Understanding Labels for Your Pets and Horses -

Understanding Labels for Your Pets and Horses -

We as owners should feel the need to know as much as possible about the feed we are providing for our dogs, cats and horses. It seems like a monumental task but let’s break it down into small pieces and give you a better understanding of what to look for.

Starting with the product identity, we should understand what the manufacturer is trying to tell us about the food we are buying. The Food and Drug Administration has rules concerning what must be in pet food based on the product identity or name, so let’s look at those rules first.

The label needs to state the species for which it is intended in the product name or on the label. The FDA rules for pet food product names and their corresponding ingredients are the following:

95% rule states that if a specific ingredient is named in the product identity or product name it must contain 95% of that ingredient (not counting water added for processing which is typical of all wet type foods). So “Beef Dog Food” must contain 95% beef and this should be the first product listed on the ingredient list. “Beef and Pork Dog Food” would contain 95% beef and pork but the bigger percentage would be beef.

25% rule or “dinner rule” would be an ingredient listed in the product identity and qualified with the word dinner. (other terms could be platter, entree, nuggets, formula, etc) This product would be required to contain at least 25% of that stated ingredient. So “Chicken Formula for Cats” must have 25% or more chicken, but that item may not be the first ingredient on the ingredient list. It is just the ingredient that the manufacturer wants to highlight.

3% or “with rule” allows the manufacturer to feature an ingredient in the product identity or name using the word “with” which requires the food to only contain 3% of that ingredient. So a product labeled “Cat Food with Chicken” only needs 3% chicken content. This is important to note since a product similarly labeled as “Chicken Cat Food” must contain 95% chicken. Words can be important when shopping for the best food.

Flavor rule has no set amount or percent that must be added to the food, it just must be detectable. “Beef Flavored Dog Food” may have beef in the ingredients, but most likely it would have only beef by-products or it may not have beef at all. Flavors are usually derived from “digests”, stocks or broth. Artificial flavors are only used to provide smoke and bacon flavors.


Do these rules hold true for horse and livestock feed too? Not really. Equine feed will have basic information in the product identity or somewhere else on the label (front of bag) but they seem to be less regulated. You may find descriptions of the product like complete feed, supplement or balancer, pelleted or texturized or possibly the percent protein or fat content. The rest is up to you to discover by reading the guaranteed analysis and ingredient list. The ingredient list must be in order from greatest amount of ingredient to the least amount of ingredient by volume. That holds true for all ingredient lists. Another note if you dilute the effect of the food by not feeding per the instructions on the bag you should shop for a better fitting feed for you animal’s needs because you are not getting the nutrients as guaranteed on the label. This information can be found in more detail on the Federal Food and Drug Administration website.

There is another statement to make note of on the front label of your pet food or horse feed.  Besides the product name or identity, there is a quantity statement. It will be in terms of net weight for a solid or net volume for a liquid. The importance of the net quantity is several fold. You can compare the cost of different products using the quantity statement. You can calculate how long the feed will last based on the the amount you plan to feed. You can figure out the cost per serving or per day which is important to your budget. This brings up another point that you need to consider when feeding your animals. Many people measure their food based on a measuring scoop or cup. It is important that you know the amount that you are feeding in weight or volume. Does that scoop of food weigh one pound or two pounds? If you are scooping out of a 15 ounce can, how much are you feeding each time?  How much does a flake of hay weigh? Are the flakes always the same size? This can be important information to know whether you are talking to your vet or making your own ration adjustments. Knowing the weight of each feed component will help get your rations balanced for your pet's or horse's nutritional needs. It is not that you can’t use that measuring scoop. You just need to know the weight of the food that the scoop holds. You can get the weight for a scoop of feed or a serving of food using your scale or taking it to your feed store to have it weighed.

