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How to Read a Pet Food Label

Walk into any pet supply store and you will see aisles of pet foods with eye-catching packaging showing fruits, veggies and quality proteins. Just like how you can’t judge a book by its cover, don’t fall for the glossy photos and fancy packaging; it’s what’s inside the bag that counts. Before trying any new pet food, be sure to turn the bag over and read the ingredient label to see if the food contains exactly what it is advertising.

The First Five Ingredients
The first five ingredients on a label are the most important when analyzing the quality of a pet food. Because ingredients are listed from highest content in the food to lowest, after the first five ingredients (some people say eight) the percentages of the remaining ingredients decrease dramatically. One of the most important rules of thumb is that a named protein should be at least one (preferably two) of the first five ingredients, and always the first ingredient. A named protein can include a named animal meal (i.e. chicken meal—check out our past blog, What’s the Deal with Chicken Meal?) but should not be ambiguous such as “animal fat” or “animal meal”—not naming the animal from which the protein is from is suspicious. The remaining four ingredients should be other sources of protein via named animal sources or whole ingredients, preferably low-glycemic ingredients such as lentils, sweet potatoes or peas.

Ingredients to Avoid
There are some ingredients that you should be sure to avoid regardless of how far down they appear on the label. Check out our list of  Pet Food Ingredients 101 for more information on these common ingredients to avoid.

Guaranteed Analysis
Every pet food label must state a guaranteed analysis of the minimum and maximum percentages of moisture, fiber, crude protein and crude fat. This analysis is a great way to determine if the food has enough protein, fiber or fat that is appropriate for your pet’s specific needs. Unfortunately, this label does not take into account the moisture content of the food, so reading it might be a bit misleading; frozen and canned foods contain more moisture than kibble or dehydrated food, making direct comparisons difficult. The best and most accurate way to compare pet foods is to compare the guaranteed analysis of the dry matter content only. To determine the percentage of dry matter content, subtract the moisture content from 100. Then, to determine the true protein amount, take the guaranteed protein percentage divided by the percentage of dry matter content and multiply that by 100.

For example, a can of Fromm Shredded Pork Entrée for dogs has a moisture content of 79.5% (max) and a protein of 8% (min). The true protein content is 39%:

Dry Matter Content = 100% – 79.5% (moisture content) = 20.5%

Protein Content = 8% (the guaranteed protein) ÷ 20.5% X 100 = 39%

Both plant and animal ingredients have protein, and the guaranteed analysis does not differentiate between them, making it doubly important to look closely at the list of ingredients to try and figure out the main source of protein.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to analyzing pet foods (ingredient sourcing and manufacturing processes also make a huge difference in pet food quality), but hopefully you now have the tools to begin assessing the quality of different products. There are plenty of resources available online, and we are happy to work with you individually to ensure you’re making the best choice for your furkids.