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How to read a pet food label like an expert

Updated: Jul 2, 2022

What attracts a pet owner to certain pet food products? Is it the color scheme on the packaging? The image of a happy pup? A product name?

There are dozens of things pet parents consciously and subconsciously consider when selecting products for their pets, but the majority don’t know what information they should be looking for to make the best decision. Often, pet parents only look at a product for a few seconds before making a decision. Businesses capitalize on this knowledge by putting the words consumers want to see in large font on the front, which distracts from really understanding the pet food formula.

It might not seem like there is a lot to digest on pet food packaging, but you’d be surprised. While the information on the packaging is important, so is the placement of the information, as well as specific word selection. With this guide, you’ll be able to dissect any pet food label to make sure you are purchasing only the highest quality for your animals.


Are you an avid label reader at the grocery store? If you know your way around a human food label chances are you know more than you think about pet food labels. Both types of labels are regulated by the FDA, though different rules are applied to each type of label.

As a mom of two boys with food allergies, I became an avid label reader early on. Innocently, I started feeding my youngest son his first foods: avocado, sweet potato, yogurt—you know, the usual. Nothing unusual happened until the first few mouthfuls of yogurt. His face swelled and his ears turned cherry red.

I treated what seemed to be an allergic reaction with Benadryl and the swelling went down; however, I knew I needed to get into an allergist immediately. Not surprisingly, I found out he had a milk allergy as well as peanut, tree nut, and egg allergies.

My food label journey began here! I vigilantly checked every baby food label and did all kinds of research to make sure I kept my baby safe. I discovered that baby food jars that looked nearly identical would have very different ingredients—one would include milk content while the other didn’t. It was frightening to know that some ingredient information was so well disguised and could have such dangerous effects on my son.

My experiences with my kids' allergies urged me to be just as conscientious about what I was feeding my pets. As a pet owner, you should feel empowered and confident reading a label.

Here are a few of the main things you need to know:


There is a lot more to a pet food product name than meets the eye. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates pet and human food product naming with these four sets of rules:

1. The 95% Rule

This rule applies to pet food products with very few ingredients. For example “Tuna fish cat food” can be assumed to be comprised of tuna fish and little to nothing else. The 95% rule states that in a pet food product using a name starring one ingredient must include at least 95% of that ingredient in the formula. You can find the full list of ingredients listed by weight predominance on the back of the package.

2. The 25% Rule or “Dinner Rule”

This rule applies to canned and dry pet food that includes a more robust list of ingredients. The names of these products usually include the words “dinner” or “meal” or “recipe.” In this rule, the ingredients included in the product name must comprise 25% of the product recipe. If more than one ingredient is included in the name, the two ingredients must add up to 25%. The most abundant ingredients must be listed first. If additional ingredients are included, they must make up 3% of the total recipe each.

Example: If a pet food is called “Turkey and Sweet Potato Dinner,” the combined amount of turkey and sweet potato in the recipe needs to equal 25% of the total contents of the product. There would also need to be more turkey than sweet potato in the recipe, and the recipe would need to include at least 3% sweet potato.

3. The “With” Rule

If you see a pet food that uses the word “with” in the title, that means the ingredient following is approximately 3% of the total recipe. This rule can be misleading to some who think they are buying “Tuna Cat Food” (95% tuna) when they are really buying Cat Food with Tuna (3% tuna). Keep an eye out for that!

4. Flavor Rule

This is another rule that could persuade a pet parent to purchase a product thinking it’s one thing when it’s really another. For a pet food product to be called “Chicken Flavored Dog Food,” it must include only 1% of the ingredient, which is considered enough to be detected in the product. A pet owner looking for a pet food that includes a large amount of chicken should look for products with “Chicken” as the first words in the name.

pawTree is intentional about creating products that fit in the 95% rule and 25% rule, making it clear that its pet food products are filled with quality ingredients. Real Turkey & Brown Rice Recipe and Real Duck & Chickpeas Recipe are just two great examples of pawTree products proving the quality of their products in their registered product names.


