Huffpost Chicago
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Donna Solomon, DVM Headshot

Pet Food Labels 101

Posted: Updated:

Do you know what you're feeding your pet? Do you make the best nutritional and value-based decision when choosing your pet food? Do you choose your pet food based on what a well-intentioned salesperson told you, or was it because you liked the look of the label?

However you answered the above questions, I suspect it was a combination of all of the above with probably a lot of questionable assumptions. I would like to help you be an educated pet food shopper. I believe the best pet owner is the one that is well-informed about pet care. So with that in mind, today I would like to teach you how to read the product name of a pet food label. I know that this sounds extremely simplistic, but you may be surprised by what you're about to learn about advertising and word choices.

You might think if you buy "Beef" dog food for Fido, he's getting all beef, right? Well that is not necessarily the case. If the product name includes a meat, poultry or fish ingredient and no diminutive descriptors afterwards (like nugget or dinner), then the rules state that that ingredient name must represent 95 percent of the total weight of the product, excluding water, or 70 percent of the weight of the product if it does include water. So for example, if a label says "Beef Dog Food," 95 percent of the diet is beef. If it says "95 percent Beef and Chicken," the diet must be a combination of beef and chicken and together equal 95 percent of the weight of the product. It could be 76 percent beef and 19 percent chicken. In addition, the ingredient name label must be written in descending order of percentage of weight of product. So if a cat food product is named "Lobster and Salmon," there has to be a greater weight percentage of lobster than salmon, and the combination of lobster and salmon must equal 95 percent of the total weight of the product, excluding water. But just to make things a little more confusing, this name requirement only applies to animal or fish ingredients. Thus, the 95 percent rule does not apply to grains and vegetables. So, a diet labeled "Rice and Lamb" Dog Food would in fact be mislabeled if the product did not contain at least 95 percent lamb.

Are you following? Because there's more! If the product name has the word "Dinner" in it, then the label implies that at least 25 percent of the named ingredient is present in the diet but is not greater than 95 percent of the diet by weight excluding water. If the meal does include water, then the named ingredient must make up just 10 percent of the meal's weight. Other euphemisms for "Dinner" could be "Platter," "Entrée," "Nugget" or "Formula." So for example, a "Chicken Dinner" (or Chicken Entrée, or Chicken Nugget for that matter) would imply only 25 percent of this product is actually chicken - the rest could be something else entirely, like fish, beef or pork. So if your pet is finicky, has food allergies or dietary intolerances, it is important to read the entire ingredient label to see what other ingredients are present. If more than one ingredient is named in the dinner, like "Chicken and Turkey Dinner," the total of the two products must be at least 25 percent of the weight of the product, with the minimum of the second ingredient being greater than three percent of the weight of the diet. Unlike the 95 percent rule, this rule applies to all ingredients, whether it's animal origin or not. For instance a "Lamb and Rice Formula" implies that at least 25 percent of the diet has a combination of lamb and rice by weight with lamb being the dominant ingredient. Who knew there was so much math involved in pet care?

It's also important to note that the "with" or "three percent" rule includes ingredients that do not meet the "Dinner" requirements but that the production company would like to highlight in the diet. A great example would be "with Cheese" or "with Blueberries." This would imply that at least three percent of the diet by weight is cheese or blueberries. (Mmmm ... cheese and blueberries).

So for review, a cat food that is labeled "Chicken Cat Food" has at least 95 percent chicken by weight. But a "Chicken Dinner Food" has at least 25 percent chicken by weight. While a "Cat Food with Chicken" meal has only three percent chicken by weight.

Finally, under the "flavor" rule, a specific percentage of this ingredient is not specified but must contain a sufficient amount to be detected by the pet. How does one test for "detection?" With the use of dogs specifically trained to acknowledge specific flavors. For example, when the "dog taster" tastes chicken, he may bark or better yet, continue to eat the food. An interesting note is that the "flavor" does not have to originate from the actual product -- like real chicken -- but may be a combination of many ingredients to reflect the real taste. So a diet with chicken flavor may not actually contain any real chicken at all.

I hope this "Pet Label 101" class will help you navigate better through the pet food aisle the next time you go grocery shopping. Remember, choose your words properly!

As always, I welcome your email questions at AskDrDS@gmail.com.