What You Need to Know When Choosing A Pet Food

When you are shopping for your cat’s and dog’s food, what do you look for? Does the brightly colored package and photos of chunks of meats and veggies appeal to you? Or is it the names of the food that sound good enough to be on a menu at restaurant? Do words like “holistic,” “healthy,” “natural,” or “human grade quality ingredients” catch your eye? OR do you read the label and make decisions based on the nutritional information? With thousands of pet food products on the market, how do you make the best choice?

Choosing a pet food is one of the most important choices that we can make for our furry friends. Pet food labels can be very confusing. Understanding the label information can help you make informed decisions about which food to feed your pets. With the help of your veterinarian here at Animal Hospital of North Asheville, you can decide what type and amount of food your pet should eat based on age, life stage requirements, or any medical condition or disease that needs to be factored in. In a nutshell, you should look on the label for:

  • Life stage nutrition appropriate for your pet
  • A food tested with AAFCO feeding trials
  • A food made by a reputable manufacturer with consistent ingredients
  • A food that doesn’t contain products your pet doesn’t tolerate

Grab your pet’s food bag or can and look at the label as we break down a food label’s information. This month we will be looking at what is required to be on a label and what it means.

It is good to understand who regulates the pet food industry. There are several governing agencies that have role in regulating pet food. AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) regulates the pet food industry and their philosophy is to protect you, the consumer. AAFCO is a non government advisory organization with representative officials from every US state. The FDA (The Food and Drug Administration) is primarily responsible for regulating medications, but they have rules on supplements that go into pet foods. They also enforce regulations about contamination. The USDA (The US Dept. of Agriculture) is responsible for regulating the quality of ingredients that go into the food. Each state has adopted regulations based on AAFCO’s recommended model for pet food labels. Each state is responsible for making sure the model is followed.

Following AAFCO’s model for pet food labels, each pet food label is required to have 8 things listed:

1. The product’s name and who manufactures it.

The product name is the first part of the label you see. Manufacturers often use tantalizing names that incorporate a specific ingredient. Often food is chosen on the name alone.

AAFCO has requirements for naming pet foods:

  • If a pet food name says: Chicken, Beef, Seafood, etc. (for example, “Royal Chuck’s Chicken Dog Food”), 95% of the pet food must be the named ingredient.
  • If a pet food name says: Dinner, Entree, Platter, Recipe. etc. (“Royal Chuck’s Dog Food Chicken Dinner”) the pet food must contain at least 25% of the named ingredient.
  • If a pet food name says: With (with chicken, with duck) (“Royal Chuck’s Dog Food with Chicken”) the pet food must contain at least 3% of the named ingredient.
  • If the name lists more than one ingredient, such as “With Duck and Chicken,” the food must contain at least 3% of each ingredient.    
  • If a pet food name says: Flavor (“Royal Chuck’s Dog Food Chicken Flavor”) the pet food does not have to contain any of the named ingredient.  Flavor can be added through the use of broth or flavoring sprays.

AAFCO does NOT require that the pet food name include every ingredient in the food, so it is important to look at the ingredient list if your pet is sensitive to certain proteins or grains. For example, “Royal Chuck’s Lamb and Rice Dog Food” can still contain chicken, corn, wheat, and more.

2. Species: The label must list the species the food was intended for. ex: Cat Food, Dog Food, Hamster Food

3. Quantity Statement

It is important to know how much food is actually in the bag or can of food. This is the net weight. This is important when comparing cost of foods.

4. Guaranteed Analysis

This tells approximately what is in the product. Labels are only required to list the minimum percent of protein and fat in the food, and the maximum amounts of crude fiber and moisture. Manufacturers may add other nutrient guarantees such as Taurine and Magnesium in cat food and Calcium, Phosphorus, Sodium and Linoleic acids in some products. This information can be helpful in some situations, such as knowing that Taurine has been added to cat food, or that a large breed puppy food has lower levels of calcium.

Unfortunately, the Guaranteed Analysis is not required to list exact amounts of these or other nutrients in the diet, and there is no way to tell what the quality and digestibility of the nutrients might be. There is also a challenge in using the Guaranteed Analysis to compare wet and dry foods, since the nutritional information is based on two different calculations. Dry food percentages are listed on a “dry matter basis,” meaning that the water has been removed. However, wet food percentages are listed on an “as fed” basis, which does not remove the water content. So a canned food that lists 6% protein content “as fed” actually contains closer to 25% protein on a “dry matter” analysis when you take into account that canned food is 60-90% water.

5. Ingredient Statement

Ingredients contain the nutrients that that the body needs. Every ingredient in the food must be listed in the ingredient statement in order of their weight before processing. Meat ingredients (such as chicken and lamb) contain more than 50% water, so they weigh more than dry ingredients (such as grains, meat meals, vitamins and minerals) and are usually listed first. Some pet food manufacturers emphasize meat as their #1 ingredient in their advertising, and this is true. A meat such as chicken can be listed first, but 3 or 4 of the next 5 ingredients may have rice in the name (for example, rice meal, brown rice, rice bran and rice flour), making rice a higher quantity in the food than the chicken. Also if chicken is listed first, it still contains water up to 70% and is actually a lesser source of protein than by-product meal. Chicken by-product meal is a dry ingredient, so it has less moisture and more protein content.

