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Understanding Pet Food Labels

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Reading and understanding a pet food label is challenging. "Chicken n' Fish Gourmet Dinner for Cats," "Yum-Yum Premium Quality Chef's Special Chicken De-Lite Puppy Chow," "Brand X All-Natural Happy Paws Dog Food." You've seen it all before: the catchy labels, the TV ads that try to make pet food look as tasty and appealing as what you serve your family to eat. But just what's in that stuff? And whether it comes out of a can, a box, or a foil packet, how do you compare the nutrient values on different pet food labels? What does it all mean?

Product name and product ingredients: 95%, 25%, or 3%?

It should be pretty easy to tell what's in a serving of pet food; alas, it requires a little work. The first order of business is to figure out if you're getting what you think you're getting. If the label says "beef," how much is actually beef? The Center for Veterinary Medicine of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides a summary for consumers of pet food labeling rules.

There are three basic rules:

The 95% rule

If a product bears a name such as "Beef for Dogs'' or "Tuna Cat Food,'' the rules require that at least 95% of the product consist of the named ingredient - in this case, beef or tuna - not counting the water added for processing. If the name includes some other food, such as "Chicken 'n Tuna Cat Food,'' the two food items together must comprise 95% of the total weight, and the first-named product must be the one that predominates. (In other words, it can't be called "Chicken 'n Tuna'' if it has more tuna than chicken.)

NOTE: This rule applies only to ingredients of animal origin. So, a can of "Chicken and Rice Dog Food'' must contain at least 95% chicken.

The 25% rule

But suppose the label says "Shrimp Dinner.'' If there is a qualifying word - such as "Dinner,'' Entree,'' "Platter,'' "Formula,'' etc., the named ingredient(s) must comprise at least 25% of the product - again, not counting added water - but less than 95%. This can be important. Suppose your cat doesn't like fish (not all cats do). You might think that it will go for a food labeled "Chicken Dinner.'' Not necessarily. That food may be only 25% chicken. Much of the rest may actually be fish. In fact, it may contain more fish than chicken as long as the two ingredients together comprise at least 25% of the whole.

The 3% rule

A third wrinkle in the labeling rules has to do with a seemingly simple innocent word: "with." If a pet food label contains that word in its product name, there only has to be 3% of that product - not 95% or 25% - in the package. For example, while a product called "Tuna Cat Food'' must contain 95% tuna, a product labeled "Cat Food with Tuna'' only has to contain 3% tuna. So, it's important to read the label carefully.

Ingredients vs. nutrients: 'Guaranteed analysis'

OK, now you know what ingredients are in the can. But what about things like protein, vitamins, minerals, and the other substances that your pet needs for proper nutrition? This is where "guaranteed analysis" comes in.

The FDA rules require that pet food labels state the minimum percentages of protein and fat, and the maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture. Many manufacturers also list other nutrients as well. Dog food labels frequently include the minimum percentage levels of calcium, phosphorus, sodium, and linoleic acid. Cat food labels will usually also list the quantities of taurine and magnesium, two nutrients that are essential for feline nutrition.

Moisture content

The story would end there but for one complication: Different pet foods have different moisture contents. Dry pet foods have the least, "moist" pet foods have more, canned pet foods have the most. So, when comparing different labels, don't mix apples with oranges. Compare one canned food with another, one dry food with another, and so forth. If you want to compare two different types of foods, you'll have to do a calculation that takes into account the different moisture contents of the foods. If you're feeling ambitious, the FDA website will tell you how.

A comprehensive approach

As important as it is to know what's in your pet's food, remember that there's more to good nutrition than reading pet food labels. You also have to know what your pet's nutritional requirements are. Check with your veterinarian for pet-specific advice. He or she is your best source of information.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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