How to Read & Understand Pet Food Labels

13 Minute Read
Updated May 24, 2023

We want the best for our pets, but it's hard to tell what's really in their food when pet food labels are so confusing and misguided. Let's break down your food labels for pets so you can make educated decisions for your pet's health. 

Legally, pet food companies provide all of your dog food ingredients in order of weight so you can determine that they are a complete and balanced diet. Unfortunately, that weight is determined before processing, so this will include the moisture content. Just like with human food, owners want to know what is in their dog's or cat's food. 

This means you must be extra careful to avoid being tricked by clever wordplay in dog food and cat food nutrient profiles.

The Nutritional Adequacy Statement, often referred to as the AAFCO Statement (Association of American Feed Control Officials), is a critical component of food labelling in the U.S.

This statement ensures that the product meets the minimum nutritional requirements established by AAFCO for a specific life stage, such as "adult maintenance" or "growth and reproduction."

Feed control officials AAFCO help owners make informed choices about their pets' nutrition by ensuring feeding instructions are provided.

Consumers need to look for the Nutritional Adequacy Statement food labels to ensure they're providing their pets with a balanced and complete diet suitable for their specific needs.

In Canada, there is a regulatory body known as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) that oversees pet food labeling and ensures the safety and nutritional adequacy of pet food products and for holding human food.

While there isn't a direct equivalent to the AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy Statement in Canada, food manufacturers must adhere to specific labeling and nutritional requirements outlined in the Feeds Regulations under the Food and Drugs Act - not to mention, feeding trials.

read the ingredients

Pet food products in Canada must meet the minimum nutritional standards established by the CFIA which have undergone the scrutiny of veterinary medicine professionals to ensure that all nutritional levels established meet your pet's needs animal feeds.

Labels must provide information about the product's ingredients, guaranteed analysis (typically including crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber, and moisture content), calorie statement and feeding directions and more for a pet owner to peruse.

While the regulatory framework may differ from that in the United States, Canadian owners can still rely on pet food labels to make informed choices about their pets' nutrition and look for products that meet their pets' specific dietary needs and are complete and balanced. It's always a good practice to consult with a veterinarian for personalized dietary recommendations for your pet.


Guaranteed Analysis in Dog Food

The guaranteed analysis, typically located on the back, bottom, or side of the bag, will tell you the minimum and/or maximum percentages of protein, fat, fibre, and some key nutrients in the food needed by a healthy dog. However, this doesn't necessarily tell you everything you need to know. Many dog breeds, such as large breed puppies, need different feeding guidelines or a veterinary diet to truly provide complete nutrition with nutrient content.

how to read food ingredients

While the percentages provided in the analysis to help you determine if your pet's food has the right levels of protein, fat and fibre, they do not represent the pure nutrients that your pet will be consuming, as all food is diluted by a certain amount of moisture (water).

To find out the true quantities of nutrients in your dog's food or adult cat kibble, you must consider the dry matter basis. Dry matter basis evaluates the whole food without any moisture so you know if your pet needs any intermittent or supplemental feeding directions to meet their needs.

Most canned foods contain 70-80% moisture, and most kibble, roughly 10%. Removing this moisture content will give you a more accurate percentage of micronutrients and net weight of the food.

For example, if a wet food has a moisture content of 75%, then the other 25% contains all of the nutritional value of the food or dry matter.

To find out the protein of the dry matter on the product label, divide the protein percentage on the guaranteed analysis by the percent of dry matter. Let's say the protein of a canned food is 9%.

Protein % / Dry Matter %


Now multiply that by 100 to get your real protein percentage.

0.36 x 100=36%

Although the label on a can of pet food tells you that the protein is 9%, after your dog's system separates the nutrients from the moisture, you are actually feeding a 36% protein-rich diet. 

Crude Protein (%):

Moisture Content (%):

Actual Protein Content (%):

When reading the guaranteed analysis statement on your dog food bag, the protein percentage is made up of all sources of animal protein products, not just animal.

Carbohydrates, including grains, legumes, and vegetables, all make up part of the protein percentage. However, these proteins are not always as bioavailable or as nutrient-dense as animal-sourced proteins.

In a premium-quality pet food product, at least 50% of the protein should come from animal ingredients. This is called animal inclusion. It tells you how much of the protein in the food comes from animal sources to best meet the life stages of our pet.

The first ingredient in any high-quality food should be a named animal protein (ie. chicken, beef dog food), with the exception of high-quality vegetarian or some therapeutic prescription diets.

This doesn't guarantee a  high animal inclusion, but foods that don't list animal protein as the first ingredient rarely meet that 50% standard.