There are many questions and misconceptions about by-products. By-products are often thought to be only the undesirable parts of animals, such hooves, feathers, and beaks. But by definition in the pet food industry, meat by-products are clean parts other than meat, such as lungs, kidneys, and spleens. By-products do not include hair, horns, teeth and hooves. They are an excellent source of nutrients such as amino acids, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
The ingredient statement is very valuable when a cat or dog has a known allergy and must avoid a certain allergen. Remember, the pet food name doesn’t have to list all of the ingredients, so you have to look at the ingredient statement to make sure the food doesn’t contain something your pet can’t tolerate.

6. Nutritional Adequacy (AAFCO Statement)

This statement verifies that the food provides complete and balanced nutrition for growing animals, pregnant and nursing mothers or adults or under veterinary supervision. The AAFCO statement can appear on a pet food label in different ways:

  • Animal feeding trials using AAFCO procedures substantiate that the product provides complete and balanced nutrition for all life stages or a particular stage.
  • The product is formulated to meet the nutrient levels established by AAFCO for a particular life stage or for all life stages.
  • The product is intended for intermittent or supplemental use only.

“Complete and Balanced” on a label indicates that a food has all the  recognized, required nutrients in the proper amounts when fed appropriately. If a food is “intended for intermittent or supplemental use only,” the food should only be used as treats or part of a veterinary supervised diet. These diets are not complete or balanced. Also "gravy" or "sauce" for dog food and "appetizers" for cats are considered supplemental foods.

A “Feeding Trial Method” is a more reliable and preferable method of testing food. The food is actually fed to animals and testing is then done to determine how the nutrients are being used by the body. Feeding trials determine if the animal can maintain its ideal weight on the food, that animals in different life stages (ex. pregnancy, growth, adult and lactation) will obtain the proper nutrients from the food, and that animals like the taste of the food.

When a company uses the “Formulated Method,” the food is formulated by calculations or chemical analysis so that the nutrients meet the maximum or minimum levels established by AAFCO. In this method, the diet is not fed to animals. Every nutrient is taken and tested to assure it is the right amount for the right life stage and species, but there is no testing to make sure the nutrient is being processed properly when fed to animals.

When reading a label, look for what life stage the food is recommended for. Each life stage of your pet requires different amounts of nutrients. “Growth” stage or food formulated for puppies and kittens will have higher protein, calcium and calories than an adult food to ensure proper growth. As animals mature into adults their nutrient needs decrease, and as they mature further into the senior years or onset of disease, adjusting certain nutrients can play a key role in prevention or management of a disease’s progression. If a food is an “all life stage” product, then the food contains high levels of nutrients designed to support the growth of puppies or kittens, and could result in excess nutrients that may be harmful to an adult or mature adult pet’s health. Always be sure to choose the life stage dietary product that best suits the life stage your pet is in.

7. Feeding Instructions

This instructs how much of the product should be offered. The label should say “feed X (cups or tsp) per X pounds of body weight a day.” This is a general guideline. How much you feed depends on whether your goal is weight maintenance, weight loss or gain. It also depends on breed, activity and life stage and disease or medical conditions. Spayed and neutered animals require fewer calories for maintenance. Your veterinarian can instruct on how much you should be feeding.
Calorie statements are not required to be included on the nutrient label. When companies put a calorie statement on a label it is expressed on a “kilocalories per kilogram” basis. The kilocalories are the same as the “calories” you are used to seeing on food labels, and a kilogram is 2.2 lbs. Calories can be expressed in more familiar household terms such as per cup or per can. Many foods that do not have a calorie statement on the bag will have a calorie statement along with other nutritional information on their product website.

8. The Name and Address of Manufacturer or Distributor

This can be on the label a couple different ways: Manufactured by, Manufactured for, or Distributed by. You want to see manufactured by or for on the label, since this information assures you that you will be able to speak to the company that makes the food if there is a problem, and that the ingredients should be consistent. If the food is distributed by a company, many times it is made elsewhere and the ingredients may not have the same consistency. The package label should contain the manufacturer’s phone number as well.

Other items are not required to be put on the pet food labels such as the batch information or freshness date. It may be in the form of a code or a “best by date” This is a very important piece of information when pet foods are recalled.

There is an overwhelming number of pet foods to choose from, with a lot of marketing messages and claims. By learning the tools to read pet food labels and working with your veterinarian here at Animal Hospital of North Asheville, you will be able to decide the best type of diet that will be most beneficial for your pet. Next month we will be looking at the marketing of diets with such words as "Holistic," "Organic,” "Premium,” "Low Calorie,” "New and Improved" and more. We will tell you what they mean and if they actually have recognized definitions in regards to pet food standards. We will also be looking at types of diets such as prescription, specialty, raw and homemade diets.