Pet Nutrition

How to Read the Back of the Bag


Parts of the Bag

The Usual Contents:

The Highlights
Guaranteed Analysis
Feeding Guide
Company Information

It may also contain:

Other Languages
Additional Information

The Highlights

This section is usually first on the back of the bag. It is the section where the manufacturers will highlight parts of their food they would like you to know about. Think of it as a mini-advertising space. Here you will find claims like “grain-free”, “human-grade ingredients”, “#1 Veterinarian Recommended Brand”, and so on.
The goal of this section is to try and get you to buy the food. But don’t stop there, keep reading!


Here is a You Tube Video that talks about the basics, if you are visually inclined.

This section can be the most difficult to understand. Before going into the details of how to read the list, let’s have a look at what the terms actually mean. We will use chicken as an example, but it works the same for all meat.

chicken: clean “meat” of the chicken, with or without fat, sinew, skin, nerves, and blood vessels; in other words, anything from the meat section of the grocery store that says “boneless” on it

chicken meal: chicken meat, dried and ground up

chicken-by-products: chicken, minus meat and feathers; basically, the left overs from making the “chicken” ingredient

chicken-by-product meal: the above, but dry and ground up

chicken digest: basically, think of this as “chicken extract” or “chicken boullion”; it is made from real chicken, but is boiled down and used to add flavor to the food

chicken fat: yup, just what is says, the fat from the chicken

How these rank in terms of quality is fairly self evident once you know what the terms mean. Higher quality means that your pet is able to digest and get nutrition out of the food better, rather then it simply passing through their system.

Carbohydrates have a different set of ingredient names. Here is an example with wheat.

wheat: the whole kernel

wheat bran/pulp: the outside of the kernel; you know those brown flakes in your whole wheat bread? that is the bran. It adds fibre to the diet.

ground wheat: the whole kernel, ground up

wheat meal/flour: same idea as ground wheat, only dried

cracked wheat: like ground, only bigger pieces

wheat gluten: wheat protein, extracted from the main “white” part of the grain by washing away the starch

wheat gluten meal: same as gluten, only dry

In terms of carbohydrates, it is best to go for whole grains, avoiding wheat, corn, and soy as they are harder to digest.

Other ingredients to know about:

any vegetable: yes, they are good for pets too; they provide many vitamins and minerals that help your pets body on a molecular/cellular level. As with humans, the more different colours, the better

acidophilus: this is the bacteria found in yogurt; it helps with the proper digestion of food

beet pulp: provides roughage to help keep that digestive tract functioning regularily

brewers yeast: provides B vitamins, and helps stop shedding

hemp oil: source of omega oils to help keep skin soft and coat shiny

lecithin: like gluten, but from soybeans; adds protein

pea fibre: provides roughage to help keep that digestive tract functioning regularily; also helps cats deal with hairballs

proteinate: this term will appear in connection with the minerals; it indicates that the minerals have been prepared differently so they are closer to how they occur naturally in food and are more easily absorbed by the body

salmon oil: good source of omega oils to help keep skin soft and coat shiny

Now, onto making sense of this list. It is important to know when reading this section that ingredients are listed in order of weight, before processing. What does that mean? Well, if the list has “chicken” first, that mean that when everything was weighed before the kibble was made, the chicken weighed the most. However, chicken in this form is 75% water. So when the kibble is dried, the chicken will be 1/4 of its original weight, and most likely, no longer the major ingredient in the food. By contrast, if “chicken meal” is listed first, it will still be the major ingredient as it starts out dry.

This listing by weight means that the first 4-6 ingredients generally comprise most(90% and up) of the food. So, if a food claims to have egg in it on the front of the package, but it does not appear in the ingredients until item #20, there is proportionally very little egg in it (especially as the egg would contain water to begin with).

Lastly, don’t underestimate those long chemical names at the end. They are the vitamins and minerals included in the food, although in the requisite trace amounts (resulting in their location at the end of the list).

If a food does not have these listed, check to make sure that earlier in the list there is a good selection of vegetable (as many different coloured ones as possible) and natural sources of mineral (oyster shells for calcium, etc.)

For example, one ingredients list reads:

chicken meal, rice, ground corn, corn gluten meal, chicken fat, beet pulp, salmon oil, pea fibre, natural flavour, calcium sulphate, potassium chloride, brewers yeast, DL-methionine, sodium tripolyphosphate, choline chloride, l-lysine, taurine, yucca schidigera extract, vitamins[ viatmin E, niacin, inositol, ascorbic acid, thiamine, d-panthothenate, riboflavin, pyridoxin, beta-carotene, vitamin A, vitamin K, folic acid, d-biotin, vitamin d3, viatmin b12], trace minerals [zinc oxide, zinc proteinate, ferrous sulphate, iron proteinate, manganous oxide, manganese proteinate, copper sulphate, copper proteinate, calcium iodate, sodium selenite], preserved with natural tocopherols, rosemary extract, and citric acid.

