By WARREN ECKSTEIN
An animal’s diet can contribute to the behavior he displays. General health, mood, and ability to learn can all be affected by improper diet. Maintaining proper nutrition is one of the most important factors in sustaining optimum pet health. It maximizes the body’s potential to perform at its best, as well as fight off disease. Unfortunately, pet food labels can be difficult to decipher if you don’t know what to look for.
When you are looking for the best food option for your pet, you must consider factors such as their personal nutritional needs, their age, and so forth. Selecting the right pet food can make a significant difference in your pet’s quality of life. When shopping for pet food, remember the ingredient list is just like the ingredient list on foods that we eat. Just like human food labels, ingredients are listed in descending order. The bulk of the food will be made up of the first 3 ingredients. It is advisable to have a named protein source as the first ingredient, such as chicken, beef or lamb, not just “meat.”
Focus on quality
Unfortunately, with many pet foods, you get what you pay for. Cheap pet foods use cheap ingredients, have poor quality control, are not well digested, and may have excesses or deficiencies in vital nutrients causing harm to your pet. When analyzed by independent laboratories, cheap foods frequently do not have the level of nutrition stated on the label. Choosing a quality brand is the best recommendation for insuring proper nutrition for your pet.
What do labels like “organic,” “holistic” or “all-natural” mean?
There is no official definition for “organic” or “holistic” pet food, they are only marketing terms. “‘Natural’ means only that the product contains no synthetic ingredients”, says Teresa Crenshaw, interim chair of AAFCO’s Pet Food Committee.
Some minerals and vitamins may only be available in synthetic form. Because of this, AAFCO allows animal foods with those ingredients to carry a “natural” label, with a disclaimer. As an example, food or treats containing baking powder cannot be labeled as natural because baking powder is a product of chemical synthesis.
It is a challenge to read and understand a pet food label. “Chicken n’ Fish Gourmet Chunks for Cats,” “Yum-Yums Premium Quality Chef’s Special Chicken De-Light Puppy Chow,” “Brand XYZ All-Natural Happy Paws Dog Food.” You’ve all seen the catchy labels, the colorful media advertisements, and the TV ads trying to make pet food look as tasty and appealing as what you serve your family. But just what’s in that stuff? If it comes out of a can, a box, or a foil packet, how do you compare the nutrient values on different pet food labels? What does it all mean?
Product name and product ingredients: 95%, 25%, or 3%?
It should be pretty easy to tell what’s in a serving of pet food; however, it requires a little work on your part. The first step is to figure out if you’re getting what you think you’re getting. If the label says “beef,” how much is actually beef? The Center for Veterinary Medicine of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides a summary of pet food labeling rules.
There are three basic rules:
The 95% rule
If a product bears a name such as “Beef for Dogs” or “Tuna Cat Food,” the rules require that at least 95% of the product consist of the named ingredient – in this case, beef or tuna – not counting the water added for processing. If the name includes some other food, such as “Chicken ‘n Tuna Cat Food,” the two food items together must comprise 95% of the total weight, and the first-named product must be the one that predominates. (In other words, it can’t be called “Chicken ‘n Tuna” if it has more tuna than chicken.)
NOTE: This rule applies only to ingredients of animal origin. So, a can of “Chicken and Rice Dog Food” must contain at least 95% chicken.
The 25% rule
But suppose the label says “Shrimp Dinner.” If there is a qualifying word – such as “Dinner,” Entree,” “Platter,” “Formula,” etc., the named ingredient(s) must comprise at least 25% of the product – again, not counting added water – but less than 95%. This can be important. Suppose your cat doesn’t like fish (not all cats do). You might think that it will go for a food labeled “Chicken Dinner.” Not necessarily. That food may be only 25% chicken. Much of the rest may actually be fish. In fact, it may contain more fish than chicken as long as the two ingredients together comprise at least 25% of the whole.
The 3% rule
A third wrinkle in the labeling rules has to do with a seemingly simple innocent word: “with.” If a pet food label contains that word in its product name, there only has to be 3% of that product – not 95% or 25% – in the package. For example, while a product called “Tuna Cat Food” must contain 95% tuna, a product labeled “Cat Food with Tuna” only has to contain 3% tuna. So, it’s important to read the label carefully.
- The first ingredient should be Meat, as this is the primary ingredient in the bag or can. Nebulously described ingredients such as meat by products and others should be avoided. When you see these listed as a primary ingredient, it’s your clue to pass on this dog food.
- Vegetables and rice should be the secondary ingredients. Once again, avoid any by product, meal or odd sounding term. It’s probably not something you would want your dog to eat, if you don’t even know what it is.
- Beware of preservatives such as BHA, butylated hydroxyanisole and BHT, butylated hydroxytoluene. They are by used some dog food manufacturers, including one that is recommended by many veterinarians. According to some dog nutrition experts, these chemicals may be carcinogenic.
- Vitamins E & C can be used as natural preservatives and are far healthier for your dog. In addition, Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant which fights the formation of free radicals and the guards against the onset of cancer in dogs.
- Check the label for the AAFCO guarantee. The Association of American Feed Control Officials works to insure uniform standards for dog food nationwide. A bit of a toothless tiger, it is a starting place.
- Check the expiration date. Some manufacturers make these dates hard to read, When in doubt ask the retailer to point out the date to you.