The Secret Language Of Pet Food Labels

Pet food names like “chicken formula for cats”, “salmon with chunky tomato bisque”, and “beef flavored dog food” represent a little known, but regulated, lexicon. The phrasing on the label says a lot about what’s inside.

Tuna for cats

The 95% rule applies to labels that list a singular ingredient, such as “Tuna for Cats,” without being accompanied by any descriptive term. This name means that the pet food must consist of at least 95% tuna.  If the name lists a combination of ingredients, such as “Chicken n’ Liver Dog Food,” than 95% of the food must contain both of these ingredients, although the first ingredient listed must be the predominant one.

This rule only applies to meat, poultry, and fish based pet foods which excludes grains and vegetables.  If the name were to be “Chicken and Rice Cat Food” then chicken would have to comprise 95% of the food, not the combination of chicken and rice.


Turkey dinner

Commonly used terms like “dinner,” “formula,” “recipe,” etc., mean that the ingredient listed in the title makes up 25% of the product.  This can be misleading, as a can of “Turkey Dinner for Cats” might lead you to assume that the dinner is made mostly of turkey instead of merely constituting only a quarter of it.  Indeed in some cases, although turkey is listed in the title, the product may contain another prominent ingredient like fish, and in some cases, in more significant amounts than even the turkey.

Chicken with tuna

The term “with” designates that whatever ingredient the food is paired with, must be at least 3% of the product.  This can be misleading when pet food is labeled something like “chicken with tuna” which implies that the food consists primarily of chicken and tuna, not just 3% tuna.

This kind of wording can be very confusing.  For instance “Cat Food with Tuna,” only implies that the product is made up 3% tuna, in comparison to “Tuna Cat Food” in which tuna comprises 95% of the product.

Would you like some beef flavor with that?

Consider a bag of dog food entitled “Beef Flavored Dog Food”.  The FDA uses this example, explaining that, “the corresponding ingredient may be beef, but more often it is another substance that will give the characterizing flavor, such as beef meal or beef by-products.”  In this case, the labeling says very little about what the dog food is actually made of.  It is particularly important, when confronted with the word “flavor” in the title, to check the ingredient list.

What is natural and organic pet food?

Unfortunately, there are no current organic regulations specific to pet food.  When you see the certified organic label on a bag or can of pet food you can be assured that it follows the national organic standards, which means that the product was made from ingredients that were farmed without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and that the animals used as “meat” were fed organic feed and never treated with antibiotics.

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The term “natural” also does not have a specific definition when it comes to pet food.  The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), a nongovernmental advisory body which creates a model for pet food regulation and standards, generally uses the term to mean a the product does not contain any artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives.

All pet foods are cooked to make them shelf stable and to prevent bacterial growth.  The process of cooking destroys most of the food’s natural enzymes, proteins, and nutrients vital to a pet’s health.  For this reason, many pet food manufacturers add vitamins and minerals to their food. These vitamins are synthetically made and can contain chemical preservatives and processing aids such as gluten from sources like corn and soy.  Even with these additives, a food can still be considered “natural” as long as it is labeled “with added vitamins and minerals.”

Find out how to make homemade cat food and dog food.