Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: June 28, 2023 by Crystal Uys

Cat is eating canned food from ceramic plate placed

When you buy canned cat food – any brand of canned cat food – you will see a statement on the label that says that the food is “complete and balanced” according to AAFCO standards. This would lead you to assume that the food has all the nutrients your cat needs, right? This is not necessarily true.

What does “complete and balanced” really mean?

AAFCO, the American Association of Feed Control Officials, is the organization which is charged with establishing and enforcing animal feed requirements across all fifty state governments.  Its primary responsibility is to ensure the safety of feed for human food producing livestock.  The AAFCO statement on most pet food labels indicates that the food has been tested and approved as “complete and balanced for the life of a pet.”   This is sadly misleading.  The tests are conducted on very small groups of animals and for very short periods of time.  The only real long-term tests of pet food happen when pet owners feed these diets to their own pets.

Study showed thiamine deficiency in 12 out of 90 foods

Thiamine (vitamin B) is an essential nutrient necessary for carbohydrate metabolism, muscle concentration, and never conduction. Thiamine is only stored in the body in very small quantities, and cats depend on their diet to provide a steady source of this vitamin. Thiamine is naturally found in meat, especially  muscle and organ meats, as well as nuts, legumes, and brewer’s yeast. After two to four weeks of a thiamine deficient diet, cats may exhibit signs of thiamine deficiency, which can include increased salivation, loss of appetite and sometimes vomiting. Advanced signs of thiamine deficiency include dilated pupils, a slow heart rate, aggression, and neurological symptoms such as a rigid neck or head.

A recent study by the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University highlights how little the AAFCO statement really means when it comes to choosing pet food. The Winn Feline Foundation reports that researchers analyzed 90 canned cat foods from 45 different brands. The study was prompted by five recalls of cat food during the last five years.Thiamine levels were below the minimum requirement set by AAFCO in 12 of 90 foods and below the minimum recommended allowance of the National Research Council in 14 of 90 foods. Paté style foods had significantly lower thiamine levels than non-paté style foods, and smaller companies (less than $1,000,000 in retail sales) had significantly lower thiamine levels than larger companies (more than $2,000,000 in retail sales.) Neither fish or non-fish flavor or country of manufacture had a significant effect on thiamine levels. Researchers did not reveal the brands included in the study.

Veterinarian giving advice on pet food to cat owner
Image Credit: goodluz, Shutterstock

What does this mean for cat guardians?

The researchers in the study concluded that “pet food companies should strive to measure and limit thiamine loss during processing and implement strict quality control practices.” While I absolutely agree with this statement, I also think that this study shows that cat guardians shouldn’t rely on any one single food to be “complete and balanced.”

I recommend feeding a variety of brands and flavors, also known as a rotation diet. Human nutritionists tell us that food variety is an important part of maintaining a healthy diet, and yet, we don’t think twice about feeding our cats the same food, day after day. A rotation diet will not only ensure that your cat gets a variety of nutrients from different sources, it can also decrease the risk of developing food allergies and prevent your cat from becoming finicky.

If you suspect that your cat may be showing signs of thiamine deficiency, contact your veterinarian immediately.

For more details about the study, please visit the Winn Feline Foundation blog.

Featured Image Credit: Veera, Shutterstock

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