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A How-to Guide for Understanding Pet Food Labels

Have you ever wondered which food to feed your pet, based on the label? As soon as we walk into pet stores, we’re bombarded with terms like “grain-free,” “no by-products, “natural,” and many others. In the end, we all want to feed our pets the highest quality food that provides them with the nutrition they need. Choosing your pet’s food is an important decision!

Label Standards

Pet foods are regulated by the FDA for safety, and by the Association of American Feed Officials (AAFCO) for adherence to established regulations. Every food will have a “nutritional adequacy” statement, which may be the most important part of the label. A food listed as “complete and balanced” is nutritionally adequate as a stand-alone diet. Those labeled, “for all life stages” further meet the requirements for growth, gestation, etc., while other foods may be labeled for specific life stages only. Products that are not intended to support a complete, balanced diet will be labeled as “treats,” “snacks,” or will depict the statement, “This product is intended for supplemental or intermittent feeding only.” Checking for the AAFCO logo and reading the nutritional adequacy statement are great places to start in evaluating a new food.

Ingredient Lists

According to AAFCO standards, ingredients are listed in descending order of weight. Water content is included, which means that meats and vegetables are often listed first, though this doesn’t always represent their nutritional contributions to the diet. AAFCO defines the use of certain ingredients, such as “by-products,” which include only safe, edible components. Generally speaking, the ingredient list is not the best way to evaluate a food: we recommend focusing on AAFCO labeling, guaranteed analysis, and some of the other topics we’re covering here.

Guaranteed Analysis

This is where your pet’s food label will list the percentage of crude protein, fat, fiber, and moisture. These amounts need to be interpreted carefully when comparing dry and wet foods, and direct comparisons should only be made between foods in one of these two categories. Pet foods are required to list a calorie content in kilocalories (kcals), which are equal to the “calories” we’re used to seeing on human food labels. Your veterinarian can use a food’s calorie content to let you know what volume to feed your pet per day.

Undefined Terms

It’s important to mention a few terms you may see that do not have technical definitions. Words like “natural,” “organic, “premium,” “or “gourmet” are not defined by AAFCO, and therefore do not carry any legal implications. These are marketing tactics on behalf of the food companies, though their presence does not mean that a food is bad. The company is just advertising its product.

Additional Resources

Your BetterVet veterinarian will be more than happy to go over your pet’s food label in detail- just ask! For more information, check out the World Small Animal Veterinary Association’s site on nutritional guidelines and food assessment tools at https://wsava.org/global-guidelines/global-nutrition-guidelines/.

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