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Pet Food Labels

Every year I have the pleasure of speaking to the Tahoma Animal Sciences students about careers in veterinary medicine. Part of my presentation discusses statistics associated with pet ownership and money spent on pet care in the United States. The 2017 results show in the US, pet cats outnumber pet dogs, 94 million vs. 89 million. However, 48% of US households have dogs, and only 38% of US households have cats. I guess cats are like potato chips-you can’t just have one. The financially, 69 billion dollars were spent on pet care in 2017, 29 billion was spent on pet food; veterinary care came in second at 17 billion.

Pet nutrition is a big business and also one of the most important things pet owners can do to keep their pet healthy. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) calls nutrition the 5th vital assessment (TPR and pain assessment the first 4.) And in any study done evaluating if veterinarians are making recommendations for pet food, either prescription or maintenance, we consistently fall short. Only 7% of pets that would benefit from a prescription diet are on a prescription diet. 90% of pet owners want their veterinarian to recommend a diet for their pet, and only 15% feel they are given that recommendation. Both are dismal statistics. Everyone feeds their pet every day, and ideally, they choose a diet that maintains and possibly improves their pet’s life.

The challenge is how do you pick that diet? Pet food manufacturers want you to buy their product and they use a lot of marketing to influence your decision. This month I decided to take a walk into the virtual mine field of pet food packaging and ingredients and try to help you decode pet food labels and make the best decision you can for your pet.

Let’s start with the packaging. There are two main areas on the packaging and there are rules for what has to be included and definitions and guidelines for claims and terminology used. The principal display panel (PDP) is the part of the labeling that is most likely to be displayed for sale; I call it the “billboard” section. The second area isn’t as flashy; it is the information panel and includes guaranteed analysis and ingredient list. The PDP will have information to identify the diet, such as dog food, cat food and a claim such as “nutritionally complete.” There are other terms that may be present that can help identify the composition of the product. If a diet names specific meat, like “chicken for cats,” it has to contain 95% of the meat named. Dinner, entrée, meal, formula, recipe, etc., must be 25% the named ingredient or ingredients. A lamb and rice formula has to be 25% lamb and rice, not 25% lamb. If a food states it is “with” an ingredient, that product must contain 3% of that ingredient. Flavor is the craziest term, the definition is that the product must contain enough of the flavoring to be recognized by the pet to be that flavor. How do they know if a dog recognized chicken flavor? The PDP always has marketing claims pointing out characteristic of the food. These statements are difficult to regulate and often lack specific definitions, so the claims should be taken with a grain of salt.

Next, let’s look at the information panel. This is where many savvy pet owners turn to get specific nutrition information about a product, however, this information only gives you information about quantity, not quality. The ingredient statement lists ingredients in descending order by weight. It is important to realize that the ingredients are listed on “as is” basis, prior to processing into the final product. Meats products have more water (70-80%) than plants (10%) and after processing,

especially into a dry kibble, there is much less of the meat ingredient as a percentage of the finished product. However, if the protein source is a meal, most of the water is already removed, keeping the percentage of that ingredient similar in the finished product. Be wary of ingredient splitting on the ingredient list, because there are multiple ingredients from the same source, they all show up lower on the list. For instance, wheat can be split into wheat germ, wheat bran and wheat flour, all of which can be listed separately. One of my pet peeves are the diets that have ingredients listed near the end of the list, most of the time after the vitamins, but at that level in the recipe, the amount in the finished product is minuscule/dust. That is just marketing to the emotions of pet owners.

Now I’m going to step on two landmines: byproducts and grain. Both have been directly in the crosshairs of pet food companies’ marketing teams. The way I explain byproducts to pet owners is the byproducts are what is left after the parts we like to eat are removed from a carcass. In some countries, the byproducts are regularly consumed (chicken feet are huge in China!) and in the wild, the first parts consumed by wild canids and felids are the internal organs (aka byproducts.) And even though I don’t want to eat a big plate of byproducts, or feed it to my dogs in the pre-processed state, in prepared food, byproducts are still good sources of nutrition. I like the comment on the AAFCO website, “Some arguments about byproducts focus on whether they are appetizing. But AAFCO does not regulate consumers’ opinions regarding ingredient aesthetics.”

Grain free diets have been in the news lately and if you regularly read my articles, I already mentioned the increase of heart disease in dogs that are on grain free diets. The specific mechanism still isn’t clear, but there seems to be some connection to diets that use legumes in the place of grain. The bottom line is there isn’t really any strong scientific reason behind grain free diets. Corn is and isn’t a four letter word. Corn isn’t filler; it supplies protein, fatty acids, vitamins and carbohydrates. Food allergies in pets are rare, and when present are more likely to be to the protein source in the food. Finally, the carbohydrate sources that replace the grains, commonly sweet potato, potato and tapioca, have less nutrition than the grains they are replacing.

When it comes to reading the pet food label, I have only touched the surface, but hope I have given you food for thought (pun intended!) Lastly and most importantly, when you are looking at the PDP (remember- the billboard part of the bag) find the contact information for the manufacturer and ask them questions. AAHA and the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) have a list of questions to ask a pet food company, the most important is, “What specific quality control measures does your company use to assure consistency and quality of the ingredients and the end product.”

During my research for this article I came across an excellent resource to help anyone get more information about pet nutrition, The Clinical Nutrition Center, Cummings Veterinary Medical Center, Tufts University,

I hope you find this article helpful and I’m happy to get your questions or comments.