Pet Tips

Reading pet food labels – Pet tip 146

Attempting to choose the right pet food for your dog or cat can be a daunting task. Wandering amongst the aisles of food in your local pet store, there seem to be millions of options. While many owners appreciate the variety, most don’t know where to begin when it comes to making the right decisions for their pet. Aside from the sheer volume of pet foods available, a large part of the confusion for pet owners stems from the packaging and labelling techniques used by various pet food companies as a part of their marketing strategies.

These companies know that most people are more likely to read the bold print on the front of the package than they are to read the nutritional information printed on the side. Some brands will claim their products as ‘all natural’ or ‘complete and balanced’, but these statements often mean something different to the companies than they do to the consumer. It is important then, as a responsible pet owner, to learn to decode the information on pet food packages as best you can, so you can make an educated decision about what you feed your pet.

Currently in Canada there are some regulations that have been put in place to decrease the amount of ‘false’ advertising that is put on pet food packaging, and to increase the uniformity in terms of the types of information that must be reported. This includes, at a bare minimum, providing proper identification of product, a net quantity statement, the manufacturer’s address, and a proper listing of ingredients. In addition to these federal requirements however, good quality pet foods will also follow guidelines laid out by the CVMA (Canadian Veterinary Medical Association) Pet Food Certification Program, and American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

These associations have much more stringent standards in terms of what can and cannot appear on pet food packages. For example, under AAFCO’s regulations, a company cannot call it’s product ‘beef’ unless it consists of at least 95% beef, whereas a product that claims to be ‘beef flavoured’ consists of less than 25% beef. These sorts of guidelines help to protect consumers, but it is still important to look beyond the front panel of a product and examine its full nutritional profile.

Unlike the foods humans eat, dog and cat foods are usually expected to be the sole source of nutrition for these pets. This is where claims like ‘nutritionally balanced’ or ‘complete’ become important. In order for a product to make such claims, a product must either contain ingredients that meet the requirements of previously established nutrient profiles, or run their product through AAFCO feeding trial protocols. Included in their nutritional adequacy statement, companies must also include which life stage their product is suitable for (ie: for gestation, growth, or maintenance). If a product does not meet outlined nutrient requirements, it will be identified as a snack or treat. Products must also have a ‘guaranteed analysis’ statement. This is a guarantee that the product contains at least the minimum percentages of protein, fat, fiber, and moisture, and the maximum percentage of ash (the mineral component).

Ingredient lists on pet foods (as in human foods) will include all ingredients listed in order of predominance by weight. Therefore, for most products, you will see ingredients like beef, or corn, listed early on, and more complicated unusual ingredient names further down the list. Many owners are turned off by ingredients like these, with ‘chemical-sounding’ names, but in fact, most are extremely necessary and often beneficial to our pets (for example, vitamins and minerals). Others might be artificial flavours or preservatives, but all must be safe and approved to get AAFCO recognition.

To learn more about the types of ingredients and nutrients that are important to your cat or dog, it is important to talk to your veterinarian. Whether they recommend a specific food or brand, or simply give you some general guidelines to follow, your life will be made simpler by following their advice. If you are interested in learning even more about your pet’s nutrition, ask your vet to walk through an ingredient list with you, so you know exactly what to look for.

By Alison Norwich – writer

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