Understanding Pet Food Labels

Caloric Statement

Pet food labels provide the pet owner with a great deal of information. They do not, however, tell everything that a consumer might wish to know about a particular pet food. It is still necessary and important to rely on the manufacturer's testing and research and upon the company's overall reputation to assure that the pet food is of high quality and provides complete and balanced nutrition.

Dog food labels may also have a statement of the calorie content of the product. This statement must appear away from the guaranteed analysis and be under the heading "Calorie Content." Calories are stated in terms of metabolizable kilocalories per kilogram of food and may also be expressed as calories per unit of household measure such as per cup or per can.

Manufacturers may determine the calorie content of their product through calculations based on laboratory analysis of the product or through feeding trial procedures established by AAFCO.


Two types of additives are included in pet food products; those that are nutritional and those that add other benefits to the food such as preservatives.

Nutritional additives include vitamins, minerals, fats and amino acids. Many are added in the pure form, which may have advantages of cost, availability and stability. They also permit the supplementation of a product to increase single nutrient levels without disturbing the levels of other nutrients in the diet.

An animal's body cannot distinguish between vitamins that occur in natural ingredients and those which are produced synthetically. The use of synthetic nutrients helps achieve the high degree of nutritional balance found in good-quality pet foods.

The pet food label lists a number of ingredients which do not necessarily provide nutrient benefits, but which do have a specific purpose in the diet. These types of additives are detailed below.

  • Antioxidants:
    Ingredients such as BHA, BHT or mixed tocopherols are added to the fats in pet foods at extremely low levels to prevent rancidity and, thus, prevent the unpleasant odor, loss of palatability, and destruction of vitamins that can occur when fats go rancid.
  • Chemical Preservatives:
    Preservatives are used in semi-moist-type pet foods to prevent spoilage from mold and bacterial growth. These include such ingredients as propylene glycol (not for use in cat food), sorbic acid, and potassium sorbate. All ingredients of this type must be approved by the FDA for use.
  • Flavoring Agents:
    Flavorings are a convenient way to make products more appealing to dogs and cats. Some may have complicated chemical names, but others such as garlic and onion are also used as flavoring agents.
  • Coloring:
    Colors are added to some pet foods to help maintain a consistent product appearance because the color of natural ingredients can vary or to distinguish between flavors in a multi-particle food. Artificial colors used in pet foods are the same as those approved for use in human foods.

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Current Label Requirements

Label requirements can be broken down into a number of elements. A part of the label that will be referred to in the following discussions is the "principal display panel." This is defined as "the part of the label that is most likely to be displayed, presented, shown or examined under normal and customary conditions of display for retail sale."

One important and basic requirement which applies to the entire label is that no statement shall appear anywhere on a label which gives or makes false or misleading comparisons between that product and any other pet food.

Product Name

This must be shown on the principal display panel. Where a flavor designation is made, such as Beef Flavor, the words beef and flavor must be in the same size, color and type of lettering. The source of the beef flavor must be shown in the ingredient listing. This could be "beef" or "beef and bone meal" or similar beef source ingredients.

If the product name includes the words "beef dinner," "beef dish," or words of similar meaning, the following conditions must be met:

  • The named ingredient(s) in the product must be at least 25% but less than 95%.
  • If more than one ingredient is listed in a product name, each ingredient must be at least 3% of the product's weight.
  • For the purpose of this provision, water sufficient for processing is excluded when calculating the percentage of the named ingredient(s). However, such named ingredient(s) must be at least 10% of the total product.
  • The source must be shown in the ingredient listing, and in this case would be "beef."
  • Ingredients listed in the product name must be listed in the same order of predominance by weight as in the ingredient statement.

Salmon, Tuna and Chicken Flavored Cat Food

Guaranteed Analysis

Crude protein not less than 24.0%
Crude fat not less than 8.5%
Crude fiber not more than 3.5%
Moisture not more than 39.0%

Ingredients: Water sufficient for processing, poultry by-product meal, soybean meal, corn gluten meal, wheat flour, ground yellow corn, salmon, tuna, chicken, animal fat preserved with BHA, phosphoric acid, brewers dried yeast, fumaric acid, tricalcium phosphate, vegetable oil, salt, sorbic acid (a preservative), choline chloride, added color (red 40, blue 1 and other color), propionic acid (a preservative), dried whey, taurine, zinc oxide, ferrous sulfate, niacin, vitamin supplements (A, E, B-12, D-3), calcium pantothenate, riboflavin supplement, manganese sulfate, biotin, thiamine mononitrate, folic acid, pyridoxine hydrochloride, copper sulfate, menadione sodium bisulfite complex (source of vitamin K activity), calcium iodate.