Claims on pet food communicate what makes the product different and what its main benefits are. All claims are checked by a regulatory attorney and Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) regulators. AAFCO is a voluntary membership association of local, state and federal agencies that certifies the nutrition of pet food.

Making claims on a pet food label is costly and each claim must be substantiated by research. Look for pet food that has taken the time and care to list numerous health benefits on its label. pawTree feels strongly that all 20 claims on its packaging is essential because pet owners deserve to know that they don’t have to choose between some health benefits and others. Their pet can benefit from quality food that addresses a pet’s spectrum of health needs.


Ingredient lists are organized by the weight of an ingredient in a product. If the first listed ingredient is chicken, a pet owner can know with confidence that the bulk of the product’s weight is, in fact, chicken. Not all “meals” are created equal, though. The term “meal” is often found in pet food ingredients and can carry a negative connotation that may or may not be deserved. This is why you need to have a dog food company that you trust.

AAFCO differentiates between meat meal and poultry meal as shown in this graphic.

Shelf stable, dry pet food needs to be made with meal otherwise the moisture content would be too high. While “meal” it’s not always a pure source of chicken meat, in this case, it’s still a great protein source just without as much moisture.

So, let me ask you this. If you had to choose between “beef meal” or “meat meal”, which would you choose? For me and my fur babies, I’m going to choose the meal that has a named animal protein source.

That is why I tell people all the time to avoid pet food with terms such as “meat meal” in the ingredients list that are not specific to the type of meat used. Who knows what kind of animal meat is used in that kind of meal. To avoid byproducts altogether, pawTree dog food and cat food includes only pure meat sources.

You can get a free customized nutrition plan developed by veterinarians and PhD’s in animal nutrition. Visit my website and complete your pet profile.

Uncommon and unusual names in ingredients panels are often added vitamins and minerals. Others may be artificial colors, stabilizers, and preservatives that are Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). Do watch out for propylene glycol and ethoxyquin, which have shown to have some adverse effects in pets.


Terms like “balanced” and “complete” on a label are rendered meaningless without an AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement. Look for this statement to make sure pet food is, in fact, providing complete nutrition. Words like “premium” and “gourmet” don’t carry any weight as pet food manufacturers don’t have to prove higher ingredient quality to use them.

The term “natural” indicates a product is free of artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives, but these types of ingredients wouldn’t be approved for use anyway. The term “organic” refers to the way a plant ingredient is grown, but there are currently no rules governing the use of the word on pet food labels.


Now you’re an informed pet parent that will know exactly how to choose the best pet food for your animals. Don’t let all of the marketing hype distract from what the product name, ingredient list, and claims can teach you. Next time you stop by the pet store, take a minute or two, not a second or two, to scour the information on products you’re considering. You may find yourself committing to a new pet food and committing to better health for your pet.

Visit the AAFCO website to learn more about the ingredients in pet food. Visit the AAFCO website.


Dr. Diaz’s nurturing nature led her into medicine where she became a Board Certified Anesthesiologist. While she loved her career and her patients, she also wanted to be a stay-at-home mother. After retiring from her practice and achieving her goal of being a home-based parent, Kristi began looking for ways to give back to her community. At the same time, she and her husband were looking for home-based business opportunities.

Kristi knew she found the perfect opportunity when she discovered pawTree. The value Kristi placed on diet and nutrition for health and wellness, coupled with her family’s love of animals, aligned seamlessly with pawTree’s company values.

Dr. Diaz’s philosophy is that diet, genetics, and luck all work together to create the quality of a pet's life. While owners can’t control their pets’ genetics or luck, they can control their diet. Pets have no choice but to count on their owners their entire lives for great nutrition. Feeding dogs and cats high-quality food and supplements will give them the best chance to live healthy, vibrant lives.

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