Skip to main content

How To Decide Which Pet Food to Purchase

Pet food is a billion dollar market. Most people consider their pet a family member and want to protect their friend’s health by providing excellent nutrition. From 1996 to 2002 the number of pet foods with “organic” or “natural” in their label has doubled.  In fact, since the melamine pet food recall a few years ago, most people are now skeptical and highly suspicious about the label claims on their pet’s food. Currently, seven companies account for 86% of the market share of the pet food industry. The advertising tactics of some newer companies and the increase in consumer suspicion about large companies has opened the door for some of the smaller companies to gain a larger share of the market. Just walk into the pet store and look around. The choices for pet nutrition are exploding as are the gimmicks.

Please check out the Tufts Veterinary College Nutrition website for even more information.

So how do you decide what is a good pet food now that the choices are endless?

You must read the label. Keep in mind that a billion dollar industry with an increasing competition base is going to maximize its chances of getting you to purchase its food by using words and descriptions that make the consumer feel that its food is nutritious and safe.

The pet food label is regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  In addition, many states have adopted the recommendations made by the Association of Animal Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) which also provides regulation for labeling. Pet food companies must follow the rules when labeling their food.

Knowing what information is important and what is nonsense is the first step towards choosing a pet food. Most of what you see on the label has strict definitions and guidelines. Unfortunately, many attractive words for the consumer are useless for evaluating the nutritional content of a pet food. 

Words such as “natural,” “holistic,” “premium,” “gourmet” and “fresh” do not have a standard definition according to the FDA or to AAFCO. These words should be ignored.

Speaking of Words?

Many foods are listed as not containing artificial flavors. In fact, artificial flavors are rarely used in pet foods. The major exception to that would be artificial smoke or bacon flavors, which are added to some treats.

Grain Free/Gluten Free are new marketing tools found in pet foods that have more to do with human health than animal health. Celiac disease has been identified in the human population and can cause devastating health problems. More physicians are trained to test humans for this sensitivity and more products are available to people who must remain on a gluten or grain free diet. Gluten is the protein component of a grain and is considered a nutrient. Unlike humans, pets have not been identified with celiac disease. Instead, pets can have adverse food reactions to grains, or proteins or carbohydrates in their diet.  For those pets, eliminating the offensive ingredient will promote improvements in health. The grains and glutens are not inherently harmful to the greater population of pets and do not need to be removed from most pet foods.

What is in a name?

Pet food companies will often use their name to convey what is in the pet food. However, AAFCO has strict rules regarding this naming process.

1. Primarily meat-based foods are named by the main ingredient and must contain 95% of that ingredient, not including the water needed for processing. With the addition of water, the main ingredient must by 70% by weight of the finished product. If two meat ingredients are used together, such as chicken and liver, then both of these together must make up 95% of the product before water is added to the processing. Chicken, because it is listed first, would be the most predominant ingredient. If chicken and rice are used together, the rice cannot be included in the 95% rule; otherwise, the product is mislabeled. Food such as “Chicken and Liver For Cats” are usually canned products since most meats contain a high water content.

2.The “With” rule allows the company to highlight an ingredient that makes up a minimum of 3% of the product.  The word with can be after the words Dinner or it can be included within the name. A consumer must be careful with this wording since Tuna Cat food and Cat food with Tuna contain vastly different amounts of tuna.

3.Flavor as part of the name does not require any specific amounts of a product to be used. Beef flavor can be made with broth or by product meal.

4. Dinner is used in the name of the main ingredient comprises 25% to 95% of the product, not including water for processing. With the water added to process the pet food, the main ingredient must make up 10% of the pet food. Other words such as “formula,” “platter,” or “entre,” or “bites” can be used instead of dinner.  What you must understand is that a food that is a “Salmon Dinner” needs to contain only 10% of this meat source in the finished product.  This diet could contain chicken along with the salmon. It is always a good idea to scan the ingredient list with these foods, especially if your pet has an aversion or sensitivity to a particular meat ingredient. Often the meat in dinner will be the third or fourth ingredient in the food.  If more than one ingredient is part of the dinner, then each named ingredient must make up 3% of the diet. If more than one ingredient is included in a “dinner” name, the combination of the named ingredients must total 25% of the product and be listed in the same order as found on the ingredient list. Unlike the first example, the non-meat sources can be included in the weight calculations. For example, a “Chicken and Rice Dinner for Dogs” must contain 25% chicken and rice and chicken must be present in a higher amount.

What are the tricks used in labeling ingredients?

