Pet Food Labels--The Key to Choosing the Best Pet Food

Getting the Most Out of Your Pet Food

When it comes to commercial pet food, “caution” is the byword.

Lengthy lists of what ingredients to watch out for abound, bringing to mind a vision of the conscientious pet owner standing for hours in the pet food aisle deciphering the tiny print on cans and bags of pet food. Thankfully, there are a few simple guidelines that will get you, and your pet, headed in the right direction. It all comes down to the label.

What Should I See on a Pet Food Label?

First, if you have a cat, choose canned food rather than dry.  Water is necessary for healthy urinary tracts, among other things, and cats simply aren't interested in drinking it. So canned food, high in water content, is crucial.  If your dog is hooked on kibble, try serving at least part of her breakfast from a can.

Second, ignore most of what you see on the frontof the bag or can. Words like “natural,” “premium,” “veterinarian-recommended,” or “prescription/therapeutic diet” may be more marketing hype than a true indication of quality. The ingredient label is more apt to tell the true story.  Do be aware that "organic" products should display an official USDA label, indicating that at least 95% of the ingredients are organic.

Third, ingredients are listed by weight prior to processing, so at least the first two ingredients should be animal protein. Be sure you see “named” animal proteins, e.g. “chicken,” “beef,” “salmon” and so on. “Meat” or “white fish” are vague terms and indicate potentially inferior protein.

When it comes to dry food, even seeing meat listed first is no guarantee that the product is truly meat-based. Remember that ingredients are listed according to what they weighed before they were processed. This means that once a pound of chicken has been processed into dry kibble, it's original weight has shrunk to about 2.3 ounces. To be truly meat-based, the second ingredient should be a specific animal meal, as described directly below.

Animal protein meals generally contribute more protein as they contain less water (e.g., chicken is 80% water).  However, they, too, should be “named.” (“Un-named” meal may contain nasty things like road kill, euthanized pets, and restaurant waste. Yikes.)

Finally, the “best by” date should be at least six months away.

What Should I Not See on the Pet Food Label?

What’s not in your pet’s food is as important as what is in it.

Meat and poultry by-products may come from the liver, kidney and lungs, but they may also contain bone, blood, stomach and intestines (“freed of their contents,” but...) and are less apt to be stored carefully than higher-quality ingredients.  Avoid them.

Corn meal, corn gluten meal and wheat gluten are high-calorie fillers and substitutes for the animal protein your pet really needs.  Avoid them, too.

Avoid added sweeteners, including sugar, evaporated cane juice, high-fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, and honey.  While dogs love sweets as much as we do, sweeteners can contribute to obesity and diabetes.

Artificial colors and flavors are no-no’s, as are chemical preservatives. Stay away from BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin.  A good rule of thumb: if you don’t recognize the ingredient or can’t pronounce it, you don’t want your pet to eat it.  One exception: tocopherols, a form of vitamin E and a natural preservative.

Avoid an overabundance of carbohydrates. Keep in mind that “grain-free” does not necessarily mean low-carb. For example, potatoes and veggies are high in carbs.

Note how the food is described. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has established some rules for "truth in advertising" in cat foods.  For example, “Salmon Cat Food” must be 95% salmon; “Chicken and Salmon Cat Food” means that the two ingredients together make up 95% of the product. However, qualifiers such as “dinner,” “platter,” and “entrée” mean that possibly as little as 26% of the product contains salmon. Add the word "with," as in “with salmon,” and the content drops to a mere 3%!

Finally, it's helpful to see a statement on the label that says something like "formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO. . . ." However, not all pet experts believe the AAFCO guidelines are the best, so don't treat this as an indication of good quality!  Check out all the other ingredients as described above before you make a decision.

If you want to get really serious about serving your pet the best, consider making some of your own pet food.  You'll find two treat recipes at the end of our article, "Obesity in Pets -- It's Time to Trim Down Your Pet." There's no better way to know what's in your pet's food than to make it yourself!

Having made that recommendation, I must insert a word of caution. If you want to go totally homemade for your pet, keep in mind that dogs and particularly cats have unique nutritional needs that must be met for optimum health. For the sake of your pet, consult with a holistic veterinarian before you transition to a totally homemade diet. There are also some great holistic veterinarians with websites and books who give good diet recommendations.  These three names are a good place to start:  Mary Straus (, Richard Pitcairn (Dr. Pitcairn’s New Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats) and Lisa Pierson (

If you're wondering just what a "holistic" veterinarian is, check out our article, Three Things Your Pet Wishes You Knew About Holistic Pet Care. That article is Part One of a three-part series on holistic pet care; at the end of Part Three, you will be given access to our complimentary Holistic Pet Care Resources Guide with helpful websites, articles, books and even some healthy recipes for your pet.


There’s a lot of information out there that can help us keep our pets safe and healthy – perhaps too much information! We’re sifting through it for you, to give you the best tools and tips from the experts. Check back for upcoming articles on safe, natural approaches to fleas and ticks, how to choose the right food for your pet, and how to protect our children from harmful chemicals, just to mention a few. Or, better yet, join our community of pet lovers so you don’t miss anything!  Just fill in the simple box at the top of this page. We promise not to overload your mailbox or share your email with anyone at all.