How to Read a Pet Food Label

pet-food-label

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:

Ingredients 

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.

Guaranteed Analysis

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.

AAFCO Statement

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.

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Amber’s Mewsings: Training My New Sister

So you already know from Mom that we have a new baby in the house.  I could tell something was up when Mom came home one day last week and she was all excited and said something about a kitten and then she let me smell her hands and there was kitten scent all over them.  I didn’t think anything of it until she kept telling me that we were going to get a new family member.  She really tried to prepare me, I’ll give her that.  It’s been over a year now since my sister Buckley passed on, and I kind of liked being the only cat again and having Mom’s undivided attention.  Sure, it got lonely sometimes, but Mom is home a lot, and when she’s not, I sleep most of the time anyway.

But apparently Mom had made up her mind, and on Tuesday, she brought Allegra home.  At first, I couldn’t believe it.  I really wasn’t thrilled, and I made sure that both Mom and this new interloper knew it.  I may be totally sweet most of the time, but I can hiss and growl with the best of them.  Besides, I have to make sure this little whippersnapper knows who’s in charge around here!  The first day, I pretty much just stayed  away from Allegra, and watched her from a safe distance.  If she came too close, I gave her a warning growl or hiss.  A couple of times, she pushed her luck, and I had to smack her upside the head.   I know Mom was upset, she knew I wasn’t happy and she hated that her decision to bring Allegra home was the reason for it.  I tried to tell her that I understood she didn’t do it to upset me, I knew she couldn’t help herself, but it was not a happy day.  That evening, I was relieved when Mom took me to bed with her.  That’s our time together, we always snuggle at night, and I was really glad that even having a new baby in the house wasn’t going to change that.  I stayed snuggled up against Mom all night long, and that felt really nice, like old times.

Unfortunately, when I woke up the next morning, the little pipsqueak was still here.  I hadn’t just dreamed the whole thing.  The day didnt start out so great.  I was minding my own business, heading down the stairs to use the litterbox downstairs hoping for some privacy when the little stinker attacked me from behind.  Boy, was I mad!  I swatted and hissed at her.   Thankfully, the day got better as it went on.  I continued to keep a close eye on her, and it was actually kind of fun to watch her get used to our house.  She’s fascinated with windows.  I guess I’ve gotten kind of blasé about them, taking our backyard views of birds and squirrels for granted, but I still remember what it was like when I first came here.  It was almost overwhelming – so many windows to look out from, so many soft places to sit, it’s hard to know where to start, and I was an adult at the time and much smarter, not a little kitten like Allegra.

Anyway, I relaxed a little bit more, and as a result, I could feel Mom relaxing, too.  She really worries about me, and I love her for it.  And then something really fun happened – a big box arrived, and when Mom opened it, I realized that it was filled with cans of cat food!  So I had to go check it out.  When Allegra joined me, it didn’t even bother me, and we both helped Mom unpack the food.  Good to know that Allegra and I have that in common – we both love our food!

The last two nights, Allegra even slept in our bed with us for part of the night.  At first I wasn’t crazy about it, but I was safely curled up in Mom’s arms, and as long as I get to do that, all is well with my world, and I guess I can be big-hearted enough to allow this little kitten on our bed, too.

It will be interesting here, now that there’s three of us again.  Mom told me she’s counting on me to show Allegra the ropes, and I won’t let her down.

New Family Member: Meet Allegra

The Conscious Cat has a new family member!  Amber and I are excited to welcome Allegra into our hearts and into our home.  Well, right now I might be a little more excited than Amber, but so far, things have been going really well.  Amber is watching the newcomer from a cautious distance, and if she comes too close for comfort, she lets Allegra know who’s in charge.

I found Allegra on Facebook on the Great Falls Animal Hospital Cat Adoptions page.  When I contacted the page administrator for more information, I was told that she was seven months old and “very very sweet, loves cats, loves dogs, loves people, loves life!”    I knew I had to meet this little girl.  The first time I met her, I spent about an hour in an exam room with her.  She was your typical ADHD kitten – discovering and exploring everything, whether it was a stethoscope hanging from a hook on the wall or a syringe cap on the floor.  She didn’t pay all that much attention to me, but I started to fall in love with her anyway.  However, I didn’t want to make a hasty decision.  I had only just begun to even think about bringing another cat into our lives.  I didn’t know whether I wanted a kitten or an adult cat.  So I went home, slept on it, thought about it – and I just couldn’t get Allegra out of my mind.  I went back to see her again the next morning.  And that’s when I just knew.   She was meant to come home with us.