There is very important information on the back label of every wet or dry pet food container or horse feed bag. This information includes the guaranteed analysis, ingredient list, nutritional adequacy statement, feeding recommendations, cautions and the contact information identifying who is responsible for the product. The guaranteed analysis states the minimum level of crude protein and crude fat and the maximum level of crude fiber and moisture as a percentage in the product. The nutrients are labeled “crude” to indicate that not all of the nutrient is digestible. Equine labels will also have the maximum acid and neutral detergent fiber, the minimum and maximum calcium percentage, minimum phosphorus percentage, minimums for copper, zinc and selenium in parts per million and minimum vitamin A in international units per pound (if added). Depending on your pet or horse’s age and activity level you may be selecting their food based on what these guaranteed levels are. Young, growing animals and animals in competition will have different requirements then senior animals or one in long term convalescences. Protein, fat and fiber sources are important to the quality of the food you are feeding. There are many different protein, fat and fiber sources (some good, some not so good) available for manufacturers to use when formulating a product and it’s nutrient analysis. However, ingredient digestibility or how it was processed can determine the quality of the product and how available the nutrients are to your animals. Your vet is a great resource in determining what food is appropriate for your animals and to provide you with feeding recommendations. 

The first ingredients listed on the label will be the ingredients that make up the bulk of the commercial feed in the container. These ingredients are the major source of food or calories. Some manufacturers like to keep their ingredient descriptions as simple (or vague!) as possible. It allows them to have flexibility in sourcing certain ingredients, so they can switch sources depending on cost and availability, without reprinting their labels. They also do this to keep their formulations a secret from their competitors and the consumer. The ability to legally do this is an advantage to the manufacturer and a disadvantage to the consumer. If vague descriptors are used, it impossible for the consumer to know what food source is actually in the bag at hand. This also means that the ingredients are likely to vary in each batch produced. So, the bag you buy today may have different ingredients than the bag you bought last month. If you are trying to maintain your pet on a certain protein because of allergies, you cannot use a food that has one of these vague ingredients. Likewise, if you are trying to avoid a certain ingredient such as corn for your horse, you also cannot feed a food with one of these vague ingredients.

Let’s look at some examples of “vague” ingredients commonly used for pet food (dog/cat) and then for horses.

Pet Food Ingredients- All definitions described here come from the AAFCO website

  • Meat can be striated (skeletal, diaphragm, esophagus) muscle and/or heart muscle of cattle, sheep, goats or pigs. If “meat” is listed as an ingredient, it must come from one of these animals or a mix of meats from these animals. A food containing “meat” is a poor choice if you are trying to control the pet’s protein source. Say for example, you are feeding an ingredient labelled “meat” and your dog is suddenly itchy. Itchy skin in dogs is often caused by a food allergy. We won’t know what he has been eating. It would always be better to choose a product labelled with a specific protein source such as beef, pork, goat, lamb, etc.. If your dog is eating beef and is suddenly itchy, it will be easier to change the diet to see if it is a food related problem. Meat from other animals can be used in pet food and will show up as “rabbit”, “venison”, “bison”, etc.
  • Meat by-product can be any body part of cattle, sheep, goats or pigs other than hoof, teeth, horn, hair or contents of the digestive tract.  It can include lung, spleen, kidney, brain, liver, blood, bone, fat, stomach and intestine.
  • Animal by-product include the same parts as meat by-product, but can come from any mammalian species.
  • Note regarding by-products: Certain organ meat in the food is a good thing. Heart, tripe (intestine), liver and kidney are very beneficial for our pets. Wild relatives of domestic dogs and cats as well as domestic dogs and cats allowed to eat a whole prey diet often go for the organ meats and tripe first. Other organ meats are best not eaten in high concentration. By-products may have a high concentration of endocrine glands in them. If an pet is eating an entire prey animal (example- a cat eating an entire mouse) she is eating endocrine glands in small proportion to other body parts. If the same pet is eating meal after meal of some sort of meat or animal by-product, what is the proportion of endocrine gland to other body parts? We don’t know. One example of how eating endocrine gland can be detrimental is referenced in the FDA website article entitled “Thyroid Hormones in Pet Food” (https://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/ResourcesforYou/ucm548914.htm)

This article explains how dogs developed hyperthyroidism from eating pet food containing esophagus without the thyroid tissue completely removed. Also, keep in mind that meat and animal by-products may provide plenty of protein, but much of it is not quality protein. When a manufacturer uses a particular meat or animal by-product it’s because it is the cheapest raw material they can source. The more desirable carcass parts are going somewhere else. It is more important to look at the ingredients in a food than the percent protein content because the ingredient will tell you more about the quality of the protein.

