Sep 06 2011

What’s in a pet food label?

Pet food labels contain a lot of information, some of which is easily misunderstood. Government regulations dictate the minimum information that will be found on a label, and this information varies according to the jurisdiction. Standard information includes the “guaranteed analysis”, the “ingredient list” and some sort of indication as to the intended use of the food. Many consumers assume that they can compare different brands of diets by reading and comparing the information contained on the package labels. However, this is not the case.

The guaranteed analysis is obtained by chemically analyzing representative batches of the product. For pet foods, the guaranteed analysis provides some information about the crude protein, fat, fiber, and moisture content of the diet, based on laboratory extraction techniques. The percent of the listed ingredients will be given as a “guaranteed” maximum or minimum level. For example, if the label states that the crude protein content is a minimum of 10%, it means that it will not contain less than 10% crude protein by analysis, but it may theoretically contain more than that level. The guaranteed analysis does not provide any information about the source or quality of dietary ingredients. Thus, using protein as an example, the guaranteed analysis would not differentiate between the proteins found in hair versus those found in muscle meat.

The ingredient list gives some indication as to the source of the nutrients, and the ingredients are listed in order of decreasing weight prior to processing. Thus an ingredient such as meat, that contains a lot of water before processing, may weigh more and be listed higher on the label, even though it may make up a smaller volume of the final product (because of evaporation and processing). Some pet food diets are made with variable formulas, in which the ingredients will vary according to availability. Diets that have a variable formula are usually recognized by an ingredient list that contains the words “and/or”, and the content of these diets will vary from batch to batch – in some cases, the product may be made by different manufacturers at different times of the year.

Although the ingredient list may give an indication of the source of the ingredients, it does not provide any indication of their quality. Better quality ingredients are usually more readily digestible and the pet will require less of the nutrient to meet its needs. Lower quality ingredients may put unnecessary strain on the pet’s digestive system and vital organs such as the liver and kidneys, which may have to work harder to digest the ingredients and eliminate the waste products. To some degree, the quality of the ingredients will be reflected in the price of the final product, especially with respect to low cost pet foods.

The pet food label should provide the consumer with some sort of indication as to the intended purpose of the food. A statement such as “complete and balanced nutrition for the adult dog” means that the diet is adequate to meet the nutritional needs of the average adult dog. If the label does not contain information to this effect, the product may not fully satisfy the animal’s dietary needs. Since requirements vary by life-stage and species, a food that is appropriate for an adult dog is not appropriate for a puppy or a pregnant female, nor is it adequate for a cat. The optimal way to determine if a particular diet is appropriate for a specific stage of life is through feeding trials – foods that have been tested in this way will usually have this information on the product label. Pet foods that have a “seal of approval” or a “certification” from a specific organization may or may not have undergone feeding trials; it is up to the consumer to determine exactly what a specific seal of approval means.

So, how do you determine the best food for your pet?

First, critically look at the food labels, taking the above information into account. Next, observe how your pet looks, in particular looking at his or her hair (whether it is shiny and how much he or she sheds), skin (looking for dandruff or flakiness), and general body condition (not too fat or too thin), as well as the size and consistency of the stools. Finally, talk to your veterinarian, who will either provide you with recommendations or direct you to reliable sources for further information.


Caution: These news items, written by Lifelearn Inc., are licensed to this practice for the personal use of our clients. Any copying, printing or further distribution is prohibited without the express written permission of Lifelearn Inc. Please note that the news information presented here is NOT a substitute for a proper consultation and/or clinical examination of your pet by our clinic veterinarian.

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