Her background, as far as I know it, is this:  she was rescued from a county shelter in Maryland, and fostered by two different foster moms.  Her most recent foster mom described her as a “total love bug lap kitty” who loved to follow her everywhere.

I brought her home yesterday morning.   And so a new chapter in our lives begins.  Allegra spent most of yesterday exploring her new home.  She was particularly fascinated by windows – something she hadn’t been able to enjoy for the last ten days when she lived at the animal hospital.  Everything seemed to delight her – bumble bees flying by, leaves blowing in the wind, squirrels rushing by outside.  It’s so much fun watching her discover her world.

Amber is not so sure this was a good idea just yet.  I’m sure you’ll hear all about it from Amber herself soon.  And you never know, Allegra might eventually want to contribute to The Conscious Cat, too, once she adjusts to her new home and new life.

Book Review: Your Cat – Simple New Secrets to a Longer, Stronger Life by Elizabeth M. Hodgkins, D.V.M., Esq.

Elizabeth Hodgkins, a successful veterinarian for more than twenty years, formerly served as Director of Technical Affairs at Hill’s Pet Nutrition, and as such, has had an insider’s view of one of the giants of the pet food industry.  In her book Your Cat – Simple New Secrets to a Longer, Stronger Life, Dr. Hodgkins raises the alarm regarding the dry pet food we feed our cats and the degenerative diseases that result from a diet that is completely contrary to what an obligate carnivore like the cat needs to thrive.

From kitten through adult life to the senior years, Dr. Hodgkins explores the full spectrum of proper cat care, and offers a closer look at the common chronic diseases that afflict so many cats – diabetes, kidney disease,  thyroid disease, allergies, heart disease, and more.  The underlying cause for many of these diseases, as well as the key to managing or even curing them, is nutrition.

I’ve been passionate about feline nutrition for a long time, and I’ve done a lot of research and reading about it, but I have not found a book that presents the reasons why cats need protein and not carbohydrates as the mainstay of their diet as succinctly and convincingly as this one.   Going back to the cat’s origins as a desert-dwelling predator, Dr. Hodgkins explains why cats cannot thrive on dry food, but need a high protein, low carbohydrate, moisture-based diet.  She examines the problems with today’s pet food industry with an insider’s view and explains in detail why dry food is so harmful for cats.  She offers her recommendations for what we should feed our cats, including how to choose the best canned food, or how to safely prepare raw food for cats.

She also takes a thorough look at many common feline diseases, sharing case histories of cats she has treated in her practice.  The stories are convincing and provide a wonderful resource as well as hope for cat owners who may be dealing with these conditions.

This book should be required reading for all cat parents – in a way, it’s almost like an “owner’s manual” for cats.  It should also be required reading for veterinarians.  Sadly, most veterinarians receive very little education on nutrition in veterinary schools, and what little they do receive is sponsored by the large pet food companies.  The science presented in veterinary school nutrition courses is based on limited in-house studies by the pet food companies that typically only test their products with an eye to proving what they want the studies to prove.  Dr. Hodgkins explains the limitations of these studies in detail in her book.

This book will change the way you view what you’re feeding your cat.  It will also change your view of the pet food industry and what you may have considered good cat nutrition.  Your cat will thank you!

Coming on Monday on The Conscious Cat:  learn more about why dry food is not a good choice for your cat.

Meet the Author with Clea Simon

Did you miss last night’s Meet the Author teleseminar with Clea Simon?  You can still listen to the interview by clicking on the link below.   You can also save the recording to disk so you can listen to it on the media player of your choice by right clicking on the link, and then selecting “save target as” (for PC’s) or “save link as” (for Mac’s).

Thanks to everyone who joined us on the call, and for asking such great questions!