An efficient ingredient statement is to increase the amount of animal ingredients manufacturers can affordably put in animal food regulations are meals. Pet treats plush cat and dog foods should always go through animal feeding tests to ensure efficiency.

Meals are the result of removing moisture from animal meat. The end product is a higher concentration of highly digestible protein that you might need for an intended species if you want to ensure you are providing all the nutrients needed for the animal to flourish.

Veterinary diets are usually generally recognized to contain highly digestible protein sources outlined in the nutritional adequacy statements.

Although meat meal offers higher protein, they also result in your dog or cat's food product being more processed. To remove the moisture, the meat is heated and cooked down until the meat is a dry powder, then the meal is added to the kibble recipe to be cooked a second time.

This process can also reduce the nutritional value of the protein and break down some of the essential amino acids, reducing your pet's ability to digest and properly utilize the nutrients from the protein.

You'll also want to make sure that your furry friend's food contains all of the needed vitamin or mineral supplements for each life stage

Discovering the Carbohydrate Content of Your Pet Food Labels

read the ingredients

Carbohydrates are not listed on your food's guaranteed analysis. Using the dry matter basis technique, we can roughly determine how much of your pet's food is made of carbohydrates.

Once you've calculated the real quantities of protein, fat, and fibre in your food, we can assume that the bulk of the rest is made up of carbohydrates and plant-based matter.

For example, if you've calculated that your protein is 28%, your fat is 15%, and fibre is 4.5%, the leftover is approximately 50%. Most of that 50% comes from plant products, some of which will be fruits and vegetables that provide essential vitamins and minerals, but the rest will be starches, grains, and other nutritionally limited ingredients.

Having a higher carbohydrate content in your pet's food may mean that you are feeding a food that contains way more sugars than your pet requires to maintain energy levels, and in some cases can be linked to digestive problems from overfeeding bad bacteria in the digestive tract.

Look for foods that use primarily low glycemic carbohydrates, particularly if they are high up in the ingredient list. Beans, peas, and lentils are healthy carbohydrate and fibre sources that have a minimal effect on blood glucose levels, but whole and ancient grains can be a great alternative as well.

Ingredients like wheat, corn, and soy can rapidly spike blood sugar, leading to less efficient digestion and more frequent food cravings.

It is required that every bag of food lists the calorie content somewhere near the guaranteed analysis. Often, it is listed as a measurement per cup and a measurement per kilogram, which seems pretty standard.

Where these measurements can get confusing is when they are listed as Kcal/cup and Kcal/kg.

Kcal stands for Kilocalorie, which is what we refer to in our own diets as a calorie

To get technical, a calorie, or Kcal as it is properly shown on your pet's food bag, is the amount of heat (or energy) required to raise the temperature of a kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius.

Of course, this information doesn't really explain much, so to put it as simply as possible, forget about the K and just view this measurement as calories. A Kcal is a Calorie, as you and I understand them in our own diets.


Red Flag Ingredients on Pet Food Labels

how to read food ingredients

While it can help to know what good ingredients to look for in a quality pet food, it can also be beneficial to know how to spot the not-so-good ingredients. Now that you know how to read your dog food label keep an eye out for some of these indicators of poor-quality dog food:

1. Grains First

Ingredients in dog and cat food are listed by weight in descending order. If your pet's food lists a carbohydrate as the first ingredient, you are likely feeding sub-par nutrition to your pet. Nutrients like protein and fat are best sourced from meat, so stick to pet foods that list meat as the first ingredient.    

2. Mystery Meats

how are ingredients listed on dog food labels

You might be surprised to learn that your beef dog food doesn't really contain beef. In fact, the food might claim to be complete and balanced nutrition but actually contain mystery meats.

When the source of animal protein is not specified, the protein likely comes from heavily rendered meats. Rendered meats are separated, ground, heated, and sometimes emulsified to create cheap and easy-to-apply animal sources for food.

While this is a widely accepted practice in both pet and human foods, rendered meats often don't offer the same variety or quality of nutrients that a non-rendered meat source would.

Examples of non-descript proteins that you want to look out for are:

    • Poultry meal
    • Meat meal
    • Beef dinner
    • Animal by-products
    • Porcine plasma
    • Animal fat

3. Un-named Fats

In the same way that unidentified or very general meat sources can indicate very cheap and inconsistent quality food, unidentified meat and fat sources also show that your manufacturer is cutting corners.

4. By-Products

By-products are inexpensive, heavily rendered meat sources that are commonly used in the pet industry. While there are regulations as far as what can be included in products, the difference in regulations between human-grade ingredients and feed-grade ingredients is drastic.  

