Skip to main content

How To Decode Pet Food Labels

  • Author:
  • Updated:

How now, puppy chow? That 40 pound bag of deluxe gourmet beefy nuggets you just dragged into your house may seem like it has a lot going for it – and the $15.00 price tag was a steal! – but pet food manufacturers are actually banking on the collective ignorance of typical pet owners in order to continue selling inferior, nutritionally questionable products while still raking in profits. They daze and confuse us with seemingly wholesome imagery and strategic promises of ‘real meat,’ but in record-breaking numbers our pets continue to suffer the dietary consequences by succumbing to chronic ailments such as digestive issues, kidney disease, diabetes, pancreatitis, heart disease and cancer.

Whatever type of wet-nosed, whiskered, webbed or winged critter lives under your roof, the following key label reading strategies will help you to make far more informed nutritional decisions that will help your pets to live longer, healthier lives.


Here’s a quick tip: When contemplating the purchase of any pet food, all ingredients listed before the first main source of animal or vegetable derived fat/oil (including the fat itself) are added to the recipe in the largest volume. So, in the case of Purina Cat Chow Naturals, the first five ingredients -- chicken meal, corn gluten meal, soybean meal, brewer’s rice and animal fat preserved with mixed-tocopherols – contribute to the largest portion of the final product. All ingredients listed after the fat are typically used in much smaller amounts, which means that if you’re oooing and aahing over the inclusion of sweet potatoes, squash, blueberries and flaxseed, don’t bank on them being anything other than miniscule additions that help the manufacturer to sell their ‘wholesome’ claims.


The term ‘meat by-products’ encompasses everything from road kill and supermarket meat department waste to euthanized pets and zoo residents – anything and everything deemed unfit for human consumption. It also largely consists of animal slaughterhouse remnants like bone fragments, blood, brains, lungs, stomachs, spleens, livers, intestinal contents and fatty tissue that are often obtained from factory farmed creatures that are sick or dying. The latter is of particular concern because large agricultural operations are notorious for exposing their livestock to excessive amounts of preventative antibiotics and pesticides, both of which ultimately migrate into flesh and finally into pet food.

Similarly, ‘meat meal’ is composed of the very same amalgam of rendered animal bit and pieces. The only difference is that the moisture and fat are extracted, making it suitable for use in dry pet food. While chicken, beef and fish meal aren’t exactly bad for your pet, such dry rendered protein sources yield far less actual concentrated nutritional value per pound of manufactured kibble (just to play it safe, you might want to avoid ‘bone meal’ entirely since it’s commonly contaminated with lead).

Scroll to Continue

From the Organic Authority Files


Carbohydrates are a necessary source of energy for the human body -- and in varying degrees, for dogs and cats, too -- but pet food manufacturers rarely focus on nutritional value when they use copious amounts of grains in their formulas. It’s all about creating bulk without spending a lot of money, and since animal-based protein is far more costly than carbohydrate sources, which do you think wins out in the end?

Sadly, this practice backfires, health-wise, on dogs since they have difficulty breaking down grains and it metabolically messes with cats due to their obligate carnivore status – the latter fact which is most evident in the ever burgeoning rates of feline diabetes across the country. So, if the pet food label you’re scrutinizing contains any type of carbohydrate at the very top of the ingredient list (including ground/meal/gluten/bran/flour/hull versions of corn, soybeans, rice, barley, wheat, oats, rye, amaranth, sorghum, quinoa, millet or potatoes), you might think twice about purchasing it since dogs and cats really require a higher percentage of meat than carbohydrates for optimal health.


A great deal of marketing research goes into product design and the actual written copy so that when an item ultimately reaches the store and – hopefully – our gaze, it can successfully capture our attention and score the ultimate prize... a trip in our shopping cart. This applies to pet food just as much as it does to cookies, so don’t fall for tactics that pull the wool over your eyes, conveniently causing you to neglect the actual ingredient list.

Suspect phrases that can easily convince shoppers that a pet food is worthy (even when it’s not) include any variation of the following: Award-winning, recommended by veterinarians, improved flavor, natural, now with more wholesome ingredients, favored by dogs in a taste test!, high quality, special formula, #1 selling pet food in the country, etc. Ignore the fancy sales tactics, slick packaging and easy-on-the-eyes color combos, instead relying solely on the nutritional information that you can glean from the ingredients' lists. Your due diligence will most definitely pay off when your pet gets a clean bill of health year after year!

Photo: Tambako the Jaguar

For more juicy green goodness, follow Elizah via Twitter: @elizahleigh

Shop Editors' Picks

Related Stories