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How to Read Pet Food Labels


Reading between the lines of pet food Labels

There is a lot of information out there about the most ‘healthy’ or ‘best’ dog or cat food. This often confuses pet owners, veterinarians and nurses alike. Pet food labels are the primary way a manufacturer can communicate with pet owners. However, while there’s some educational information on the label, there can also be a lot of marketing.


This is a blog on reading between the lines of pet food labels. The goal of the blog is to help you understand and identify the key elements of a pet food label. This is so you can confidently select and recommend the food that best meets your patients’ needs. You will then be positioned to discuss pet food options with your clients more confidently and be able to outline the reasons for recommending a specific product.

AAFCO Guidelines

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) sets the standards for pet food sold in the US. AAFCO provides guidelines on labeling, ingredient definitions and official names. It also provides guidelines for nutrient profiles for all life stages and standards for feeding trials. Although AAFCO is US -based, it is recognised globally, including in Australia, where the Australian Standard for Pet Food Manufacture and Labelling (AS5812:2017) references AAFCO guidelines.

AAFCO Guidelines

I am going to focus primarily on the nutritional adequacy statement on pet food labels. In the follow-up blog I  will look at the ingredient list, as well as touching on some common terms used on pet food labels to describe pet foods such as ‘organic’, ‘natural, ‘human-grade’ or ‘holistic’.

Nutritional Adequacy Statement (or AAFCO Statement)

The first thing to look for is whether the pet food is complete and balanced. Complete means the food has all required nutrients present and balanced means all the nutrients are present in correct proportions. Pet food labels that state the food is for ‘Intermittent or supplemental feeding only’ means the food is not complete and balanced. For example, many little tins of canned cat food are not always complete and balanced. You won’t know unless you know to look!

Foods that are complete and balanced must carry a nutritional adequacy statement. This statement provides two important pieces of information about a pet food.  It tells you how the manufacturer validates the nutritional adequacy of the food and what life stage the food is intended for.

dog eating from a bowl

The two commonly used methods to validate nutritional adequacy are the formulation method and the feeding trial method.

Formulation Method

Formulation Method

The pet food is formulated with ingredients and that it contains all the nutrients that meet or exceed the AAFCO nutrition profiles which are published in the AAFCO Official Publication each year. What this means is that the food is made by a “recipe” formulated by a computer based on AAFCO guidelines.

Feeding Trial Method

The manufacturer must perform an AAFCO protocol feeding trial using the food being tested as the sole source of nutrition. Feeding trials take much longer. They are more complex and thus more expensive to conduct than formulation methods, however this is the best way to document how a pet will perform when fed a specific food.

Feeding Trial Method

Foods can be formulated or tested to meet one of four life-stages:-

A puppy and a kitten playing along
  1. Pregnancy(Gestation)/Lactation
  2. Growing puppies or kittens (Growth)
  3. Adult dogs or cats (Maintenance)
  4. All life stages

While AAFCO does not define a ‘senior’ life-stage, we know that older pets have special nutritional needs. Dog and cat foods intended for senior pets or geriatric pets should ideally be formulated with their nutritional needs in mind in order to address potential age-related diseases and other changes. 

A food formulated for Growth and Maintenance’, means that it needs to meet the nutrient and energy needs of growing puppies and kittens. Such a food may therefore not be optimal for adult pets and seniors, who should be given a specific life stage appropriate diet. 

Similarly, food formulated for ‘All Life-stages’ must meet the dietary requirements of pregnant and lactating bitches or queens.

This means the food needs to be formulated with enough energy, protein, fat, phosphorous, sodium, calcium etc for growing puppies and kittens, as well as for pregnant or lactating dogs or cats. This is likely to be less suitable for pets in other life stages – such as adults or mature adults whose key nutritional factors differ from puppies or kittens.  

If a food is intended for use in puppies and is formulated to meet the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for growth, growth and maintenance  or all life stages,  AAFCO guidelines require a qualifier in the nutritional adequacy statement on the label based on the calcium level as follows -:

  • ‘including’ growth of large size dogs (70 lbs./32kg or more as an adult): max. calcium 1.8% or less or
  • ‘except for’ growth of large size dogs (70 lbs./32kg or more as an adult): max. calcium greater than 1.8%, but not exceeding 2.5%.
Example of label

If you would like further informaton on Pet Food Labels, check out our blog on pet food ingredients where we take a look at what the ingredient list can and can’t tell us and which terms are defined in Australia.

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