Nutrient-Rich Ingredients

Veterinary researchers have identified between 42 and 48 essential nutrients for cats and dogs, including protein, fat, carbohydrates, and vitamins, minerals and individual amino acids.  Most commercially prepared pet foods are “complete and balanced,” meaning each serving meets a pet’s total nutritional need.  An ingredient in a pet food recipe can serve as a source for many of these nutrients.

Pet food makers choose from a wide range of ingredients—beef, pork, lamb, poultry, alligator, bison, shrimp, fish, corn, wheat and other grains, peas, carrots, potatoes and other vegetables, fruit, animal and vegetable oils, and vitamins, minerals and individual amino acids—based not only on nutrient content, but also such characteristics or functions as:

  • Digestibility;
  • Tastiness or “palatability” (i.e., flavor, texture, freshness);
  • Ability to hold shape;
  • Pet owner preference; and
  • Availability and cost.

The ingredient list provided on your pet’s food label is required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Each ingredient:

  • Must be listed in the product ingredient information panel; and
  • Must be listed in order of predominance by weight, using the technical names which includes not only the source of the nutrient but also can include information about a process, if used, to make the ingredient, e.g., poultry byproduct meal or whole ground corn. Vitamins and minerals are required to be listed by their chemical name, for example, Pyridoxine hydrochloride (Vitamin B6) and Thiamine mononitrate (Vitamin B1).


Ingredients produced during the processing of food for human consumption, often referred to as “by-products” or “co-products,” are excellent sources of nutrition for cats and dogs.  While by-products, particularly animal by-products—the highly nutritious parts of chickens, cows, pigs or fish, for example, that are consumed first by animals in the wild—may not be preferred by Americans, they often are considered delicacies by others around the world.

Moreover, the use of these ingredients can help support common sustainability goals by keeping food that would otherwise go to waste from ending up in landfills and by helping to ensure that pet food ingredients do not compete with human food ingredients or result in additional land being placed under agricultural production[1].

What does the term “natural” or “organic” mean when provided on a pet food label?

“Natural” and “organic” are marketing term for ingredients used in a given pet food.  They do not represent safety or nutritional information.


Natural is defined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) “a feed or feed ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources,but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur in good manufacturing practices.”  AAFCO also provides a set of guidelines for using the term on pet food labels, and in the majority of states that have adopted AAFCO’s Model Bill and Model Regulations, pet food makers must comply with this definition to use the term on a label.


Pet food makers currently develop organic pet food products under the same rules established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that the manufacturers of human food do. Among USDA’s responsibilities under this National Organic Program (NOP) are the development of regulation and guidance on organic standards and management of the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, based on recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) which is made up of members of the organic community.

The NOP, urged by PFI, established a Pet Food Task Force in 2006 to develop a proposal for the creation and adoption of pet food specific standards by the USDA National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) for use with the USDA organic seal. In 2008, the NOSB unanimously adopted a set of recommendations, beginning the process of creating organic pet food standards.  We look forward to USDA finalization of its standards for certified organic pet food.

Food with Limited Ingredients

There is no regulatory definition for “limited ingredient” pet food and its application in dog and cat food can vary. Some common applications in today’s marketplace include pet food recipes that offer a single nutrient source (e.g., turkey as the sole protein source), or utilize different ingredients as nutrient sources (e.g., exchanging the type of grain used as a carbohydrate source). If a pet lover suspects his or her dog or cat may have food allergy or sensitivity, it is important to visit a veterinarian who can help diagnose the possible cause.

Raw Pet Food

If considering a raw diet for their dog or cat, PFI encourages pet lovers to review the available data on raw diet safety and nutrition. Raw pet food is defined as meat, bones, organs and/or eggs that have not been cooked or treated. Treatment options can include the freeze-drying process and High Pressure Processing (HPP).


During a two-year study conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), the agency screened over 1,000 samples of pet food for food-borne bacteria. The study found that raw pet food is significantly more likely to contain Salmonella and Listeria than any other form of pet food. Humans may be infected by these bacteria through a number of outlets, including:

  • Handling the raw pet food;
  • A pet licking a human’s face;
  • A pet’s feces. Pets that eat contaminated raw diets have been shown to shed pathologic organisms in their waste, which mean these bacteria are more likely to be present in areas around your house or backyard.

FDA advises households concerned about the possible infection of these food-borne diseases to not feed raw diets.


There is currently no peer-reviewed evidence to suggest that raw pet food offers any nutritional benefit in comparison to other forms of pet food. The National Academy of Sciences has identified more than 40 nutrients that are essential for dogs and cats, and a diet consisting solely of raw pet food may not provide the total required nutrition. If a pet lover decides to feed their pet a raw diet, look for food that is labeled as complete and balanced. PFI recommends consulting with your pet’s veterinarian before selecting a raw pet food diet.

Vegetarian and Vegan Pet Food

Pets are a part of the family and while providing single source of nutrition for many of America’s pets, PFI members are committed to supporting the health of all cats and dogs. Shoppers have an array of options when selecting food for their pet, such as wet, fresh or dry, that provides the complete and balanced nutrition and the many essential nutrients for healthy dogs and cats at their specific life stage. It is possible for vegetarian or vegan dog food recipes to provide complete and balanced nutrition for healthy adult dogs (often termed “adult maintenance”) without the use of animal-derived ingredients.

However, some dogs and cats have unique nutritional needs based on their different life stages, such as gestating and lactating adults or growing puppies and kittens. In addition, some animals may be undernourished, malnourished or have a nutrition-related disease or illness. These populations require pet food formulated for their conditions. A recipe without animal-derived ingredients may not provide sufficient levels of critical nutrients required to support the pet’s health. Shoppers can look to the Nutritional Adequacy Statement and appropriate life stage before choosing the best food for their pet and family’s lifestyle, and work with their veterinarian to ensure he or she remains healthy and receives the proper nutrition.

As obligate carnivores, cats need the amino acids, vitamins and long-chain fatty acids found in animal-derived ingredients, such as muscle, organ meat and fat, to survive. A complete and balanced vegan cat food recipe will be supplemented with synthetically-produced essential nutrients.