Welcome confused kitty lovers! It’s Skye Blake, back again to help you read and understand the labels on cat food products.
Bring your detective magnifying glass., you’ll be glad you did… there’s a lot of tiny print!
The information here is for general knowledge… always see your vet with questions about your cat’s individual needs.
- Who Is Skye Blake?
- Should You Bother to Read Labels?
- What Does Your Cat Actually Need?
- Understanding Words on Labels
- Association of American Feed Control Officials ("AAFCO")
- World Small Animal Veterinary Association ("WSAVA")
- What Should Be on Cat Food Labels
- Food and Drug Administration ("FDA") Regulations
- Additional Recommendations by AAFCO and WSAVA
- Ingredient List
- AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy Statement
- Who Manufactures the Food?
- Contact Information
- Guaranteed Analysis – What the Heck Is It?
- List of Sources
Who Is Skye Blake?
Skye Blake, Cat Info Detective, is a curious cat researcher (not a veterinarian) who sniffs out expert, reliable sources about cats, studies their information, then passes it on to you!
Sometimes there’s not enough evidence for easy answers, so Skye gives you all sides, explains the situation as thoroughly and clearly as possible, and links you to experts on each page.
All sources are at the bottom of each page so you can do more snooping.
Should You Bother to Read Labels?
If you’re like me, you find it bewildering trying to read the label on a bag or can of cat food.
The enticing photos of yummy fish, steak and chicken dishes, along with large banners exclaiming “grain-free!”, “organic!”, “no by-products!”, “healthy!” can really suck you in.
But choosing a food simply because you want “pure healthy food” can have serious consequences for your cat.
Ask any vet and they’ll tell you that they deal with the consequences of misguided food choices frequently.
Should you even bother to read cat food labels? The trick is to know what’s worth reading and what to ignore.
What Does Your Cat Actually Need?
Let’s start by figuring out what your cat needs.
There are more than 30 essential nutrients that your cat’s body requires to thrive and be healthy.
“The right pet food should provide all nutrients in sufficient quantity and with appropriate ratios for your pet’s given life stage.”1“Ingredients in Dog Food and Cat Food: Complete Guide“, by Amanda Ardente, DVM, PhD, PetMD, September 16, 2020
“That means that your pet’s food should provide enough calories to maintain their body weight at their particular life stage (e.g., adult maintenance, puppy/growth, geriatric, etc.).”2“Ingredients in Dog Food and Cat Food: Complete Guide“, by Amanda Ardente, DVM, PhD, PetMD, September 16, 2020
Only cat food labels that say they’re complete and balanced have everything they need for the various life stages (kitten, adult, senior).
Understanding Words on Labels
Once you understand the specific nutrition your buddy needs, you can read the words on cat food packaging labels and begin to make sense of it all.
You’ll see what’s important for your cat and what just appeals to you.
Most are simply marketing words that have either many meanings or no meaning at all.
The main thing to remember is that food is a way of getting nutrients into the body to provide energy and healthy organ function.
It’s the nutrients that matter and how well they absorb (“bioavailability”), not the specific ingredients.
The Food & Drug Administration (“FDA”) and United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) regulate certain words that you read on cat food labels.
See “Pet Food Regulations & Oversight” for more about regulations.
Here are some examples…
The United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) Organic seal means that the processes and handling of pet food meet the requirements “established by the USDA’s National Organic Program for human food regulation.”3“Ingredients in Dog Food and Cat Food: Complete Guide“, by Amanda Ardente, DVM, PhD, PetMD, September 16, 2020
“Certified organic pet foods must be made of at least 95% organic ingredients, and the use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering is not permitted.”4“Ingredients in Dog Food and Cat Food: Complete Guide“, by Amanda Ardente, DVM, PhD, PetMD, September 16, 2020
“There is no true definition for this in animal feed regulations, but according to AAFCO, for a pet food to be considered ‘human-grade,’ every ingredient must be ‘human edible’ and ‘manufactured, packaged, and held in accordance with federal regulations.’
Very few pet foods can meet this standard, so if you see ‘human-grade’ on the label, you might want to call the company to ask about their manufacturing procedures.”5“Ingredients in Dog Food and Cat Food: Complete Guide“, by Amanda Ardente, DVM, PhD, PetMD, September 16, 2020
“Natural”, “All-Natural”, or “100% Natural”
“Natural” is a vague word that some people define as anything created by or existing in nature, which they believe is always superior to manmade things.
The implication when it comes to food is that “natural” = pure and healthy.
“Within science, the term natural refers to any element of the physical universe — whether made by humans or not.
This includes matter, the forces that act on matter, energy, the constituents of the biological world, humans, human society, and the products of that society.”6 “What’s natural?” – Understanding Science (berkeley.edu)
As you can see, “natural” means anything that’s part of the universe and has nothing to do with one food being better than another.
