Making Sense of Pet Food Labels

Dogs foodThe act of selecting the perfect food for your special pet can be a daunting task. If you take a visit to your favorite pet supply store, the options are overwhelming. Do you go with grain free? Is your dog a senior? Do you really need to spend that much to be a good pet owner?

Selecting a healthy pet food is much easier when you understand what is in the bag. In order to do that, you must understand how to read pet food labels and decipher what everything means. Having a good foundation understanding of pet food labels can make making your pet’s nutritional choices a much easier task.

Label Basics

There are a few parts of a pet food label that are required to appear on every single bag or can of dog or cat food. Be sure to look for these to know what you are getting.

The first thing to check for is the AAFCO statement. AAFCO, or the Association of American Feed Control Officials, is an organization that sets nutritional standards for pet foods sold in the United States. All pet food should bear a statement that tells you:

    • That the food meets AAFCO standards
    • Whether those standards were met by a nutritional formula method or actually fed to pets to prove suitability
  • For which stage of life the diet is best suited

All pet food should also bear a guaranteed analysis section which breaks down the minimum and maximum levels of protein, fat, fiber, and moisture in the diet. It does not tell you the exact levels of these nutrients, and it is not a great way to compare foods to one another, as it does not account for water weight variability between foods. If you want to compare, you will need to convert the percentages to a dry matter basis first. You can do this using an online calculator.

There should also be an ingredient list that tells you what the food contains. Again, it is difficult to compare foods directly to one another because of the flexibility in the way things can be listed. In general, you should look for a food that lists one or more meat-based ingredients as the first few items in the list.

When looking at pet food labels, also pay attention to where the food is processed and manufactured and whether there is a customer service line to call or contact with questions or concerns should they arise.

Important Pet Food Label Points

The pet food industry is certainly not exempt from advertising tricks and money-making schemes. It is very important to keep these things in mind when looking at a pet food label. Some common sticking points for owners include:

Meat as the first ingredient – While meat should be a primary ingredient in a pet food, manufacturers know that many owners look for it as the first ingredient. There are several tricks that can be used to bump meat up in the order, such as listing on a wet matter basis. For this reason, it is important to not discount a food even if meat is the second or third ingredient as they may actually even have more meat in them if listed in the same manner.

The grain free dilemma – Because most consumers are under the impression that grains are an undesirable ingredient in pet food, manufacturers avoid listing these ingredients where possible. They may split grains into smaller components so they appear further down the list or use other ingredients in place of grains. While grains can certainly be used as filler, they can also be a very nutritious ingredient when used properly. Grains are also not as significant of an allergen for pets as many people would believe.

The by-product stigma – Many people are turned off if they see the word by-product in the ingredient list. A by-product by AAFCO definition, though, encompasses a lot of things including organ meats and chicken necks. Many people feed these things as treats.  By-products are not feathers, hair, hide, hooves, or intestinal contents. They often have a great deal of nutritional value and shouldn’t be a deal breaker for you when purchasing food.

Advertising words – Beware of words such as holistic and human-grade, which have no legal meaning and can appear on any packaging. Pet foods labeled organic do need to follow the same USDA rules as organic human foods. Pet foods can make a wide variety of claims that don’t necessarily need to be true. Keep this in mind and do your research before buying a product based on advertisement.

Beverly Hills Veterinary Associates know how powerful diet can be in helping pets stay healthy. We offer nutritional consultation services to help you make the best choices when it comes to reading pet food labels and selecting the right food.