Understanding Cat Food Labels

You always want to provide your cat with the best cat food. The right diet helps your cat stay healthy and happy. Pet food labels can be hard to understand, and whenever you are in the market for a new cat food product, you should read the package and label to make sure it meets the life stage and nutritional needs of your cat and is worth the cost.  These are the things to look for when reading cat food labels.

The First 3 Ingredients

Cats are carnivores and need good sources of protein in their diet. The best sources of protein for a cat are chicken, beef, fish, seafood, and lamb. Animal protein sources are necessary for cat health. On cat food labels, the ingredients are listed in order of the amounts with the main ingredients being the first three things listed. You can be sure that the food provides more protein when Chicken is the first ingredient.  Chicken contains 80% water so when the water is removed to make dry cat food, and the main ingredient is chicken; there is a lot of quality protein present. Products like chicken meal and other protein meals are already dehydrated.  If the first three ingredients are protein sources, it is a quality cat food that will provide adequate protein, so your cat has strong muscles, a healthy coat, and good health.


The majority of cats really crave the flavor of the meat. Cat appetites are stimulated by strong aroma and flavoring. Some cats prefer tuna flavored food over other protein.  Some cats will refuse to eat certain flavors. The protein sources named in the first three ingredients indicate what flavor the cat food is so you can make sure you don’t get food your cat will snub at the bowl. If you have a cat with flavor preferences, read the label looking for specific proteins. “Beef” instead of “meat” will help you find suitable food for your cats flavor preference and indicate which protein and flavor are foremost.

The Guaranteed Analysis

Pet food labels list a mandated guarantee of the nutrition provided by that food. It is labeled as percentages. Crude protein, fat, fiber, and moisture are listed on the packaging. The word crude is used to indicate the scientific testing method used to determine nutritional values. Crude is not at all an indicator of the minimum quantity of the nutrient or a negative word. The Guaranteed Analysis section of a label only provides a percentage of the nutrient classifications. It does not have any correlation to the quality of the ingredients, the ease of digestibility and in no way does it indicate the cat food is high-quality food.

Crunchy and Canned Comparison

Wet and canned dry foods ingredient percentages are measured on different standards. A % of protein is not the same amount in canned food compared to dry food. Canned food is 75-80% moisture so it always will provide hydration for a cat, but dry food is only 10-12% water. 10% protein in wet cat food is not the same as 10% protein in dry cat food. Wet food will have lower protein percentages because of the moisture in it, but that does not mean canned food is inadequate or does not belong in a cat’s diet at all.

Converting canned cat food to dry percentages can help you compare protein amounts. There are conversions online, or your vet can help you convert and do the calculations to see if the canned food provides similar protein to what your cat requires. You always want the food that provides the most protein except in certain situations that will be discussed with your veterinarian.  The calculation to determine dry protein contained in canned cat food is:

1. Divide the reported amount of protein by the total amount of dry matter in canned cat food.

2. Multiply the result by 100 to get the percentage of total protein.


Nutritional Adequacy Statement

Always read a cat food label to make sure is it a complete and balanced cat food product. Pet food that has been formulated to meet minimum nutritional requirements will have a seal and statement on the package stating, “<Cat Food Name Here> is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Cat Food Nutrient Profiles for (adult cats/kittens/elderly cats). The AAFCO will also have a “Complete and Balanced Nutrition” seal or statement on some brands. This means the cat food meets government standards and will provide the proper basic nutrition needed for the intended feline diner.

Look or Feeding-Trial Food

To be sure the cat food you’re considered is the best quality possible, there is additional testing that is done to ensure the nutrients work “as fed.” The “as fed” AAFCO statement on a package assures that the food delivers the nutrients it was formulated to provide based on real feeding trials with the cat food. AAFCO feeding trials are the gold standard. Brands that have opted to have this testing are proven to provide the promised nutrients and will state such on the label. There is a good selection of brands that have been so thoroughly tested, two common brands that have undergone feeding trials are Hill’s and Nestle pet food.

Know Your Cats Nutrient Category

Cats foods typically have two categories classified by the AAFCO and are either labeled as being for “Adult Maintenance” or “All Life Stages”. All Life Stages cat foods are designed to meet the additional nutritional requirements of kittens or nursing cats. These foods provide extra calories, calcium and phosphorous. When feeding a healthy mature cat choose a food clearly labeled a “maintenance” diet to avoid obesity in your cat and the resulting health risks from obesity. Feeding a cat the right food for their life stage is essential.

Organic, Natural and Other Special Labels and Marketing Hype

“Natural” cat food means no ingredients have been chemically altered according to the FDA.  However, other words to indicate a cat food is natural and therefore assumed to be healthier are mostly marketing hype and buzzwords.  Holistic cat food is just cat food with a very fancy buzzword. There is no legal definition or qualifications for a holistic or “whole” cat food so feeding your cat one will not likely have any impact on your cat’s diet or improve their health.  Organic food also has some loopholes. Only USDA certified organic cat foods with the USDA Organic seal is actually “organic.” Only 95% of the ingredients in a USDA certified organic cat food are organic, excepting added water and salt. If a label states “made with organic ingredients the USDA requires 70% of the ingredients in that package to be certified organically produced. There is no seal permitted on cat foods that use less than 70% certified organic ingredients, but the term organic will be listed after those organic ingredients on the ingredients list.

Read The Label for Possible Allergens

If your cat has a food allergy, you should always read the ingredients list carefully. The most common food allergy is fish, which sadly is a feline favorite. If a package clearly labels that it’s made with zero fish products or is gluten-free, they can be trusted to be safer for your cat. Knowing what allergens cause your cat problems can help you determine what to avoid as an ingredient.

Grain-Free and Carb-Free Are Not the Same Things

Pet owners often choose grain-free pet foods to help a rotund kitty lose weight and be healthy, but grans are not the only source of carbohydrates in cat foods. Grain-free cat food can be full of vegetables and fillers like potatoes. For obese but otherwise healthy cats, higher protein foods with lower carbohydrates are usually a better choice. There can still be a lot of carbs even in grain-free food. Some grain-free foods contain the same amount or even higher carb than grain-free foods so look carefully at the labels. Not all carbohydrates are bad for cats as carbs provide an excellent energy source for active and healthy weight cats. If a cat can properly process carbs, there is no need to go low-carb or grain-free. 




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