The nutritional information on pet food can be more confusing than the labels on human food. We'd like to help by providing some tips for cutting through the technical stuff and making sense of what's in your pet's dinner.
Understanding the Regulations
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) drafts recommendations relating to pet food labeling that State Departments of Agriculture typically adopt and enforce. So how can these regulations help you understand what's in your pet's food?
Order of Ingredients
The ingredients of pet food 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 kibble production can be as little as 20-30% of the initial weight.
Listed ingredients must be officially recognized by AAFCO. 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, they're 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.
If your pet's canned food is named "Chicken for Cats," or "Beef for Dogs," etc., that protein ingredient must be a minimum of 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 be a minimum of 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.
This section of the label gives percentages for the guaranteed nutrient analyses, or in other words, what lab tests reveal to be in the food. Similar to looking at the nutrition facts on a granola bar, here you'll find at least the minimum crude protein, minimum crude fat, maximum crude fiber and maximum moisture. It can also contain guaranteed amounts of other nutrients important to that food as well. For example, if the package calls out "calcium enriched," the guaranteed nutrient analyses must include calcium.
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 (water).
The Nutritional Adequacy Statement on the label tells you what stage of life the pet food is tailored to. AAFCO defines requirements for growth, (adult) maintenance and pregnancy/lactation. Interestingly, AAFCO does not define a senior dog food, so ask your vet 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 also 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. As we all know, pets aren't likely to say, "No more, thanks, I'm full!" so portion control is key to maintaining their overall health and well-being.