Sep 10 2014

Deciphering pet food labels

Most pet owners appreciate the importance of diet to their pets health and longevity, but when it comes to selecting a good food option for their pets from the myriad choices that exist in the marketplace, the decision can be an overwhelming one. What should pet owners consider when reviewing the nutritional labeling on the various food options they are considering?

AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy Statement
While many believe the ingredient list to be one of the most important aspects of a pet foods nutritional labeling, pets, like all other organisms, thrive on nutrients, not ingredients. Therefore, comparing the ingredient list of the pet food options you are considering is not enough.

As Kara Burns, MS, MEd, LVT, VTS (Nutrition), president of the Academy of Veterinary Nutrition Technicians, points out, The quality of the pet food is not determined by individual ingredients, but the nutritional value of each ingredient or the value of how certain nutrients work together.

To help pet owners assess the nutritional value of a pet food, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) developed the AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy Statement.

The inclusion of this statement assures pet owners that the food they are considering meets specific nutritional guidelines laid out by the association and that it is complete and balanced for a specified life stage. It also includes how this statement was substantiated whether by AAFCO feeding trials or by meeting established AAFCO dog or cat food nutrient profiles.

An AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy Statement is one of the most important aspects of a dog or cat food label, says Burns.

The pet food manufacturer
Another important consideration is the quality of the manufacturer, not that of their marketing team, says Julie Churhill, DVM, PhD, Diplomate ACVN, associate clinical professor at University of Minnesota.

Does the manufacturer include their toll-free phone number on the packaging? Do they employ veterinary nutritionists, veterinarians, or other similarly certified staff? It is essential to ensure that the company producing your pets food has access to the resources required to formulate nutritious foods for your pet.

Calorie information
Soon to be required on nutritional labeling, the caloric content of certain pet foods can be quite surprising. Says Churchill, The [caloric] range of dry dog food can be as wide as 250 calories per cup to 600 calories per cup.

Aligning your pets caloric and nutritive needs with their life stage, activity level, spay/neuter status, and body condition, among other considerations, may require input from your veterinarian, but it is an exceedingly important aspect to take into consideration when selecting a pet food that will ensure the continued health of your pet.

Marketing claims
Be aware of the different marketing claims. Terms such as natural, which means that the foods ingredients have not undergone chemical alterations in accordance with FDA guidelines, are regulated, but other terms, such as holistic, have no legal definition, and their use on pet food labeling is unregulated.

Guaranteed analysis
While it is legally required, the guaranteed analysis, which lists the minimum percentage of crude protein and fat and the maximum percentage of crude fiber and moisture, is of little actual value, since the analysis does not offer specifics on the actual percentage of each. Often, more specific analyses are available from manufacturers if you request them.

Size-specific formulas
Significant differences exist between the nutritional needs of a small dog versus a large one. Further, the size of the kibble and serving size are tailored to the size of the dog that the formula was intended for. That said, breed-specific formulas are often not necessary. Consult your veterinarian when in doubt regarding the necessity of breed-specific formulas.

To fully decipher the nutritional labeling of your pets many food choices, different considerations must be weighed and marketing language must be waded through to discover the true merits of a given food choice. Consult your veterinarian with any questions regarding the specific nutritional needs of your pet, and do not hesitate to contact pet food manufacturers for further information on their products.

For more information, visit the Pet Nutrition Alliance.

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