Understanding Pet Food Labels

Posted in Diet and Nutrition

How to Understand What a Pet Food Label is Really Tellling You

What does all that information on the pet food label mean?  These are some of the terms used:

Guaranteed analysis

  • lists only the MINIMUM amount of crude protein and fat...contained in the diet.
  • lists the MAXIMUM amount of moisture and fiber contained in the diet.

Crude protein

  • Measures protein quantity, not protein quality.
  • There are no maximums stated for protein or fat and no requirements at all for carbohydrates. Remember, more is not necessarily better. Excesses of certain ingredients can be just as harmful as deficiencies. 

Ingredient list

Ingredients are always listed in order of weight, the heaviest coming first. Ingredient descriptions are strictly regulated. Therefore, with a bit of information you will know exactly what you pet is getting in any specific foods. 

  1.  ‘Chicken/beef/lamb’  - must be fresh or frozen muscle or heart.
  2.  ‘Chicken/beef/lamb By-Products’  - fresh or frozen muscle AND organ meats including intestines, kidneys, etc. This is an excellent protein source much superior to flesh alone.
  3.  ‘Poultry by-products’  - chicken skin, which is a great source of fat-soluble vitamins and completely natural for predators to eat.
  4.  ‘Chicken meal’  - dehydrated form of chicken flesh and organ meat. Being dehydrated, it weighs less so will not appear first on a list of ingredients even when it is a major constituent of the diet.
  5.  ‘Corn gluten meal’ –  is 50-60% crude protein and excellent source of sulfur containing amino acids.

Pet food manufacturers manipulate their ingredient lists in such a way as to emotionally appeal to pet owners. An ingredient list that contains chicken, beef and brown rice, may in fact be less nutritious than one that contains chicken meal, poultry by-products, corn gluten meal and rice. It’s all a matter of marketing. 


A diet may be formulated to be complete and balanced for ‘All Life Stages’ or for a particular lifestage - ‘Adult Maintenance’, ‘Growth and Reproduction’, or ‘Senior’.   Diets formulated to meet the needs of ‘All Life Stages’ must meet minimum requirements for the most demanding stage – pregnant and nursing queens. Such diets will have high levels of calories, protein, calcium and phosphorus, which are inappropriate and sometimes frankly harmful for inactive, obese or elderly cats. They are particularly detrimental to any cat with chronic kidney disease. We highly recommend feeding a diet appropriate to the lifestage of your cat (kitten, adult or senior).

Calorie content

While this is commonly not listed but can be estimated by fat content. Choose low fat diets if your pet is inactive or overweight. 

Hairball Prevention

Hairballs are a common concern for pet owners. Diets higher in fiber (dental and indoor cat diets) may be helpful. A common mistake owners often make is assuming that all vomiting cats have hairball issues. Remember that most cats are fastidious groomers, so vomitus regardless of its cause is almost always going to contain hair. Any cat that vomits more frequently than once every 2 weeks, is losing weight, or in whom the pattern of vomiting has changed substantially should be checked for other health concerns.