What’s Really in My Pet’s Food?

By Sarah Grace McCandless, Animal Planet

Here’s something to chew on: According to research conducted by Euromonitor and the American Pet Products Association, worldwide sales of dog and cat food have climbed to $52 billion dollars, with nearly $18 billion attributed to the U.S. market alone. It’s a staggering number, but one that makes sense when you consider the fact that, according to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), there are approximately 77.5 million pups and 93.6 million cats owned as pets in American households.

Those numbers make for a lot of mouths to feed. There are many types of food available — including wet and dry types, as well as newer trends like raw food diets — and also a growing number of manufacturers to choose from — including companies owned by celebrities such as talk show hosts Rachael Ray and Ellen DeGeneres and actor Dick Van Patten. The options can seem endless — and even overwhelming. So how can you tell which kinds are best for your pet?

What’s in a name?

Whether you opt for kibble or canned, one of the first steps to take in assessing the contents of your pet’s diet is to simply review the name of the product you’re purchasing and the terms used to describe it. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) provides special labeling requirements for pet food produced by U.S. manufacturers. While they do not actually regulate the actual production of pet food, their guidelines are updated annually and at the very least provide a good place to start. Here are some of the most common rules about terminology in labeling:

  • “100 percent” or “all”— Neither of these can be used if the pet food contains more than one ingredient, outside of the water needed for processing or trace amounts of condiments and preservatives.
  • “Dinner”— Food labeled as such must include an ingredient that constitutes at least 25 percent of the overall weight of the product.
  • “With”— This term can be used as long as there’s at least 3 percent of the ingredient it’s referring to included in the overall mix.
  • “Flavor”— As long as the food includes an ingredient that gives the overall product a distinct characteristic, this word is fair play. However, something labeled as “chicken flavor,” for example, might just include extract from poultry parts or artificial flavor, and not necessarily any actual chicken meat at all.

Understanding Ingredients

Both dogs and cats tend to do best on diets built primarily on protein, though the presence of healthy carbohydrates plays an important role for pooches as well. Vitamins, minerals, and even limited amounts of fats are also part of the balance for both, but figuring out how to correspond each of these key elements with the ingredients on a label can be tricky.

AAFCO guidelines require ingredients to be listed in descending order according to the weight of each item added to the mix, so that’s a good place to start in terms of determining the quality of the food. Keep in mind though, even when an item such as chicken, cattle, lamb or turkey is listed as the primary ingredient, this can include skeletal muscle, nerves, blood vessels and other parts found within the clean flesh of slaughtered animals. This is where some of the previously mentioned terms such as “100 percent” can be really helpful in terms of clarifying the contents.

What you don’t want to see is the pairing of the term “by-product” with any meat or poultry terms, as this refers to cleaned parts such as internal organs, and there’s still much debate about exactly what elements go into by-product production. According to the Animal Protection Institute (API), certain pet food companies were accused in the past of including carcasses and road kill in their by-products mix, and some industry insiders reportedly admitted to it. Though today pet companies universally deny such practices, there are no regulations or laws preventing them from doing so.

One ingredient most experts seem to agree on as something to avoid is anything that acts as filler, such as oats, flour, wheat, corn and peanut hulls — all of which have little to no nutritional value. Note: Some manufacturers will break out these types of ingredients into a number of different terms to make it seem like there’s less present in the mix, so read carefully. Preservatives — such as BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole, a fat preservative) and Ethoxyquin (a chemical preservative used to prevent spoilage in dog food) — also show up in the pet food manufacturing process, and you should try to steer clear of these as well.

Bottom Line: Best Bets?

In terms of whether wet or dry is better, there’s no general consensus. Trying to directly compare labels between the two is a difficult equation to master as well, since doing so requires a mathematical conversion to dry matter basis. Some argue that wet food is better because it tends to contain more protein and fewer carbohydrates compared to dry food. Others avoid wet food because of the strong smell often associated with it (which is usually a result of the presence of fats, preservatives or other chemicals within the contents), and maintain that dry food is more beneficial because its hard texture can help improve a pet’s dental health.

With all of this in mind, choosing the best type of food for your pet still can be overwhelming, to say the least. Try asking your vet for initial recommendations. Not only does he know your pet’s health history intimately, but he can also determine whether your pet requires a special diet to address issues such as weight management, digestive issues or arthritis. Being armed with this information can help you make the most of your pet’s meals.