Meet the Author with Clea Simon

Adventures in Veterinary Medicine – Diesel

In this second installment in our Adventures in Veterinary Medicine series, meet Diesel.  Diesel was brought into the animal hospital by a client who had found him by the side of the road, barely breathing and clearly in pain.   His long black and white coat was matted, and he was covered in gasoline and motor oil.  The fumes coming off of him were enough to warrant wearing a gas mask – and yes, you guessed it, that’s how he got his name.  Veterinary clinic staff members sometimes have a warped sense of humor when it comes to naming strays.

When our veterinarian examined him, it turned out that he had a broken pelvis, and multiple contusions.   They gave him pain medication, and then the staff went to work with a mild detergent, washing the gas and oil off of him.  Diesel was patient and didn’t resist any of these treatments, he simply seemed relieved that his ordeal by the side of the road was over.  He was set up in a cage with a soft blanket, plenty of food and a warming lamp.  Once his fur had dried from the bath he was given, he got a gentle brushing.  The cat underneath all that gasoline and motor oil was a beauty.  He was a bit emaciated and had clearly been living outdoors fending for himself, but he had a loving and affectionate disposition, which made us believe that at some point, he may have been someone’s pet.   His wonderful personality  got him plenty of attention, petting, and being fussed over by everyone on the staff while he was recuperating.  The type of pelvic fracture he had did not require surgery, he simply needed to be kept quiet to allow the bones to heal naturally, and he received supportive care during his recovery.  No owner came forward to claim him during this time, so after a couple of weeks, he went to Casey’s House – coincidentally, the same private rescue group where Buckley came from.  Given Diesel’s personality, we didn’t think it would take long for him to be adopted.

A few days after he went to Casey’s House, Diesel began to develop some disturbing neurological symptoms, so he was brought back to our animal hospital for observation and care.   Since he initially came to the hospital covered in gasoline and motor oil, there was certainly the possibility that absorbing these toxic chemicals through his skin could have caused these symptoms.  However, since his vaccine history was unknown and he had clearly been a stray, rabies could not be ruled out.

Rabies is zoonotic, which means it can be transmitted from animals to humans.  The only way rabies can be diagnosed with 100% certainty is through a dFA test on the animal’s brain tissue, and for this, the animal has to be euthanized.   The thought of euthanizing a beautiful cat like Diesel without being sure that he really had rabies was emotionally challenging for all of us, but we also had to think of the risk to the humans who had come into contact with him.  Rabies is transmitted by the saliva of an infected animal, and contact with even a minor skin wound on a human can present a risk.  Rabies, once contracted, is always fatal if prophylactic injections are not started within 24-48 hours after infection.  Our hospital had a policy that only staff who was vaccinated against rabies could handle the occasional injured wildlife that was brought into our clinic, but we had not enforced this policy for stray cats, even though in hindsight, we should have.  Almost everyone on our staff had at some point petted and touched Diesel, whether they had been vaccinated or not.

The thought of euthanizing this beautiful cat if there was even a chance that he could recover was devastating.  Thankfully, Diesel made the decision easy for us.  He declined so rapidly, and it was clear that he was suffering, so euthanasia was not only the right thing to do for the humans involved, but also for him.  His rabies test came back positive.  Almost twenty staff members had to undergo a series of rabies vaccinations. 

This story will always stick with me not because it was a hospital manager’s worst nightmare – making sure that everyone who came into contact with Diesel was identified and appraised of the risk and the need to get the series of injections, reassuring scared and worried employees, arranging for the health department to schedule the injections for our staff, dealing with the insurance companies involved – but also, because of Diesel.  Even though he had contracted this horrible disease in addition to being hit by a car, at least, thanks to the good Samaritan who brought him to our clinic, he was loved and cared for during the last few weeks of his life, even if it was at a veterinary hospital.   And in the end, he did not have to die alone.

Easter Safety Tips for Pets

As you get ready to celebrate Easter with family and friends, keep the following precautions in mind to ensure that your furry family members stay safe and healthy.