When the product name includes only the word beef, such as XYZ Beef Dog Food, this means the product contains at least 95% beef. For the purpose of this provision, water sufficient for processing is excluded when calculating the percentage of the named ingredient(s). However, such named ingredient(s) should constitute at least 70% of the total product. If the name is XYZ Beef, Liver and Chicken Dog Food, there must be at least 95% total of these three ingredients in the product with more beef than liver or chicken and more liver than chicken. Liver and chicken must each be at least 3% of the formulation.

The words "dog food," or similar designations must appear conspicuously on the pet food label principal display panel.

Any picture or other type of representation of a product on a pet food label shall not misrepresent the contents of the package.

Feeding Directions

Information in this section should also include the amount of food recommended, which will be a "rule of thumb" or a starting point. Actual feeding amounts will depend on age, activity, size, environment and body metabolism and is best determined by the owner observing the dog's body condition.

Dog food labeled as complete and balanced for any or all life stages is required to list feeding directions on the product label. These directions are expressed in common terms and appear prominently on the label. Feeding directions at a minimum state "Feed (weight/unit of product) per (weight unit) of dog."

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How to Feed Your Puppy

The following chart is a guide to the total amount of food your puppy needs each day. For the best results, develop a regular feeding schedule, such as three small meals a day for younger pups. You can gradually reduce to one feeding in the morning and one in the evening as your puppy ages. The routine should not vary.

Recommended Daily Feeding Amounts*
Breeds Up to 4 Months 4-6 Months 6-12 Months 1 Year and Older
Extra Large
101 lb. and over
3 3/4 to 6 1/2 c. 6 1/2 to 8 1/3 c 8 1/3 to 11 1/4 c. 11 1/4 to 15 c.
Large 51-100 lb. 2 1/3 to 5 1/4 c. 5 1/4 to 6 1/2 c. 6 1/2 to 8 1/3 c. 8 1/3 to 9 1/3 c.
Medium 21-50 lb. 1 1/2 to 3 1/3 c. 3 1/3 to 4 1/2 c. 4 1/2 to 5 2/3 c. 5 2/3 to 6 1/2 c.
Small 13-20 lb. 1/2 to 1 3/4 c. 1 3/4 to 2 1/3 c. 1 3/4 to 2 1/3 c. 1 3/4 to 2 1/3 c.
Toy Size 3-12 lb. 1/3 to 1 c. 1 to 1 1/2 c. 1 to 1 1/2 c. 1 to 1 1/2 c.

* using a standard 8 oz. cup


Research at the Purina Pet Care Center indicates that avoiding overfeeding of puppies may help their development. The above feeding chart is only a guideline. If your puppy becomes overweight, a reduction of his daily food may be appropriate. You may wish to consult your veterinarian about a weight control program.

Guaranteed Analysis

Certain nutrient guarantees are required on the label of all pet foods. These are:

% Crude protein (minimum amount)
% Crude fat (minimum amount)
% Crude fiber (maximum amount)
% Moisture (maximum amount)

If the manufacturer desires to list any additional guarantees such as vitamins and minerals, in the units defined by AAFCO, these will be shown after moisture.

The reason for the word "crude" is that the minimum or maximum amount shown is determined by lab assay and is not the amount actually utilized by the animal. Consequently, figures given in the guaranteed analyses do not necessarily indicate nutritional balance or product quality.

The best way to evaluate potential product performance is through statements on the package (such as "complete and balanced nutrition for all life stages substantiated by feeding trials"), by the reputation of the manufacturer, and by past product performance.

Ingredient Listing

All ingredients used in manufacture of the pet food shall be listed in the ingredient list on the label. The ingredients shall be listed in descending order of predominance by weight. No reference can be given to ingredient quality or grade in the ingredient list. The names of all ingredients must be shown in letters that are the same size, color and type.

If meat and/or meat by-products are used in the pet food and if the animal species are other than cattle, hogs, sheep or goats, then the source must be designated. For example, if the meat is from horses, the label should state "horsemeat" or "horse by-products."

Here is an example of a pet food product Guaranteed Analysis and Ingredient List

Guaranteed Analysis

Crude protein not less than 31.5%
Crude fat not less than 8.0%
Crude fiber not more than 4.5%
Moisture 12.0%
Calcium (Ca) not less than 1.2%
Phosphorus (P) not less than 1.0%
Salt (NaCl) not more than 1.5%
Taurine not less than 0.125%

Ingredients: Ground yellow corn, corn gluten meal, soybean meal, poultry by-product meal, animal preserved with BHA, ground wheat, fish meal, meat and bone meal, phosphoric acid, calcium carbonate, dried animal digest, salt, potassium chloride, dried whey, choline chloride, brewers dried yeast, dried skimmed milk, taurine, L-lysine, zinc oxide, ferrous sulfate, niacin, vitamin supplements (A, D-3, E, B-12), calcium pantothenate, citric acid, manganese sulfate, riboflavin supplement, biotin, folic acid, copper sulfate, thiamine mononitrate, pyridoxine hydrochloride, menadione sodium bisulfite complex (source of vitamin K activity), calcium iodate.

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