Ingredients are listed according to weight.  However, a consumer must be very careful when evaluating this list.  The ingredient list will contain items with different amounts of water content. This water content can significantly impact where the ingredient is listed since water is heavy and may make a component of the ingredient list show up much earlier.  For example a company may claim that their diet is better because it has chicken as the first ingredient and corn as the second while the competitor lists corn as the first ingredient and chicken meal as the second ingredient. To a consumer, the first diet seems much more desirable. It is made with chicken (the word fresh can be used here but remember, it has no meaning according to the FDA). Chicken meal sounds processed and may make a consumer believe that the first diet contains more chicken and is healthier. In fact, chicken meal is simply chicken that has had the moisture removed. As a result, the second diet may indeed contain more chicken than the first and because of a trick in advertising, the consumer will be misled.

Chicken (or any listed meat) is the muscles skin and bones of chicken that have been ground together. The water content averages around 70%, and the product contains approximately 18% protein and 5% fat. If this same ground chicken is dried to a moisture level of 10% it is called chicken meal. The protein content is now 65% and the fat level is 12%.

Moisture Content and Why it Matters!

Pet food labels contain a section on the label with the guaranteed analysis. Within the guaranteed analysis you will find the protein, fat and fiber level of the food. Unfortunately, you cannot use this information to compare pet foods with one another. All pet foods have variable amounts of water added. The guaranteed analysis is on an “as fed” basis. It includes the moisture content of the food. A canned food will contain approximately 80% water.  This means that 20% of the product is dry matter or food. If you want to compare the protein content of one food to another, you must calculate the amount of protein in the “dry matter” of the food.  This is not difficult but it is tedious.

First find the moisture content of the food. A food that has a moisture content of 20% has a dry matter component that is 80%.

Second, find the percentage of protein in the diet. This is the amount of protein in the moisture containing diet.

Third, divide the percentage of protein by the dry matter percentage. This will give you the amount of protein on a dry matter basis. Now you can compare it to other foods.


Friskies Ocean and Whitefish Pate contains 11% protein. The moisture content is 78% which means the dry matter is 22%.

11% protein divided by 22% dry matter is 50% protein. 


Purina Indoor Cat Food contains 30% protein. The moisture content is 12% which means the dry matter is 88%.

30% protein divided by 88% dry matter is 34% protein. 

Using dry matter will allow you to compare protein, fiber and fat levels on the same playing field.

Protein and By-product myths

Dogs require 44 essential nutrients and cats require 48 essential nutrients.  These nutrients are not in the form of a single meat protein. They contain, fat, amino acids (the building blocks to protein) and carbohydrates as well as vitamins and minerals.  Balanced nutrition has the correct amount of these essential nutrients to maintain good health. 

One current danger found in pet foods is over nutrition.  Pet foods are more palatable for our pets and many contain excessive levels of fat or protein.  Unfortunately, this has increased the number of pets that are overweight when following the manufacturers feeding instructions.

A common myth is that meat by-products are dangerous and not wholesome for pets to eat. According to AAFCO meat in pet food is defined as the clean flesh derived from slaughtered mammals, and is limited to that part of the striate muscle which is skeletal or that which is found in the tongue, in the diaphragm, in the heart, or in the esophagus; with or without the accompanying and overlying fat and the portions of the skin, sinew, nerve and blood vessels which normally accompany the flesh.  Meat by-products are the clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals. It includes, but is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially defatted low temperature fatty tissue, and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth and hoofs.  Animals are meat eaters and must eat more than just muscle meat to survive. Just watch any wild animal take down prey and you will notice that the choice part of the prey to eat is the abdominal organs not the leg meat.

Human grade meat or human quality meat is a false and misleading claim on pet foods.  AAFCO has no definition for human grade ingredients.  Also, please remember- human grade meats can vary from Grade A to Grade E.  Thus you cannot tell quality of meat with the term human grade.  Once meat is purchased by a pet food company it is no longer considered good for human consumption.

So What food Should I buy?

There is no easy answer to this question. It can depend on your pets’ individual needs or preferences. It is important to consider the cost of feeding your pet as well as the digestibility of the when choosing a pet food.

What should now be clear is that the label contains useful information that can easily be manipulated by a pet food company to allow their diet to appear more healthful than competitors.

The advice you get from the pet store may not be helpful. Most pet store sales associates are not trained in nutrition and the quality of a pet food may be based on the sales pitch they received from the manufacturer.

Veterinary nutritionists are available for consultation if your pet has specific nutritional needs.