Chocolate:  Chocolate is toxic for pets, especially dogs.  Even small amounts of chocolate can be extremely dangerous.  The toxic component in chocolate, theobromine, can cause vomiting, diarrhea, hyperactivity, seizures and an abnormally elevated heart rate.  Different types of chocolate contain varying levels of theobromine.  Dark chocolate contains the highest amounts and is therefore the most toxic to dogs.  Early symptoms of chocolate toxicity are vomiting, diarrhea and trembling.

Easter Lilies:  Easter Lilies are deadly for cats, so make sure you keep them completely out of cats’ reach.  Other potentially poisonous flowers may include tulips, calla lilies, daisies, crysanthemums and baby’s breath. 

Easter Grass:  Easter grass can be life-threatening for cats if ingested.  The material can wrap itself around your cat’s intestines and cut off circulation, requiring immediate medical intervention.  Look for safer alternatives to Easter grass, such as tissue paper.

Sugar Substitutes:  Xylitol, a popular sugar substitute used in sugar-free candy and in anything from sugarless gum to toothpaste is highly toxic to pets.  It causes a rapid drop in blood sugar and can lead to seizures and liver failure.

All it takes is a little common sense, and your entire family can enjoy a safe and happy Easter celebration.

Amber’s Mewsings: Raw Food

Since I last talked to all of you, spring has finally arrived here.  What this means for me, since I’m an indoor kitty, is that mom leaves the windows open so I can enjoy the breeze and the spring smells.  My favorite place to do that from is on one of my window perches.  I have two – one in Mom’s office next to her desk, and one in our bedroom.  I spend more time on the one in Mom’s office, because then I can be close to her while she’s working.

In the afternoons, I like to hang out in our living room, because it has lots of sunny spots, especially late afternoon.  I can either sprawl out on the couch, or on the blue rocking chair.  I like to mix it up a bit.

The other thing that’s new in my life is that Mom has been feeding me some different food.  She says it’s called “raw.”  I’m not entirely sure about it yet.   Sometimes I really like it and eat it straight up.  Other times, I just don’t feel like eating it, so Mom mixes it in with my canned food.  She thinks she’s fooling me that way, but please.  Of course I know it’s in there.  I just humor her and eat it that way.  I like to keep her guessing.  The only thing I don’t like is that now, if I don’t finish every last bite on my dish, it disappears after about half an hour.  That’s usually not a problem for me, I’m a pretty quick eater, but I do like to leave a few morsels to enjoy a little bit later as an in between meal snack, and now, that doesn’t seem to be an option any longer.  I’m not sure how I feel about that yet.  Mom has explained to me that she can’t leave the food with the raw meat in it out longer than half an hour, because it starts going bad, but that doesn’t make any sense to me.  How could food ever be bad?

I know she’s making this change because she wants me to be healthy and live for a long time, and I want that, too.  I just wish that it wouldn’t mess with my eating routine.  Humans – always something with them.  What I do like about this change, though, is that Mom keeps trying to introduce different flavors.  So far, I’ve dined on chicken, turkey and rabbit.  I like the turkey and chicken, I’m not sure about the rabbit yet.  It tastes a bit, well, gamey.  I saw her looking at Cornish Game Hen on the computer.  Hmmm – that sounds interesting.  I think I’ll keep giving this new food a chance for a little longer.

Free Teleseminar March 30 – Meet The Author with Clea Simon

Please join us for the first in our free teleseminar series on
Tuesday, March 30, at 8pm Eastern Daylight Time

 

In our first Meet the Author seminar, you’ll meet Clea Simon, author of several cat themed mysteries, including the brand new Dulcie Schwartz mysteries as well as the Theda Krakow mysteries.  Clea is also the author of The Feline Mystique:  On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats, and several other non-fiction books.  Clea will talk about her latest release, Grey Matters, her fictional and her real cats, and more.  She’ll also answer questions from listeners.  If you’ve always wanted to ask a mystery writer about her work, here’s your opportunity!

The seminars are free, but long distance phone charges may apply.  Registration is not required.  To participate in the conference, simply dial 1-712-432-3100.  When prompted, enter conference code 674470.

 

Upcoming Seminars

April 22 – Ask The Vet

May 11 – The Rewards and Challenges of Living With Disabled Pets

June – date TBD – Feline Nutrition

If there are topics you’d like to see features in future seminars, please leave your suggestions in a comment.