How to Read a Pet Food Label

Woman reading a dog food labelIf you’ve ever found yourself scratching your head while standing in the food section of your local pet store or browsing the internet trying to figure out what the best food is for your pet, you’re not alone! Many major pet food companies assume that the average consumer really doesn’t know one food from the next, and because of this assumed lack of knowledge, these companies expect you to buy a food much the same way we buy a lot of things—with labeling techniques on the front of the product. Unfortunately, this tactic can confuse the consumer at best and create a false belief at worst.

All the eye-catching graphics and buzz words aside, always remember that it’s what’s INSIDE the bag that really counts.

The First Five

“The First Five” is the best (and easiest) rule to follow when deciphering an ingredient panel. Ingredients are listed in descending order by pre-cooked weight, meaning that once you get past the first five ingredients, the percentages of the remaining ingredients drop dramatically.

First five Animal Proteins...
Because dogs and cats are carnivores, look for a premium food that lists high quality animal protein as one of those first five ingredients. Premium foods will not contain low quality animal ingredients such as animal by-products or unnamed “meat meals”— a named animal meal, e.g. duck meal, is acceptable. The remaining ingredients of the first five should be another high quality animal protein, or a high quality, low glycemic carbohydrate source such as lentils, garbanzo beans or sweet potatoes. These ingredients work as a binder to help keep the food’s consistency and can add extra protein, fiber and vitamins without spiking blood sugar levels.

Just as you’ll find quality ingredients in the “first five” of premium foods, low end and mass market foods are filled with nasty ingredients. Never buy a food with first five ingredients like animal by-product, unnamed meat meal, high glucose grains & cereals (wheat, rice & corn), corn gluten meal, or cellulose. Animal by-product is a dry render product of slaughterhouse waste; basically, this includes everything like beaks, hooves, feet, and any other undesirables. Unnamed meat meal is a collection of unspecified meat sources all mixed together, truly a mystery meat. Grains & cereals like wheat, corn & rice can spike your pet’s blood sugar levels and are not as easily digested, not to mention they lack the essential fatty acids vital to your pet’s health. Corn gluten meal is the starchy residue left after the kernels have been processed and cellulose is made from plant cell walls; both of these are inexpensive fillers with no real nutritional value.

Guaranteed Analysis—Comparing Apples to Oranges

Although pet food labels must state a guaranteed analysis of the minimum and maximum percentages of moisture, fiber, crude protein, and crude fat (the term “crude” refers to the specific method of testing, not the quality of the nutrient), these analyses are stated on an “as fed” basis, which takes in to account the product as it is in the can or bag. When used alone, these percentages can be misleading because of the varying amount of moisture present in different formats of foods.

Moisture content plays a crucial role in correctly understanding the guaranteed analysis in any pet food because wet foods such as frozen raw pet food and canned pet food products typically contain 65-78% moisture whereas dry foods such as kibble, dehydrated, and freeze dried products typically contain 10-12% moisture. Because of this large moisture difference when comparing different formats of food, the most accurate way to determine true percentages of fiber, protein, and fat is not by comparing the food as a whole, but by comparing the food on a solely dry matter basis.

Luckily, dry matter can be determined by a simple formula, but you might need to a pen and paper to remember the steps!

To determine dry matter content:

100 – Moisture Content = Dry Matter

Dry matter is what we’re trying to solve, so, to determine the dry matter content of a can of food with 78% moisture 10% protein 5% fat and 1% fiber:

100 – 78% (the moisture content) = 22% (the dry matter content)

Now that you’ve determined that 22% is the dry matter content of the food, we can forget about the moisture content all together (because it’s really just water and plays no role in the overall nutrition of the food). To determine the true protein, true fat and true fiber of the food in question, simply divide the guaranteed protein, fat, or fiber percent by the dry matter content that you’ve just calculated and multiply it by 100.

To determine the true protein:

10% (the guaranteed protein) ÷ 22% (the dry matter content) x 100 = 45%

After determining the true protein in this can of food, it’s obvious why it’s so important to know how to be able to use and understand this formula. At first glance, this can of food looked like it only contained 10% protein, when it actually contained over 4 times that amount. Be an educated consumer the next time you want to find out what’s really in your pet’s food; just use this formula and you’ll be leaps and bounds above the pack!

But what does it mean to have a particular amount of protein? Protein is arguably the most important nutrient in your pet’s diet because they are carnivores, and if you’re feeding a kibble or canned diet, it’s important to know that you’re giving the right amount.

For a dry kibble dog diet, less than 25% protein would be considered low and only appropriate for a low protein diet. 25%-30% is considered a medium amount, which is good for a less active dog as long as it’s a high quality, animal source. Above 30% is a high protein diet, perfect for any dog. For a dog canned diet, below 5% is going to be low protein, 6%-7% is a medium amount, and 8%-10% is high protein.

