Choosing the right commercial food for your pet is incredibly important because it will provide the foundation for their everyday nutrition. If you do not choose a healthy food for your pet, they will fail to thrive and could become more susceptible to disease. Unfortunately, choosing a pet food can be difficult because there are so many options available. So how do you choose? Your best bet is to learn the basics regarding how to read and understand pet food labels so that you can choose a product that is healthy for your pet.
Where to Start Reading Labels
Many pet owners fall victim to the marketing schemes that pet food manufacturers use to make their products seem better than the rest. These companies often use catch phrases like “all natural” to capture the attention of pet parents, leading them to believe that one product is better or healthier than another is. Unfortunately, there are few restrictions on the use of these claims, so just because a pet food is labeled “all natural,” does not necessarily mean that it is true.
So how do you know whether a food is truly good for your pet or not?
The first thing you should look for when evaluating a pet food is the AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is responsible for testing commercial pet foods to ensure that they meet the basic nutritional requirements of the pets for which they are formulated. If a pet food meets the basic nutritional requirements, the package will sport an AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy that will read something like this:
(Insert Name) “…is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog/Cat Food Nutrient Profiles for…” growth (puppies and lactating females) or maintenance (adults).
Reading the Ingredients List
If the food package shows some kind of AAFCO statement, you can rest assured that it will meet your pet’s basic nutritional requirements. Your evaluation of the pet food should not stop there, however – you should still look at the ingredients list and the guaranteed analysis. When reading the ingredients list for a pet food, you should hope to find a high-quality, whole source of protein listed first.
Ingredients are listed in order by weight, so the ingredients at the beginning of the list are found in the food in larger quantities than those at the end. Whole sources of protein include meats like chicken, lamb, turkey, and salmon. Do not be put off by meat by-products – which include organ meats, blood, bone and tissue – these ingredients are still healthy for your pet.
You should be wary of things labeled “meat meal” or “poultry by-product meal” because these ingredients could be subject to contamination and are not as good for your pet as whole protein sources.
You should also look for things like corn, wheat, cellulose, hulls, and middlings. These foods are typically used as fillers and they do not provide much nutritional value, if any at all. Your pet food should contain some source of digestible fiber, but it should not come from unhealthy ingredients or allergens like corn and wheat.
Keep an eye out for chemicals as well – many inexpensive dog foods are loaded with artificial ingredients such as coloring, preservatives, and artificial flavors which may make the food look and taste better to your dog or cat but do not provide nutritional value.
As a general rule, the shorter the ingredient list, the better the food. This may not be true in every case but, for the most part, foods made with fewer ingredients are also made with ingredients of higher quality.
Analyzing the Guaranteed Analysis
The other part of the food label you should pay attention to is the guaranteed analysis – this provides you with a breakdown of the protein, fat, fiber, and moisture content of the food. Reading the guaranteed analysis is a quick way for you to determine whether the food meets your pet’s needs for protein and fat. Unfortunately, the guaranteed analysis is typically measured by weight – this makes it hard to compare one product to another directly. The best way to use the information provided in the guaranteed analysis is to convert it to a dry matter measurement. To accomplish this, you first need to look at the moisture content of the food and subtract that number from 100%. Then multiply the remaining values for protein, fat and fiber by that percentage. Here’s an example:
A dry food formula contains 26% crude protein, 15% crude fat, and 4% crude fiber with a moisture content of 10%. To determine the dry matter content for protein, you would subtract 10% from 100% then multiply the result (90%) by 26 for a dry matter content of 23.4%. Using the same formula, you would get a dry matter fat content of 13.5% and fiber content of 3.6%. You could then use these numbers to compare directly to another dog food formula.
Choosing a healthy food for your pet can be a challenge, but if you take the time to understand the labels, you will be able to narrow down your options. Start by looking for an AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy, and then review the food’s ingredients list and the guaranteed analysis. Using these tools, you will be able to tell which foods are healthy and which are not.