Taking the Mystery Out of Pet Food Labels

Natural and dry dog's foodIf you’ve been to any large pet supply store lately, you may have been overwhelmed by all the different food choices on the shelves. From grain-free to wild meats like elk, there are lots of opinions on what constitutes a “healthy” pet diet.

Although you may have picked up a can or bag and reviewed the ingredients, your first reaction was likely one of confusion. Are only natural ingredients good? What about all the specialty fruits and veggies – are these needed? How does one even begin to decipher pet food labels?

Pet Food Labels and the AAFCO

To begin with, the best person to get advice from about the right diet for your pet is your veterinarian! He or she already knows your pet’s medical history, life stage, lifestyle, and preferences. This provides the most beneficial information to make accurate and healthy recommendations for your pet.  

Next up, the AAFCO. What’s that, you ask?

Just like for humans, pet food has certain guidelines and criteria that must be met. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is one of the agencies responsible for setting these standards. Essentially, they establish the baseline criteria that pet foods must meet before they can be sold.

However, since the AAFCO sets the complete and balanced nutrition values based on generalized pet needs, it’s always best to consult your veterinarian for specific recommendations.

Beyond the Basics

All pet foods should contain these four essentials: proteins, fat, fiber, and moisture. The levels and the ingredients selected, however, can vary widely from product-to-product.

When reading a pet food label, ingredients are listed in descending order. The first 5 ingredients are the ones that comprise the majority of the product, so use this as a gauge when shopping (meat and meals are usually listed first). Some general guidelines when it comes to ingredients include:

  • Opt for complete proteins over by-products (i.e., choose chicken, turkey, or beef rather than chicken meal or beef by-product).
  • According to AAFCO rules, a product’s name that includes an ingredient must contain 25-95% of that ingredient.
  • Rather than choose foods based on marketing or brand names, check the first 5 ingredients of a pet food label to determine the composition of the product.  
  • Felines need a moisture heavy diet that consists primarily of protein (chicken, lamb, fish, etc.). We recommend complete protein wet food since it contains both.
  • Don’t be tempted by the convenience of over-the-counter diets (like those for weight loss). Prescription diets are scientifically formulated for specific diseases and/or conditions, so your pet will truly benefit from these foods.  
  • The AAFCO allows products to be labeled as “premium,” “gourmet,” and “holistic” without any change to ingredients/nutritional value. That’s why it’s important to review the criteria or inquire about the facts before paying premium prices.

As a responsible, caring pet owner, we encourage you to ask questions about your pet’s optimal diet. To get the best advice, please schedule a veterinary consultation or wellness exam with one of our caring staff.