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Reading Pet Food Labels

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Selecting a food for your pet can become a frustrating and confusing experience when looking at the label. What does all that information really mean? What is important and what is not? How do you know if you are choosing a quality food when they all claim to be “premium” quality? There are a few things you should focus on when choosing a diet for your pet.

One of the most important labels you should look for is the “AAFCO” label. AAFCO stands for the Association of American Feed Control Officials. AAFCO is the organization responsible for determining if pet food meets established nutritional guidelines for the targeted species. While pet food companies are not required to label their foods according to AAFCO standards, most do, and when you see the AAFCO label, you know you are purchasing a nutritionally balanced food. The AAFCO statement will say one of the two following things:

  1. “(Name of Product) is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by AAFCO (dog/cat) food nutrient profiles.” (This statement is good – you know that at least theoretically, this food is nutritionally complete.)
  2. “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (name of product) provides complete and balanced nutrition.” (This statement is better – you know the food has been proven nutritionally complete in strict feeding trials and meets the needs of the animals it is labeled for.)

The AAFCO statement is the most important item on the label.

The AAFCO statement is the most important item on the food label. If you don’t see it on the food package, it could mean that it hasn’t been tested to meet nutritional guidelines. The last thing you want to do is feed a nutritionally deficient food to your pet. Look for this label.

After the AAFCO label, most people want to look at the ingredient list. The ingredient list on pet food can be confusing. The ingredients are listed in order of quantity, but this is quantity by weight, not necessarily by volume. Moist ingredients weigh more than dry ingredients, even though their water content does not add nutritional value. This is important when comparing ingredients of different weights. In general, you should look for a food that lists a meat product [meat (muscle), meat meal (dehydrated muscles and organ meat), or meat by-product (organ meat, bone, brain, stomach & intestinal contents)] in the first 2-3 ingredients. Some people prefer to avoid meat by-products in their animal’s food to be sure they are only feeding muscle meat and/or organ meat. Additionally, foods that list specific meat sources (poultry, fish, beef) are more trustworthy than those that simply list “meat”. The ingredients immediately following the meat source should include grains, vegetables, and/or fruits that are fairly easily recognizable. Finally, the end of the list often contains chemical-sounding ingredients. These generally are added vitamins and minerals, and/or preservatives.

If organic or natural foods are important to you, by all means, choose a food that lists this claim on the label. However, understand that at this time, there are no specific guidelines that a pet food must meet to make these claims. The USDA is currently developing guidelines for labeling a pet food as organic. Packages that contain a USDA seal on the bag will have at least a majority of organic ingredients. Additionally, AAFCO has created guidelines for what qualifies as a “natural” ingredient, but no labeling recommendations have yet been developed.

The Guaranteed Analysis area of the label allows you to quickly compare protein, fat, fiber, moisture and some mineral content between foods. Unfortunately, it is not yet common to place the calorie content on pet food packaging. When reading the Guaranteed Analysis, understand that this analyzes nutrients based on their “as fed” content. When comparing wet to dry food, “as fed” percentages do not compare because the moisture in the food affects this percentage. For example, dry food will have a much larger protein percentage than canned food because the protein in the canned food is “diluted” by the increased moisture content. A more accurate way to compare foods is the “dry matter” content of different ingredients – these can often be found on the manufacturer’s website.

Finally, the label will also include feeding guidelines. These give suggested feeding amounts for your pet based on his/her weight and are measured in cans or 8 oz cups. These guidelines are too high for most primarily indoor pets, but may work for a highly active dog or cat. A good guideline is to feed the suggested amount or slightly less, then adjust your pet’s quantity of food based on their body condition score (your vet can help you determine this).

For more information on pet food labeling, visit these sites:

FDA Resources for You: Pet Food Labels – General
The Association of American Feed Control Officials