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Pet Food Labels: What you should know

Drs. Foster & Smith Educational Staff
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Information presented on pet food packaging can be very helpful in determining which food is best for your pet. When choosing a pet food, be sure to read the entire package, and carefully consider the guaranteed analysis, dry matter basis, and ingredients. Just a few minutes spent comparing, analyzing, and selecting a quality pet food can help to ensure a happy, healthy pet for many years to come.

Today's pet food labels are packed with valuable information to help you determine the quality of your pet's food - if you know how to read them. In addition to providing information about the amount and quality of protein, fat, carbohydrates, fiber, and other nutrients included in the food, the label also alerts you to any unwanted preservatives and provides general feeding guidelines.

The label can also help you when you're considering the price of the food. Using information on the label, you can calculate the price per pound or the price per day. And be sure to check the ingredients - they will tell the real story.

Guaranteed Analysis

The Guaranteed Analysis shown on the information panel of a pet food package tells you how much crude protein, crude fat, fiber, and other vital nutrients are included in your pet's food. It does not, however, provide information about ingredient digestibility. Digestibility, expressed as a percent, is a measure of the amount of food retained in the body after it has been eaten. For example, if a dog eats 8 oz. of food, and produces 3 oz. of stool, the food's digestibility is 63% (the difference between the weight of food eaten and the weight of stool produced, divided by the weight of the food). The digestibility of proteinand fat can vary widely depending on their sources.

Converting dry matter basis

Dry matter in a pet food - the amount of ingredients remaining once the food's moisture has been factored out - can be converted/calculated using the information contained in the guaranteed analysis. Canned foods can have up to 80% moisture, whereas some dry foods have as little as 6%. Converting dry matter basis is important for two reasons. First, pet food is priced by the pound - food that is 80% water contains only 20% food, making the amount of actual food your pet consumes small and more expensive. Second, determining dry matter can help you compare crude protein and fat between brands and between canned and dry foods. Guaranteed Analysis listings on pet food labels typically describe the food as it is (moisture included), not on a dry matter basis. Converting to a dry matter basis on different brands of food will let you compare their nutritional benefits accurately. Fortunately, the conversion is rather simple.

A dry pet food with 10% moisture logically contains 90% dry matter. Look at the label and check the protein level. Say, for example, that the protein level reads 20%. To get the dry matter basis, divide the 20% protein by the 90% dry matter. This calculation yields a protein value of 22% on a dry matter basis.

Now let us compare this dry pet food to canned pet food with 80% moisture (and 20% dry matter). The canned food label shows 5% protein. Dividing the 5% protein by 20% dry matter results in 25% protein on a dry matter basis. This specific comparison shows that the canned food has more protein per pound on a dry matter basis than the dry food. You can perform similar comparisons for fat, fiber, and so on.

Ingredient list

Because all pet foods must list their ingredients in order of weight, the ingredient list is one of the best ways to determine a food's quality. Once you understand the ingredients, you can choose a food that is highly digestible and free of unwanted products. As a consumer, you should consider all the ingredients (even the ingredients at the end of the list) as well as the type of preservatives being used - natural or artificial.

The AAFCO standards

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) develops guidelines (standards) for the production, labeling, and sale of animal foods. AAFCO has developed two standards specifically for pet foods. Pet foods meeting AAFCO's requirements will include one of two statements on their label.

The first standard states that the food is "formulated to meet AAFCO's nutrient requirement." This means the food was laboratory tested and was found to have the recommended amounts of protein, fat, fiber, and so on.

The second standard states something such as "animal-feeding tests using AAFCO's procedures substantiate that this product provides complete and balanced nutrition." Pet food labels may include this standard only if a food was shown to provide adequate nutrition after feeding trials to a controlled population of animals for six months. However, AAFCO allows pet food manufacturers to place this statement on every food with equal or greater nutrient concentrations in a specific "family" of food, even if only one product in the "family" met this standard. So, be aware - even if a pet food carries the AAFCO food trial statement on its label, you can not be sure that the specific product was actually tested in a food trial. While AAFCO statements on a pet food label may be open to interpretation, they definitely demonstrate the manufacturer's commitment to creating a quality pet food.

Feeding instructions

Feeding instructions or feeding guidelines are included on most every pet food package, and provide the recommended amount to be fed based on growth level and weight. Feeding guidelines should be regarded as recommendations only since every animal has unique daily requirements based on activity level, metabolism, breed, age, ambient environmental temperature, and stress factors. Start with these recommendations, then adjust the quantity fed based on your unique pet's appetite. If you're unsure about how much to feed your pet, contact your veterinarian for advice.

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