It’s confusing enough to sift through all the information about human diets that’s available, but the arena of pet food is just as full of information, misinformation, fads, opposing philosophies, contradictory data, and marketing.
Dietary needs vary depending on your pet’s life stage, weight, breed, overall health, activity level, and other individual factors. Visit your vet’s office or a reputable feline or canine nutritionist, and discuss your pet’s needs and how to meet them with an appropriate number of calories. Then, keep these points in mind when you’re looking at pet food labels.
1. Life stage
Pet food indicates which life stage (e.g., growth, adult maintenance, pregnancy/lactation, senior) it’s made for. Sometimes life stages are broken down further, and some foods are suitable for all life stages. Choose a pet food formulated for where your cat or dog is in her life.
2. Nutritional adequacy
Verify that the word “feeding” is used in the life stage nutritional adequacy claim. Make sure the label also states the food meets the AAFCO guidelines for nutritional adequacy.
3. Order of ingredients list
Pet food labels list the product’s ingredients in descending order of prevalence by weight. There’s more of the first ingredient by weight than any other. This doesn’t mean the food is predominantly the first ingredient, though; subsequent ingredients combined often outweigh the first. Also, some ingredients pack a lot of water weight, boosting them in the listing.
4. Meal and by-products
Meal and by-products are heat-processed and non-heat-processed miscellaneous animal parts, respectively, including heads, feet, viscera, and other parts generally considered unpalatable. While the protein in meal and by-products can be just as high quality as that of muscle meat, it isn’t consistently reliably so. Many pet owners choose to forgo products with these ingredients.
Hundreds of additives—from anticaking agents to artificial flavors and colors to humectants to preservatives to leavening agents and countless others—are used in many pet foods. They serve their purposes, some of which are more important than others, but most add no nutritional value. Opt for products with fewer additives and consider avoiding cat or dog foods with lots of ingredients you can’t pronounce or identify.
All pet foods need preservatives (though canned foods don’t need much, since canning is a preservative process). Chemical preservatives extend a product’s shelf life longer than natural ones. However, many synthetic preservatives are associated with health concerns, at least in high quantities. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), propyl gallate, propylene glycol, and ethoxyquin are common synthetic preservatives; tocopherols (vitamin E), ascorbic acid (vitamin C), and certain spices are common natural preservatives.
Regulators have many rules about when certain words can be used on a label, but marketers have many unregulated words at their disposal. For just a few examples:
A product can only say it’s “all” or “100%” one ingredient if it contains nothing else besides some water, decharacterizing agents, and trace preservatives or seasonings. A product that is called a “dinner” must contain at least 25 percent of those ingredients by weight or at least 10 percent by dry matter weight. If a pet food is made “with” an ingredient, it must make up at least 3 percent of the product’s weight. A “flavor” means the product contains enough of that ingredient or some extract of it to “impart a distinctive characteristic.”
There is no legal definition for the term “organic” in pet food. “Holistic,” “premium,” and “super-premium” officially mean nothing. An “all-natural” pet food must be free of synthetic ingredients, but because some vitamins and minerals are only available in synthetic forms for fortification, they are excluded from this rule.