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Decoding the pet food label - What questions you should be asking when choosing a food for your pet

Decoding the pet food label - What questions you should be asking when choosing a food for your pet

Aug 24, 2023

Decoding the pet food label & what questions you should be asking when choosing a food for your pet


It can be a little overwhelming when it comes to choosing a pet food for your dog or cat with thousands of options out there from the supermarket to the pet store. Talking to your Veterinarian to select a pet food which meets your pet’s individual needs in regards to lifestage, body condition, size and activity levels as well as any medical conditions your pet may have is vital.


Manufacturers will use the label on your pet’s food to communicate with pet parents so it is vital to be able to see past the clever marketing and identify the key features on the pet food label. In Australia we have the Pet Food Industry Association of Australia (PFIAA) which supply the Australian pet food standards  to ensure meat for pet consumption is covered by the Australian Standard- AS5812 for retail sale and food manufacturing practice compliance, as well as PISC 88 which contains the minimum requirements for hygiene, harvesting, transportation, processing, identification, packaging and storage to ensure a safe and acceptable product.

The Australian standard also covers how additives and preservatives will be used in pet foods. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) set the standards for pet food sold in the US. AAFCO provide guidelines in regards to ingredient definitions and official names, labelling and nutrient profiles for different life stages and the standards required for feeding trials. Why is this important? Because PFIAA refer to the AAFCO guidelines which are recognised globally.


So what must be included on the pet food label?

  • Product name and brand
  • Quantity statement
  • Species for which the food is intended
  • Nutritional adequacy statement
  • Ingredient statement
  • Guaranteed analysis or typical analysis
  • Feeding directions
  • Name and address of the manufacturer or distributor


So what does this all mean?

The nutritional adequacy statement also known as the AAFCO statement states whether the food is complete and balanced (meaning it has the all required nutrients in the correct proportions in the food) or for Intermittent or supplemental feeding only (not complete and balanced and will not contain all your pet needs nutritionally).

The second part of the nutritional adequacy statement which is vital is how the manufacturer validates the adequacy statement and what life stage the food is intended for. This is either via the formulation method or feeding trial method. If the food is Formulated this means that is contains all the nutrients that meet or exceed those required in the AAFCO nutrition profiles. This is a computer formulated ‘recipe’ based on the AAFCO guidelines and put out in the AAFCO Official publication each year.

If the food uses Animal feeding tests to substantiate their product provides complete and balanced nutrition for the required lifestage, this means that the manufacturer must perform an AAFCO protocol feeding trial. The feeding trial involves the food being tested as the sole source of nutrition. These trials are however much more time consuming, complex and expensive to carry out than formulation methods but are the gold standard in documenting how a pet will perform on the specific food.

It is important to ensure the food meets your pets life stage:

  • Pregnancy & Lactation
  • Growth (puppies and kittens)
  • Adult dogs and cats (maintenance)
  • All life stages

Although AAFCO does not define senior as a life-stage it is important to consider this when selecting a food that your senior pet may have different requirements to an adult animal or may have an age-related disease. The life stage the product is designed to meet the nutritional needs for must be outlined on the label. It is important to note that food formulated for all life stages must be formulated to meet the energy and nutritional requirements for growing puppies and kittens as well as lactating or pregnant dogs or cats and thus may be unsuitable or too energy dense for an adult, neutered or senior pet.


AAFCO also must have a qualifier in the nutritional adequacy statement based on the calcium levels as either:

  • Including growth of large size dogs (32kg or more as an adult): max. Calcium 1.8% or less
  • Except for growth of large size dogs (32kg or more as an adult) max. Calcium greater than 1.8% but not exceeding 2.5%

Large breed puppies require lower calcium levels than small and medium breeds and may acquire angular limb deformities if the calcium levels in their food is too high.


The guaranteed analysis indicates the minimum or maximum levels of nutrients such as the fat, protein, fibre and moisture content it however does not guarantee the quality of the food. As moisture levels vary in cat foods it's very difficult to accurately compare nutritional information.


When it comes to ingredient lists, it's important to bust a few myths. A popular marketing tactic is having meat as the first ingredient in the list as most pet parents consider meat as quality ingredient but this may not always mean that the food is mostly meat. As meat can be >70% water when fresh this can result in chicken appearing first on the ingredient list while the main component of the food may be grains or legumes. When chicken is dehydrated before processing it becomes chicken meal and thus may appear lower on the ingredient list than fresh chicken despite having more protein per gram.

Manufacturers may also split ingredients ie rice into: brown rice, ground rice and rice bran as a way to move the protein source to prime position on the ingredient list.

It is important to check if the ingredients list is fixed or variable. variable formula means that the manufacturer can change the ingredients based on what is readily available or cheapest and thus the food itself will vary from batch to batch. This will appear on the ingredients list as ‘beef and/or lamb and/or pork’ or ‘wheat and/or rice’. This can result in gut upsets when going from an old bag to a new bag or flare up food allergies in susceptible pets. A fixed formula means the ingredients do not change from batch to batch.


Some clever marketing tricks to be aware of also include:

Grain free- it is very rare for dogs and cats to have a true grain allergy. Food allergies are in fact quite rare causing less than 1% of skin disease in dogs and cats and only 10% of allergic skin disease in dogs with environmental allergens the common culprit. Studies have found that beef, chicken and dairy account for 67% of food allergies in dogs and beef, fish and dairy causing 80% of food allergies in cats. Grain free diets have also been linked to causing dilative cardiomyopathy in dogs.


Natural- While this term has been defined by AAFCO in the US it is not a regulatory term in Australia.

Human-grade- This term is not clearly defined in Australia.

Holistic- This term is not clearly defined in Australia.


So now that we are across what to check on the pet food label, what do we want to ask about our pets food?


  • Does the manufacturer employ at least one full-time qualified nutritionist either with a PhD in animal nutrition and/or board-certification?
  • What are the qualifications of the person formulating the food if not the aforementioned nutritionist? This person should have the same qualifications as above.
  • Does the manufacturer own the plant where their food is manufactured? If not the quality control may be compromised.
  • What quality control measures does the manufacturer practice? These are vital in ensuring safe, nutritious and consistent food for your pet.
  • Are their foods tested with AAFCO feeding trials?
  • Does the company conduct any research and if so do they publish it in peer-reviewed journals? 
    • Can the manufacturer provide you with the amount of any nutrient of of interest i.e. calcium? This should be able to be provided not only as a guaranteed analysis number but as the average/typical analysis.
    • Can the manufacturer provide you with the number of calories for any of their foods on any requested weight or volume basis?
    • Does the manufacturer bad-mouth other pet food companies?


If a manufacturer cannot answer any of the above questions this is a red flag and as a pet parent you should be cautious about feeding that brand of food to your pet.


At Cameron Veterinary Services we recommend both Hills Pet Nutrition and Royal Canin as they satisfy all of the above requirements. We also feed these brands to our personal pets and can testify that these brands provide premium nutrition. An added benefit of both these brands is that both manufacturers will back themselves with a money back guarantee on palatability and the effectiveness of their products. This means you can try your pet on these foods risk free as if your pet does not like the food or does not do well on it the manufacturer will take your open bag of food back and refund your money.


These foods can be found in our online store and our helpful vets and nurses will happily assist you in recommending a food to best suit your pet.