Have you ever looked at the nutrition label on a bag of dog or cat food out of curiosity or to figure out how much to feed your pet and found it quite confusing? Globalvet is here to help you understand what you’re putting in your furry friend’s bowl.
The first thing to know is that dog and cat food labels are regulated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and their importation into Canada is overseen by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). These agencies are responsible for protecting the health of citizens and their animals through uniform and fair laws, regulations, standards, definitions, and policies that regulate the manufacturing, labelling, distribution, and sale of animal feed.
In Canada, pet food labels are not highly regulated. Manufacturers are only required to comply with the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act, which requires only three pieces of information to be included on labels: 1) the name of the product, 2) the net weight of the product, and 3) the name and address of the manufacturer. Fortunately, the Competition Bureau of Canada has established a best practices guide for labelling and marketing pet foods produced in Canada. According to this voluntary code of conduct, pet food labels should contain the following:
- Product name (required)
- Net weight (required)
- Manufacturer name and address (required)
- Guaranteed analysis
- List of ingredients
- The terms “dog food” or “cat food”
- Declaration of nutritional suitability or purpose of the product (i.e., what the food is intended for: growth, adults, puppies, kittens, etc.)
- Declaration of nutritional sufficiency
- Caloric content statement
- Feeding instructions
HOW TO UNDERSTAND THE GUARANTEED ANALYSIS
You’ve probably seen a guaranteed analysis on your pet’s food packaging, even if you weren’t sure what it meant. This small box contains a list of various percentages. Unfortunately, you can’t simply compare these percentages between different pet food packages to decide which one to get for your dog or cat — the data isn’t that straightforward. Basically, it’s not always the best tool to use, and here’s why:
The guaranteed analysis indicates the minimum and maximum levels of certain nutrients. The following four nutrients must appear on the label:
- Protein (minimum %)
- Fat (minimum %)
- Fiber (maximum %)
- Moisture (maximum %)
A guaranteed minimum level is the lowest percentage of a nutrient found in the food, not the actual amount the food contains. For example, if the minimum percentage of fat is 8%, the product could contain 15% or more fat.
Conversely, a product with a guaranteed maximum of 5% fiber may only contain 1%. It’s also important to note that the moisture content varies from product to product, making it hard to directly compare products because moisture levels affect the percentage values of other nutrients.
As you can see, the percentages listed do not always reflect reality. A better way to find out what’s in the product is to call the toll-free number on the label and ask the manufacturer to explain the actual nutritional contents and values.
In addition to understanding the numbers, it’s also important to understand what different nutrients do for your pet.
- Protein: Proteins are needed to support your pet’s metabolism and hormone production and to protect their organ, muscle, bone, join, ligament, and tendon integrity. Proteins are needed for your pet’s metabolism, hormone production and protection of organ, muscle, bone, joints, ligaments and tendons integrity. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should buy whichever food contains the most protein. Find out why in this Globalvet article on protein content.
- Fiber: The guaranteed analysis does not state what type of fiber the food contains. Soluble and insoluble fibercan have different effects on your pet if they are experiencing diarrhea, constipation, hairballs, diabetes, or need to gain or lose weight. To learn more about fiber, see our blog post on the subject.
- Fats: In addition to being a source of energy, fats play a key role in nutrition and cellular function. They have many positive effects on your pet’s metabolism, immune system, and health. Certain types of fat are necessary for your pet’s brain, nervous system, and cells to function normally.
- Moisture: The moisture content tells you how much water is in the food. The amount of water can significantly affect the percentages of other nutrients listed in the guaranteed analysis (protein, fiber, etc.). For example, water will “dilute” the protein in the food, so you need to serve your pet a larger portion to meet their protein requirements. When comparing different food packages, it’s important to remember that the moisture content affects how much food you need to give your pet each day to meet their nutritional needs. Wetter food is good for animals that need more hydration.
THE INGREDIENT LIST
Ingredients are listed in descending order by ingoing weight, i.e., from heaviest amount included to lightest amount included. However, the weight is calculated before the ingredients are processed. For example, manufacturers who use whole pieces of chicken may list it as the first ingredient because the water contained in chicken makes it heavy. However, once the chicken is cooked and dehydrated and turned into kibble, there will probably be less of it in the final product!
This makes it hard to know what the actual proportions of the food are just by reading the ingredients.
Don’t just rely on the ingredient list — ingredients and nutrients are not the same thing. The nutritional profile (nutrients) is what matters when it comes to your pet’s health, so that should be your primary focus rather than specific ingredients. To learn more, read our article on the subject.
WHAT IS THE NUTRITIONAL ADEQUACY, OR AAFCO STATEMENT?
Every bag of dog or cat food must include a statement on the label verifying that the bag contains essential nutrients that are important for your pet’s health. AAFCO requirements specify two methods for pet food manufacturers to substantiate their product claims. The method used will be indicated on the bag.
This method requires the manufacturer to formulate the food to meet or exceed AAFCO nutrient profiles for dogs and cats. These profiles help manufacturers ensure that their foods contain the nutrients your pet needs.
This method is faster and less expensive because it does not require feeding trials with actual animals, only a calculation of the nutrient levels.
Here’s an example of what an AAFCO statement on a product using the formulation method might look like: “ABC brand cat food is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by AAFCO profiles for the maintenance of adult cats.”
FEEDING TRIAL METHOD
This method requires the manufacturer to conduct a feeding trial on animals according to AAFCO protocols.
It is recognized as the gold standard and is the most widely used method, since it documents the effects of the food on animals.
Here is an example of an AFFCO statement on the package of a food that was tested using the feeding trial method: “Animal feeding trials using AAFCO protocols confirm that Brand X dog food provides complete and balanced nutrition for the maintenance of adult dogs.”
The information on dog or cat food packages only gives you a snapshot of what is actually in the food. It’s best to verify the information directly with the manufacturer or ask your veterinarian for help so you know exactly what your pet is eating and can make smarter choices about different foods on the market.
Your veterinary team can help you understand these in-depth analyses and help you make the right choice. Globalvet is always there to help you choose the best food for your four-legged best friend. Feel free to give us a call!