Pet Food Labels – What Do They Mean?

Pet Food Labels – What Do They Mean?

Who’s hungry?? I am…and so are my pets sitting next to me! With all the recent talk about the Beneful issue (which was reference by Pawcurious), I thought we should discuss a little bit about those labels on pet foods and what some terms mean. There is much more detailed information in the links at the end as it would difficult to cover everything here concisely. In the exam rooms with my patients, the talk about food is often briefly covered and often doesn’t even get too far particularly if we can’t know what food Rover or Fluffy are eating. This is where it gets tricky.

The question is: “What is Duke/Mittens eating?” Oh, I love these answers…

    • “I don’t know. My wife takes care of it.”
    • “It’s the purple bag. It’s all-natural and grain free.”
    • “I can’t remember but it’s expensive and a holistic diet.”
    • “I make their food at home because it doesn’t contain by-products.”

meme from

People’s food choices for their pets often boil down to cost, past experience, or the power of marketing. When it comes to the marketing aspect, I’m not sure if consumers (pet owners) truly know what the labels on these food bags/can are saying. So coming up, the truth behind these words.


Hooves, beaks, and hair – oh my! NO! By-products are typically the organ meats which in North American society are not commonly eaten. Therefore, they are what’s left after the muscle has been stripped away from the carcass. These parts of the animals being used for domestic pet diets are actually chock full of nutrients. By-products are regulated and defined by the Association of American Feed Control Officers (AAFCO) so you know I’m not making this up. The label below is from the food I feed to my own dogs and have also recommended to my patients.

ingredient list from a veterinary prescription diet

ingredient list from a veterinary prescription diet


Oh those wicked farmers just selling us fillers for our pet foods…wrong again! Grains aren’t bad. What is bad are grains that are overly processed or broken down. Whole grains actually contain valuable nutrients that would otherwise be in the diet from fats & calories. Grain allergies are also quite rare as the protein source is more likely to be accurately implicated. Again, “grain-free” is another marketing term to ride on the wave of human concerns over some health conditions that can be complicated by grains.

Natural, Holistic, & Organic

These words are often tossed around to sell a food as being better, or healthier. The truth is, only one of these words is actually defined & regulated – “natural,” meaning that synthetic ingredients are not included with the exception of vitamin and mineral supplements. While the term “organic” is defined, it is difficult to control the production & certification methods so there is a high chance that some of this foods are mis-labeled. The term “holistic” does not have any official definition. All this is why so many dog owners make the transition to raw dog food – because they know what’s in it more than they do following a label!

Formulated for AAFCO standards

Formulated for AAFCO standards

Lastly, I’ll touch on one other aspect of food labels. The AAFCO statement. Every food will say it is either tested or formulated to meet the AAFCO standards for a given life stage. A food that has been “tested” is going to have undergone more strict regulation and successfully passed a feeding protocol whereas one that is “formulated” has been controlled to meet to meet the expected standards but the company has not specifically tested that food. One other caveat is that if a food is for “all life stages” rather than “kittens/puppies”, “adults”, or “seniors” it is not going to necessarily be as specific for your pet and they may be getting inappropriate ratios of the nutrients.

AAFCO statement from the same bag above I feed my dogs

AAFCO statement from the same bag above I feed my dogs

I hope this has been enlightening and informative. Have you gone to take a look at your pet’s food label yet?? If you’re not sure about ingredient lists or nutrient profiles, it is best to take the bag or label into your veterinarian. One last thing, you’re probably wondering about raw diets but I promise we’ll have that conversation another time.

Helpful links:$FILE/ct02273e.pdf (Guidelines for Labeling & Advertising of Pet Food)


Disclaimer: All blog posts are personally written and my opinion and do not reflect those of current or former employers. Posts are for advice and information but do not replace the need for regular veterinary care.

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1 Comment

  1. Ack – don’t get me going about “holistic” pet foods. As an owner of a cat with IMHA (6 years now – she’s a fighter!), I get a little crazy when I see how many of these “holistic” cat foods contain garlic. Definitely a pet peeve, (Yes, pun intended! 🙂 )

    As for grains…. in dog food, maybe. But as one of your mom’s longtime sugarcat pals, I remain very leery about grains/carbs as the first ingredient in cat food. By-products? No problem. Corn? Not so much.

    Great blog. Really enjoy it.

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