Deciphering Pet Food Label-ese

Pet food labels contain a lot of information, if you know how to read them.

The Association of American Feed Control Officers (AAFCO) has its own set of regulations regarding pet food labels, which many states use. AAFCO labeling guidelines cover aspects such as product naming standards, guaranteed analysis (minimum percentages of protein and fat, and maximum percentages of fiber and moisture), and nutritional adequacy.

Always look for an AAFCO statement on your pet food that says either: 
“ABC Dog/Cat Food is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog/Cat Food Nutrient Profiles.”


“Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that ABC Dog/Cat Food provides complete and balanced nutrition.”

In this way, you’ll know that the product is guaranteed to be a complete and balanced food for your pet.

AAFCO has three percentage rules regarding naming standards, listed in the chart below. The second chart shows a list of what pet food labels may say, and what they really mean.

AAFCO Percentage Rules

95% Rule

Foods that are labeled with simple terms such as “Beef for Dogs,” or “Chicken Cat Food,” must contain at least 95% of the named ingredient (not including water content).

If the label lists two ingredients (like chicken and liver), the combination of the two ingredients must make up 95% of the total weight of the food, with the first listed ingredient being more prevalent.

The rule only applies to animal products; therefore, if the label says “Lamb and Rice Dog Food,” the food must still contain 95% lamb.

25% Rule

Also known as the “dinner rule,” foods with the designation “dinner” or other, similar qualifier must contain at least 25% (not counting water content) and less than 95% of the named ingredient. Synonyms for dinner include:

platter, entrée, nuggets and formula.

Secondary ingredients listed in the name of the food (e.g., “Salmon and Lobster Dinner”) must account for at least 3% of the food’s weight. This applies to non-animal products as well.

3% Rule

This is also known as the “with” rule. Originally this rule was created so that companies could highlight an extra element in the food outside the product name (such as “Beef Dinner — with cheese!”).

But now, under AAFCO rules, products can have “with” in the main product name of the food, indicating that it contains only 3% of the “with” ingredient.

Read labels carefully: “Beef Dog Food” contains 95% beef, but “Dog Food With Beef” only has 3% beef.

Pet Food Label Decoder

Label says:

What it means:

Beef dog food The food must contain 95% beef by weight. The same goes for chicken, tuna or any other meat in the product name.
Salmon cat food dinner Contains at least 25% salmon.
Cat food with chicken Contains at least 3% chicken.
Chicken ‘n’ Rice formula Contains at most 22% chicken and at least 3% rice.
As far as AAFCO is concerned, these terms have no specific meaning and are merely used as a marketing tool. Foods with these descriptions are not held to any higher (or lower) nutritional standards than any other complete and balanced food products.
Natural This term has no official definition in the pet food world, but AAFCO does have a set of “Guidelines for Natural Claims,” including no artificial flavors or artificial colors (both of which are rarely used anyway), and no artificial preservatives.
Organic There are no official guidelines governing the use of this term in pet food.
Chicken-flavor cat food

Chicken (or any other) “flavored” pet foods don’t need to contain any of the ingredients that they are supposed to taste like. They merely need to have a specific flavor that is detectable by the animal for which it is meant.

These foods may contain animal digests, by-products or meat meal (non-muscle tissue) in order to get the desired flavor.

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Posted: 07/04/2010 at 02:50 PM
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Posted: 07/04/2010 at 02:50 PM
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