Choosing the right foods to feed your dog and cat is just as difficult as choosing the right foods for your family. Knowing how to read the labels on packaged pet foods is one step towards helping you make an informed decision. Pet food labels follow many of the same guidelines as foods for people. The label must list the manufacturer and the name of the food, a means of contacting the manufacturer (either a phone number or a website), and if the food is for a specific animal (dog or cat), and life stage (all life stages, puppy, kitten or senior pet). In addition, the guaranteed analysis must show the percentages of certain parts of the food, including protein, fat, fiber and moisture. Ingredients Ingredients are listed in decreasing order by weight rather than amount or volume. Manufacturers stick to this rule, but the ingredients can still be confusing. For example, if a label reads: chicken, wheat germ, wheat middlings, wheat bran, and so on, you might be tempted to think that this is a food primarily made of chicken. After all, chicken is listed first. But this is not so. The manufacturer has split the wheat in the food into three different ingredients -- germ, middlings and bran -- so that chicken could be listed first. This is really a wheat-based food with some chicken added. When you take into account that dogs and cats are carnivores and need a meat-based food -- not a cereal grain-based one - you can see why the ingredient listings are so important. Understanding what the ingredients are is also very important. You know what chicken is, but what is chicken by-products? And what does by-products contain? The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has created a listing of ingredients for pet foods, stating exactly what the ingredients are, and what can be used in pet foods. For example, chicken by-products meal is ground, rendered (fat and water removed), clean parts of the chicken carcass, such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs and intestines. Feathers and other parts (including manure) shall not be in the food except as occur during good factory practices. For a complete list of definitions go to www.aafco.org. The Food and Drug Administration requires that pet foods be nutritious and that they contain no harmful substances; either as ingredients or as additives. The term used is 'generally regarded as safe' or GRAS. Note that this does not say, "This is safe," but rather generally regarded as safe. Unfortunately, this has created many loopholes where foods or ingredients - such as artificial preservatives, flavorings and colors - have been added and later determined to be unsafe. Choosing the Right Food There are many options available to pet owners in regards to pet foods. You may decide to cook for your pet so that your pet can eat the same quality foods you feed your family; or you may decide to feed your pet a raw food diet. But commercially available foods are certainly much more convenient and easier to serve. So if you want to buy a commercial pet food, how can you make the best choice? Become an educated consumer. This article is just the tip of the iceberg; do some more reading. There are some great books available to help you. Talk to your veterinarian. If he or she is not a nutrition expert than ask for a referral to someone who is. Talk to the pet food manufacturers. Understand that they want to sell you their food, but feel free to ask questions and then listen to both what is said and what isn't said. Liz Palika is an award-winning author with more than 55 books to her credit. Her latest book, "The Ultimate Pet Food Guide" (DeCapo, 2008) is available at bookstores and amazon.com and will walk you through all the perils and pitfalls of the pet food industry.