Feed grade is the quality of meat designated for the pet food industry. It is deemed not fit for human consumption but suitable for feeding to animals. Just remember, beef flavour dog food might not even contain been in the animal feed.


5. Artificial Flavours and Colours

There is no reason that your pet needs artificial flavours or colours in their food. These ingredients have been linked to serious conditions such as cancer and diabetes, and they have absolutely no health benefits. The truth comes out – artificial flavours and colours are added to pet food companies to make money.

Cats and dogs love the taste of real meat. So, why would healthy pet foods require artificial flavour? The truth is that artificial flavours are used in pet foods to cover up the taste of substandard, spoiled or rancid meats or a lack of meat entirely.

Even the relatively cheap and flavourful broths are bypassed by ingredients such as sugar (often disguised under other names such as molasses or corn syrup).

Artificial colours are used only to attract pet owners. Colourful pet foods are more appealing to the consumer's eye.

Common artificial ingredients:

  • corn syrup
  • caramel
  • propylene glycol (a sweet-tasting sister to anti-freeze)
  • Blue 2, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6

6. Artificial Preservatives

Dry food needs to last on the shelf at the store. The longer a pet food lasts on the shelf, the less likely it is to expire and be a loss for the food company.

Chemical preservatives are used in pet foods because they are cheap and make food last much longer than natural preservatives. Unfortunately, chemical preservatives can also be very damaging to pet health.

Since the fish is treated before it's purchased by the food manufacturer, this ingredient does not need to be listed on the pet food label.   

  • Ethoxyquin
  • butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
  • butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
  • propyl gallate
  • tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ)

7. Fillers

Animal owners know that fillers are bad – but what pet food ingredients can be classified as fillers? Fillers are any ingredient added to pet food that has little nutritional value but exists in quantities sufficient to bulk up the food.

Some fillers are also low-grade proteins, carbohydrates, and fibres, meant to bring pet foods up to minimum guaranteed analysis requirements. They may be a source of some essential nutrients, just not a good one.

Look on the principal display panel which usually lists the pet food name and whether it is snack, treat, or food for all life stages. Look for the common or usual name for specific nutrients.

how to read food ingredients

Common dog and cat food fillers are:

  • corn (and various types of)
  • maize (also corn)
  • peanut hulls
  • cellulose
  • apple or grape pomace
  • pea bran
  • dried beet pulp
  • oat hulls
  • rice
  • wheat (or other) mills
  • brewers rice
  • soy

8. Only One Meat 

Pet owners know to look for meat as a top ingredient in their pet's food, and pet food manufacturers know this. A food that has meat as the first ingredient but no other sources of animal protein may not be as high in animal protein as it looks, especially if the formula uses fresh meat. 

pet food labels


Learn more about pet dietary needs in our Dog Nutrition Guide


Frequently Asked Questions

What must be on a pet food label?

Product information (including the product name, net quantity, and the manufacturer's name and address), an ingredient list, and a guaranteed analysis.

What is the 25% rule in pet food?

Also called the dinner rule, refers to a labelling rule that states that if an ingredient accounts for between 25% and 90% of the total weight of the final product, then the name must include a quantifying term like dinner, entree, or formula.

What is the 3% rule in animal food?

Ingredients that make up less than 3% of the food must be labelled as a flavour. Meaning it's unlikely that the ingredient provides any nutritional value.

What should the first 5 ingredients be in dog food?

The first five ingredients of dog and cat food make up the bulk of the food and its nutrients. The first five ingredients should all be high-quality whole food ingredients, starting with a named animal protein as the first ingredient.

Why is it important to pay attention to the first five ingredients in dog food? 

The first five ingredients in dog food provide valuable insight into the overall quality and nutritional composition of the food. ]

Can pet food labels include vague or generic terms for ingredients?

Pet food labels should ideally provide specific and descriptive terms for ingredients. However, some labels may use vague or generic terms like "meat by-products" or "animal digest" instead of explicitly listing the exact source or type of ingredient.

Are there regulations regarding the order of ingredients on pet food labels?

In most countries, including Canada, pet food labels must list ingredients in descending order by weight.

Can I rely solely on the pet food label to assess the overall quality of the food? 

While the pet food label provides essential information, it should not be the sole factor in determining the overall quality of the food.

Raw Dog Food For Beginners

Written by

Krystn Janisse

Krystn is a passionate pet nutrition enthusiast. She has worked in the pet industry for over a decade and loves to share her passion for animal welfare with others. She is currently working for one very rebellious cat, Jack, and hanging out with a goofy but loveable doggo named Roxy.


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