Deciphering what’s written on your pet food packaging
Take a good look at the packaging of your pet’s food. Yes, a lot of things are written on it. You know some parts of the pet food label are surely here for marketing purposes, but you also trust that there is some important information as well. We are going to help you decode the label to understand what is really in your pet’s food.
THE PRODUCT NAME
The name of a pet food product is the first thing you will likely see when choosing from an array of options. Which species is it intended for? Which life stage (kitten/puppy, adult maintenance) is it designed for? A product name can often provide you with this information! Product names may also reflect key ingredients, but do little to demonstrate the true value of the food to your pet. Let’s see some examples below:
- Example 1 – XX Brand Chicken Dog Food:
- > 90% Chicken, dry matter
- *May not be complete and balanced!
- Example 2 – XX Brand Chicken and Beef Dog Food:
- > 90% Chicken & beef, dried, by weight
- More chicken than beef
- *May not be complete and balanced!
- Example 3 – XX Brand Chicken Dinner/Formula for Dogs:
- 25% – 95% Chicken, dried, by weight
- Example 4 – XX Brand Chicken and Beef Dinner for Dogs:
- 25% – 95% Chicken & beef combined, dried by weight, with more chicken
- Beef >3%, dried, by weight
- Example 5 – XX Brand Cat food with Turkey:
- 3% – 25% turkey dried, by weight
- Example 6 – XX Brand Salmon Flavour Cat Food:
- <3% Salmon, dried, by weight
Although this information may seem essential, we encourage you to focus on the information panel to better assess your pet’s food.
THE INGREDIENT LIST
Like most pet parents, you likely look at the ingredient list next, seeking and/or avoiding some key ingredients. All ingredients contained in the pet food are listed in descending order of weight, including the water content of that ingredient. For example, if chicken is the first ingredient on the list, chicken makes up the largest proportion of ingredients by weight in the pet food product. However, this is misleading, as the water content of the chicken also contributes to the weight. Another diet may contain chicken meal further down the ingredient list, yet this diet could have the same or even more actual protein content! Chicken meal is dehydrated chicken meat, so it weighs less than whole chicken, as it has less water. But does this really matter for your pet, or is it marketing?
The ingredient list does not provide you with nutritional information about the pet food. Pets require nutrients, not ingredients.
Knowing the ingredients may provide some insight into the sources of those nutrients, but it does not tell us anything in terms of quality, nutrient digestibility, or nutrient profiles. Your veterinary team may reference the ingredient list for patients with a diagnosed or suspected food allergy or sensitivity.
THE GUARANTEED ANALYSIS
This is likely the next place you look when reviewing your pet’s label. This part of the pet food packaging tells you a bit about the nutrient composition of the food. According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the guaranteed nutrient analysis must describe the minimum crude protein percentage, minimum crude fat percentage, maximum crude fibre percentage, and maximum moisture percentage of the food on an “as fed” basis. Some pet food may also show the content of specific nutrients such as vitamins (e.g. vitamin A, vitamin B12), omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, or minerals (e.g. zinc, copper, iron).
Is this helpful?
Although the presentation is often marketed to look similar, it should be stressed that this is different from what you find on our own food labels, which reflect the actual analysis. Pet food labels list just the minimum and maximum percentages for some nutrients and don’t reflect the actual nutrient composition of the food. Some pet food companies provide the actual nutrient analyses on their website and veterinary professionals are provided with the actual nutrient analyses for selection of veterinary diets.
NUTRITIONAL ADEQUACY STATEMENT
Although brief and sometimes hard to find, this is the most important part of your pet food label! This feature will tell you if the diet contains all essential nutrients needed by your pet, in standardized amounts and ratios, or if it may put your pet at risk of malnutrition if fed inappropriately. Ideally, the nutritional adequacy statement indicates that it is adequate to provide all nutrient requirements as per the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Do keep in mind that this nutrient profile is complete and balanced only for the species and life stage the food is intended for. Official guidelines are followed to ensure that nutrient composition is standardized.
…this is the most important part of your pet food label!
What does it tell you?
- The name of the diet.
- It should match the front of the bag.
- The species it should be fed to.
