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What Pet Food Should I Feed?

Did you know that more than 15,000 brands of pet food exist in North America? The seemingly endless choices and the frequency of pet food recalls in the news have many pet owners concerned that they are making a healthy and safe food choice.

This post will walk you through the meaning of the words used on pet food packaging and in pet food ads. It may mean you’ll need to put on your reading glasses when you pick up that bag of kibble!

Have you ever heard of AAFCO? The Association of American Feed Control Officials is a nonprofit association of state and local officials that develop guidelines for animal feeds. Their standards are a good place to start.

Pet food manufacturers typically show one of two AAFCO nutritional adequacy statements on their label. Look on the back or the sides of the package, knowing that it’s probably in small print. The first statement is based on the “formulation” and verifies that the food contains all nutrients identified as essential for a pet’s health based on species (cat or dog) and life stage. Refer to the top label on the photo below and notice that it specifies “dog” and “adult maintenance”. The second statement requires that “feeding tests” be done using AAFCO procedures to prove that cats or dogs can live and thrive on the food. Refer to the second label on the photo, noticing that again “dog” and “adult maintenance” are specified.  So what’s the difference? The “formulation” statement requires that a sample of the food be tested in a lab. The “feeding tests” statement requires the additional step of using real cats or dogs in feeding trials. This more rigorous testing also creates additional expense.


What does the pet food’s name tell you?  If an ingredient is used in the name of a pet food, at least 95% of the product must be the named ingredient—not counting the water added for processing and “condiments.” Counting the added water, the named ingredient still must comprise 70% of the product. If the name includes a combination of ingredients, such as “Chicken n’ Liver Dog Food,” the two ingredients must comprise 95% of the total weight. It is important to note that this rule only applies to ingredients of animal origin. Therefore, a product named “Lamb and Rice Dog Food,” must still contain at least 95% lamb, according to the FDA. (Source: dvm360.com)

Still with us on all the pet food terminology? Good, because this is where it gets interesting! Whenever a package of pet food has a fancy sounding name, read carefully. This is referred to as the “Dinner Rule”. If the term used is “dinner” (example: Chicken Dinner for Dogs”) or “entrée”, “formula”, “nuggets”, “platter” – the named ingredient must be at least 25% by weight of the food, but less than 95%.

So “Salmon Dinner for Cats” needs only be 25% salmon (whereas “Salmon Cat Food” must be 95% salmon) But wait – there’s more! (and if you’re like us, you’ll have to read this more than once for it to sink in) A combination of named ingredients, such as “Chicken and Turkey Entrée for Dogs” must equal 25% combined. The second ingredient must make up at least 3%.   Since chicken is less than 25% in this case, it may be the third or fourth listed ingredient. According to the FDA, “Because the primary ingredient is not always the named ingredient, and may in fact be an ingredient that the consumer does not wish to feed, the ingredient list should always be checked before purchase.” (Source: dvm360.com)

These little words make a big difference: “FOR” or “BY”.  Some pet food companies manufacture their own foods (labeled “manufactured BY”), while other pet food companies use a 3rd party company to manufacture their foods (labeled “manufactured FOR”). There are issues associated with 3rd party “contract packing”. While the companies who make the food in their own plant must have strict quality control in place, contract packers are not required to do independent testing. The contract packers can also change the supplier of the ingredients in the pet food at their discretion. As a result, the food can vary between batches and a consistent product between bags cannot be guaranteed. Also, many dog food brands share manufacturing facilities. This is why there are sometimes clusters of recalls with different food brands having the same contamination issue. This does not mean that foods packaged by a third party company are always bad. Companies that manufacture in-house, however, have more control and more accountability for the foods that are distributed under their name.

To summarize: Pet food packaging and labels contain a wealth of information, if you know what to look for.

  • First, the pet food should be labeled “Complete and Balanced” – this means the food meets the nutritional requirements of the AAFCO. Select a food that meets the AAFCO’s formulation test or, even better, has been subject to testing on real animals.
  • Don’t just depend on the name of the food – investigate further by studying the list of ingredients.
  • Choose a food based on your pet’s life stage.
  • Be aware of whether the food is manufactured by the pet food company, or by a third party company.
  • Discuss food choice with your veterinarian if your pet has any food allergies or special needs.
  • And of course, the food must be one that your pet will actually eat and that you can afford long term.
cat and dog sleeping

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