Deciphering Cat Food Labels

Commercial pet foods do have labeling requirements; however there is a lot of room for deceit and trickery. Before even getting to the actual ingredient list itself, just look at the front label. That should be able to tell you a lot about the food.

Number one thing, before even that, is looking to see if the food mentions meeting the AAFCO nutritional adequacy standard. The standard is the minimum standard, so at least you know your cat is getting the minimum nutrients. I’ve looked on 3 different cat food labels, and it’s listed under the ingredients list, so try there.

The Name of the Food:

This will provide the first indication of what is in the food.

95% rule: This is basically for the meat ingredient, whether it’s from poultry, mammal, or fish. The labeled ingredient must make up 95% of the food. So if you are looking at ‘Chicken Cat Food,’ there has to be 95% chicken in that can. Once you add the water for processing, this main ingredient still must be at 70%. This goes for a label named “Chicken and Fish Cat Food’ (gross, I just made that up). Chicken and fish have to combine to make up 95% of the food. The first ingredient, which in this case is Chicken, is the one that has the most in it. Note: this only applies for meat based ingredients. So if a cat food said “Chicken and Rice Cat Food” it doesn’t mean its 95% Chicken and rice.

25% rule: These are foods labeled as “Dinner” “Recipe” “Entree” “Platter” “Formula”
The named ingredient must be 25% of the food. Once you add the water for processing, it must be 10% of the food. For example: ‘Chicken Dinner for Cats’ would be 25% chicken, and it doesn’t have to be the main ingredient. There could be more grain than chicken, but the label is technically accurate. A cat food named “Chicken and Fish Formula” has to equal 25%. Chicken must be the larger ingredient of the two, but fish has to be at least 3%. This applies to both meat and grain products.

3% rule: “with”
This is for foods that have the word ‘with’ labeled. The ingredient only has to account for 3% of the food.
So if you are looking at cat food that says “Cat Food with Chicken,” the chicken will be minimal in the food. “Chicken Cat Food” has to have 95% chicken in it. That’s why it’s important to know these rules.


If the cat food contains the word ‘flavour’, or most likely ‘flavor’, it just has to have a very small extract of that ingredient. It doesn’t even have to be real chicken meat, just by-products will do. It’s just to flavour the food to taste like the label indicates. Eg: Cat Food with Chicken Flavor

Life stages:

This is where picking out food for cats got even trickier. Now there are all these designated foods for different ages of cats. This is a gimmick.
According to the AAFCO, the body that governs pet food labeling, there are two designations of life stages: puppy and kitten. So for cats, it would be kitten and adult. The difference here is that food for kittens generally (or should) have more protein and calories, as they are in the growth and development stage. As of right now, there are no AAFCO approved nutritional profiles for seniors, geriatrics, or weight loss.
So cat food for adults and seniors are really no different. If you have a cat that’s an adult, and one that’s a senior, don’t buy different packaging. All you have to do is give one (the adult) more food than the other (senior). Seniors require less protein and calories. I have a senior, overweight cat myself and he eats regular food. Not special ‘senior stuff.’ I just monitor him now and control his portions. He is 2 pounds lighter now. Now if the senior has health issues, than it’s a little different. I’m going on healthy cats only here…perhaps another page sometime for cats with special needs.

Natural and Organic:

Natural and organic are not the same. I just wanted to point this out.
Organic refers to the processing/developing of the product, not the quality. Meaning the conditions under which the plant was grown or animal was raised. Organic plants are not exposed to pesticides, fertilizers, etc. Animals are given organic items to eat. Currently, there are no guidelines for the labeling of pet foods as organic.
Natural doesn’t have an official definition, as per AAFCO. It can be classified, however, as having no artificial flavours, colours, or preservatives in the product. It’s more about the way the items are processed after they leave the farm or whatnot. With saying that, natural products can be grown around the presence of pesticides, fertilizers, etc.
Organic is healthier than natural, given that the ingredients used are the same.

Guaranteed Analysis:

This section indicates the minimum values of crude protein and fat, and the maximum values of crude fibre and moisture. Depending on the manufacturer, the GA section can have the max % of ash and magnesium as well.
Levels are usually much lower in canned food than dry food. This is because the moisture content in canned is much higher. Cats have an easier time absorbing nutrients when the moisture content is high. This accounts for the higher levels in dry food.
For help with calculating the GA section, see blog post Calculating Guaranteed Analysis Section
‘Crude’ refers to the specific method of testing the product, not anything to do with nutritional quality.

Feeding Directions:

It’s important to initially follow feeding directions. If feeding the can only, follow what it is. It will usually say, ‘Feed ___ cups/cans per ___ pounds of weight daily.’ Start out with that, and adjust accordingly. Less if cat is putting on weight, clearly it doesn’t require that much food. More if it is losing weight/really thin, clearly it needs more calories.
If mixing wet and dry, it is important to compare the carbohydrate percentages of both dry food and wet food to get an understanding of the amount of carbs in each food.
This will be a rough estimation only. The guaranteed analysis section is not 100% accurate, so these calculations will not give you 100% accuracy of carb content. Refer to: Calculating Carbohydrates in Cat Food

Thank you to Pet Food Nation by Joan Weiskopf and FDA website for help with this.

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