Love them enough to give them the best stuff

Decoding the Label 101

A guide to help you understand your dog or cat's food label.

Choosing the best food option for your pet can be confusing and frustrating. The best way to determine a foods quality is by reading the ingredients list, but understanding how to read it is the key.

The name game

How a food is named is the first indicator of how much "good" ingredients are in the food. This is a good place to start but it can be a little tricky. There are agencies that regulate pet food so to ensure that the manufacturers follow certain rules.

The ingredients list must be listed in the order of predominance in the food. When "beef" is the first ingredient listed, "whole grain corn" is second, and "soybean meal" third. This tells you that based on the weight, there is more beef than whole grain corn and more whole grain corn than soybean meal.If the name of the food starts with meat (for example: Beef Dog Food), the food must have at least 95% of that meat.

If the food has "recipe", "dinner", or "formula", then the meat/ingredient in the name must be at least 25% of the food. (for example: Salmon Formula for Cats). Using the example from above, changing the name to be "Beef Dog Food Recipe", the beef content goes from 95% down to 25-95%.

If there is a combination of meats listed in the name, like "Chicken and Salmon Dinner for Cats", the food must have a combined 25% of BOTH meats, but more chicken than salmon because chicken is listed first in the name. The amount of meat in this case would be indicative of where they were listed in the ingredients list.

If the word "with" is listed in the name, this tells you that there is an even smaller amount of the meat in the food—only 3%. For example, "Dog Food with Chicken" is only required to have 3% chicken to meet the required amount.

If the food name has the word "flavor", it is required to have even less of the meat. (For example, Salmon Flavored Cat Food). Using flavor in the name only requires a detectable amount of the meat to be present. Generally, meat broths are added to make the food taste and smell like meat.

Splitters and Fillers and By-Products, Oh My!

"Splitting" is when the same ingredient is listed several times in the ingredients list but named differently. (For example: high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and sucrose.) This leads you to believe that you are getting more (or less) of an ingredient than you really believe you are. For example, a cat food may have fish broth, as the first ingredient, corn gluten meal as the second and salmon as the third and animal fat preserved with ground yellow corn as the fourth. It looks like fish is the main ingredient but it is actually a corn-based product.

By-products are generally parts of animals that are not intended for human consumption. This can include lungs, kidneys, brain, liver, blood, bone, stomach and intestines of animals, the necks, feet, undeveloped eggs and intestines from poultry. By-products do NOT include hair, horns, teeth or hooves. In many cases, by-products are high in nutritional value and are not at issue.

Conversely, fillers on the other hand, are many times used to replace higher quality ingredients. They also may be biologically inappropriate for your pet and may lead to health and obesity problems. For example, cat food and treats should not contain corn. Cats are carnivores and their food should contain little or no fillers—cat's are meat eaters, not veggie eaters.

Some experts disagree and feel that fillers are a necessary ingredient in dog foods because the total nutritional food value must include a combination of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins. Fillers can be nutritious when done right, but done wrong, it can lead to health issues including obesity and high blood sugar. When reading a food ingredient list, healthy amounts of corn and rice can be good for your dog but corn syrup (sugar), and MSG (monosodium glutamate), are never good. Look for foods where the fillers are listed low on the list of ingredients so that you know your dog is not getting too much filler in his food.

What's the Deal with Meals?

If your pet's food label lists a meat meal (for example: chicken meal, meat meal, poultry meal), there are some things you might want to watch out for:

  • A meal is made by rendering the meat similar to making a stew, however, it is over cooked to remove the water. It is then baked until it becomes a residue and you end up with a highly concentrated powder-or a meat meal.
  • Not all meals are created alike. The quality of your meat meal depends on the quality of the meat with which you started. No meal will ever be better than the meat from which it was made.
  • Better meals are made from meats from specific sources, for example, chicken meal, beef meal versus poultry meal or meat meal. Low quality meals can come from slaughterhouse waste, spoiled meat, dead/dying or diseased animals.
  • If you see "meal" listed in an ingredients list, be sure that it lists a specific source (beef, chicken, salmon).