Picking out pet food seems like it should be easy. Find something that sounds good and has a noble looking golden retriever (or regal Persian) on the bag, and boom, you’re back to the dog park to toss the frisbee around. But when you read between the often misleading lines, you might realize you’re not getting the best for your dog or cat.

Approved doesn’t necessarily mean awesome
You absolutely should be looking for FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) approved food. But here’s the thing about these approvals: they only assure you that your pet’s food is safe and that it meets the minimum standards. That’s good, but it’s not enough to determine that it’s right for your pet.

What’s in a name?
For one thing, if an animal source is mentioned without any modifiers in the name (like “Chicken Dog Food”), then 95% of the product’s pre-cooking weight must come from that ingredient. If it’s “Beef and Chicken Dog Food”, then combined they must equal 95% (and the main ingredient is listed first). If it’s “Chicken and Rice Dog Food”, the non-animal ingredient can’t be counted, so 95% of the product must be chicken.

Words like “dinner” aren’t winners.
Words like dinner, nugget or formula in the name mean the animal-source ingredients listed only need be 25% of the product’s pre-cooking weight. At that point, you’ll need to see where they fall on the ingredients list, because they may not even be the dominant ingredient. And if it’s a name like “Chicken and Rice Dinner,” the rice is counted along with the chicken so that combined they are 25% of the product. That could mean even less protein and more of other ingredients that are harder for your dog to digest.

It should have a lot more than just “flavor.”
The words “With Venison” may be in red and underlined, but all it means is that the meat protein listed is 3% of the product. Meh. And if you see the words “flavor” or “flavoring,” just stop there. That just means there is only enough of the ingredient in there to be detected.

When in doubt, meat protein comes first.
Ingredients are listed in order of weight, so whatever comes first is what makes up the majority of the product. If you don’t see “meat protein” at the top of that list, put it back on the shelf. And when we say “meat protein”, both of those words are important. Just “protein” could mean a plant-based protein like soy rather than meat. “Meat meal” could mean literally any kind of mystery meat. Both wordings are just ways to disguise that whatever your pet is eating is not high quality.