Do You Know What's in Your Pet's Food?
Updated: Jun 9
You want to feed the best food for your pet, but have you ever found yourself just standing in the pet food aisle looking at the hundreds of brands in front of you wondering how the heck can you tell which is best?
This one has pretty pictures on the front. This bag says all-natural ingredients. This one says it's holistic. How are you supposed to know what is best?
You would think looking at the ingredient list would tell you everything you need to know. Turn the bag around, and look for ingredients that you can recognize. Surely, that's a safe way to know that the food is good and safe for your pet. However, it's not, and we're going to tell you why.
What is a pet food label?
The pet food label is a legal document regulated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). This label should provide a guaranteed analysis of what’s in the food, an ingredient list, a nutritional adequacy statement, feeding guidelines, and the manufacturer’s contact information.
Let's start with the guaranteed analysis. The guaranteed analysis indicates minimum or maximum levels of nutrients like protein, fat, fiber and moisture. You will not find the amount of carbohydrates present in the food here. Also, the fact that this is either minimum or maximum levels makes it difficult to determine if this is the optimal level for your pet.
These are not guarantees of the quality of the food. Moisture levels also vary between each product, which can make it very difficult to assess the true amount present in the product you are looking at.
The nutritional adequacy statement is AAFCO's statement on how the food is tested to determine if it is adequate for your pet.
If the package states the food supports "all lifestages," be wary. The product likely contains excessive nutrient levels necessary for the most demanding lifestage, which is growth. For example, the food might contain higher levels of protein and calcium for kittens, but those levels are inappropriate for an adult or senior cat. This is one of the many reasons why we advocate looking at your pet as an individual, because requirements change based on lifestage and if there are any disease conditions.
AAFCO allows two basic methods for pet food manufacturers to substantiate their claims. You would think that food trials are required, however, most foods choose to formulate food based on the AAFCO nutrient profiles. This method is less time consuming and cheaper, because it only requires a calculation of the nutrient levels. The feeding trial method is gold standard. An example of an AAFCO statement using the feeding trial method would be: "Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Brand X Dog Food provides complete and balanced nutrition for maintenance of adult dogs."
Yet, when you look at what actually goes into a feeding trial, you may be surprised. The protocol only requires 6 animals to pass based on a physical examination, not losing weight (becoming overweight is ok), and four blood values over 6 months! To learn more about these obscene requirements, check out Ryan Yamka, a board certified animal nutritionist, and his article about it here. Pet companies have stated that they can make a piece of leather fit the AAFCO requirements. I'm pretty sure leather is not a healthy meal for a pet!
Ingredients are the next part of the label, which can be tricky to read as a pet parent. Ingredients are listed in descending weight BEFORE processing. You will usually see meat listed as the first ingredient, because it is the heaviest. However, meat is comprised of usually around 75% water which once the kibble is extruded, the water content is left around 10%, which means the meat is probably now around 25% of it's weight, whereas the dry ingredients, like corn, did not change much.
These varied weights also come into play with a tactic pet food companies use called ingredient splitting. Ingredient splitting is a tricky way of subdividing a more abundant but cheaper ingredient into smaller portions. For example, you may see corn broken down into:
- corn gluten meal
- corn flour
- whole ground corn
By doing this, the weight of the corn is now divided into three which allows meat to still look like it is the number one or two ingredient in the food, even though it is not.
And finally, the "salt divider". If you don't follow Rodney Habib, you need to start NOW! He has done amazing things for exposing the pet food industries for tricks like the above with ingredient splitting. One of the other tactics pet food companies use is with the salt in foods. AAFCO recommends that dry dog food contains at least 0.3% sodium, and that dry cat food contains at least 0.2% sodium, for both maintenance and to support normal growth and development, which are minimum recommended levels.
According to Dr. Marion Nestlé, Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and Malden Nesheim, Professor of Nutrition Emeritus and Provost Emeritus at Cornell University, in their book “Feed Your Pet Right”:
Because most pet foods use similar formulas, our rule of thumb is that any ingredient that follows salt on the list must make up less than 1 percent of the diet. This has to be true for ingredients like vitamins and trace minerals because only tiny amounts are needed […]. Salt is a convenient marker of quantity.
If you think your pet's food has lots of healthy ingredients like blueberries and real food and it's listed after the salt on the label, think again! The company only has to put a tiny sprinkle of that ingredient in the food and they can list it on the ingredient list, and plaster the front of their bags with beautiful pictures of blueberries, cranberries, asparagus, and whatever else the consumer feels good about buying for their pet.
Always remember to educate yourself, and don't just assume that the pet food companies have your pet's best interests in mind.
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*Disclaimer: This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your own veterinarian or doctor. Dr. Katie Woodley cannot answer specific questions about your pet's medical issues or make medical recommendations for your pet without first establishing a veterinarian-client-patient relationship.