Do you know what's actually in your pet's kibble? Consider this your guide to pet food label ingredients.

Anthea Levi
October 16, 2017

Just like human food, pet chow is full of health promises. Packaging boasts formulas that are grain-free and high in omega-3s. Cat food brands brag that they’re "holistic." After all, if Americans are ditching gluten and GMOs in their own food, it follows that they’d spare their pets the same ingredients. But as with labels on people food, those on pet food can be confusing. Learn the truth behind common nutrition terms so you can put down a bowl you feel good about.

Grain-free

When half the humans you know are going Paleo, it’s natural to wonder if your animal pal should, too. But for the vast majority of pets, it’s not necessary to avoid grains, says Cailin Heinze, VMD, assistant professor of nutrition at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. What’s more, most food allergies in cats and dogs are to meats or other animal products rather than grains, she explains. Fiber-rich grains like millet, barley, and oats can actually improve an animal’s digestion and boost good gut bacteria. That said, if you want to put your whole house on a grain-free diet, your pet likely won’t suffer. Just note how well it digests substitutes like lentils or beans and tweak its food accordingly.

Omega-3s

Not all omega-3s are equal. Look for fats from fish; they have stronger anti-inflammatory effects than those from flaxseed and canola oils. “Some type of fish oil should be listed in the top 15 ingredients,” says Joseph Wakshlag, DVM, associate professor of clinical nutrition at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

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No fillers

This is perhaps the most meaningless term commonly used for pet food, says Heinze, who points out that even ingredients that don’t deliver calories, vitamins, or minerals can bring health benefits. Fiber, for example, doesn’t provide nutrients directly but can promote good gastrointestinal health. To ensure that your pet is getting the nutrition it needs, says Heinze, look for products that have the Association of American Feed Control Officials’ (AAFCO) nutritional adequacy statement indicating that they are appropriate for your pet’s life stage.

Ash content

This refers to the amount of ground-up bone and other minerals in food. While ash does provide important nutrients, a high ash content may mean the food’s protein balance isn’t as strong, says Wakshlag. Call to find out the ash content (manufacturers aren’t required to list it); around 6 percent is typical.

DIY or buy?

Studies show that homemade pet food only rarely provides the same balance of nutrients as the commercial type, which is required to meet specific standards. If you really plan to cook for your pet on a regular basis, Heinze suggests asking a veterinary nutritionist for recipes that are right for your pet and following them carefully.