How to Read Cat Food Labels

Eight Tips for Deciphering Cat Food Names and Claims

Medically Reviewed by D. West Hamryka, DVM on May 04, 2010
7 min read

Choosing a cat food sounds like a simple task. But stroll down the pet food aisle and you’re faced with an overwhelming number of choices.

So how do you choose the best product for your finicky feline? Here's what experts told WebMD.

As with human food, what appears on a cat food label is regulated by the U.S. government. Regardless of packaging, all cat foods must provide the same information on their labels.

  • Product name: What kind of cat food is it? The product name usually highlights a key ingredient, but not always.
  • Net weight: How much is in the container?
  • Statement of purpose or intent: Somewhere on the package, it must say that this food is specifically for cats. This sounds like a no-brainer, but cats have very particular nutritional needs that demand they have certain things in their diet.
  • Ingredient list: By law, ingredients must be listed in decreasing order according to weight. But keep in mind, moisture content affects weight. So ingredients that are moisture-heavy, such as chicken or lamb, are listed higher on the ingredient list than the same ingredient that is added in a dry form.
  • Guaranteed analysis: States the minimum or maximum amount of certain nutrients, including protein, fat, and fiber. Nutrients are different from ingredients.
  • Feeding directions: Explains how to feed the product to the cat. Such directions are to be considered general guidelines, not rules. Ask your veterinarian for specific instructions.
  • Nutritional adequacy statement: This tells you for which specific lifestyle and age of cat the food is intended. For example, is it for growing kitties or full-grown felines?
  • Statement of responsibility: Lists the company responsible for making the product and how you can contact them.

One of the most important items to consider when choosing a cat food is found on the back of the cat food container. The nutritional adequacy statement tells you if the product will serve as a complete and balanced meal for your cat's particular life stage. Life stage refers to a cat’s specific developmental period.

The statement will either say cat food or kitten food. It may also say the food is for all life stages, growth and maintenance, growth and reproduction (breeding cats), and, possibly, for indoor or outdoor cats.

There is no one single combination of food that is best for all cats, says pet nutritionist Angele Thompson, PhD. So pick the one that works best for yours.

When it comes to picking a cat food, the product name has a starring role. But “Chicken Cat Food” is far different from “Cat Food with Chicken” in terms of how much chicken the product actually contains.

There are three main rules that pet food manufacturers must follow when picking a name for their product. Understanding them will help you choose the best food for your cat.

Rule #1: If the product name reads “Tuna Cat Food” or “Chicken Cat Food,” then it must contain at least 95% of the named ingredient, not including moisture content. But here’s where it gets tricky: If the product name contains two ingredients (for example “Chicken and Fish Cat Food”), the food has to contain more of whichever one is named first, but together they must add up to 95%.

Rule #2: Don’t let the word “dinner” fool you into thinking your cat is getting a meatier dish. This rule states that if the product contains less than 95% meat or fish, but more than 25%, the product name must include a qualifier such as “dinner,” “entrée,” “formula,” “platter,” and so on. Check the ingredients list closely in these cases to make sure you’re feeding your cat what you think you are. The ingredient in the product name may only make up a quarter of the product. Something named “Chicken Cat Dinner,” may actually be mostly fish.

Rule # 3: Throw the word “with” in the product name, and manufacturers are only required to include 3% of that named ingredient in the food. So, “Cat Food with Tuna,” may have a lot less tuna in it than “Tuna Cat Food.”

After you figure out the product name puzzle, scan the ingredients to see where your cat’s favorite item ranks.

Ingredients are listed by weight, with the heaviest ones first.

