How Safe is Your Pet's Food? Decoding the Pet Food Label

Every couple of years I purchase new running shoes. And, each time I walk into the store the same thing happens. Immediately, I am drawn to the prettiest pairs, those with beautiful colors and a sleek design.

The salesperson always reminds me of what should by now be painfully obvious: “You never choose shoes by the look, only by the fit.” I begrudgingly bid adieu to the slim, hot pink Nike’s and say hello to a more sensible pair that address my horrible supination. My feet thank me in the end.

When it comes to pet foods and their mysterious labels, eye-catching bags and fancy marketing claims could lead you to purchase products assuming you know what’s inside. The reality of the ingredients however could be much different. Or, like my hot pink Nike’s, just not the right fit for your pet. Here’s the breakdown:

  1. AAFCO Seal of Approval - To feed your pet a “nutritionally complete diet” look for the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) label that reads, "(Name of product) is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO (Dog/Cat) Food Nutrient Profiles." Keep in mind that just because a food meets minimum nutritional standards does not mean that it is always the right choice for your pet. There is much more to consider.
  2. The First Five (What the Ingredient Order Tells You) - Believe it or not, the top five ingredients tell you quite a bit about your pet’s food. Ingredients are listed by order of weight inclusive of the ingredients’ water content.
    1. Look for named meats (turkey, chicken, beef, salmon) and named meat meals in the first one, two or three ingredients, and whole grains in the third, fourth and fifth spots. Blue Buffalo’s Life Protection Formula line is a good example.
    2. Lesser quality ingredients would include glutens, by-products, corn, wheat, and soy. Try to steer clear of these ingredients whenever possible.
  3. It’s All in the Name - According to the FDA, a pet food’s name has meaning. For example, if a can of food is labeled Chicken for Dogs the can must contain at least 95% of Chicken exclusive of water added for processing. It also should be the first item on the ingredient label.

    When a food is labeled with terms such as dinner, entrée, formula, nuggets, (e.g. Beef Dinner) the food must contain a minimum of 25% of the named ingredient (prior to water being added). Oh, and by the way if a product name contains the word “with” as in Cat Food with Beef, that product only needs to contain 3% beef. Clear as mud? Stay with me.

  4. Counting Calories - When calories are listed on a label they must be listed as “kilocalories per kilogram.” Kilocalories and calories are the same. They both mean 1000 calories.

    Be sure to compare the kcals on each bag of food you are considering and the corresponding feeding instructions; you will find many differences. O.k. we are rounding third base.

  5. Deciphering Nutritional Analysis - many states require pet food labels to list minimum percentages of protein and fat and maximum percentages of fiber and moisture. Of course, canned food percentages are always lower than dry food percentages because of the amount of water in the can. Want to compare a canned food to a dry food? A good rough estimate is to multiply the guaranteed percentages on a can by four and you will be close.

While hot pink Nikes may not tempt your dog, the food you feed is just as important to her body as a good pair of running shoes is to yours. Don’t be swayed by the pretty bag, unless of course the pretty bag is packed with healthy and nutritious ingredients.

Does your pup have a favorite label? Tell me what it is!