How to Read Pet Food Labels

Posted on: September 18th, 2012 by PetMAC

What to look for:

Whole, named meat sources:  chicken, salmon, turkey, beef, lamb, venison.  You know what you’re getting and they are good quality, human-grade meats – not by-products.

More protein than carbs:  Dogs and cats are meat-eaters. They are NOT designed to have a diet full of carbs and grains.  Dogs can tolerate more carbs than cats, who are obligate carnivores and have little to no need for carbs.  Ideally, at least 2 of the first 3 ingredients should be a named protein (fresh or meal).

Whole Grains, Vegetables, and Fruits:  Foods are meant to be consumed as nature intended.  Breaking them up alters how they are digested and used by the body.  The less processed they are going into the mixture, the more likely they are to retain their nutrients.

A Good Reputation:  Just like with human-food, you want to look for a company that not only makes a good quality food, but is an honorable company that has the animals’ best interest in mind.  Smaller companies are able to maintain better quality control and are more likely to use better quality ingredients.  Mass-produced “anything” is never as good as those made by small, specialty companies.

What to watch out for:

Unnamed meat sources:  i.e. poultry instead of chicken, meat instead of beef – You don’t know what kind of meat it is or how it has been handled.

Meat By-Products:  These are ingredients that are not fit for human consumption.  Therefore, there is no guarantee of what they are or how they have been handled.  Ingredients called the 4Ds: dead, diseased, dying, downed, are not allowed in human food but are allowed in pet food – and can be found in the cheap, lesser quality pet foods.

Grain By-Products:  Products like brewer’s rice and wheat bran are left-over by-products from other food manufacturing processes.  They are cheap sources of protein that make the protein levels look good on paper, but do not provide the meat-based protein that dogs and cats need.  Look for whole grains like brown rice or barley, or better yet, no grains!

Too many carbs:  Ideally, at least 2 of the top 3 ingredients should be named protein sources; i.e. chicken, chicken meal, deboned chicken.  Plant proteins are a cheap source of protein.  While they may make the protein level look good on the label, they are not as beneficial to animals as meat proteins.  Additionally, an over abundance of carbs in the diet increases the risk of diabetes and other chronic illnesses.

Fractionated grains – the sum of the parts is larger than you might think:  For example, instead of putting “whole brown rice,” they may put “rice bran” and “rice flour,” each weighing less than the first ingredient, but the sum of the two would weigh more.  Using whole grain ingredients is not only healthier, but it also offers a more accurate accounting of the ingredients used and their true proportions.

Fresh vs. meal – the trick:  Ingredients are listed by weight, so you may look at an ingredient list and see: “chicken, brewers rice, corn gluten meal, poultry by-product meal” (Purina One Adult for Cats), and think “Chicken is the first ingredient, so that must be good.”  The problem: 80% of the weight in fresh chicken is water.  Once it is cooked and the water is removed, the chicken now doesn’t weigh as much and falls farther down the list of ingredients, so essentially, your ingredient list by weight is more like: “brewers rice, corn gluten meal, poultry by-product meal, chicken” – not so good!

Unnecessary Chemicals:  Chemical preservatives like BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin can potentially cause cancer, create a weakened immune system and speed aging.  Farmers use ethoxyquin as an insecticide in their fields and are required to wear mask and gloves to handle!  Propylene glycol is used to help keep foods moist (think the Bits in Kibble ‘n Bits) and add sweetness, yet it is a less-toxic version of antifreeze!  Also steer clear of artificial colorings – who cares if the food is a natural brown or an artificially dyed red (think Beneful)?  If the food is made from actual meat instead of corn, wheat or other non-meat products, artificial flavorings are unnecessary because it will taste good naturally!

DID YOU KNOW?

  • Vets get little to no training on nutrition?  Companies like Hills, Iams and Purina provide books, food and sponsorships to vet students and have a huge presence at veterinary conferences.  Unless they search it out on their own, most traditional vets simply buy-in to these large companies’ mantra.  For an alternative, consult a holistic vet, look for a vet who understands how good (or bad!) nutrition can affect an animals’ overall health, ask an educated staff member at your local independent pet supply shop (like PetMAC!!), or do some independent research on the internet (see suggested reading at the end).
  • AAFCO “complete and balanced” markings on bags of pet food are based on the assumption that dogs are omnivores and can be sustained on plant and vegetable matter – but that is not the case.  Dogs, and cats more so, NEED MEAT PROTEIN!  Additionally, feeding trials determine the minimum standards necessary for the average dog or cat.  Since there is no “average dog or cat,” some may do fine on the food for a while, but others may need additional protein, nutrients, etc.  Just like each human is different in what we need to make us healthy, the same is true for our pets.  Be a critical thinker.  Observe your dog or cat and make adjustments as necessary.
  • A dry coat, flaky skin and/or excessive shedding could be a sign of a nutritional deficiency.  The life-critical systems use the nutrients first and if there are any left over, the skin and coat get them.  Salmon or fish oil is an excellent supplement for any dog because it is rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, which are beneficial to the heart and immune system (just like for us!)

Suggested Reading:

Just a few of my favorite magazines and books to get you started!