How to Read Cat Food Labels

Karina Carbo-Johnson, MS
By Karina Carbo-Johnson, MS
Updated: 5/15/20242-4 minutes
A cat is eating

Cat food nutrition labels contain an overwhelming amount of information. Learning how to read cat food labels will make it easier for you to evaluate and compare foods. 

Knowing what to look for and understanding what it all means allows you to make more informed decisions about your cat's food.

Government Regulations for Cat Food

There are a lot of federal and state regulations pet food manufacturers must comply with. Some of those regulations dictate what you’ll find on your cat’s food label. 

The following items are required on all pet food labels: 

  • Overview: The overview will include the brand name, like Purina Cat Chow. It also indicates the formula name or primary ingredient(s), like chicken and rice. 
  • Net Weight Statement: This statement tells you how much food is in the package. 
  • Manufacturer/Distributor Name & Address: This tells you who made or distributed the food so you can contact them with any questions. 
  • Product Traceability Information: Based on the information on Purina cat food labels, we can tell you when the food was made and even the exact plant that produced the package
  • Ingredient List: The ingredients appear in descending order based on content weight. 
  • Guaranteed Analysis: The guaranteed analysis shows the product’s nutrient content. It must include the minimum percentages of crude protein and crude fat and maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture. Including percentages for additional nutrients is voluntary, but they’re often included anyway. The essential nutrients listed in the guaranteed analysis must meet (or exceed) the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) nutrient profile standards.
  • Nutritional Adequacy Statement: A “complete and balanced” cat food must meet or exceed the standards of an established nutrient profile. This statement tells you whether the food is “complete and balanced” for a particular life stage, such as adult maintenance or kitten growth. 
  • Feeding Directions: These are guidelines to help you determine how much to feed your cat each day. You may need to adjust the amount of food to help her maintain her ideal body condition. 
  • Calorie Statement: You’ll see calories listed on a kilocalorie per kilogram basis and as a common unit of measure, like kilocalories per cup. This will help you when comparing different brands of cat food. 

Nutrients vs. Ingredients on Cat Food Labels

What’s the difference between nutrients and ingredients? Ingredients in your cat’s food may include things like chicken, fish, corn or rice, among others. Those ingredients provide nutrients like protein and carbohydrates. 

Nutrients in a complete and balanced cat food include: 

  • Protein: According to Dr. RuthAnn Lobos, a Purina veterinarian, “Cats have higher protein requirements than most mammals—even dogs and humans.” Cats need 22 amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. Although cats can make some amino acids themselves, they have to get others from their food, says Dr. Lobos. While they can digest both plant- and animal-based proteins, only animal proteins provide them with those essential amino acids. Dr. Lobos recommends cats consume about 2.3 grams of protein per pound of body weight. “For example, a 10-pound cat would need about 23 grams of protein per day,” she says. 
  • Fat: Although low-fat people foods are still popular, our pets need fat for energy and to protect their bodies and build neurons, according to Dr. Lobos. 
  • Vitamins & Minerals: Unlike dogs, who need 23 essential vitamins and minerals, cats need 25. Look for cat food labels that state they are “complete and balanced.” This means the manufacturer added vitamins and minerals to ensure the food meets your cat’s nutritional needs.
  • Carbohydrates: Like fat, carbs often get a bad rep with humans, but they’re another good source of energy for our pets. Grains like rice and corn are some of the most popular sources of carbohydrates. In grain-free foods, however, you’ll see alternative sources of carbs, like potatoes or peas. 

What about those Hard-to-Pronounce Ingredients?

Many consumers are unfamiliar with all those hard-to-pronounce ingredients, which makes them question their safety. Fortunately, a quick internet search can tell you those long names are just the scientific name for vitamins or minerals. For example, L-ascorbyl-2-polyphosphate sounds intimidating. If you look it up online, however, you’ll see that’s the scientific name for vitamin C. 

Claims on Cat Food Labels

Pet food regulations differ from those for human food. Although there is no standard definition for “natural” human food, there is one for pet food. 

“Natural” means there are no chemically synthesized ingredients other than vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Of course, you’ll still see the scientific names for ingredients on the label, but now you know those are safe and beneficial for your cat. 

The USDA has defined “organic” as it applies to both human and pet foods. Understanding the difference between natural and organic cat food can help you decide if either are right for your cat. 

You may also see phrases like “formulated to meet” or “animal feeding test” on your cat’s food label. “Formulated to meet” means the cat food has been analyzed to meet the AAFCO nutrient profile for the life stage indicated on the package. 

“Animal feeding test” means the food was fed to cats using an AAFCO-approved feeding protocol. A feeding test validates the product meets the AAFCO nutrient profile for the life stage indicated on the package. 

How to Decide Which Cat Food is Right for Your Cat

Once you know how to read cat food nutrition labels, it’s easier to evaluate and compare various options and choose the one that best meets your cat’s needs.

Explore all the cat food options Purina offers to find your feline friend’s new favorite food.

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