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Pet Food Ingredients and Labels


Reading between the lines

This blog is all about how to read between the lines of pet food labels and help you to understand pet food ingredients. By reading further you will learn what the ingredient list can and can’t tell us, and which label terms are defined in Australia. In addition, you will know how to identify the key elements of a pet food label, so you can confidently select and recommend the best food for your patients.

The Pet Food Ingredient Statement

Pet food ingredients that are listed in the ingredient statement must conform to AAFCO naming conventions.1 The ingredient statement lists the ingredients in the food in descending order by pre-processing weight. The heavier the ingredient is prior to processing or cooking, the higher up the ingredient list it appears.


chicken breast

Meat-first in the ingredient list is a popular marketing claim because most clients consider ‘meat’ a quality ingredient. But, if a food has meat first in the ingredients, does it really mean it’s mostly meat? Unfortunately, such comparisons don’t really tell the whole story. Because fresh meats contain more moisture, they may be listed first on the ingredient list, although the primary component of the food maybe a mixture of legumes or grains. For example, fresh chicken meat is > 70% water whereas chicken meal has had most of the moisture removed before processing. Chicken meal therefore has a higher proportion of protein per gram. Chicken meal may appear lower on the ingredient list than fresh chicken because less is required to deliver the same amount of protein.

Ingredient splitting

This is including multiple ingredients that all provide similar nutrients, such as ‘field peas, tapioca, sweet potato, lentils’ (all carbohydrates), or ‘brown rice, ground rice, rice bran’. This is another way to elevate the animal protein source to the first spot on the label


While we are on the subject of carbohydrates, recent debates have questioned the need for and source of carbohydrates in pets’ diets, resulting in rapid expansion of  the ‘grain-free’ dog and cat food segments. It is important to realise that all carbohydrates end up as glucose no matter whether they are sourced from rice or corn, or peas or sweet potato.

corn grain

Also, true food allergies are rare.  In fact, food allergy causes less than 1% of all skin disease in dogs and cats and only 10% of allergic skin disease in dogs.2  Environmental allergies to fleas, dust mites, and pollens are far more common.  When food allergies do occur, they are usually caused by proteins, not grains. A review of several studies showed that beef, dairy or chicken cause 67% of food allergies in dogs, while beef, dairy or fish cause 80% of food allergies in cats.3  Allergies to corn and rice gluten are particularly uncommon.

Fixed vs Variable Formula

In pet foods with a fixed formula,  the recipe is ‘fixed’ and ingredients don’t change from batch to batch. A variable formula means the manufacturer can change ingredients based on market availability and price, and they may vary from batch to batch. Look at the ingredient list – if it says something like ‘beef and/or lamb and/or pork’ or ‘rice and/or wheat and/or corn’ in ingredient list, the formulation is variable. Finally, it’s also important to realise that dogs and cats don’t need specific ingredients; they require the nutrients that come from the ingredients such as the protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, minerals and water derived from the ingredients.

Pet Food Ingredients and Labels- Defined Terms

man shopping

Which of these four terms do you think have a definition for use on pet food labels in Australia? ‘Certified organic’, ‘Natural’, ‘Human-grade’ or ‘Holistic’? 

If you only selected Certified Organic you would be correct!

Pet food companies in the USA can currently use the term ‘organic’ if they follow the same rules as applied to human foods. Foods that are ‘100% organic’ or ‘95% organic’ are able and permitted to carry the USDA organic seal on the package.

Certified Organic

The term ‘certified organic’ is a regulated term in Australian. If the term ‘certified organic’ appears anywhere on the product label, the handling of the product must be in compliance with organic standards, such as ACOS (Australian Certified Organic Standards). An Australian Certified Organic (ACO) label guarantees the product is free from genetically modified ingredients, herbicides and pesticides, synthetic hormones, antibiotics, artificial colours, flavours and preservatives.

Natural dog or cat food

The term natural dog or cat food’ is defined by AAFCO in the USA, but is not a regulatory term in Australia. In the USA, all ingredients in ‘natural’ pet foods must meet the definition of natural, with the exception of chemically synthesised vitamins, minerals and trace elements. A disclaimer must be used to inform the consumer that the vitamins, minerals and trace elements are not natural.  


The term ‘human-grade’ conjures up an image of a nice cut of steak you’d buy at a supermarket! In fact, the term human-grade for pet food is not clearly defined in Australia.


Finally, there is no clear definition for a ‘holistic’pet food.  Holistic is generally defined as dealing with the whole of something. In the case of pet food this could mean an optimally balanced pet food that supports the overall well-being of the pet. It could therefore be argued that all complete and balanced pet foods are holistic.


Clients rely on your guidance to make sure their pets get the best nutrition. When you provide your clients with the right information, they’ll be more likely to follow your nutritional recommendations.


To learn more, read our blog on “How to read Pet Food Labels”.

By Dr Delisa Appleton BVSc (Hons) PhD, Professional Consulting Veterinarian, Hill’s Pet Nutrition Australia.

Delisa graduated in Veterinary Science from the University of Queensland with honours in 1987 after which she worked in mixed and small animal veterinary practice for 7 years before commencing work in the nutrition industry.  She then returned to the University of Queensland in 1999 to undertake research into nutritional aspects of obesity and diabetes in cats and was awarded a PhD in nutrition in 2004. 

Delisa is currently employed in the Veterinary Affairs Department of Hill’s Pet Nutrition as a Professional Consulting Veterinarian with more than 27 years’ experience in the field of small animal nutrition

Dr Delisa Appleton


  1. AAFCO the business of pet foods. Retrieved 6 May 2020.
  2. Verlinden V, Hesta A, Millet S et al Food allergy in dogs and cats: A review. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2006.46:259-273.
  3. Roudebush P. Ingredients and foods associated with adverse food reactions in dogs and cats. Vet Dermatol 2013; 24:292-294.