Sources / More info

10 Ways to Liven Up Your Pet’s Dinner
What’s in Commercial Pet Food?
10 Foods Poisonous to Pets


Kristin G.
Kristin G.5 years ago

For a much better food for your pets, try visiting this site.
-pet foods
pet food

Sonya Armenia Redfield

I buy my cats b.u.a.v approved cat food

Sara R.
Sara R6 years ago

I home make all of my girls (pups) food. If I wouldn't put it in my own mouth, it's not going in theirs. The research I've done on commerical "dog food" is not only horrifying, but disgusting.

Kath R.
Kath P7 years ago

Check the ingredients every time you buy pet food. My cat was suppose to be on a chicken/grain free diet...which she was for a number of years. Her allergies started to come back and I couldn't figure out why until I noticed that the premium brand which she'd been eating had added chicken to their formula. The front of the bag didn't reflect the change only the list of ingredients did.

Colin Hope
Colin Hope7 years ago


Diane L.
Diane L7 years ago

Whoops, bad "typo"! I've got a different keyboard & not used to it yet. I meant to say, "The FDA IS a Federal regulatory agency".

I got cut off when trying to say that I'm surprised that there seems to be so many complacent and apparently "happy" pet owners.........guess there is some truth to "if ignorance is bliss"!

Diane L.
Diane L7 years ago

Lisa, I tried to access actual information from that website, but it doesn't provide much, and I'm not willing to pay $18 to access whatever it is that "might" be stated that I'm not already aware of. The statement that "while it's against Federal Law to allow diseased, sick or euthanized animals to be used for pet food, the FDA doesn't regulate or prevent it" makes me a bit suspicious. The FDA US a Federak regulatory agency, so that doesn't make much sense to me. If somebody is going to make a statement like this, I think they should be prepared to cite facts, and list actual KNOWN cases where it happened. To simply say, DON'T TRUST anybody, but for a fee, I'll tell you what to buy or not buy, raises a red flag to me. The author does not list his/her credentials, either. What makes her more knowledgeable than you, me or my next-door-neighbor who feeds "Beneful" (the Twinkies of dogfood)?

I definitely agree with the statement that some of THE most expensive foods can be the worst! I've seen people snapping up BENEFUL when it's on sale at Walmart, for say $26/35# bag, yet don't realize that it's garbage, first of all, and secondly, it's been put on sale from an inflated price in the first place, since for $1/$2 more, they could get a 30-35# bag of something good.

BTW, once you're NOT uninformed, you can't go "BACK" to being uninformed, HEE HEE! I know what you're saying, though! It is surprising how many people simply are and don't realize it. They say "ignor

Lisa K.
Lisa K.7 years ago

If you want to know the truth as to what the ingredient lists mean, you need to check this out: http://www.truthaboutpetfood.com/
I was amazed at the lack of regulations. Euthanize d animals being used in the making of pet foods, that still contain the drug that was used to put the animal down.
Do your research. Once I red this I totally changed all of my pets foods, and I noticed a change in them within a few weeks. I will never go back to being uninformed again. Some of the most expensive brands can be the worst for your pets. After reading the posts on this forum and signing up for the newsletter, I actually bought the report. I will continue to purchase it every year so I can get first hand information about recalls, ingredients and the reviews of the foods!

ilse diels
.7 years ago

thx for the article! I went straight to the closet checking my cat food. On the other hand, I have very picky cats, most other food they dont want, not even when I just add a small bit.

Diane L.
Diane L7 years ago

Kadija, Royal Canin is available most everywhere around where I live, even in Walmart. It used to be considered a "high quality" food, and was available in many formulas, especially "breed oriented". When I first got my very large (110-lb. GSD) I put her on that formula to try to put weight on her. It didn't help. Shortly after that, the company was bought out by another (I believe it was Diamond, but not positive) and the formulas all were changed. I switched from feeding that as well as what I'd been feeding my Golden Retreiver (Solid Gold) to Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul (also made by Diamond, but a different formula..........NO grains). Both have been on CS for 5 years now, and both do great. Each has different "needs", but it only requires a slight change in amounts fed.

I agree that KIBBLE is better than soft (canned) food for the teeth & gums, but dogs still need bones (real ones) to chew on, and regular veterinary dental care. It's like if you (human) eat apples all the time, you can kid yourself that you don't ever need to see your dentist. Apples are better than PB&J sandwiches, but still???????