Since cats are obligate carnivores, their protein amounts should be a little higher. For dry kibble cat food, less than 30% will be on the lower end, 30%-35% is a medium amount, and 35% and above (even up to 50%) will be a high, healthy amount for any cat. For canned cat food, less than 6% is low, 7%-10% is a medium amount, and 10% and above is a high, healthy amount.

Ingredients Should Stand on Their Own

woman feeding puppyDon’t quite believe that corn gluten meal is a great source of protein for your carnivorous cat? Neither does your cat! No matter what the front of the bag says, always flip it over to read the ingredient panel. A food touting “High Protein!” doesn’t mean anything to a cat’s biology if the protein is derived from corn and is the first or second ingredient listed. Whenever you’re looking at a bag of food, take the time to read what’s being stated on the front of the bag, and then flip the bag over to look at the ingredient list. If what’s being said on the front of the bag just doesn’t jive with what’s listed on the back of the bag, consider it a red flag and look for a different food.

What’s Best for You Might Not Be What’s Best for Them

Cat in a bowl of popcornPremium, wild caught North Atlantic salmon might strike a chord with you, but what if your dog is sensitive to fish? Remember that our domesticated companions do not have the ability to choose their food in the same way that their ancestors did. It’s up to you to choose a high quality, biologically appropriate food that suits their needs. When in doubt, remember that your furry friend is meant to thrive, not merely survive, on the food you choose for him or her!

11 thoughts on “How to Read a Pet Food Label

  1. there are some misleading and even perhaps false statements in this article! Really? Rice is low digestible? Rice is the first solid food we feed to our babies because of its easy to digest nature! Having visited Japan…a high rice eating country…I saw NO fat people or pets! While its textbook correct that rice is a carbohydrate food….carbs are needed at a certain level. Anyone who has to watch their carbs for health reasons also knows that when eaten with slower to digest foods (meats etc) blood glucose is actually sustained better at a needed level due to the mixture of fast and slow digesting carbs… Also, by products of the “slaughter house” are also whole animals that did not make it to human food due to age…Humans wont accept eating older animals due to slightly tougher meat but its still highly nutritious and great for our animals. Quit using absolutes in your articles but explain the whole truth!

    1. Laurie, read the book, “Food pets die for”. it’s about by-products and what they are including, and not limited to, companion animals that have been euthanized. Whole animals may be in the food but it is mostly crap from the floor. By-products are gross and if you feed yourself in a healthy way, you should also do so for your companion animal. Thanks.

    2. Dogs do NOT digest grains. Rice, barley, wheat, etc. is not their natural food. It spikes their blood sugar level, turns to fat, causes yeast infections and after enough time, results in diabetes. The latest nutrition information for humans is also to avoid grains.

    1. Is arsenic good for our pets – how about lead and cadmium? Even certified organic brown rice has a high content of arsenic. You can’t trust that organic anything from China is not contaminated. The USDA Organic label doesn’t mean it’s tested for or that it does not contain these toxins. The toxins come from the river water they use to irrigate their rice paddies. This was covered by the NPR and see article at Just because a pet food is made in the US does not mean they don’t source rice from China to make it.

  2. I feed a grain free diet and my dogs thrive on this diet. My last dog taught me the value of good quality protein with vegetables and fruits for carbs. She always had GI and skin issues until I finally eliminated all grains. Boy did she improve. Now all my dogs are grain free. Beautiful healthy animals that compete and look fantastic. Proof is in the results!
    Even I do not eat rice since the studies were released.
    Thanks for the information and how to calculate the nutrient labels on dog food.

  3. Although this is an old article, I thought maybe a few comments may be helpful.
    When figuring out the ingredients on a DMA, the actual amount may still be considerably off-the-mark. You are still using maximums and minimums in your analysis. After recently doing such an analysis on Soulistic canned cat food, I compared my figures to those on their website (which indicated actual amounts used), and they were way off! After subtracting the amount of moisture and obtaining the % of dry matter, you still can’t be certain what the different percentages of ingredients really are. When figuring phosphorus, for example, (which is usually a very small percentage), even a slight discrepancy can be significant for an cat that has kidney disease. Very discouraging.
    In response to LAURIE’S comments regarding by-products, and the possibility that the slaughter by-products may not be so bad: The fact is that you don’t know if they are 4-D rendered meats that are harmful or not. The likelihood that they are of poor quality or worse is more of a PROBABILITY THAN A POSSIBILITY. The “whole truth” is that you DON’T KNOW what they are.
    Also, I can’t speak for dogs, since I don’t have one and am not up-to-date with the research on their nutritional requirements, but cats don’t need carbohydrates, and, in fact, do not have the enzymes to digest them properly. Although, normally, a small amount will not be harmful, obligate carnivores require meat, only.

    1. Thank you, Pat P. — your comments are excellent. In case you’re not familiar with Susan Thixton’s research and advocacy, check out her website,

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