When you read it on a cat food label, ignore the implication that this food is good because it’s natural, since it isn’t specific enough.
Consider this… arsenic is a natural chemical element, but would you eat it?
In the pet food industry, anything that claims to be “natural” must be from a plant or animal, or come from the ground through mining (e.g., minerals).
These ingredients can be processed in any manner except chemical synthesis.
If a cat food label lists specific ingredients as “natural” (e.g., “natural beef flavor”) that means there’s a combination of natural and chemically synthesized ingredients, with natural ones being specifically listed as such.
“Synthesis” in food production is “the composition or combination of parts or elements so as to form a whole” or “the production of a substance by the union of chemical elements, groups, or simpler compounds or by the degradation of a complex compound”.7 Synthesis Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster
Basically, it means something is made from combining or breaking down other things, in this case in a laboratory using chemicals.
This process isn’t automatically bad or unhealthy.
It’s the same idea as taking apart a Lego® building and using the parts to build a car.
Chemically synthesized cat food ingredients are usually vitamins, minerals, preservatives, flavor, and color additives.
Natural Doesn’t Mean Complete & Balanced
Many “all-natural” or “100% natural” foods will not be complete and balanced because most vitamins and minerals that are added to pet foods are synthetic.
This is important because without those vitamins and minerals, your cat can develop serious nutritional diseases.
Check with your vet or board-certified vet nutritionist before using any food that’s not complete and balanced to be sure your cat’s needs are met.
You may have to supplement but it has to be done right so the amounts are balanced because too little or too much can be dangerous.
This is why it’s important to understand what you read on cat food labels.
“Holistic” or “Wholesome”
“Holistic” means “relating to or concerned with wholes or with complete systems rather than with the analysis of, treatment of, or dissection into parts”8 Holistic Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster
In medicine “holistic” is used to describe diagnosing and treating whole body systems rather than just symptoms.
The definition of “wholesome” from the USDA is …”‘promoting the health of the body.’
There is no official United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) definition of the word for use in labeling a product.
However, all USDA-inspected products would be considered ‘wholesome.'”
All food that is complete and balanced can be considered holistic and wholesome since it provides the body with all the nutrients it needs.
These terms don’t give any information about ingredients (what they are, how or where they’re sourced, or the manufacturing process and handling of the product)
“Raw” in food terms simply means something that’s uncooked.
Some foods can be eaten raw with little to no risk of parasites or bacterial infection (vegetables), while others are high risk (meat, seafood).
Manufactured cat food that’s labeled as “raw” isn’t necessarily completely raw because some heat is used in the processing to kill bacteria.
Any food that’s labeled “raw” must be handled carefully using good hygiene, just as when you deal with raw meat for your own meals.
It’s important to know what you’re doing when dealing with a raw cat food diet before you try it, or your cat will suffer the consequences.
Most people who feed raw are using meat they get at a butcher shop or grocery store.
There is no regulation or standard for raw cat food beyond what the USDA and FDA require for human food.
Some online retailers now sell fresh, freeze-dried and frozen raw products.
The word “premium” has a few different meanings but when using it with pet food, it usually means “ a high value or a value in excess of that normally or usually expected”. 9Premium Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster
It implies that the food inside the package is of the highest quality available.
But “premium” doesn’t tell you anything about the nutritional value and you may be paying a higher price for something that isn’t complete and balanced.
“Quality” has many different meanings but with food ingredients it means they meet certain standards for bioavailability.
“Bioavailability” is the ease with which nutrients absorb into the body and become energy.
“Quality” is also used to mean “pure” or having few or no extra substances or contaminants.
Association of American Feed Control Officials (“AAFCO”)
AAFCO is a group of government officials who make recommendations for nutrition standards and language for bills being considered by state and federal legislatures.
AAFCO does NOT approve, recommend or endorse any specific brand or product.
This group is important for cat food because their recommended minimum nutritional standards are accepted and followed by the pet food industry in the United States.
Packages of cat food should state that the product meets or exceeds AAFCO minimum recommended standards (the “Nutritional Adequacy Statement”), along with the fact that it’s complete and balanced.
You can find detailed information about AAFCO’s standards at “Ingredient Standards” (aafco.org).
It explains these categories…
- “Safety and Utility Standards”
- “Standards Requiring Freedom from Adulteration”
- “Feed and Ingredient Process Control Standards”
Discover more about AAFCO at “Pet Food Regulations & Oversight“.
World Small Animal Veterinary Association (“WSAVA”)
WSAVA is “an ‘association of associations’, which means that our membership comprises companion animal veterinary associations from all over the world.
