how to interpret cat food labels

Do you read cat food labels?

OK, so even if you do, what do they mean?
Unless you’re preparing homemade cat food, understanding what your cat is really eating requires learning how to interpret cat food labels. So My Kitty Care researched the language of cat food manufacturers.

FDA Regulation of Pet Food
There is no requirement that pet food products have pre-market approval by the FDA. However, FDA ensures that the ingredients used in pet food are safe and have an appropriate function in the pet food. Pet food labeling is regulated at two levels. The current FDA regulations require proper identification of the product, net quantity statement, name and place of business of the manufacturer or distributor, and proper listing of all the ingredients in the product in order from most to least, based on weight. Some states also enforce their own labeling regulations.

How to interpret cat food labels?

How to interpret cat food labels?
photo by shari smith dunaif ©2016


The ingredient list must be printed in order of quantity. If “chicken” is the first ingredient,  “ground yellow corn” is the second, and “corn gluten meal” the third, it means, based on weight, there’s more chicken than ground yellow corn, and more ground yellow corn than corn gluten meal. OK, that makes sense, as long as we notice that the manufacturers use weight not amount to quantify their ingredients. Now, here’s another tricky part: the wording of how ingredients are presented as names on cat food labels.

cat food names

cat food names
photo by shari smith dunaif ©2016

chicken cat food label

chicken label cat food
photo by shari smith dunaif ©2016

    • If the cat food is named with the meat ingredient in the name, then the product must have at least 95% of that meat. “Beef Cat Food,” for example, means there is 95% beef in the product.
    • If the cat food says “dinner,” “entree,” “platter,” or “formula,” the ingredient named must have at least 25% of the product. So, if your cat is having Chicken entree, only 25% of the food is chicken.  If there is a combination of meats, such as “Chicken and Fish Entree,” there must be a combined 25% of both meats, but more chicken than fish, because chicken is listed first.
    • If the word “with” is on the label, there’s yet another rule. The amount of meat named only has to be 3%. For example, “Cat food with Beef” means there only has to be 3% of beef in the product.
    • The word “flavor” added to the name has the least amount of meat. For these products, only a detectable amount of meat needs to be present to use it in the name of the product. “Beef Flavored Cat Food,” becomes a food that is very low in beef, but which tastes and smells like beef because of the addition of meat broths.

By the way, comparing “chicken” with “chicken meal” isn’t as different as you’d think. “Chicken” on a cat food label doesn’t mean chicken breast, and turns out it’s similar to Chicken meal (combination of flesh, skin and possibly bone, with no feathers, heads, feet or intestines). The difference is “chicken” came to the manufacturer as wet meat. A reputable food company will screen their chicken by-product and chicken meal and only accept those ingredients that are high quality. By measuring the ash content they can determine if there is too much bone in the product which can affect the calcium and phosphorus levels of the food. Most reputable food companies will want a particular level of protein to be present in the product which means that there needs to be much more meat than bone.

 By-Products, Fillers, and Splitting

I thought “by-product” meant only the part of the animal that people won’t eat, but discarded because it’s garbage. By-product can include lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, stomachs, and intestines of meat animals, and the necks, feet, undeveloped eggs, and intestines from poultry. In many cases, although kind of gross by human standards, cats in the wild may eat this stuff anyway, and it’s high in nutritional value. By-products do not include hair, horns, teeth, or hoofs.

cat food labels

cat food labels
photo by shari smith dunaif ©2016

Fillers on the other hand, are not only used to replace higher quality ingredients, they may also be biologically inappropriate for your cat and may lead to obesity and high blood sugar. Cat food should have minimal filler in their food: cats need mostly protein, so be selective. Some companies use rice and/or corn as fillers. Small amounts of corn and rice can be good for your cat: it provides some fiber, and energy, as carbohydrates. The trick is knowing the good fillers from the bad fillers. Bad fillers are obvious: corn syrup, and MSG (monosodium glutamate). This goes back to reading the ingredients list. Make sure your cat only gets small amounts of corn/rice otherwise they could become malnourished if they eat so much corn or rice, they become too full for dinner – it’s like snacking but not having a proper dinner, which means mostly meat. Remember to read labels, in this case, looking for fillers to be low on the list to minimize the amount your cat consumes.

Splitting is used when the same ingredient is listed in several guises within the first five ingredients, so you’ll think you’re getting more (or less) of that ingredient than you really believe you are. For example, a cat food may have fish broth as the first ingredient, corn gluten meal as the second, fish as the third, and animal fat preserved with ground yellow corn as the fourth. It looks as if fish is a big part of the food, but this is a corn-based product.

what does the analysis mean?

All pet foods are required to meet minimum standards for protein, fiber, fat, and moisture. These minimums are based on an “as fed” basis and include the moisture used for processing. For dry foods, dry matter percentages can be calculated by taking 100 percent minus the amount of moisture in the food (10 percent on average) and dividing the percentage listed by the percentage of dry matter.

iams dry cat food ingredients

dry cat food ingredients
photo by shari smith dunaif©2016

For example, a dry food with 10 percent moisture is: 100 – 10 percent moisture = 90 percent dry matter. Taking 20 percent protein and dividing it by 90 gives you 22 percent protein on a dry matter basis. You can also use this formula to calculate the amount of fiber and fat in the food.

Other information on the labels
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) requires all foods to meet standards for nutritional adequacy. That’s how a product is labeled as complete and balanced. The label should also tell you which life stage the food is meant for, such as growth stages for young pets, adults, or senior stage.

cat eats commercial canned cat food

Toby dining on commercial canned cat food
photo by shari smith dunaif ©2015

In conclusion

The cat food package will list the companies that manufacture the food and distribute it. Most companies will list an address or phone number so that you can contact them in case of problems, questions or complaints.

There are inconsistencies: some say never give your cat corn, rice or any starch, although some experts suggest a little rice or corn may actually be good for your cat. One thing is consistent: the more expensive, higher quality cat food buys better quality ingredients. A way to think about the expense of better cat food is that the more money we spend on healthier food, the less we’ll spend at the vet. I hope. So using a little common sense, and enough knowledge, based on the premise that cats’ diet is primarily protein, preferably meat, we can keep our guys healthy and happy.

The Association of Animal Feed Control Officials provides a detailed explaination of pet food manufacturers terms and use on pet food labels

for more information about corn in cat food, read this summary of an article specifically about corn in cat food. Quite informative.

prevent sinus infections in your cat

Here are tips to prevent sinus infections in your cat:

Don’t smoke where your cat lives. Second-hand smoke significantly impacts your cat’s respiratory and immunologic health.

Eliminate synthetic room sprays, fragrance plug-ins, carpet deodorizers, artificially scented candles and potpourri.

Switch to a dust-free litter.

Consider an air purifier if your home is carpeted or more than 30 years old.

cat with glass food bowls

photo shari smith dunaif 201

Offer food and water out of non-toxic stainless steel or glass bowls (eliminate plastic containers and porcelain from China that may contain heavy metal glazes).

Minimize stressful events in your kitty’s life and provide environmental enrichment.

Feed a balanced, fresh food, species-appropriate diet. Avoid dry food (which contain carcinogenic heterocyclic amines and acrylamides).

dry cat food label

dry cat food label                                                     photo by shari smith dunaif 2014

Scrutinize food labels: eliminate all grains, byproducts, preservatives, colorings.




Use extreme caution when it comes to vaccinating your cat, especially if she has been diagnosed with an upper respiratory infection at any point in her life. If your kitty received a full set of well-timed kitten shots and she lives indoors, she likely has no need to be re-vaccinated as an adult.

tips as suggested by Dr. Becker