- This may be multiple species!
- The lifestage it should be fed for.
- Lifestages recognized are:
- large breed puppy growth
- all life-stages
- Lifestages recognized are:
- The method used to establish nutritional adequacy
- Feeding trials
Did you know? We have seen products where the nutritional adequacy statement differed from what is advertised on the front of the bag or within the product name. So, ensure your pet food has the right nutritional adequacy statement for your pet!
What should you know about life stages?
All-life stage diets have been developed to meet the needs of the most demanding life stage. This includes lactation and growth. The caloric and nutrient makeup is likely inappropriate for most pets, predisposing them to malnutrition. This will also specify if it includes the growth of large breed puppies.
Growth This life stage also requires a specific balance of nutrients and energy, often inappropriate for other life stages. Large breed puppies have different requirements from the growth of medium and small breeds, so this statement will also state, “except” or “including” the growth of large-breed puppies.
Gestation and lactation Ask any mother or breeder, this is the most demanding life stage and requires appropriate nutrition to support the bitch or queen. A growth diet may be inappropriate, as would a maintenance diet.
Maintenance means for adult animals.
Seniors are NOT included! Ask your veterinary team for guidance on feeding your senior pet. As our pets age, each individual pet will develop their own specific energy and nutrient requirements. The same applies to dogs and cats with specific health conditions.
Formulation vs. Feeding Trials
For the formulation method, the diet composition, i.e. ingredient ratios, was formulated with computer software and calculated to meet the required levels of essential nutrients. Some companies may analyze a sample of the final product to double check if the product matches the formulation, but not all do so, or may not do this for every diet or may not include all essential nutrients.
When pet food companies used AAFCO feeding trials to determine nutritional adequacy, the diet was fed to a small group of animals in the intended species for 8 weeks to assess if the diet provided the required level of essential nutrients. Some companies may perform additional testing to assess digestibility and palatability of the diet.
What does this look like?
OVC Super Cat Kibble is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) Cat Food Nutrient Profiles for maintenance of adult cats.
Other statements could include:
“For veterinary use only”, “Feed only as directed by your veterinarian”
This type of diet is for therapeutic use only based on veterinary recommendation and is designed to have an altered nutrient profile to treat a medical condition. It may not be complete and balanced for healthy pets. Ask your veterinary team for more information if you see this statement.
“For intermittent or supplemental use only”
This diet is not complete and balanced. We usually see this type of statement on packaging of treats and snacks. It should not exceed more than 10% of calories and will put your pet at risk for malnutrition if fed as a diet rather than a treat.
CALORIE STATEMENT AND FEEDING GUIDE
A calorie statement describes how much energy is in a unit amount of the pet food product. This is the calculated metabolizable energy content and is typically shown as kilocalories per kilogram or gram of food. Some products may also show how much energy is in one cup for kibbles or in one can for wet food.
The feeding guide provides suggested feeding amounts based on the energy content of the food. It should be noted that the guide is not a rule, but simply a recommendation. Consult with your veterinary team for a feeding program that best suits your pet’s needs and assures that your pet is maintained at an ideal body condition.
In Canada, the above is a suggestion, rather than a recommendation! This is important for our Canadian pets, as they may be eating a diet purchased commercially and there is no legal requirement for the diet to meet base nutrition requirements! Labels of pet foods produced in Canada must be bilingual, state the intended species and report units in metric, but there are no requirements for the nutrient content of the diets produced. Some Canadian pet food manufactures choose to abide by AAFCO and high standards of production by becoming members of the Pet Food Association of Canada (PFAC).
We advise that you consult with your veterinary care team for any questions relating to your pet’s nutrition before making any changes or modifications to their nutrition plan. If you would like help decoding your pet’s food label, your veterinary healthcare team can help! We do not condone the feeding of any diet type, and
Tesa Maria Teresa Kinasih, BScH, MSc Student (Department of Clinical Studies)
Shoshana Verton-Shaw, RVT, VTS (Nutrition)
Dr. Adronie Verbrugghe, DVM, PhD, European Veterinary Specialist in Veterinary and Comparative Nutrition® (Dip ECVCN)