From this, we can tell that chicken meat is the primary ingredient – meal has been used and is listed as the first ingredient. Our next two ingredients, rice and corn, are the carbohydrates of the food. They appear in whole form, which is the most balanced option. Then we see that corn gluten has been used to add protein, followed by chicken fat to provide the fat nutrients our pet needs. From here on, there are trace elements to help with specific part of pet health. Beet pulp and pea fibre provide fibre to keep the digestive system moving. Salmon oil provides natural source of omega oils to help with skin and coat. Vitamins and minerals provide elemental support for various systems throughout the body; they are also in proteinated form, so they are more easily absorbed. All-in-all, a good balanced food.

Another example:

Ground yellow corn, chicken by-product meal, corn gluten meal, whole wheat flour, animal fat preserved with mixed-tocopherols (form of Vitamin E), rice flour, beef, soy flour, sugar, sorbitol, tricalcium phosphate, water, salt, phosphoric acid, animal digest, potassium chloride, dicalcium phosphate, sorbic acid (a preservative), L-Lysine monohydrochloride, dried peas, dried carrots, calcium carbonate, calcium propionate (a preservative), choline chloride, added color (Yellow 5, Red 40, Yellow 6, Blue 2), DL-Methionine, Vitamin E supplement, zinc sulfate, ferrous sulfate, Vitamin A supplement, manganese sulfate, niacin, Vitamin B-12 supplement, calcium pantothenate, riboflavin supplement, copper sulfate, biotin, garlic oil, thiamine hydrochloride, pyridoxine hydrochloride, thiamine mononitrate, folic acid, Vitamin D-3 supplement, menadione sodium bisulfite complex (source of Vitamin K activity), calcium iodate, sodium selenite.

This ingredients list starts with dry corn, followed by dry by-product meal. This means, that although chicken is the second ingredient, there is still more corn it in than chicken. As well, the chicken being used does not contain a high proportion of muscle meat. We can see that protein has been added, but in the form of corn. Next we see whole wheat flour, a good balanced carbohydrate. This is followed by animal fat. As the list does not indicate which animal it comes from, it could be from literally anything (chicken, cow, pig, cat, dog, horse, …).

“Animal Digest” also appears later in the list. From here there are no significant ingredients, although it is good to note that two of the next three ingredients are carbohydrate, and that sugar is an ingredient. We do see some vegetables, although dried before kibble processing, and a selection of vitamins/minerals (un-proteinated). The food also contains added colours and preservatives.

So, this food is very carb heavy, does not include much meat, meaning it is less favourful so it uses sugar to entice pets to eat it. In conclusion, this food is more likely to make my pet gain weight over time then the previous one, as well as lead to health issues from poor nutrition.

Guaranteed Analysis

This section provides a way to numerically compare different pet foods. It usually lists: Crude Protein, Crude Fat, Crude Fiber, and Moisture. “Crude” indicates that the numbers given are what is in the food, not necessarily which part of it is digestible for your pet. In other words, the “crude protein” will include the protein from the meat and carbohydrate sources, which are less digestible. To understand that, you need to look at the ingredients.

What other components are listed here depends on what impression the manufacturor wants to give you about the food. For instance, a company that wants to point out the extra probiotics in their food would list the percentage of acidophilus,while a company that wants to point out how thorough/nutritious their food is might list the quantity of vitamins. This section is most useful when comparing the different types of food one company makes; for example, you can see how the senior food is different than the adult. It is also useful if your pet has a health condition that requires low protein or low fat.

Feeding Guide

If you are wondering how much you pet should eat, this is the section for you. This table lays out the amount that should be fed, which varies depending on age and size. Also, it is good to note that not all pets will eat this amount. It is a rough guideline; some will need more, some will need less, as activity level, gender and breed also affect it, but are not usually considered on these tables.

Company Information

The most useful thing about this section is it tells you the contact information for the company and where you can go for more information, if you want it. This is where you will also see where the product is made and if/who it is imported by. This is also where the name of the parent company will usually appear. This section also ususally has a claim about being AFFCO certified…this means that it has been approved for pet consumption. However, these standards are not all they are cracked up to be. For more information, on what that is about try here.

Other Languages

On first glance, this may just look like something that is useful if English isn’t your first language. However, this generally indicates that the food is exported to the countries whose languages appear on the bag – otherwise, it would be a lot of “needless” work. The great thing about a package that includes other languages is it tells you what other countries the food is exported to, or who elses pet food regulations the food has to measure up to. Europe and Japan are known for having extremely high and rigorous checks on their pet food. So, the exportation of that bag of food is higher recommendations than the obligatory AAFCO certification.

Additional Information

Bags will sometimes include extra information, such as information on pet nutrition or recommendations to not mix pet foods. These appear to be there to help you make an informed decision; however, they may also be there to make the company look better since they “have your pet’s best interest at heart”.