My purpose for visiting our local TSC (which is the closest pet food retailer in our town) was to do some research on what pet foods are available. This blog is not to choose one brand over the other, but to break down labels so you can make an informed and educated decision on how to select the right food for your pet.
First, let’s start with the front of the bag. The bag that is the most colorful and pretty is not always the best. The bag that is the most “natural-looking,” doesn’t mean the contents are natural in origin. Pet food brands are all about marketing for the consumer, so don’t get blinded by the bag that looks the most appealing. Take the time to read the ingredients and the nutritional content of the food.
There are only 3 things on the front of the bag that are required by AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials – they regulate the pet food industry). These 3 things are: the product name, the species the food is intended for (cat or dog), and the net weight/quantity of product within the package. There is some importance to the product name. The product name is not exclusive to the brand name – such as Dog Chow, 4Health, Blue Buffalo, etc. The product name also includes the ingredients. Purina Pro Plan Chicken and Rice is considered the product name – not just Purina Pro Plan. When a food is labeled this way, it is saying that chicken and rice makes up at least 25% of the food. Also, you will notice that a lot of canned foods use the words “dinner,” “formula,” “entrée,” or “recipe”. These words aren’t just marketing – these words actually follow the 25% rule. This means that if a canned food says “turkey and rice dinner,” then 25% of the food is turkey and rice. This does not mean that 25% is turkey and 25% is rice, it means that a combination of turkey and rice makes up 25%. There is also another rule. This rule is called the “with” or 3% rule. If a food says “with” an ingredient then it contains at least 3% of said ingredient. For example, chicken and rice with vegetables contains at least 3% of vegetables. The 3% rule does not apply to added vitamins and minerals in food. The last rule of the product name is the flavor rule. If a food states that it contains fish flavor, then that only means that a fish flavor is “detectable.” This rule is hard to evaluate as true unless you eat your pets food to see if you can detect the said flavor. The product name is probably the most misleading on a pet food bag and I hope this clears it up.
Something else you should look for that is usually on the front of the bag is the life stage for which the food is intended – such as for puppies, adults, or senior/mature adult pets. You will see some pet foods that say they are intended for all life stages. Steer clear of that particular bag (not necessarily that brand). Pets have different nutritional requirements at each stage of life, just like we humans do.
On the back (or side depending on the brand) is where the ingredients list and the nutritional levels (guaranteed analysis) are located. First let’s look at the ingredient list. This is where pet food companies tend to battle it out as to who has the most whole, natural ingredients. You’ve all seen the commercials comparing brands and some claiming that they don’t contain any by-product or chicken meal. I have yet to see a pet food that does not contain either by-products or meal. The definition is of a by-product is non-rendered clean parts of carcasses. The definition of meal is the dry, rendered product from a combination of clean flesh and skin. While this might not sound like the most appetizing to us, our pets know no different. How many of you have cats or dogs that like to eat mice, squirrels, birds, or whatever moving thing runs near them? When it comes to their prey, pets are not selective on which parts they eat. Generally, they will eat it all – which is why they end up coming to us with diarrhea or a bone in the intestinal tract. Therefore, you shouldn’t reject a food purely based on its inclusion of by-product or meal.
Something else that pet food companies do for strategic purposes is split ingredients. If you see an ingredient list that has corn, corn meal, and corn gluten all listed separately, then understand that corn, in and of itself, should be the first ingredient listed. Just as in human foods, ingredients are listed in descending order of inclusion before any cooking or drying takes place. So when you break corn into 3 different ingredients, it can be moved down the list versus just listing corn as the first ingredient. Also, don’t necessarily reject a food with corn listed as the first ingredient. This leads me into the discussion of the grain-free movement. As a general rule, our pets don’t have an aversion/allergy to grains. There is the occasional pet with a food allergy to grains, but it is generally not a problem. Most of the time when a pet is allergic to foods, it is the protein/meat source in the food that the pet is allergic to. Therefore, do not feel that you must feed your pet grain-free, unless it has been determined your pet is allergic to a specific grain through testing.
As far as the guaranteed analysis is concerned, the only thing I want to touch on here is the crude fat. The manufacturers are only required to put the minimum percentage of crude fat on the label unless it is labeled a low fat, lean, or light food. If it has those labels, then the manufacturer is required to put a maximum crude fat percentage as well. If you are trying to keep your pet trim and healthy you should take note of the variation between minimum and maximum crude fat percentage. Look at the label below. This food is labeled as a light food, therefore shows the minimum and maximum crude fat percentage. The maximum crude fat percentage is double that of the minimum.