Understanding Pet Food Labels

One of the most common questions we get asked, especially during new pet exams, is how to choose the right dog or cat food. The absolute most important thing is to find a food that fits your pet’s life stage, health status, and weight. Secondly, research needs to verify that the diet is complete, balanced, and nutritionally adequate. And finally, the food has to be palatable, fit within the owner’s budget, and be convenient to purchase.

Pet food labels can be confusing and hard to interpret, so I wanted to highlight a few key points to hopefully make them clearer. The first and most important thing to look at is the nutritional adequacy statement on the back or sides of the package of pet food. This statement should say that the food is complete (product contains all of the nutrients required) and balanced (nutrients are present in the correct ratios) based on the requirements established by AAFCO for each life stage. AAFCO stands for The Association of American Feed Control Officials and is an organization of animal feed personnel founded to develop uniform labeling and definitions amongst all animal feeds, large and small animal.

Recognized life stages include growth/reproduction and maintenance. AAFCO does not define nutrient profiles for senior dogs, large breed dogs, or athlete animals. Animals of different life stages require a different balance of nutrients, i.e. a puppy requires much more energy and protein than a dog in his senior years. Some food labels will state that the food is for “all life stages” which means that the food is formulated to account for the highest potential nutrient level (usually growth and reproduction) and is more than likely not appropriate for a middle aged dog/cat that is skeletally mature and not reproducing. Excess nutrients and energy can lead to inappropriate weight gain and cause early development of musculoskeletal disorders (osteoarthritis or torn ACLs) in a less active adult animal

Treats are considered a subset of pet foods and are not required to meet standard nutritional requirements. Therapeutic foods (ex. diets for patients with kidney or liver disease) are labeled with intermittent or supplemental feeding due to the fact that some nutritional factors must be changed from those needed in healthy animals.

The other important detail within this statement is whether the food has been formulated to meet nutrient levels or actual animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures have proven that the food provides balanced and complete nutrition. Foods that have undergone feeding trials are considered to be of higher quality due to increased research and knowledge of how the food performs in live animals.

Ingredients in foods are also very controversial right now. In all labels, ingredients must be listed in descending order according to their weight. What this means is that ingredients high in water content (fresh meats, vegetables) are listed first due to the weight contributed by water, even though they may contribute fewer nutrients to the overall diet. Corn gluten meal or other ingredients may actually contribute more protein to the diet as a whole than chicken or beef, even though it is listed as the first ingredient on the bag. Therefore, the order of ingredients on the bag does not necessarily correlate with quality of a dog food. Check back next month, and we’ll debunk some common myths regarding ingredients within pet foods and provide a checklist of questions to help you assess your pet’s food.

Below are some great resources regarding pet foods. As always, please ask any of our veterinarians or technicians if you have questions about your pet’s food!

Pet Nutrition Alliance. http://petnutritionalliance.org/

The Saavy Dog Owner’s Guide to Nutrition. http://www.wsava.org/sites/default/files/Nutrition%20on%20the%20Internet%20dogs.pdf

The Saavy Cat Owner’s Guide to Nutrition. http://www.wsava.org/sites/default/files/nutrition%20on%20the%20internet%20cats.pdf

Dr. Emily Tschida