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How to Read a Cat Food Label

For the best nutrition, learn to crack the code


What to look for

Most cat food labels don’t just have a list of ingredients. In fact, they come with a lot of other information that can make no sense at first. Here’s a cheat sheet:

  • AAFCO Seal. Food with this designation is approved by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. This organization’s recommendations are usually adopted and enforced by the State Departments of Agriculture, assuring you that your cat’s dinner is nutritionally sound.
  • Life stage. Is your cat a kitten? An adult? A senior? A cat’s nutritional needs change as they get older. The label will tell you whether the food is formulated for your cat’s age.
  • Special diets. If the food addresses other needs, such as ingredient sensitivities or joint support, the label will make that clear.
  • Portion size. The label will also likely recommend how much to feed your cat, based on your pet’s optimal weight.

Understanding ingredients

The way ingredients are listed on a cat food can tell you a lot about how much of that ingredient is actually in the food. To show you, we’ll use chicken as an example.

If the label says...

Chicken (or some other single ingredient)

That means...

Chicken makes up 95% of the food’s total weight before cooking, or 70% after.

If the label says...

Chicken and Salmon (or a combination of ingredients)

That means...

The listed ingredients make up 95% of the food’s total weight before cooking, or 70% after. Since ingredients are listed by the highest percentage first, there is probably more of the first one (in this example, chicken) than the second one (in this example, salmon).

If the label says...

Chicken Dinner, Chicken Recipe, or Chicken Formula

That means...

Chicken makes up 25% of the food’s total weight. In other words, the food is mostly made of ingredients other than chicken.

If the label says...

With Chicken

That means...

The food could contain as little as 3% chicken and be comprised of 97% other stuff.

If the label says...

Chicken Flavored

That means...

The food may not have any chicken in it at all.

What is Guaranteed Analysis?

This means that the food was tested by a lab and is guaranteed to have the listed percentages of protein, fat, fiber and moisture.

Keep in mind that the concentration of ingredients will be very different depending on whether the food is wet or dry, which is why the portion sizes for wet and dry food are so different.

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