Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: June 30, 2023 by Crystal Uys
I’ve previously written about the foods I recommend based on what an obligate carnivore like the cat needs to thrive. In general, the progression from most desirable to least desirable is a raw food diet (either commercial or homemade), a home cooked whole food diet, grain-free canned food, and, if cost is a consideration, any canned food. I do not recommend any dry food for cats (read The Truth About Dry Cat Food for more on why this dry food is not a good choice). But even within these parameters, the available options can be overwhelming. Pet food labels should be a useful tool to help pet owners decide which foods to select. Unfortunately, unless you know how to interpret the often confusing information on the labels, they may only add to the confusion.
Pet food packaging is all about marketing
Pet food packaging is all about marketing. Our pets couldn’t care less what container their food comes in, or whether it has cute pictures of kittens and puppies on it. They don’t care about pretty label and brand colors, but you can bet that pet food companies spend major marketing dollars on determining which colors appeal to pet owners. Don’t let pet foods labelled as “natural” mislead you – just because the label has the word “natural” and pictures of wholesome vegetables and grains on it does not necessarily make it so. The only way you can be sure to understand what’s in a food is by reading the label. Here are some things to look for:
Pet food manufacturers are required to list ingredients in descending order; in other words, the most predominant ingredient has to be listed first. Look for meat based proteins as the main ingredient. Avoid anything that lists corn or soy and their by-products – these two ingredients are some of the prime culprits for causing allergies in pets. Don’t be fooled into thinking that a food is good for your pet because it lists ingredients such as peas, carrots, cranberries, blueberries and the like. Pets don’t really need these ingredients to thrive, but they make for good marketing to the pet’s human. They can be a source of antioxidants and vitamins, but in many foods, the amounts are not significant enough to make a difference.
Manufacturers are required to list basic nutrient percentages on the label. Typically, this portion of the label will list crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber, moisture, and ash content. Note that there is no listing for carbohydrates on food labels, which is a very important consideration when it comes to feeding cats, who are obligate carnivores. However, it is not difficult to calculate approximate carbohydrate contents. Simply add all of the listed nutrients and subtract the total from 100% – this will give you a fairly accurate number.
This is probably the most misunderstood item on pet food labels. 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!
Just like selecting food for yourself and your human family members, choosing healthy food for your pets comes down to educating yourself, reading labels, and not falling for marketing hype. Your pets will thank you for it.
Featured Image Credit: Tyler Olson, Shutterstock
About the author
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.