Decoding The Kibble: What’s Really In Your Pet’s Food?

“Made with real meat.”

“Chicken is the #1 ingredient.”

“Your pet deserves the best.”

“Complete nutrition for your pet.”

These popular slogans, or variations of them, can be found on the bags and cans of some of the most popular and established pet food companies on the market today. With so many options, it can be a daunting task to choose which brand is right for your pet’s overall health and well-being. So many of them make these empty promises, claiming to be the absolute best and most health conscious in the production of their products. But how can you know for sure that what they are “selling” you is actually what you are getting? While you think you are providing your pet with the healthiest and most nutritious food by choosing the most popular brands, you might actually be doing them more harm than good.

Understanding The Labels

The first step to decoding your pet’s kibble is understanding what the terminology on the labels means. This is where most people are fooled and misguided into believing they are getting one thing when they are actually getting something else. While the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) doesn’t regulate what goes into pet food (the FDA does), it provides an annually updated “model “– a  guideline for its labeling that many states follow.

All or 100%

You will probably never see these words on the label of a pet food container. In order for a company to claim that it contains all or 100% of an ingredient, it must contain only that ingredient (with the exception of water).


A company can place the 95% label on their product if it contains at least 95% meat, poultry or fish (or 70% excluding processing water). This is also uncommon, mainly because a diet of 95% meat is nutritionally imbalanced for animals.

Dinner, Entree, Formula, Platter

When you see any of these key words on the label of your pet’s food, it means that at least 25% of a combination of ingredients makes up the total weight of the product (excluding processing water) or at least 10% of the dry weight. The ingredients (ex: chicken, corn, rice) can be included in the product’s name if each ingredient makes up at least 3% (excluding processing water) and the ingredients are listed in descending order based on weight. So, if you see a can of pet food called “Chicken and Rice dinner,” it can technically only consist of 3% chicken. This can be very deceiving.


If a pet food label says “with” an ingredient (such as “with chicken”),  that means that product can make up as little as 3% of that product’s weight ( excluding processing water).


When “flavor” is included in the name of the food (such as “beef flavor”), that means the overall meal has the distinct characteristic of that flavor – whether it be derived naturally or artificially.

Now that you know the truth behind the basic labeling terminology, let’s take a look at some other very deceiving words and phrases that can often be found on the packaging of your favorite pet food brands.


The term “natural” can be confusing when placed on any food (human or pet) product packaging, because it has no official definition in terms of regulation. The general definition, set by the AAFCO and followed by most companies, is that “natural” ingredients contain no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.


Organic, however, is often incorrectly interchanged with the term “natural.” When a food or ingredient is deemed “organic” it is promised to have been grown or raised in an environment using no hormones, pesticides or antibiotics. However, while the United States Department of Agriculture is in the process of developing rules for labeling pet food “organic,” there are no official rules or guidelines currently.

Gourmet and Premium

“Gourmet” and “Premium” can be two of the most deceiving terms when it comes to pet food labeling. These two words are considered “fluff” terms; and when they appear on pet food labels, they are absolutely zero standards and requirements to uphold. “Gourmet” or “Premium” pet food is not required to be any more nutritious or healthy than any other food.

Vet Approved or Recommended

While the phrases “Vet Approved” and “Vet Recommended” might give you peace of mind when picking out a quality food for your pet, but keep in mind companies only need the word of a single veterinarian to make this claim.

Made In The USA

With all of the pet food recalls each year and thousands of animal deaths resulting from unregulated pet food and imported ingredients from China, many consumers are seeking out pet food that’s made in the USA. However, even if it displays the symbolic red, white and blue flag prominently on its bag, there is a chance that the label could be a false indication of what’s actually inside. recently contacted a handful of major pet food companies with the “Made In The USA” claim on their products and asked them just exactly how accurate their claims were. The answers they got were alarming.

Some companies said that while they try to source all of their ingredients from the US, they have to sometimes import certain ingredients – everything from vitamins and minerals to vegetables. These ingredients are imported from a variety of countries, including China, in some cases. Some companies even boast the “Made In The USA” label simply because their factories are located in the US.

So what can you do to ensure you are providing your pet with the healthiest, most nutritious and safest food?

1. Understand what your pet needs to thrive

Cats and dogs are different species. So, it’s no surprise that they need to eat different foods in order to thrive. On top of that, each particular animal has different needs based on its individual, overall health and background. Before grabbing a bag of the most popular brand of pet food off of the shelf at your local grocery store, it’s important to speak with your pet’s veterinarian about a diet that will aid in your pet’s ultimate health. Through a proper yearly exam, you might discover that your pet needs more protein in his diet, fewer calories or suffers from a vitamin deficiency. Your vet can help you choose a food and possible supplements to help him maintain the best quality of life.

2. Read the ingredients

There are so many unnecessary, unhealthy and potentially dangerous ingredients in popular brands of pet food. Do your research. Read the ingredients in a food you are considering. If there are a handful or more of ingredients you have never heard of or can’t even pronounce, chances are your pet doesn’t need them in his diet.

Modern day cats and dogs have the same internal systems as their ancestors who lived in the wild and hunted and ate from their natural habitat. While modern research and advancements have introduced some very beneficial ingredients to pet food formulas today, there are also a lot of ingredients that can do more harm than good. Talk to your pet’s veterinarian about the food you have chosen, and ask about the necessity of each ingredient before giving it to your pet.

3. Read the reviews

If you google a phrase such as “what does a healthy dog or cat diet consist of?” hundreds of links will pop up from a variety of websites. Take a look at the companies sponsoring many of the links at the top of the page of your search engine. You will most likely find that they are all major pet food companies with an obvious bias. Finding research and reviews that you can trust to be unbiased and beneficial might seem difficult. is an organization that strives to bring pet owners the latest information, news and honest, unbiased, reviews on everything related to the good, the bad and the ugly on pet food. Each month, they feature a brand of pet food with a complete and extensive review.

4. Try alternative options

Once you’ve spoken with your pet’s veterinarian about the type of diet your pet needs to be on, you could try making your own food from scratch. There is nothing more satisfying than knowing exactly what you’re putting into his dish each day. If you’re not squeamish, you might also consider the increasingly popular raw food diet. Again, your pet’s vet will be able to direct you in creating the perfect, well-balanced menu.

For more great pet food tips, check out Toxic Foods You May Be Giving Your Pets.


AAFCO: Labeling & Labeling Requirements

FDA: Animal & Veterinary: Pet Food Labels – General

The Truth About Pet Food: “Made In The USA”

Photo Credit: The Memoirs of Megan


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Danielle is a Pittsburgh native who has been warming her “black and gold” blood in sunny Northern California for the past 6 years. On any given day, you can find her arranging ridiculous photo shoots of her one-year-old son Graeme and cat Gizmo, or working on any one of her 27,000 writing projects. She enjoys daydreaming about becoming a famous actress and starting a handful of different businesses with her husband over glasses of wine in the evenings. Someday, she hopes to travel the country in an RV with her family… but she needs to sell that novel first. You can follow her journeys through her blog With A Red Bird On My Shoulder

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