Select the type of pet you have to find

essential nutrition advice for your pet.

Pet Food (What You Need to Know) for Your Pet's Sake


What is in a name? 

When it comes to pet food, sometimes not a lot. The food name is the first part of the label noticed by a consumer and for that reason, fancy names are used to emphasize certain features of a food. AAFCO has established four rules about ingredients:


  1. 95% rule: at least 95% of the food must be the named ingredient. For example, "Chicken for Dogs" or "Beef Cat Food" must be 95% chicken or beef, respectively. If the food is "Chicken and Rice Dog Food", the chicken is the component that must be 95%. If there is a combination of ingredients such as "Chicken and Liver for Cats", the two together must make up 95% of the total weight and the first ingredient must be the one in higher percent in the food. 
  2. 25% or "Dinner" rule: when the named product contains at least 25% but less than 95% of the total weight, the name must include a descriptive term such as "dinner". For example, "dinner", "entrée", "grill", "platter", "formula" are all terms that are used to describe this type of product. For example, "Chicken Dinner Dog Food" must contain at least 25% chicken. This food could contain beef and possibly even more beef than chicken. It is important to read the label and check what other meat sources the product contains.
  3. 3% or "With" rule: this one is tricky. Many times the "with" label identifies extra or special ingredients, such as "Beef Dinner for Dogs with Cheese" is a food containing at least 25% beef and at least 3% cheese. But beware of this type of "with" label: "Dog Food with Chicken". This dog food need only contain 3% chicken! Don't confuse that with "Chicken Dog Food" which must contain 95% chicken. Confusing, right?
  4. "Flavor" rule:  in this situation, a specific percentage of meat is not required, but it must contain an amount of flavor sufficient to be detected. For example, "Chicken Flavor Dog Food" may contain a digest or enough chicken fat to flavor the food, but there will be no actual chicken meat added to the food.

What are ingredients to avoid?

In addition to shunning food with "by-products" and "meals", there are many other food additives that should be avoided. Corn syrup, propylene glycol, and MSG are artificial flavors frequently used in pet food manufacturing to disguise inferior food quality and some of these additives give dampness and flexibility to semi-moist foods and treats. Many preservatives are known to be carcinogens in humans. When used in the production of pet food, they limit the growth of bacteria or inhibit oxidation of food. Examples of preservatives that should be avoided include BHA, BHT, sodium nitrite, and nitrate. Pets are smaller than humans and many of their foods have the same amount of preservatives as ours -- studies are inadequate to understand the consequences of chronic intake of these preservatives -- but they are best avoided. Artificial colorings are used in many pet products to entice owners into a purchase; however, they have no nutritional value and may be responsible for adverse or allergic reactions. Besides, your pet doesn’t care what food looks like -- just how it tastes.


What pet food ingredients sound healthful -- but aren't?

I think everyone would agree that "chicken meal" sounds like something wholesome and tasty that could be served in any USA household. In my house a chicken meal would include juicy grilled chicken breast served on a bed of steamed spinach and maybe a little quinoa. But, don't be fooled, in the pet food industry, "chicken meal" takes us back to the disgusting rendering plant.    


Corn and rice. Although these foods are often thought of as staples of an American diet, they are considered "fillers" and are not healthful for your pet. Unfortunately, many pet food companies (even premium ones) use corn and rice as the main ingredients in their foods because they are a cheap way to fill up a bag and still meet basic nutritional requirements. This has led to industry-wide creation of pet foods which are high in carbohydrates, relatively low in meat protein and are a major factor in the pet obesity epidemic. Corn and rice contribute to obesity because they are carbohydrates with high glycemic index. This means they raise blood sugar levels rapidly and create hormonal signals that have negative long term effects on metabolism and weight gain. These corn and rice based diets are often responsible for chronic symptoms of maldigestion, such as gas, bloating, and diarrhea. 


Benefits of Natural Ingredients

Natural diets do not contain preservatives or other potential carcinogens -- so they reduce the risk of adverse reactions. Choosing natural foods will eliminate "empty" calories that come from additives and flavorings and contribute to pet obesity. It has been well documented that dogs maintaining an ideal body weight live 15% longer, and with less disease (especially arthritis) than overweight dogs. Natural diets contain higher levels of quality protein sources (since there are no fillers, inferior by-products or meals) which better address nutritional requirements and may help prevent disease. Many natural diets also avoid the use of high glycemic index carbohydrates (those that raise blood sugar rapidly), such as corn and rice, due to the negative effects they have on the metabolism and weight gain. 


It seems every day, all of us are becoming increasingly aware that harmful dietary preservatives and synthetic chemicals pose significant health hazards and can negatively affect our overall well-being. The same holds true for our pets.  We have all heard anecdotes about the elimination of disease and improvement in energy by the adoption of a healthful diet and holistic lifestyle. The good news is there are more pet food options to help ensure the same principles of human nutrition are upheld for the four legged members of our families. 


Originally published on


Donna Spector, DVM, DACVIM, is a renowned, board-certified Veterinary Internal Medicine Specialist who has practiced at the Animal Medical Center in New York City and other leading institutions. She is an active member of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association. Dr. Spector has written and lectured extensively on topics including nutrition, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, kidney failure and respiratory disease. She is widely recognized for her role as consulting veterinarian to HALO, Purely for Pets, her TV appearances with Ellen DeGeneres and her widely-quoted pet health advice in print and on radio.  She currently works in Chicago, performing independent internal medicine consultations for dogs and cats.


Image : laffy4k / via Flickr



U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Center for Veterinary Medicine (, Interpreting Pet Food Labels by David A. Dzanis, DVM, Ph.D., DACVN

Association of American Feed Control Officials (, Pet Food Regulations