WSAVA’s Nutrition Guideline
WSAVA’s Global Nutrition Committee has issued a helpful guideline both for reading pet food labels and choosing brands… “WSAVA Global Nutrition Committee: Guidelines on Selecting Pet Foods“
These guidelines are there to help you find reliable companies and products.
Pet food companies also use these guidelines as standards for their procedures and products.
You’ll sometimes see a label stating the product is “WSAVA-compliant” or “WSAVA-approved”, which is confusing because WSAVA does NOT recommend or endorse any company or product.
Discover more about WSAVA at “Pet Food Regulations & Oversight“.
What Should Be on Cat Food Labels
Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) Regulations
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) requires certain information be on pet food labels…
- An ingredient list – only lists ingredients in a certain order (not indicator of quality)
- The name and address of the manufacturer or distributor
- Clear identification of the product (cat food, dog food, etc.)
- Net quantity (e.g., 0.75 oz.)
Additional Recommendations by AAFCO and WSAVA
Both AAFCO and WSAVA recommend including other helpful information…
- AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy Statement
- Appropriate life stage (kitten, adult) – “for all life-stages” has the same formulation as kitten food, with the highest number of calories. Queens are usually fed kitten food because of the extra fat and calories they need for pregnancy and nursing.
- Directions for proper feeding of the product
- Guaranteed analysis
- Caloric content (number of calories per gram, can, serving or cup) – required on labels in the U.S. but not in other countries. You can contact the manufacturer for calorie information or use the nutrient analysis to calculate it.
A detailed example of a label used on products in the U.S. is at “Interpreting Food Labels, North America“.
What the ingredient list does NOT tell you
There’s a lot you can’t get from the ingredient list.
In fact, it tells you nothing except that these items are in the product.
Here’s what you need to know but can’t get from the list…
- Quality of the ingredients
- Sources of ingredients
- The quality control processes in place
- Digestibility “bioavailability” of the food
- Formulation of nutrients for a complete and balanced diet
- Tests done for bacteria, parasites, etc.
What the ingredient list DOES tell you
The ingredient list “…can help you identify ingredients that your dog [or cat] has a known sensitivity to (diagnosed by a diet elimination trial with a veterinarian) or identify possible ingredients of concern (such as peas or other pulse legumes).”12 Doc Of All Trades: How To Evaluate Your Pet Food Using Ingredients List
Ingredients Listed by Weight
It’s important to know when reading ingredients on cat food labels that the order in which you see them only refers to weight, not quality or importance.
It doesn’t say anything about the recipe or the bioavailability of the food.
The ingredient weight includes water before processing.
Dry food has the water removed during processing, which affects how much of each ingredient is left in the food and its weight.
So, the water in the ingredients is included in the weight on the label but isn’t part of the final product.
This makes a huge difference when you’re comparing wet and dry foods.
Meats, in particular have a lot of water in them, as much as 70% of their weight.
Another aspect of comparing ingredients is that manufacturers can split the ingredients “…to make individual aspects of the same or similar ingredients lower on the list, despite comprising a sizable portion of the diet.
A good example of this is peas, which may be split into yellow peas and green peas, or into fractions, such as pea protein and pea fiber.”13 “How to Evaluate Your Pet Food Using Ingredients List“14, Doc Of All Trades, alltradesdvm.com, January 12, 2021
AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy Statement
Check packages of cat food for the “Nutritional Adequacy Statement”, which says the product meets or exceeds AAFCO recommended minimum standards.
Companies use one of two methods to determine this…
- formulating the recipe
- life stage feeding trials
Sometimes what’s actually in the package isn’t what it says on the label.
Reputable companies will do a final product nutrient analysis to verify everything is correct.
This step is not part of the AAFCO statement, but you can contact manufacturers to ask if they do a final nutrient analysis.
Without the AAFCO statement (or one complying with WSAVA recommendations), you must assume the product isn’t complete and balanced.
You might see the terms “intermittent” or “complementary” foods when reading cat food labels.
This means the food is not complete and balanced, meant only for a specific condition, short-term use, or as an occasional treat.
Use them only under your vet’s supervision or as 10% or less or your cat’s daily meals (including treats).
If you think it doesn’t matter whether or not you feed a complete and balanced diet, read this article… “A Cautionary Tale of Nutrition“.
The kittens involved were on an incomplete raw diet but the same applies to any unbalanced foods.
Who Manufactures the Food?
Some companies make their own food which gives them control of the process and quality.
Others use a third party to make it and then sell it under their own brand.
In this case you don’t know the quality of the food or who’s accountable for it, making the brand and company unreliable… not a good situation for anyone.
You can tell the difference by looking for “Made by”, “Made for”, or “Distributed by” on the label.
