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With terms like "guaranteed analysis," countless percentages and a laundry list of ingredients, reading pet food labels can be a unique challenge when it comes to choosing the right nutrition for your pet. We're here to help cut through the technical terms and make sense of what's in your pet's meal.
First, a reassurance: both the type of ingredients in pet food, and how much of an ingredient is used, must go through an approval process. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) gives labeling recommendations that State Departments of Agriculture typically adopt and enforce. So all pet food with this labeling is nutritionally sound.
Select different sections of the food label below to reveal more information.
If your pet's canned food is named "Chicken for Cats," or "Beef for Dogs," etc., that protein must be at least 95% of the total weight of the product before cooking, or 70% of its weight after cooking, excluding water required for processing.
If the name of the food is "Chicken and Liver for Dogs," the two ingredients combined must make up 95% of the ingredients, with the first ingredient being the larger portion.
Words like "Dinner," "Recipe"& "Formula"
If the food you're looking at is labeled "Beef Recipe" or "Turkey Dinner," it means that the food must contain at least 25% of that named ingredient before cooking, not counting water for processing. If more than one ingredient is in the name, the combination must together make up at least 25% of the total recipe.
The Word "With"
When a pet food name contains the word "with," the ingredient following the word "with" must contain at least 3% of the ingredients in the uncooked product. For example, "Cat Food with Chicken" must have at least 3% chicken in the uncooked product.
The Word "Flavored"
As with human food, if it's "chicken-flavored," that doesn't necessarily mean it's full of real chicken ingredients.
Regulations say that a pet food using the word "flavored" must have the ingredient in sufficient quantity to make it detectable to your pet — but it can be natural or artificial flavor.
Starting with the largest percentage, pet food ingredients must be listed in order of the percentage of the food's total weight before cooking. Weight before cooking is important because most meats and some grains contain a large amount of water, so the actual amount of these items left in a food after cooking and processing can be as little as 20-30% of the original weight.
Listed ingredients must be officially recognized by AAFCO as a suitable pet food ingredient. Essentially, this means the manufacturer must use an "officially defined name" or the commonly used name for an ingredient, such as "sugar" instead of "sucrose."
Also, manufacturers are not allowed to lump ingredients into one term such as "grain products" for a combination of wheat, corn and oats. Each ingredient must be listed separately.
This section of the label explains what lab tests reveal to be in the food and gives percentages known as the guaranteed nutrient analysis. Here you'll find minimum crude protein, minimum crude fat, maximum crude fiber and maximum moisture.
The term "crude" is used because the nutrients can only be measured indirectly in lab testing, which produces an accurate, but imperfect estimate of nutrients. Also remember that canned and dry foods will differ on these numbers, since canned food has a greater overall percentage of moisture.
One thing to note is that dry and wet food guaranteed analyses may look very different because of their moisture contents. Generally, to compare something like protein amounts between dry and wet, multiply the guarantees for wet food by 4.
For example, if a canned food guaranteed analysis reports 8% protein, that would be comparable to a dry food with 32% protein.
Guaranteed amounts of other nutrients important to that food may also appear on the label. For example, if the package calls out "calcium enriched," the guaranteed nutrient analyses must include calcium.
The Nutritional Adequacy Statement on the label tells you the intended life stage of the pet. AAFCO defines requirements for growth, (adult) maintenance and pregnancy/lactation.
Interestingly, AAFCO does not define senior food, so ask your vet or an Associate for guidance when choosing the best product for your senior pet.
AAFCO also allows pet foods meeting specific criteria to claim that they are suitable for all life stages. But given the nutritional differences between young animals and senior pets, it's worth checking with your vet before feeding an "All Life Stages" food, especially to a senior pet.
Always read and stick to the suggested serving sizes listed on the label—unless your vet advises otherwise. Pets aren't likely to tell you when they're full, so portion control is key to maintaining their overall health and well-being.