Navigating the pet food aisle can be a confusing for many pet parents.  We want to make sure we are choosing the best food we can afford and try to make informed decisions.  However, pet food manufacturers are master marketers and will make the packaging look sleek with beautiful ingredients that look very appetizing to us humans. 

Manufacturers may also use fancy names to describe a particular food.  They know that many consumers will choose a food based on a its name or whether it contains a specific ingredient.  You may see claims on a bag or can with terms such as “dinner”, “premium”, “natural” or “with beef”.  AAFCO, the Association of American Feed Control Officials, has four rules which govern the percentages of an ingredient a food must contain that dictates how the food can be named.  Understanding these rules can help you know what you are actually getting.

Rule #1 is the 95% rule.   To meet the 95% rule, the food should contain very few ingredients and can have a simple name like “Chicken Cat Food” or “Lamb for Dogs”.  That means at least 95% of that food should be the named ingredient.  That does not count water which will usually be listed as “water sufficient for processing.”  If you include the water, the food should still contain at least 70% of the named ingredient.  If the food lists two ingredients in the name, such as “Beef & Liver”, the two named ingredients should comprise 95% of the product.  In addition, the first ingredient in the name should also be the largest amount in the food.

Rule #2 is the “Dinner” or 25% rule.  These foods must contain at least 25% of the named ingredient but less than 95%.  You can find many different products in this class of foods and the food must be named things like “Chicken Dinner for Dogs”.  You may also see terms like nuggets, platter, formula or entrée used in the name.  Again, if there is more than one ingredient listed the named ingredients must equal at least 25% of the entire product and each ingredient must be at least 3%.  A food named “Chicken and Turkey Entrée for Dogs” must have at least 25% chicken and turkey and at least 3% of it should be turkey.

Rule #3 is the “With” rule or 3% rule.  Originally this rule was meant to allow manufacturers to highlight an ingredient that was outside the 25% rule, but was at least 3%, on the front of the package.  You might see a food named “Turkey Dinner for Dogs” and then a starburst “with cheese!” if they included at least 3% cheese in the recipe.  AAFCO now allows manufacturers to include the term “with” in the name of the product.  You can now see “Cat food with Tuna” as the name of the product.  This food could have only 3% tuna in it.  On the other hand, a product named “Tuna Cat Food” would need to contain at least 95% tuna but could easily be confused with “Cat food with Tuna”.  It is very important for you to be careful when looking at names. 

Rule #4 is the “flavor” rule.  With this rule, there is no specific percentage required, only enough to be detected.  Using animals trained to prefer different flavors, there are specific testing methods used to confirm the claim. These foods will be named “Chicken Flavor Dog Food”.  The word flavor must be the same size, color and style as the word beef on the label.  The flavor may be actual chicken but it could also come from by-products or chicken meal.  Flavors can also come from “digests” which are materials treated with enzymes, heat and/or acids to form concentrated natural flavors.  Only a small amount of digest is needed to create a chicken flavor food and no actual chicken may even be used.

Pet food labels can be difficult to understand.  However, we want you to be an informed consumer and help you select the best product for your pets.