  • Meat meal is a rendered animal waste. This will show up in most poor quality foods. It can contain slaughtered animals, scraps left behind in the butchering process, dead/dying/diseased/disabled livestock, restaurant grease, expired meat from the human markets and/or meat from any species of animal. Rendered product has been ground, mixed and processed by heating/drying to kill bacteria, viruses and parasites. Proteins are altered and destroyed by rendering. Rendered products are not allowed to go into the human food chain. It is legal for them to go into pet food, but they should not be fed to our pets! During rendering, fat separates from the solids. The solids are called meat meal. The fat can also be used in pet food and shows up on the label as rendered fat. Meat meal is not very tasty and is usually sprayed with artificial flavors or fats to encourage the pet to eat it.
  • Animal Digest is garbage left over after rendering. It is used to flavor pet food, but has no actual meat in it.
  • Poultry can be any part of the chicken/turkey other than head, feet, feathers or internal organs. If bone has been removed, it will usually say “deboned poultry”. Unless more fully described, it is often is the less desirable parts of the chicken carcass such as the back and neck.
  • Poultry by-products include head, feet and internal organs (cleaned of digestive tract contents).

Horse Food Ingredients-

Many horse foods are left over parts of grain that has been processed for the human food market. Something has been removed and the by-product is what is left behind. Deciding if the by-product is a good choice as a food ingredient can be very complicated. It depends upon how the food was processed and the needs of the horse eating the by-product.

For example, soybean hulls are the skin of soybeans. They are mostly fiber and provide very little protein. Soybean meal is left behind after soy oil has been extracted from the bean. Soybean meal may or may not contain the hull. One thing to consider when looking at a by-product is how the food was processed to separate the different parts from each other. Was the soybean mechanically processed or was a chemical solvent used? If the soybean hull was mechanically removed, it could be a good source of fiber and be lower in phytoestrogens than the whole soybean. This would be a good choice for a hormonal mare that needs more fiber. If I were looking to the soybean as a source of protein and wasn’t worried about the high phytoestrogen (plant estrogens can affect the hormonal system of mammals) content, I would prefer to feed whole roasted soybeans or mechanically extruded whole soybeans (allows for pelleting). I would avoid soybean meal as hexane or other chemical solvents may have been used to extract the oil from the bean.

Another thing to consider is how was the plant being used grown. There are certain conventionally grown, genetically modified (GMO) crops that are sprayed with glycophosphates (Round-up) during growth and right before harvesting. These crops are soy, corn, canola, alfalfa, cotton, wheat and sorghum. I strongly recommend looking at the source of these ingredients for yourself and your animals. If you are able, buy only organic or non-GMO soy, corn, alfalfa, wheat and sorghum. I do not recommend oils such as canola oil, corn oil, soy oil or vegetable oil  for horses unless it is cold, pressed and organic or non-GMO.  Otherwise, the oil has been extracted using the solvent hexane.  Low level hexane residue is toxic. Exposure to hexane can cause nerve weakness/dysfunction, muscle weakness, headache, dizziness, giddiness, and nausea.

  • Grain by-products are a perfect example of a vague ingredient. It could be the part of any grain that is considered safe for a horse to eat. Some of these ingredients may be fine but you do not know what you are feeding. This gives the manufacturer the ability to change ingredients as desired without telling us. The ingredients are likely to change in each batch or lot manufactured. One lot may be primarily wheat middlings and another may contain more bran. One bag may have corn gluten in it and another may have none. If you open a new bag of food and the ingredients are significantly different from the bag you were feeding yesterday, you are making a quick change in diet. This goes against one of our most important rules to prevent colic - make all feed changes slowly.

Most processed equine food does contain by-products. Examples of commonly used by-products are beet pulp, soybean meal, soybean hulls, rice bran, coconut meal, pea protein, corn gluten. It would be better to choose one of these than something labeled “grain by-product”. Examples of whole foods would be soybeans, oats, peas, alfalfa meal (it is usually chopped and dehydrated without the removal of part of the food). Another commonly used by-product which is a mix of various grains is distillers grain by-product. Brewer’s grain is a by-product of barley.

Resources used to write this article:

(1)https://www.aafco.org/consumers/what-is-in-pet-foodThe Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is a voluntary membership association of local, state and federal agencies charged by law to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds and animal drug remedies.”

(2) https://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/ResourcesforYou/ucm047113.htm

(3) https://www.petmd.com/dog/nutrition/evr_pet_food_for_your_pets_sake

(4) http://web.mit.edu/demoscience/Monsanto/about.html

(5) https://openaccesspub.org/ject/article/622


Back to blog