Understanding What’s In Your Pet Food

Trying to understand pet food labels can be frustrating.

Especially when terms may or may not mean the same as they do with foods for people. The ingredients lists may seem misleading at times making comparing different types of foods difficult. It’s a tough field but let’s alleviate some of the confusion (and mystery) by defining some of the more commonly used terms seen on pet food packaging.


If you see ‘byproducts’ on the list of ingredients, this refers to the parts of an animal not used for human consumption. This can include meat trimming, organs, brains, intestines, and undeveloped eggs. It can also include meat that hasn’t been handled correctly for human use (unrefrigerated) as well as animals that were dead on arrival to the slaughterhouse. If the byproducts are listed by species, such as chicken byproducts, then only parts of chickens (or other named species) are to be included. Byproducts can be high in protein, by laboratory testing, but as a consumer you should not assume this is of high quality in every batch or bag of food as each one can be different.

Byproduct Meal

When byproducts are placed in a huge vat (envision an over-sized stew pot) and cooked down until the water is boiled away and the fat skimmed off, they are then considered rendered. The resulting product is baked and what is left is called ‘byproduct meal.’ Because of the processing, this is generally higher in protein than muscle meat. As with byproducts, no quality is guaranteed as each batch could be different.


When animal tissues are broken down through boiling or through a chemical process, the resulting soup can then be a part of a pet food. The digest is supposed to exclude hair, horns, hooves, and feathers except for trace amounts that might occur during normal processing. The trace amounts are not defined. Animal digests are often used as flavorings.

Dry Matter Basis

When comparing foods of different types, such as canned pet foods and dry kibble foods, it’s important to compare apples to apples rather than apples to oranges. A can of canned dog food, for example, will show on the label that it’s 75% moisture. A dry kibble food might be 10% moisture. It’s very difficult to compare these two foods nutritionally with such a vast difference. However, if you take both of the foods down to the dry matter basis, then comparisons are easier. To find the dry matter basis, subtract the moisture content from 100%. So with the canned food that would be 75% from 100% equals 25%. You can then continue this to compare protein and fat in the foods, as well.


There is no pet food industry definition for ‘holistic’ even though it’s often seen on pet food labels. The common definition of holistic means looking at the whole or entire being rather than just a part. For people, it generally includes the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and environmental well being or health. When applied to a pet food, the makers are most likely trying to imply quality or a benefit to the pet but since there are no guidelines as to what it actually means, the definition is up in the air.


The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) one of the oversight organizations for pet foods, has established guidelines as to how ‘natural’ can be used in regards to pet foods. In general, it means a lack of artificial colors, flavorings, and preservatives. Natural source preservatives such as tocopherols (vitamins E and C) may be used in place of artificial preservatives. Artifical colors, if used at all, must be the same ones approved for use in human foods labeled as natural. Natural is not the same as organic.


Contrary to public perception, ‘organic’ does not imply quality but instead pertains to the way a product is grown, handled, and processed. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a branch called the National Organic Program (NOP) that has established regulations as to how organic foods are grown, handled, processed, and labeled. For both human foods and pet foods, if a product is completely organic according to the guidelines, then it may be labeled 100% organic and can carry the USDA NOP seal. If the food is 95% organic (excluding salt and water) it may also display the organic seal. However, if a food is only 70% organic, it may not display the seal but may state, “Made with organic ingredients” and may then list those ingredients.

Deciding what to feed your pet can be incredibly confusing. The variety of foods is amazing and the possibilities are endless. However, the more you know the easier it will be to make those decisions. These seven definitions are just the tip of the iceberg but they’ll get you started.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika, CDT, CABC

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer and Certified Animal Behavior Consultant as well as the founder and co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in northern San Diego county. Liz is also the founder of Love on a Leash therapy dogs; her dog, Bones, goes on visits on a regular basis. A prolific writer, Liz is also the author of more than 80 books. Many of her works have been nominated or won awards from a variety of organizations, including Dog Writers Association of America, San Diego Book Awards, the ASPCA, and others. Liz shares her home with three English Shepherds: Bones, Hero, and Seven, as well as one confident and bossy orange tabby cat, Kirk. To relax from work, or to take work on the road, Liz and her crew travel the West and PNW in their RV. If you see an RV on the road named "Travelin' Dogs", honk and say hi!

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