Deciphering Cat Food Labels

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

Evaluating cat food labels is arguably one of the most challenging tasks that pet owners face. On one hand, a food label is an important way for the pet food manufacturers to communicate nutritional information. On the other hand, food labeling requirements for cat foods vary significantly from labeling requirements for human food, making them difficult to decipher. It is important to understand some of the rules regulating cat food labels in order to better interpret the information they contain.

How is cat food labeling regulated?

In many ways, the label on your cat food is actually a legal document. In both the United States and in Canada, there are several organizations involved in overseeing and regulating the pet food industry and thereby influencing what is contained on cat food labels. The most pervasive influence in the U.S. is held by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), an organization that has developed model laws and regulations used in various states for animal feeds. AAFCO also serves as the ’go to’ source for ingredient definitions, standardized testing of food, official terminology, and feeding trial protocols. In Canada, pet food labeling guidelines are regulated by the Consumer Packaging and Labeling Act administered by Industry Canada. The Canadian government's Competition Bureau also has an extensive working group that upholds a voluntary code of conduct for the labeling and advertising of pet food. These guidelines require that feeding instructions appear on the product label, and they cover any misrepresentations of business claims as well as deceptive endorsements or testimonials.

"In both the United States and in Canada, there are several organizations involved in overseeing and regulating the pet food industry and thereby influencing what is contained on cat food labels."

AAFCO developed two nutrient profiles for cats: one for growth and reproduction, and one for adult maintenance. The adult formulation provides for lower amounts of nutrients in order to avoid inappropriate excesses.

While AAFCO provides recommendations and guidelines, it is the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) within the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that has the authority to regulate cat food production. Any health claim on the label of a specific nutrient profile is subject to evaluation by the CVM; for example, a formulation that claims to help manage chronic renal (kidney) disease must be approved as actually doing so. In addition, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) ensures that pet food is labeled so as not to be mistaken for human food, and inspects ingredients to ensure proper handling.

In Canada, multiple federal government departments are involved in the regulation of pet food labeling. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) regulates imported pet foods containing certain animal products, and Health Canada enacts legislation to prevent the circulation of unsubstantiated health claims on pet food labels (much like the FDA). Products that pass certain tests can display the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association Seal of Certification.

What information is found on cat food labels?

There are many elements that are required to be printed on pet food labels in the United States and Canada. These include the manufacturer name, the product name, the intended species, the net weight, ingredient statement, the guaranteed analysis, the feeding guidelines, and the nutritional purpose (life-stage) statement. Additional information that you might find on the label but is not required includes: calorie content, a universal product code (UPC), a nutrition claim, and a freshness date.

"The most important information when comparing one cat food to another is the guaranteed analysis."

The most important information when comparing one cat food to another is the guaranteed analysis. The guaranteed analysis is expressed in terms of percent maximums and minimums, and on the label each of these will be ’as fed.’ ‘As fed’ means as the food comes out of the bag or can. This is an important detail because we cannot really compare different cat foods on an ’as fed’ basis. Instead we need to compare nutrient profiles on a ’dry matter’ basis, with all the water removed. Some pet food companies provide a dry matter analysis on their websites, but most do not, so this means doing a little math before making a product comparison.

Below is a comparison of the major nutrients, protein, fat, and carbohydrates between an ‘as fed’ and a ‘dry matter’ analysis in a feline adult maintenance dry food (Food A) and canned food (Food B):

Food A (Dry Kibble) As Fed Dry Matter
Protein 31.4% 33.4%
Fat 20.2% 21.8%
Carbohydrate 34.3% 37.1%
Food B (Canned Food) As Fed Dry Matter
Protein 8.6% 35.1%
Fat 5.3% 21.8%
Carbohydrate 6.3% 26.2%

As we see, removing the water from the food analyses can make a profound difference in the percentages of specific nutrients.

Understanding ingredient lists

Ingredient lists are somewhat useful when evaluating a particular cat food, but it is important to recognize the limitations. For instance, ingredients must be listed in descending order of weight. That means a manufacturer may ’spin’ their ingredient list to be more attractive to the cat owner. For example, whole chicken may be first on the ingredient list because it has the highest moisture content, but the predominant portion of ingredients once moisture is removed for a dry matter analysis may actually be a mixture of grains.

One other important element on the cat food label is the nutritional adequacy/life-stage statement. AAFCO allows a company to formulate a food that, when analyzed, meets the feline nutrient profile. Formulation is a less involved and less expensive method for food development than feeding trials, but formulation does not demonstrate nutrient availability or palatability. Alternately, the company can perform an AAFCO protocol feeding trial which is the preferred method for substantiating nutritional claims. Feeding trials are more expensive and involved than simply formulating a food, but provide information about palatability and bioavailability. A combination of these two methods may provide the most complete information about a specific nutrient profile.

"It is always best to evaluate and compare cat foods by accessing the dry matter analyses."

Deciphering cat food labels can be quite challenging. It is always best to evaluate and compare cat foods by accessing the dry matter analyses. Reputable pet food companies are transparent in the data they supply about their cat food products, and are generally willing to provide dry matter data. Your veterinarian can not only help you sort through the information on cat food labels, but can guide your nutritional choices based on what is most appropriate for your cat based on breed, age, and lifestyle. It is always best to tailor the nutrient profile to the individual cat as much as possible in order to avoid both deficiencies and excesses of particular nutrients. Take advantage of the nutritional training and expertise your veterinarian possesses.

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