Making sense of a pet food label
You've just welcomed a new addition — maybe a 5-year-old dachshund or new kitten — into your home and you're getting everything in order to make your new pet comfortable. Of course, part of the comfort factor is a tasty, healthy pet food. So, you rush to the pet store, check the variety of brands and begin reading pet food labels.
What is a pet food label? A pet food label is a legal document regulated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and is the primary means of communication between the pet food manufacturers and pet owners.
Deciphering the label. Now, after reading the label, you're confused — ingredients versus nutritional facts, guaranteed analysis, an endorsement by AAFCO. What does it all mean?
We understand your frustration and confusion. Therefore, we'll try to help you interpret a pet food label so you can make the best purchasing decision for your dog or cat. Let's start at the top:
- The difference between "ingredients" and "nutrients" needs to be clarified. Ingredients are the vehicles that provide nutrients, while nutrients are food components that support life and are metabolically useful. For example, lamb is an ingredient that provides nutrients such as protein, fatty acids and vitamins.
- Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. The high water content in chicken, beef and lamb makes these ingredients weigh more than dry ingredients such as grains, meals and vitamins, so they are often listed first.
- Indicates minimum or maximum levels of nutrients such as protein, fat, fiber and moisture.
- Does not indicate or provide exact levels of nutrients in the pet food.
- Is not a guarantee of the nutritional quality of the pet food.
- Moisture levels in pet foods vary, making it nearly impossible for an average pet owner to accurately compare nutritional information.
Nutritional Adequacy Statement or "AAFCO Statement"
- AAFCO is an organization that sets the nutritional standards for pet foods sold in the United States.
- This legally required statement verifies the testing method used to determine nutritional adequacy.
- The statement indicates whether the food provides complete and balanced nutrition for a specific lifestage of your pet(growth, adult, pregnant/nursing), or if the product is nutritionally adequate for all lifestages.
- Beware if the package states the food supports "all lifestages." The product likely contains excessive levels of some nutrients necessary for the most demanding lifestage, which is growth. For example, it might contain higher levels of protein and calcium for puppies and kittens, but those levels are inappropriate for an adult or senior pet.
As a pet owner, you should know that nutritional excesses can be as harmful and are more common than nutritional deficiencies. Download a PDF of How to Read a Pet Food Label to print and take with you to the store.
Manufacturer's Toll-free Number
The package label should contain the manufacturer's name and phone number. We encourage you to call the companies to learn more about their products, including place of manufacturing, actual nutrient content, calories and palatability of your prospective pet food choice.