How To Read A Pet Food Label and Other Help With Pet Nutrition

Most of us care about the quality of our food and lots of pet owners are interested in feeding their pet the very best foods as well.  East Side has put together this resource to help you understand how to read a pet food label to how to ensure your pet has high quality nutrition.


The Value of Food Supplements


All-in-all, American produced pet food is safe and qualitative.  You can use the rest of this article to help you understand the ingredients that are in your pet’s commercial pet food, but you should keep in mind that a lot of pet foods that pass oversight by government agencies do so with only the minimum requirements.  To keep your pet as healthy as possible, use the guidelines below to select a quality food and then supplement your pet’s diet with safe, nutritious treats.  You can also give a multi-vitamin.

This vitamin is our vet’s choice for your pet. It is available for purchase directly at East Side or through our Amazon affiliate program. Just click the link to shop.



Nutritious Additives


When adding human food to your pet’s diet, use small amounts and monitor your pet for excess weight gain.  Here are our top picks for the best foods to add to your pet’s existing meal.  Keep in mind that if you are feeding a locally-made food, overseen by a veterinary nutritionist, it is not necessary to supplement your pet’s food with anything.


Partially Cooked Vegetables


While many pets will eat raw vegetables, they’re able to better digest them if they are partially cooked.  Partially cooked vegetables mimic what your dog’s ancestors might have eaten in the wild when consuming the contents of partially digested plants from the stomachs of herbivores.  Great vegetable treats for dogs include carrots, green beans, broccoli and sweet potatoes.  Do not give your cat cooked vegetables.  Cats are strict carnivores.  Steer clear of onions and garlic which are toxic.  For a full list of toxic vegetables and plants go here.


Canned Fish


Sardines and tuna fish, rich in omega fatty acids, are great additives for both cats and dogs.  Check the label for salt.  Be aware that a diet high in fish puts the pet (and people) at risk for exposure to mercury.

Our vets like this brand because it is sustainably caught and contains no salt. You can shop this brand as our Amazon affiliate guest by clicking the link.

Canned Pumpkin


Sweet, nutritious and great for digestion, canned pumpkin is a great addition to any dog meal.

Cottage Cheese and Yogurt


Dogs have a difficult time digesting milk, but can eat cheese and yogurt because the milk proteins have been altered by natural enzymes.  Cats too can have a bit of both.  Always monitor for vomiting, diarrhea, and weight gain when giving either of these foods.

Low Sodium Meats and Broths


Blandly cooked beef or chicken can be added to any pet meal.  Add water and turn the whole thing into a stew that can be poured over the existing meal.  Keep in mind that too much of a good thing may spoil your pet from eating his or her regular diet.  This can be a problem if he or she has to go into the care of friend or boarding facility.


Cooked Eggs


If you’re scrambling eggs in the morning, you can scramble one more for your cat or dog, just don’t add butter to the pan (or only the tiniest bit). It’s a fallacy that raw eggs are good for pets.  Raw eggs prevent your pet from absorbing valuable nutrients and risk exposing both you and the pet to Salmonella.

Food Versus Feed


Human food is considered to be the parts of plant and animals that are fit for digestion by humans and which humans generally consider to be edible. Animal feed consists of plant and animal parts that are partially or wholly indigestible by humans or which are culturally considered inedible.  In America, human food is under the watchful eye of the USDA and its ingredients, processing, and packaging are certified by federal law and by regular inspection.  Animal feed production is under the supervisory control of the FDA.  Animal feed ingredients, processing, and handling are directed by guidelines, not thorough federal law, and the manufacturing process is not regularly inspected as it is in the case of human food.  In general, humans can trust that American food is safe to eat because USDA agents continually inspect it. While animal feed ingredients are in some cases protected by law, it is up to the pet feed manufacturers to self-police their products to ensure that all ingredients they use are safe.  In almost all cases, U.S.-produced animal feeds, including that which you give to your dog or cat, are safe, but the lack of day-to-day oversight on production by federal agencies and due diligence by animal feed producers, as well as a need to keep costs low, leave gaps in safety and the quality of ingredients.

For the purposes of this article, we are going to refer to the sustenance that you give your dog or cat as pet food, not feed, since it is a more familiar term.


