Deconstructing Pet Food Labels: You are what you eat

I cannot tell you how often we at West Hill Animal Clinic are presented with the question “What should I be feeding my dog or cat?”

It is often a question that is speared with great frustration as similar to human nutrition; the pet food industry is surrounded by many buzz words. Corn-free, gluten free, grain-free, raw, all-natural, organic, holistic; we have heard them all. The basis of this article is not to critique any of them but to hopefully provide some tools for owners and to help make pet food selection less of a hassle.

The pet food industry in North America is regulated by AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials). This is a non-government advisory committee that develops feed laws but it does not regulate, test, approve or certify pet foods. Pet food manufacturers are responsible for labeling, marketing, and formulating their products in compliance with local, state, and federal laws. AAFCO does not review marketing materials ie: websites or brochures, therefore, manufacturers have complete control of claims made in unregulated media and on labels, regardless of the ingredients used. As well, only manufacturers that sell food INTO the US states must comply with pet food regulations developed by AAFCO. Products sold only in Canada or only within a single US state do NOT need to comply with AAFCO.


AAFCO governs several guidelines for pet food diets. Of these criteria, the ingredients list and feeding instructions tend to be the two areas that cause the most concern for owners.

Ingredients List:

The ingredients list is arranged in decreasing order by weight. Ingredients must be listed by their common or usual name, and most have a corresponding definition in the AAFCO Official Publication. Although the ingredients list can provide general information about the type of ingredients used in a pet food, descriptors of quality and grade are not permitted. Here are a few misconceptions commonly made with food labels and ingredients lists:

  1. “Chicken”- Not all chicken was created equally. “Chicken” on the ingredients label may indicate both high quality ingredients such as thigh, breast and wing meat but also other lower quality ingredients such as tail, skin and bones.
  1. “Byproducts”: According to AAFCO, the term “byproduct” includes some very palatable, highly nutritious parts such as lungs, kidney, spleen, and liver but it can also include other sources such as beaks, necks and feet.
  1. Various chemicals: Media has taught us that chemicals or additives should be avoided in our foods. Antioxidants such as α-tocopherol (Vitamin E) are added to foods to balance the nutrient profile and preserve fats to prevent rancidity. Commonly labelled ingredients on pet food such as “phylloquinones”, “cobalamin” and “ascorbic acid” should not be feared as they are merely the technical names for vitamins K, B12 and C respectively.
  1. “Organic”: AAFCO does not have a regulatory definition for “organic” and there is yet to be any evidence suggesting that organic food is more beneficial to animals than non-organic food. Pet foods that meet the human standard for organic may display the USDA organic seal on their packaging.
  1. “Natural”: As per AAFCO, a “natural” ingredient is anything derived from animals or plants (that’s a lot!).
  1. “Hollistic”: There is no official definition for this term.
  1. “Human grade”: According to AAFCO, this implies that the ingredient or food being referenced is “edible” for people in legally defined terms.

Feeding Guidelines:

Feeding guidelines provide a good starting point for clients, however, they do not account for all metabolic rates and nutritional needs. Sometimes they may overestimate the needs of some pets, leading to weight gains; therefore, animal nutritional needs must be assessed on a case by case basis. Sometimes this is best achieved by having a discussion with your veterinarian. Certain diseases can lead to weight gains and losses therefore, it is imperative to rule these out before starting a certain diet regime. Apart from weight management, various diets are also available for animals with underlying disease processes. These include dental disease, kidney disease, diabetes, arthritis and the list continues. Finally, each life stage also has different nutritional requirements. For instance, it is important to feed designated kitten/puppy diets then transition to adult or senior diets later in life.

As a consumer, don’t be afraid to do your own research. Legitimate companies should be forthcoming about their products and be open to answering questions over the phone such as:

1. Who formulates their pet food and what are their credentials (ie: Board certified veterinarian nutritionists, veterinarians, phDs)?

2. Is there a veterinary nutritionist or equivalent on staff and are they available for consultation?

3. What kind of research has been conducted on their products and are the results published in peer reviewed journals?

4. Where are your foods produced and manufactured (ie: in certified facilities)?

Deciphering your pet’s food label can be challenging, even for us professionals. Please do not hesitate to call your vet clinic if you wish to set up a nutritional consultation for your pet. Ultimately, every animal is different and it is important to have an open and honest discussion with your veterinarian regarding what is the best diet for maintaining a happy, healthy pet.

Written by: Dr. Kristen Joudrey