Reading cat and dog food labels is confusing and tricky. Are you sure you are feeding your pet the healthiest and most nutritious food money can buy? I’m still trying to figure that out for myself and my westie, Yuki, but here are some facts I’ve learned along the way about production and labeling regulations.
Who’s in charge?
Pet food is regulated both federally and at the state level with standards determined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). The AAFCO is responsible for establishing nutritional standards for each species and lifestage (ex: X% of protein for a senior cat). The manufacturer is responsible for formulating their product to meet AAFCO standards, and the government is responsible for ensuring that manufacturers are actually doing so.
There’s no doubt that some brands and formulations of pet food are better than others. However, AAFCO standards exist so that any brand of food you buy through any honest retailer should contain, in theory, the vital nutrients your pet needs. Though standards are strict, they are also minimal, meaning as long as manufacturers meet regulations, they have some wiggle room in how their product is presented to pet owners.
100% All Natural? The FDA hasn’t defined the word “natural” or its derivatives, and therefore cannot regulate the use of the word on product packaging.
Veterinarian Recommended? In order to use this term, the manufacturer must conduct a survey that proves a statistically significant number of veterinarians actually do recommend the product. However, “Veterinarian Formulated” or “Veterinarian Developed” only takes one veterinarian to provide proof to the claim.
It’s important to distinguish between ingredients and nutrients. Ingredients contain the nutrients that are essential for growth and health. For example, chicken meat contains proteins that help build and maintain body tissues. Feeding your pet the right ingredients is the foundation of providing them with the nutrients they need.
On the label, ingredients are listed by weight. Since the first five ingredients usually make up the bulk of the product, meat should be one of the first three ingredients listed to ensure adequate protein levels. However, manufacturers could try to deceive you by listing all the components of one grain, such as corn, as separate ingredients under different names. After adding up what is essentially one ingredient, you may find that the grain takes up more mass than the meat.
Guaranteed Analysis (Nutrients):
This section lists the minimum or maximum amount of each nutrient in the product, not the actual amount. A product with a 10% fat minimum guarantee can actually contain double that percentage, which is unsettling for pet owners with overweight dogs or cats. This section also does not guarantee nutrient quality. Look back at the ingredient list. Is the food made with meat or by-products? Chicken beaks and feet are poor sources of protein in comparison to muscle meat that will give your cat or dog the whole suite of amino acids it needs. However, passing up all food containing animal by-products may be excessive, as liver and other organs are great sources of protein for pets. The only way to really find out what’s in the by-products is to call the manufacturer.
This statement verifies that the product has met AAFCO standards for a specific species and lifestage. I learned to be wary of food guaranteed for “all lifestages” as it must contain high levels of nutrients for healthy growth in kittens and puppies, but are excessive and detrimental to the wellbeing of my senior dog. You should consult your veterinarian to find out the specific needs of your pet before buying a new batch of food.
Editors Note: We originally wanted to write this blog to make it easier for pet owners to choose quality food. Once we started researching, we realized the labeling process is full of deceptive practices and choosing healthy food based on the nutritional label is easier said than done. Perhaps this is why so many pet owners are turning to artisan pet food companies or home cooking their pet food.
Do you have any tips on how to read a pet food label? Leave a comment below!