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Pet Food Labels

Source: Carvel G. Tiekert, DVM (Animal Clinic of Harford City, Bel Air, MD)

Over the past few years a plethora of new foods have shown up on the market with all kinds of claims and counterclaims. Various marketing strategies have only led to confusion as to what these claims mean. This page hopes to at least let us grasp some understanding of what the pet food label means.

As we look at a label for the supposed purpose of the food (and here we look mostly at dog food, though now we have the same thing happening for cat foods), we see there is one for puppies, one for maintenance, one for seniors, etc. The focus of these differences is primarily on what levels of protein (crude) and fat is in the food. Interestingly, according to AAFCO (American Association of Feed Controls Officials, a quasi-federal regulatory agency), 18% protein, that level which is in most ‘senior’ formulas is adequate for all stages of life.

We’ll start by looking at the major components of a food, protein, fat and carbohydrates.

Protein, particularly the level of the protein, is the component of the food that most people make their most serious judgement of which food they want to use.

Unfortunately, this is also one of the most confusing issues to look at. Since protein is listed as ‘crude protein’ it can be difficult to determine just how ‘crude’ and thereby digestible the product is. Digestibility is critical to the body for proper utilisation of the food. A poor level of digestibility changes the significance of the percentage of protein in the food.

In my experience, many animals do better on foods with moderate to low levels of high quality protein. Remember, protein is only needed for maintenance and repair (primarily of muscles); otherwise it becomes an expensive energy source.

What can we tell from the label...
HIGHLY DIGESTIBLE: Egg, Meat or Meat Meal, Chicken or Chicken Meal or Lamb Meal etc. A clean combination of flesh and skin with or without bone. This supplies the best quality animal protein for maximum digestibility and reduced work for the system.

POORLY DIGESTED: Meat By-Products, Lamb By-Products or Chicken By-Products. Consists of hard to digest animal heads, feet, lungs, spleens, stomachs, etc.

What can't we tell from the label...
Ingredients must be put on the label in order of the amount of the ingredients. With an 18% protein product, we would normally expect the animal protein source to be the second or third ingredient. Since high quality whole grain has protein, if the animal protein source is high quality, it should not be the first ingredient.

Fats and fatty acids are also supplied in various ways. The animal protein meals contain fat, grains contain fatty acids and both fats and oils are available as single ingredients.

What can we tell from the label...
Fat is normally of animal origin and is usually listed as either ‘animal fat’ or poultry fat’. Oils are usually from vegetable sources, and unless stated are normally of varied sources. Oils do not contain all of the essential fatty acids.

What can't we tell from the label...
Again, the quality and type is at the discretion of the manufacturer and can be anything from tallow to table grade fat. Lower grade fats are more difficult for the animal to utilise and they require more preservatives to stabilise them.

Smaller amounts of table grade fat (good quality) can deliver the same level of energy as a larger amount of poorer quality tallow fat. This may be something you can determine from the guaranteed analysis.

These vary from whole grains, which not only supply high quality complex carbohydrates to products which have been stripped of most of their nutritional benefits.

What can we tell from the label...
GOOD: Ground whole grains e.g. ground brown rice, ground yellow corn, oatmeal etc.
POOR: Ground grains or flour e.g. ground wheat, wheat flour, rice flour, brewer’s rice.

Basically simple carbohydrates. Sometimes by-products of other industries and inexpensive for manufacturers to buy. They tend to be stripped of essential vitamins and minerals.

What can't we tell from the label...
In this situation, we again can’t tell the quality of the ingredient from the label.

Other things we can tell from the label...
What preservatives are used in the food? Most pet foods (and for that matter most human foods) are preserved with a variety of chemicals. The average 25 pound dog will consume between 6 and 9 pounds of chemical preservatives a year if fed on a diet preserved with chemical additives. Not in my opinion, the best thing nutritionally.

Pet foods can also be preserved with natural antioxidants (primarily Vitamins E and C). Besides being natural preservatives, Vitamins E and C have nutritional benefits.

A food requiring one cup per 25 pounds of body weight is of higher quality than a food that requires one cup per 15 pounds of body weight. (The lower the feeding recommendations the higher the quality of food).

NB: Foods containing BHA and BHT chemical preservatives may be labelled such as: 'Contains EC permitted preservatives, or contains EU permitted antioxidants'

Carvel G. Tiekert, DVM (Animal Clinic of Harford City, Bel Air, MD)

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