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Do you know what’s in your pet’s food? Do you know what to look for on your pet’s food labels in order to maximize the health of your pet? Deciphering pet food labels and sifting through all the marketing buzz words used by the pet food companies can be challenging. We’re here to debunk some of the biggest misconceptions about your pet’s food and help you make informed decisions about what to feed your dog or cat

Be careful interpreting what you read! The following are AAFCO label requirements to help demystify words or phrases commonly found on pet food labels:

  • Products naming a specific ingredient in a description, such as “salmon for cats” or “beef for dogs,” must contain at least 95% of the named ingredient.br

  • Food descriptors like “seafood formula” or “chicken dinner” can be used if the named ingredient makes up at least 25% of the product.

  • A product listed as “beef-flavored” does not have to contain any beef. AAFCO has NO requirement for the amount of specified protein mentioned with the word “flavored.”

  • An ingredient listed after the word “with” only has to make up 3% of the product. “Kitten food with tuna” may be made up of only 3% tuna!

What do the terms organic, natural, human-grade or holistic mean?

  • Foods that are labeled "organic" must be certified as organic in accordance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Association of American Food Control Officials (AAFCO) regulations. For a product to carry the USDA organic seal, at least 95 percent of its content must be organic by weight. To be organic, the components of a product must be grown with only animal or vegetable fertilizers, such as manure, bone meal, compost, etc.

  • We hear the word "natural" all the time, but what does it actually mean? According to AAFCO, the term "natural" requires a pet food to consist of only natural ingredients that have not been subjected to chemical synthesis. Natural does not mean that a food is also organic.

  • Does your pet’s food boast the labels "holistic" or “human-grade”? There are no legal definitions of these terms under pet food laws, so anyone can claim that their food is "holistic” or “human-grade." These terms may sound appealing but are, in fact, meaningless.

Are all by-products bad?

  • Not at all, in fact, we all eat them! By definition and regulation, by-products are the non-meat parts of chicken, beef, pork, etc. after the meat has been removed. However, by-products are NOT feathers, beaks, fur, hooves or teeth. Examples include vegetable oils, vitamin E, chicken fat, and clean internal organs - pork, chicken and beef liver, heart and kidneys. All these items have nutritious value and are often preferred over muscle meat by animals in the wild. Other examples are treats we commonly give our pets - bully sticks, rawhides, pig’s ears, cow hooves, trachea and lamb lung.

  • By-products are a valuable source of energy, vitamins and minerals. And while it may sound good to feed your pet a meat-only diet, muscle meat alone is deficient in many nutrients, which could lead to poor growth, bone fractures and loose teeth.

  • Ever wonder what the phrase “animal digest” listed in your pet food ingredients means? Animal digest is a byproduct and it is NOT intestinal contents! The term “digest” refers to proteins which are hydrolyzed (i.e. broken down) into smaller components, which are a good source of protein and used to enhance the flavor of foods.

Are grains unhealthy for my pet?

  • There is nothing inherently bad about grains! Grains are a good source of carbohydrates, which are essential for growth in puppies in kittens and are an important source of energy for most cells of the body (young or adult). Corn and wheat, two common grains found in pet foods, are excellent sources of quality protein, vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and antioxidants. Corn meal, which commonly appears in a list of pet food ingredients, is simply corn minus the water and fat and is highly digestible. Properly processed and cooked grains are generally well utilized by both cats and dogs. Furthermore, the fiber provided by grains is essential for the health of the gastrointestinal tract.

Are corn and wheat responsible for pet allergies?

  • Despite frequent claims to the contrary,meat ingredients are more common sources of food allergies in pets than grains . In dogs, the most common food allergens are beef, dairy products, then wheat, followed by lamb, egg and chicken. For cats, the most common culprits are beef, dairy products and fish.

  • While some dogs do have allergies to wheat, Celiac disease (allergy to wheat gluten) is very rare and has primarily been reported in the Irish Setter. Wheat gluten is a valuable source of protein for your pet. It is more than 80% protein, highly digestible, has an amino acid profile similar to other proteins (meat) and enhances the texture of food (which is a top priority for our pets).

Raw diets seem to be very popular. Should I change my pet to a raw diet?

  • There is no objective evidence to suggest that raw meat diets are better than other kinds of diets for our pets. Raw diets can pose pathogenic and physical risks to your pet. Raw diets can carry E. coli, Salmonella and MRSA bacteria, as well as parasites and protozoa. Besides putting a pet at potential risk of infection, human family members are exposed and susceptible to these pathogens as well. The FDA has gone on record stating that raw diets are a public health risk. Raw and cooked bones can fracture teeth, become lodged in or tear the esophagus or cause intestinal tract obstructions.

  • For more information, see the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s article regarding raw diets:


Are flax seeds a good source of omega-3 fatty acids?

  • Flax seed does NOT contain the type of omega-3 fatty acids which research has shown is beneficial. Many pet food manufacturers now add flax seeds to their diets and tout them as a great source of omega-3 fatty acids. However, flax seeds contain “short-chain” fatty acids, which must be converted to “long-chain” fatty acids by your pet’s body in order to be beneficial. Because, in pets, the conversion process is inefficient and the amount converted by the body is quite low, flax serves as a poor source of this essential fatty acid. Instead, look for ingredients which are sources of long-chain omega-3s – fish oil (salmon, cod-liver) and fish meal.

Remember! No matter how good the company, how pretty the packaging, and how yummy the ingredients, the only TRUE test of whether a food is good for your dog or cat is what happens when you feed it.

Find out more information at www.aafco.org and www.wsava.org/nutrition-toolkit.

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