Reading pet food labels can be tricky. Understanding all of the information provided on packages is not an easy task. With so many options when looking for a diet for your dog or cat, it’s important to know what to look for when deciding on which product to feed your pets.
In Canada there are some mandatory elements required for all consumer labels, including those found on pet foods. These mandatory elements are: common name (dog food, cat treat), net weight, and manufacturers name and address. Other information that is commonly found on pet food labels are guaranteed analysis, nutritional adequacy statement, ingredient statement, and feeding directions. This information is subject to voluntary guidelines as outlined by the Pet Food Association of Canada (PFAC).
This set of guidelines mirrors the model regulations developed by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the organization responsible for the model regulation of animal feeds, including pet food, in the United States.
To help you select the best food for your dog, here is some information to help you decode your pet food label so that you can compare products and have a better understanding of the food you're feeding your pet.
The Guaranteed Analysis helps you understand how the ingredients will work together to meet the nutritional requirements needed in your pet's diet.
Three examples of nutrients that can be found on the Guaranteed Analysis panel are:
Ingredients and Nutrients are Not the Same
- Crude Protein - The level of crude protein that a pet food must provide in order to satisfy AAFCO's requirement for "complete and balanced" nutrition will vary depending on the dog or cat and their life stage. Examples of protein sources are chicken, lamb, chicken by-product meal, and corn gluten meal. If you are shopping for a dog or cat that needs to lose weight, studies have shown high protein nutrition can have a positive impact on older animals or those needing to lose weight1,2,3,4.
- Crude Fat - As with crude protein, AAFCO defines the minimum requirement for crude fat in a diet. All dogs and cats require a certain level of fat and fatty acids to maintain good health. Important nutrients such as linoleic acid found in corn and chicken, and other fatty acids such as DHA and EPA found in fish-based ingredients, contribute to total fat concentration fat, although some products will choose to list these nutrients individually as well.
- Crude Fiber - AAFCO does not define a maximum requirement for fiber, however it is a required element of a guaranteed analysis panel. If you have noticed that some formulas have more fiber than others, there are sometimes good reasons for this. For example, ingredients that are high in fiber such as corn germ meal or pea fiber are not "fillers”. They play specific roles in special needs formulas such as weight management diets, and may help pets to feel full and satisfied on reduced calorie diets.
Even though they are two different things, the words ‘nutrients’ and ‘ingredients’ are often used interchangeably.
are substances the body requires to support life: proteins, fat, carbohydrates, water, vitamins and minerals
are the raw materials used in pet foods to provide nutrients (e.g., chicken is added to the diet primarily as a protein source, but also provides fat, vitamins and minerals).
It is important to remember that the nutrients your dog or cat gets from the food is what counts. The ingredients are put in the food for various reasons in order to provide ‘complete and balanced’ nutrition for your pet.
One example of a nutrient is protein. Dogs and cats require specific amino acids to help build proteins. These amino acids can come from both animal and plant sources. The majority of plant protein sources do not contain all the correct proportions of the essentials amino acids a pet requires. This is why nutritionists use a variety of different protein sources in order to obtain an optimal blend of essential amino acids, providing the dog or cat with high-quality, complete dietary protein.
Nutritional Adequacy Statement
A Nutritional Adequacy Statement indicated that the food is suitable for a particular life state, i.e. growth, reproduction, adult maintenance, etc. It is important that the food says it is ‘complete and balanced’ and that it is not for intermittent or supplemental feeding. A veterinarian may recommend a diet that is for intermittent or supplemental feeding for specific health purposes.
What do Feeding Tests Mean on a Label?
A feeding trial ensures that the food is appropriate for that particular life stage. This means the product has been fed to a panel of dogs or cats and nutritional adequacy has been analytically confirmed.
What does Formulated to Meet Mean on a Label?
Formulated to meet means the food is within the AAFCO guidelines for protein, fat, carbohydrates and vitamins and minerals.
The diet must be formulated to meet nutrient profiles of AAFCO either based on ‘scientifically accurate calculations’ or based on ‘chemical laboratory analysis of the product.’
All pet foods that are labelled ‘complete and balanced’ for a particular life stage must have feeding directions on the bag. Use the feeding directions as a guideline and consult with your veterinarian if you need assistance.
Name and Address of Manufacturer or Distributer
The company is named as the guarantor of the product. “Manufactured” or “Distributed by” must be on the label. If you have questions about the product some companies have a 1-800 number on the bag for your inquiries.
1. Hanna, S.S., Laflamme, D.P., (1998) Increased dietary protein spares lean body mass during weight loss in dogs. J Vet Int Med. 12:224.
2. Laflamme D.P., Hannah, S.S. (2005) Increased dietary protein promotes fat lass and reduces loss of lean body mass during weight loss in cats. Int J Appl Res Vet Med. 3(2) 62-68.
3. Laflamme, D.P. (2008) Pet food safety: dietary protein. Topics Comp Anim Med. 23(3):154–157.
4. Wakshlag, J.J. (2010) Dietary Protein Consumption in the Healthy Aging Companion Animal. Proceedings of the Nestlé Purina Companion Animal Nutrition Summit: Focus on Gerontology, St. Louis, MO, 32-39.