Trying to choose the best pet food for your animal can be confusing. Do you really know what nutritional claims like "real beef flavor" and "all natural" mean? Actually, animal protein in pet food can come from the scraps and by-products left over from meat processing, and that expensive bag of "premium" dog food could actually contain chicken feet as one of its protein sources.
Pet food ingredients are regulated on a state-by-state basis. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) establishes a national standard for ingredients, definitions, and nutrient levels, but the organization has no enforcement authority. This means that AAFCO does not regulate pet food, but it does provide standards for what goes on pet food labels. The bottom line? If you want to choose the healthiest pet food, you should understand the basics of their labels.
A Pet Food Label Primer
Unfortunately, pet food labeling can be misleading. Knowing what to look for can help:
- Name equals content. Pet food cannot be named "Beef for Dogs" unless it contains at least 95 percent beef. If a pet food clearly states a type of meat, it is usually safe to assume that is what your pet will get.
- Beware of doggy "dinners." The exception to the 95-percent rule is when pet food manufacturers combine a meat name with the terms "dinner," "platter," "entrée," "nuggets," or "formula." When pet food manufacturers use these words, the meat may make up as little as 25 percent of the pet food.
- Steer clear of the terms "flavor" and "with." When a pet food says "Beef Flavor Dog Food," it means that the product just needs to taste like beef and might be beef meal or beef by-products. The word "with," as in "with real beef," means that manufacturers only need to include 3 percent beef by weight.
- Ignore superlatives. Terms like "premium," “gourmet," and even "super ultra premium" are not regulated, so they don't mean anything.
- Know the difference between "natural" and "organic." The term natural is not an official definition, so it can be used indiscriminately. Organic, on the other hand, does have a strict legal definition and cannot be used unless the pet food meets the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s standards.
4 Tips for Choosing Healthy Pet Food
Here are more tips that can help:
- Read the ingredients list. The descriptive names of pet foods can be misleading, but the AAFCO also asks pet food manufacturers to list all the actual ingredients in descending order by weight on their product can or bag. The ingredients list is where you can find out how healthy the pet food actually is.
- Buy dog and cat food that contains meat protein. They are carnivores, so they do best with real meat. The AAFCO says cows, pigs, goats, or sheep should be the meat sources for dog and cat food. Make sure that a whole meat source is listed as one of the top two ingredients.
- Pick wet pet food over dry. Wet pet food is packaged in cans or pouches and tends to be fresher, have more protein, and be of higher quality. Dry pet food is often sprayed with fat to give it more taste. Mixing dry food with water or other liquids may allow bacteria on the surface of dry food to multiply, which is bad for your pet’s health.
- Avoid animal by-products. Meat by-products are not handled as safely as whole meat and may include lungs, spleen, bone, blood, stomachs, and intestines. Poultry by-products include necks and feet.
Stay Vigilant for Your Pet’s Health
Despite your best efforts, giving your dog or cat a healthy pet diet can be challenging. Pet food manufacturers use many terms in their labeling and, although regulations do exist, there have been many incidents over the years of pet food making pets sick. In March of 2007, for example, more than 100 brands of pet food, including some of the most prominent names in the industry — like Hill's Science Diet, Iams, Eukanuba, and Purina — were contaminated by melamine, a chemical used in fertilizer and plastics and, in this case, imported into the United States from China. Thousands of pets got sick, and about 20 percent died from kidney failure. The incident led to indictments of individuals in both countries.
Protect your pet by learning the right pet food terminology and reading the ingredients list carefully. The person most responsible for your pet's health is you.