Dry versus Wet


Each type has its own set of advantages. Dry pet food contains more nutrients by weight than wet food since wet food is mostly comprised of water.  Dry foods are also better at cleaning teeth because the shape and hardness of the food help to scrape teeth clean.  Wet foods tend to be more palatable to both cats and dogs and contain more meat protein in its original form.  There is some evidence to suggest that wet food may be better for domesticated cats because the species is a descendent of the African Desert Cat, a feline that is used to obtaining its water from its food.


Comparing Nutrition in Wet versus Dry Food


Wet food is mostly water, so comparing how much nutrition is in the solid portion of wet food versus the same amount of dry food can be tricky. Accurately comparing the two is called determining the % to total weight on a dry matter basis.  Here’s how to do it.  Firstly, determine what percent of the canned food is water.  For this example, we’ll say that the canned food is 75% water.   Now take the % of protein listed on the can, let’s say it’s 10%, and divide that by 25% (the amount of dry material in the canned food).  The result is 40%.  That is to say, 40% of the dry amount of food in the can is comprised of protein, a pretty high ratio, but because the bulk of the can’s content is water, the total amount of protein that you are feeding your pet may not be that high.   To determine the amount of protein your dog or cat needs on a daily basis, reach out to the veterinarians at East Side Animal Hospital.  We’ll look at the food you’re feeding and tell you how much your pet needs on a daily basis.


AAFCO Statement


AAFCO stands for the Association of American Feed Control Officials.  It is volunteer organization, the members of which are comprised of local, state, and federal organizations that have oversight on the ingredients, processing, and handling of animal feeds.  AAFCO creates guidelines, many of which are enforced by local or state law, that govern the production of animal feed, but lack of a consistent federal law in support of AAFCO guidelines leaves loopholes in pet food safety.  Almost all American pet food labels display an AAFCO statement of quality that attests to high production standards, but it is not a guarantee of food safety.


American versus Foreign Produced Pet Food


While American pet food production standards have room for improvement, they are far superior to those that exist abroad.  Pet owners should avoid purchasing imported pet foods, treats, and chew toys, especially those produced in India, Southeast Asia, and China.


Label Language


Manufacturers use the absence of pet food labeling guidelines to their advantage.   Definitions for words like gourmet, premium, all natural, human grade, fresh and farm-raised are decided by the manufacturer and can vary dramatically.  Remember that pet food makers create labels to both describe the product and incentivize a sale.  Be on guard for ways that manufacturers play to your food buying instincts by listing catch phrases on the label (free range, wholesome, all natural, etc.) as a way to grab your attention, but ultimately do little to qualify one product from another.




Nutritious dog foods contain meat protein, vegetables and grains. Good cat foods should have a high protein content since cats are carnivores (meat eaters) by nature.  Regulations require manufacturers to list the ingredients of all pet feed by weight, with the ingredients that comprise the bulk of the product listed first, followed by the second most dominant product, and so forth.  Since the ingredients in a pet food must be listed by weight on the label, the first three ingredients of the best pet food will typically comprise the bulk of the food, but keep in mind that some deceptive practices occur.  For example, some products are weighed before they are cooked, when they contain more water and consequently are heavier, so listing them as comprising the bulk of the diet is untrue. Manufacturers may also choose to list the rice or other grain components by their subparts (white rice, brown rice, etc.).  In this way, it appears to the consumer that rice is a less dominant component of the food, when in fact, the sum total of the parts comprises the bulk of the food.




It is a misconception that meat byproducts are bad.  Byproducts are typically the ingredients left over from the manufacturing of human food.  When byproducts are processed according to the AAFCO guidelines, they can be a safe, nutritious and affordable component of your pet’s food.


USDA ingredients


The best way to ensure that your pet’s food is safe is to stick with foods that contain only USDA ingredients.  Typically this means that all sources of protein and grains were left over from the production of human food.  Another option is to feed a veterinarian-approved food like the Hill’s brand of pet nutrition available from our online store. This food can be auto shipped to your apartment or home.




Less strict oversight on the production of animal feed keeps costs low for everyone, but leaves gaps in quality and safety. The FDA and organizations like AAFCO do a very good job at keeping animal feed safe, but there are exceptions. When deciding on a pet food look at the first three ingredients and decide if they are qualitative, since these are likely to comprise the bulk of what your pet is eating.  Keep in mind that cats have a higher protein requirement than dogs, so the quantity and source of protein is important in cat food.  As always, if you have any questions about your pet’s health, reach out to the veterinarians at East Side Animal Hospital.

Additional Reading

Contact Us

  • Date Format: MM slash DD slash YYYY