain preservatives. These are the same used in human foods to prevent spoilage.


  • Grains and cereals aren’t always bad. They are often used to provide the required carbohydrates needed to balance the food. Dog and cats can digest them, and like us, they can help to keep their heart-healthy. Cereals also contain folic acid which is helpful to the brain health of older animals.


The following provides a visual of what should be on your pet food label:





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