Best Pet Food: What the Label Can Tell You

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on April 01, 2018
3 min read

You love your pet, so you want to feed them the best-quality food that you can find. But pet food nutrition labels aren’t the same as those for human food. It can be hard to tell if one product is better than another by simply reading the name on the label.

Keep your eyes open for a few signs that you’re buying the best food for your dog or cat.

When you shop for yourself, you might read the list of ingredients to see what’s in the food that you’re thinking about buying. So it makes sense if you look at ingredients on pet food packages as well.

“That’s where the pet parents’ eyes are drawn,” says Julie A. Churchill, DVM, PhD, associate professor of nutrition at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.

An ingredients label lists food by weight, with the heaviest item listed first and the lightest item last. Heavier foods that sound good (berries or carrots) may be higher up on the list than other foods that weigh less (dried meat), but that may not tell the whole story.

“Things that are water-rich -- fruits and vegetables -- that will push them to the top of the list,” Churchill says. “Meat and chicken are 70% water, so they’re heavier [and listed higher on the label]. Owners may mistakenly say: ‘It’s got more meat in it,’ but it may have less chicken in it than those foods that add chicken meal, which is a cooked, dry product.”

Most companies that sell dog and cat food include a statement on the package based on the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) Model Pet Food Regulations. It should say whether a food is designed for puppies or kittens, pregnant pets, or adults. It may have other details as well.

“It’s not the most prominent part of the label,” Churchill says. “It’s usually in small print.”

Many AAFCO statements say that the food is “complete,” which means that it contains all of the nutrients that pets require. It may also say that the food is “balanced,” which means that those nutrients are there in the proper ratios for dogs or cats at that stage of life.

The best thing that an AAFCO statement can say, experts say, is that the product was used in a feeding test using AAFCO guidelines.

“They fed their product to dogs or cats in different life stages, so it’s not just a formula on paper being sold,” says veterinary nutritionist Martha G. Cline, DVM, vice president of the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition.

Products that have been tested are more likely to have the health benefits they promise than those that haven’t been tested.

“Some companies have very nice science behind them,” says Nolie Parnell, DVM, clinical associate professor at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine. “They spend time and resources, maximizing health in our pets. Other companies don’t even have a budget for research and aren’t putting that investigating time in.”

If you’re unsure about what’s best for your dog or cat, ask your vet for help.

“They should have the basic knowledge to make basic recommendations,” Parnell says. “They should have the skill set to see if the food company is reputable.”

Your vet may suggest certain food for your dog’s breed.

“There’s not one perfect dog food for every dog,” Cline says. “Every dog and cat is going to be a little bit different. There’s not one perfect diet out there that’s going to be the right diet for every single animal.”

Even if you’re happy with your pet’s food, ask your vet every now and then if your choice is still good.

“There isn’t one food that is ideal for your whole life,” Churchill says. “As your needs change, your veterinary team will make recommendations.”

Show Sources


Julie A. Churchill, DVM, PhD, associate professor of nutrition, University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine; board member/educational tools committee member, Pet Nutrition Alliance.

Martha G. Cline, DVM, vice president, American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition; veterinary nutritionist, Red Bank Veterinary Hospital, Tinton Falls, NJ.

Nolie Parnell, DVM, clinical associate professor, Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine; veterinarian who is board-certified in internal medicine with additional training in nutrition.

Association of American Feed Control Officials: “Reading labels.”

View privacy policy, copyright and trust info