Here are some of the most common ingredients:

  • Meat: Cleaned flesh from chicken, lamb, turkey, cattle, and related animals that have been slaughtered specifically for animal feed purposes. However, flesh means more than skin. It may include muscle, (including the diaphragm), fat, nerves, blood vessels from the skin, the heart, esophagus, and the tongue.
  • Meat by-product: Clean, nonflesh parts from the same animals mentioned above. This can include the blood, bone, brain, liver, lungs, liver, kidneys, and emptied stomach and intestines. There are no hooves, hair, horns, or teeth in meat byproducts. Chicken by-products are feather-free.
  • Beef tallow: A fat made from beef.
  • Meal: Finely ground tissue.
  • Bone meal: Finely ground bone from slaughtered feed animals.
  • Fish meal: Clean, ground undecomposed whole fish or fish pieces. The fish may or may not still contain fish oil.
  • Ground corn: Chopped or ground corn kernels.
  • Corn gluten meal: A product that forms after corn syrup or starch is made.

Don’t spend too much time trying to decipher that ingredient list. “Animals require nutrients, not ingredients," says Sherry Sanderson, DVM, PhD, University of Georgia, College of Veterinary Medicine. “You should be most concerned about the nutritional value of the end product, and less concerned about the ingredients that get you there.”

This is where the label's “Guaranteed Analysis” comes into play. It lists nutrients found in cat food.

In general, cats need a variety of nutrients to survive, including protein, water, carbohydrates (fiber), vitamins, and minerals.

The specific nutrients depend on your cat’s life stage, among other things. But the way nutritional information is presented has often sparked debate. Some say current pet food labels, in general, are confusing and misleading, and one consumer advocacy group has called for a total overhaul of the labeling rules.

Why the controversy? Cat food manufactures are only required to list the minimum and maximum amounts of four nutrients: protein, fat, fiber, and moisture.

  • They must list the minimum amount of crude protein and crude fat.
  • They must list the maximum amount of crude fiber and moisture.

For example, a box of cat food may read: “Crude protein (max) -- 32%”. That means it contains at least that much protein. It could have more, but no less.

On the other hand, a box of cat food that reads: “Crude fiber (min) -- 20%” means it is guaranteed to have that much fiber but no more. Keep in mind that the amounts are given as a percentage, and not in grams (weight).

Manufacturers may voluntarily include information about other nutrients, such as ash, magnesium, and taurine, which is a must for cats.

Preservatives in pet foods get a bad name, but they actually serve a very important function in dry pet foods, Sanderson says. Preservatives are antioxidants that prevent the fat in foods from spoiling. Once a fat spoils, it loses its nutritional value, not to mention it can become dangerous to eat.

Preservatives may be natural or man-made. Natural preservatives commonly found in cat food include vitamin E (tocopherol) or vitamin C (ascorbic acid). Man-made ones include butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA); both are synthetic forms of vitamin E.

Some web sites claim BHT and BHA can lead to cancer in pets. But our experts say they're unaware of any peer-reviewed studies that have ever substantiated the risks of preservatives at the level found in pet foods. They say you should never choose a dry cat food that doesn't contain preservatives, because the risk of feeding a potentially rancid diet far outweighs any perceived risks associated with preservatives.

If you prefer to feed your cat a diet without preservatives, the experts interviewed for this story recommend preservative-free canned food only.

When it comes to pet foods, there are no official definitions for the terms "natural" and "organic." But the two are not the same. "Organic" is about how a food source is grown and processed. Work is now under way to develop guidelines for the use of the word "organic" on cat food labels.

"Natural" may mean the product has no artificial flavors or colors. Few pet foods ever use artificial flavors. Artificial coloring isn't necessary other than to make the product look more appealing to the owners. Some manufacturers may use the term "natural" to indicate that there are no artificial or added preservatives, but, again, use caution here if you're buying dry cat food.

Another label to watch out for is"100% All Natural." But the Pet Food Institute says that most complete and balanced cat foods have vitamins and minerals in them, and those additives are usually man-made. Labels can say "Natural with added Vitamins and Minerals," however.

Buyer Beware: The FDA says cat foods flaunting terms such as "premium" or "ultra-premium" are not required to be made of any better or healthier ingredients than a regular complete and balanced cat food.

The words may, however, mean that the product contains food sources that are more digestible.

This may or may not be a good thing for your cat. Ask your veterinarian if your cat needs more or less volume in the diet before choosing a premium food.