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Nutrition 101: Reading Your Pet Food Label

By Kim Everson, DVM

how-to-figure-out-pet-food-labelsIn this season of over-nutrition (I just enjoyed my second Thanksgiving feast in 3 days), it seems appropriate to discuss a popular topic in veterinary medicine: pet nutrition. If I only had a nickel for every time I was asked, “What brand of food should my pet eat?” There is no simple answer, but a brief response is “Whatever your pet does well on that you are comfortable feeding.” Now prepare for the long answer…

Actually, there are no answers to this question. I’ve looked, listened and asked. In veterinary training, professional seminars and published research. And the board certified veterinary nutritionists repeatedly respond with guidelines but never any hard and fast answers. Some rules of thumb for narrowing down your pet food choices are discussed below.

Rule #1: Be skeptical of marketing. I’ve heard “rumors” that big pet food companies are just out there to make money. Well, duh. A company has to be profitable to continue offering its products and services. I guess the boutique brands that cost twice as much as the traditional brands are in it solely for a love of animals. Right.

Yes, there are times you get what you pay for. And sometimes what you pay for is a pretty package and a guilt-trip. Read on for some tips for sorting through the marketing messages to find a nutritious food…

Rule #2: Find the AAFCO statement on the back of the bag. It’s got to be there somewhere. If not, pick a different food. AAFCO is the Association of American Feed Control Officials, a voluntary membership association of local, state and federal agencies charged by law to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds and animal drug remedies. Pet food companies submit their foods and/or recipes to AAFCO for nutrient analysis (good) or feeding trials (best). Meeting AAFCO standards means that–among other things–your cat is getting adequate taurine (see the postscript on my Cat Carrier post) and your St. Bernard pup has the nutrients necessary to develop a sturdy skeleton.


Rule #3: Make sure the AAFCO statement includes a phrase about being “complete and balanced.” Dry kibble has become the mainstay of most of our pets’ diets, so it must contain the right amounts of protein, fat, fiber and other necessary nutrients. Checking for “complete and balanced” is especially important if much of your pet’s daily nutrition comes from a can. Many canned foods are actually intended to be fed as a supplement or treat and may not be “complete and balanced” for lifelong nutrition!

Rule #4: Choose a food appropriate for your pet’s current “life stage.” A diet for all life stages is NOT a good thing! The most expensive foods seem to tout this phrase as a selling point, and it drives me crazy! “All life stages” meets nutritional guidelines for growth and development (i.e., puppies and kittens). A chubby spayed senior dog absolutely does not benefit from puppy nutrition. Juveniles need a formula for “growth and development” and adults need a “maintenance” formula. There is no such thing as a “senior” diet…they are typically just modified adult formulas and may be a good choice for certain minor health conditions in younger pets! 

Rule #5: Don’t be suckered into thinking “by-products” and “meat meal” are disgusting fillers.  First let’s remember that given an opportunity most felines will feast on mice and dogs will gorge on roadkill. Now that is disgusting! But it is “all natural” nutrition. 🙂  

“By-products” are the nutritional parts of the animal carcass, which Americans prefer not to eat themselves (e.g., non-skeletal meat including heart, liver, kidneys, etc.) Many by-products such as liver offer superior taste when used in pet foods. (By-products do NOT include hair, horns, teeth and hooves per AAFCO standards.)  

“Meat meal” (e.g., chicken meal) is nutritional meat with the majority of its water content removed. Meal contains the same nutrients as its whole meat source but weighs less because it is dehydrated. (Meal does NOTcontain blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents per AAFCO standards.)

Rule #6: Be skeptical of phrases such as “holistic,” “gourmet,” “human grade” or “organic.” These terms have no legal definition in the pet food industry and are primarily marketing terms. On the other hand, a pet food that claims to be “natural” must have no chemically synthesized ingredients (e.g., preservatives or artificial colors), but may contain added vitamins or minerals if stated as such on the label. Please don’t ever buy a “preservative-free” pet food. It’s just plain rancid. “Natural” preservatives are less potent, so foods preserved this way need to be consumed within 2-3 months of manufacture.

In summary, your average 3-year-old kitty’s pet food label will ideally read something like this: “Brand X SuperChow Cat Food has undergone feeding trials to meet the nutritional levels established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) cat food nutrient profiles for adult maintenance.”


Overwhelmed? You want a quick and dirty way to pick a pet food brand? My professional preference is to choose a brand with an equivalent veterinary prescription diet. In the U.S., this means you will be frequenting the aisles holding Iams/Eukanuba, Hill’s Science Diet, Purina, and Royal Canin. (No, I do not get a kickback to promote these brands.) As a scientifically-trained person I put more faith in companies that devote substantial time and money to research and development and have internal quality control for ingredients and accountability. With veterinarians and nutritionists on staff, these companies have formulated diets to dissolve bladder stones, cure diabetes* and help kidney failure patients live longer, healthier lives. If these companies can accomplish the delicate balancing act of providing precise nutrition for ailing pets I’m confident they can handle puppy chow.  

* Most diabetic felines suffer from type-2 diabetes related to obesity and related nutritional excesses. Managing weight and feeding an appropriate diet can reduce the amount of insulin needed to control the cat’s diabetes — and sometimes eliminates the need for insulin altogether!  

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