There should be contact information on the label giving a street or email address and/or phone number.
When you contact them, you should be able to talk to a knowledgeable representative should be able to answer questions (e.g., calories or nutrient levels of specific nutrients
not on the label).
They should also be able to give you an “average” or “typical” analysis for all the essential nutrients in their products.
If you can’t get any of this information from the manufacturer, you should be careful about that brand.
It’s a safer bet to use brands from an established company that handles the entire process in-house.
Guaranteed Analysis – What the Heck Is It?
Ever notice that strange official-looking “Guaranteed Analysis” on the labels of cat food?
What’s it for and what does it mean to you?
It’s there for regulators to check information that shows the product is in compliance with all legal nutritional requirements.
In the United States there are laws requiring manufacturers to include information about protein and fat minimum amounts, and fiber and moisture (typically water) maximum amounts.
The Guaranteed Analysis must show crude protein and crude fat minimum amounts, along with maximum amounts of crude fiber and moisture “as is”.
“As is” means the numbers include water or other moisture.
Any nutrients specifically mentioned on the label must also be in the Guaranteed Analysis.
For example, if the packaging has the claim that it has calcium for strong bones and teeth, the calcium must be in the Guaranteed Analysis.
What Isn’t Required
Information on vitamins, minerals, ash, and other nutrients is something manufacturers often include to show the product is nutritionally complete and balanced.
Why Should You Care About the Guaranteed Analysis?
It would be helpful for you as a cat owner to be able to compare nutrient levels in different foods, but it’s difficult to figure out.
You’re relying on the manufacturer’s expertise, which can vary considerably.
Comparing Nutrient Levels
“To make a meaningful comparison between a nutrient level in two foods, it’s important to evaluate the nutrient levels in the absence of the moisture content, in other words, on a “dry matter basis,” particularly when comparing wet and dry foods.”15“Guaranteed Analysis” – Pet Food Institute[\mfn]
Manufacturers have databases of the nutrient content of all ingredients they use as determined by laboratory analysis.
Here’s a helpful resource for learning how to decipher the numbers and compare wet food to dry… “What are these numbers? Nutrition Math 101“
The good news is that if it’s complete and balanced meal and meets either AAFCO or WSAVA nutritional recommendations, you don’t have to worry about all those numbers.
Dr. Evans at Coastal Animal Hospital gives helpful advice about choosing pet food and what’s important on labels.
His focus is on dog food but what he says applies to cat food as well… definitely worth a look.
Discover more about cat food and nutrition at Cat Food!
Sources used on this website are either primary or secondary.
Primary sources are always preferable and have the most reliable information because they’re original and directly referenced.
Scientific abstracts and data are good examples of primary sources.
Secondary sources are weaker because they usually consist of opinions or articles that give no sources of their own. Sometimes they refer to primary sources.
When I use secondary sources, most are those with some authority, such as veterinarian or cat behaviorist books and articles.
List of Sources
“Did You Know? AAFCO Doesn’t Approve Pet Foods” by Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACVIM (Nutrition), Clinical Nutrition Service at Cummings School (tufts.edu), March 1, 2021
“GNC Guidelines on Selecting Pet Foods“, WSAVA Global Nutrition Committee (wsava.org)
“Guaranteed Analysis” – Pet Food Institute
“How To Evaluate Your Pet Food Using Ingredients List“, Doc Of All Trades, alltradesdvm.com January 12, 2021
“Important information you could be misreading on the pet food label” – Clinical Nutrition Service at Cummings School (tufts.edu), January 26, 2016
“Ingredients in Dog Food and Cat Food: Complete Guide“, by Amanda Ardente, DVM, PhD, PetMD, September 16, 2020
“Nutritional Assessment Guidelines” (wsava.org)
“Pet Food Decisions: How Do You Pick Your Pet’s Food?” by Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACVIM (Nutrition), Clinical Nutrition Service, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University, Petfoodology, Dec 16, 2019
“Questions You Should Be Asking About Your Pet’s Food” by Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACVIM (Nutrition), Clinical Nutrition Service at Cummings School (tufts.edu), December 19, 2016
“The Savvy Cat Owner’s Guide to Nutrition on the Internet“, Global Nutrition Committee (wsava.org), 2013
“WSAVA, AAFCO, and DACVNs“, AllTradesDVM, January 15, 2022
“WSAVA Global Nutrition Committee: Guidelines on Selecting Pet Foods“,wsava.org, March 10, 2021
“What is in Pet Food?” The Association of American Feed Control Officials (aafco.org)
“What Is Guaranteed about the Guaranteed Analysis?” by Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACVIM (Nutrition), Clinical Nutrition Service at Cummings School (tufts.edu), December 28, 2020
Updated July 9, 2023