You’ve walked into a feed store or pet store and are staring at a rainbow of bags and cans of pet food. How on earth can you tell what’s a good food to give your pet? You might get some advise from a store clerk (does anyone refer to a store employee as clerk anymore?). But do they know what they are talking about? What about the pet food label—what does that tell you about the food you want to buy?

I’ve walked into such a store and am amazed at the choices we, as pet owner’s face, have in pet foods. I’m going to write a bit about what you can and cannot tell from the pet food label. In future blogs, perhaps we can discuss other aspects of pet nutrition such as grain free, raw diets, etc.

But today’s topic will stick to pet food labels, because it’s a big subject. The long and short of things is that you can’t understand everything about a diet from the label. But there are some important things to keep in mind.

Guaranteed analysis—doesn’t tell you much.

Guaranteed analysis shows you the minimum percentage of crude protein and crude fat, and the maximum percentage of crude fiber and moisture. This can vary greatly from batch to batch of the food, and tells you virtually nothing about the quality of the ingredients and what might be available.
To give you an example. You’re given three labels:

Label A: 6.0 min.% crude protein, 4.0 min % crude fat, 6.3 max.% crude fiber, 78 max. % moisture
Label B: 6.0 min.% crude protein, 6.0 min % crude fat, 1.5 max.% crude fiber, 78 max. % moisture
Label C: 4.5 min.% crude protein, 1.5 min % crude fat, 5.0 max.% crude fiber, 78 max. % moisture

Which would you pick based on this information?

Food A: leather boots, coal, or motor oil.
Food B: Old Yellow dog food
Food C: Royal Canin dog food

So I hope that you can see, there isn’t much to be gained by reading the guaranteed analysis.

Ingredient list

While the ingredient list is helpful, remember there are tricks to make you think that some ingredients are more plentiful than others. The most important thing to remember is that the items on the list appear in the order of heaviest to lightest. This order is determined BEFORE the ingredients are processed (cooked etc). So the meats usually appear first because they are mostly water and therefore are the heaviest item.

To make the meat seem even more numerous, companies will break up types of meat into individual names: deboned chicken, chicken meal, turkey meat, etc.

Nutritional adequacy statement

Nutritional adequacy statement will help you determine for which life stage a pet food is made. So if the label says the food is for all life stages, that means that it’s a puppy or kitten food and really isn’t appropriate for a senior pet or overweight pet.

If you have a pet food that states: “___________ is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog (or cat) Food Nutrient Profiles for ___________.” This diet has been formulated to meet AAFCO standards. Someone (preferably a veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist) has made up a recipe that meets the nutritional make up for an AAFCO standard for that particular life stage. This diet hasn’t been put through feeding trials to determine if those ingredients are readily available to your pet.

If the pet food label states: “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that ______________ provides complete and balanced nutrition for _____________.” This diet has been fed to a group of dogs or cats and clinically shown to provide the nutrition for what it was designed to do. While this is expensive for a company to do, it is the best means of showing that what has been put into the food, is digested and available to an individual pet.

So the nutritional adequacy statement is an important consideration when reading a label. If you’re looking for a puppy or kitten food, you want to make sure it says that the food is for all life stages. This assures you that the food’s content will adequately support a growing pet. But if you have an elderly pet, you don’t need or want the extra fat or protein that a growing pet needs. So you’ll want to make sure that the statement supports this (e.g. “food is good for mature pet or senior pet”). The best choice for food is a diet that the company has done feeding trials on their food. This is a costly procedure and so most companies do not do these feeding trials, but it should assure you that the ingredients and thereby the nutrients that are claimed on the label will be available and digested and utilized by your pet.

Now you know a little bit more about the pet food label. Next time, I’ll discuss the requirements are for pet food labels and what some of the terms such as by-product and meal, actually mean.

Now stop reading and go play with your pet!