Shopping for cat food can be a tricky business even when you have done your research and know, in general, what you are looking for. This is because cat food labels can be difficult for uninitiated shoppers to interpret. The information presented is not always straightforward, and reading these labels requires understanding official definitions and standards. It also requires knowing which terms have no official definitions and are used purely for marketing purposes. Fortunately, with a little research, you can learn how to read cat food labels like an expert. This will allow you to make informed comparisons between foods and to choose a food for your cat with confidence.
Understand the Name
(Reading labels) requires knowing which terms have no official definitions and are used purely for marketing purposes.
Cat foods often have grand sounding names that are designed to get your attention. Hidden within these enticing product names, however, you can find valuable information. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the body that regulates pet foods, has certain requirements for cat food names with regard to ingredients. If a food is called “Salmon and Rice Cat Food,” for example, at least 70% of the product must be made up of salmon and rice. A food using the word “dinner,” such as one named “Chicken Dinner,” needs to be made up of at least 25% of the named ingredient if it is a dry food and 10% of the named ingredient if it is a canned food. If the name contains the words “with chicken,” chicken only needs to make up 3% of the product. “Chicken flavor” means that the food just needs to taste like chicken to a cat.
Find the Nutritional Adequacy Statement
A food with a label that says it is “complete and balanced for all life stages” meets the nutritional needs of kittens, pregnant and lactating queens and adults
Also called the “AAFCO Statement,” the nutritional adequacy statement tells you if the food is adequate to meet a cat’s minimum nutritional needs. A food with a label that says it is “complete and balanced for all life stages” meets the nutritional needs of kittens, pregnant and lactating queens and adults. A food that is “complete and balanced for maintenance” is intended for adult animals that are not pregnant or lactating. Foods with no adequacy statements or statements that say something like “intended for supplemental feeding” are meant only to be used as treats, supplements or for occasional feeding. These foods do not meet a cat’s daily nutritional needs.
The adequacy statement should also indicate how the nutritional suitability of the food was determined. If the statement uses the word “formulated,” the adequacy of the diet was determined by chemical analysis rather than feeding trials. If the statement mentions “feeding tests,” it means that the product or another product in its line underwent feeding trials in which at least eight cats were maintained on the diet for 26 weeks with acceptable weight maintenance, physical examination findings and blood work values.
Look at the Nutrient Content
A simple comparison of crude protein amounts will not reveal the entire picture … feathers and chicken meat are both sources of protein, but they are not equally digestible or complete
To find the nutrient content of the cat food, look for the section that is entitled “guaranteed analysis.” This shows you the minimum amounts of crude fat and crude protein and the maximum amounts of moisture and fiber that may be contained in the food. This part of the label may also include other nutrients, such as ash, magnesium, Vitamin A, Vitamin E, taurine and others, though these are not required.
Because protein is such a crucial component of a cat’s diet, many owners focus on crude protein values when choosing cat foods. However, a simple comparison of crude protein amounts will not reveal the entire picture. These numbers do not reflect the digestibility or the sources of protein in the foods being compared. For example, feathers and chicken meat are both sources of protein, but they are not equally digestible or complete. This means that a food with a lower percentage of crude protein and higher quality ingredients could be a better food than one with a higher percentage of crude protein that comes from incomplete or indigestible sources.
Examine the Ingredients
Because cats are obligate carnivores, a high quality dry food should list meat as the first ingredient.
Cat food manufacturers are required to list ingredients in order of weight before processing. This means that the main ingredients are listed first. Because cats are obligate carnivores, a high quality dry food should list meat as the first ingredient. A high quality canned food will list water first followed by some type of meat. Other protein sources such as beef tallow, bone meal and ground corn are less digestible and less desirable than meat. Do keep in mind, however, that before processing, meat has a lot of water weight where less digestible meals are dry. This means that even a food with meat as the first ingredient may, in actuality, rely on meal for the majority of its protein content.
Most high quality foods that use preservatives use natural rather than synthetic ones.
In addition to examining the protein source or sources used in the food, it is important for shoppers to consider preservatives. First determine if the food uses natural preservatives, synthetic preservatives or contains no preservatives at all. Natural preservatives include Vitamin E (mixed tocopherols) and Vitamin C (ascorbic acid). Synthetic preservatives include butylated hydroxytoluene and butylated hydroxyanisole. All dry foods should contain some type of preservatives to keep them fresh and safe and to ensure that they retain nutritional integrity. Some canned foods contain no preservatives, since canning allows food to retain its freshness until opened. Most high quality foods that use preservatives use natural rather than synthetic ones.
Understand Other Label Claims
Many cat owners are swayed by labels touting “natural” ingredients or asseting that the food is “premium.” Unfortunately, these label claims have no official or legal definition. These foods may not be any better or healthier than other foods with more modest labels. Owners need to compare foods based on the ingredients and research other label claims to determine whether or not these claims are valid. Keep in mind that manufacturers of truly high quality foods usually provide more information on the package as to ingredient sources and food quality than they are required to do under AFFCO regulations.
Know How Much Food You Are Really Getting
The relative sizes of food bags and containers can be very misleading. This is why cat food shoppers should look for the net quantity of a food, a value that is legally required to be present on the label. This shows how many pounds of food the bag or container actually contains. Knowing this allows you to determine the price per pound. You can use this price calculation to decide if buying food in bulk will save you a significant amount of money and to compare the prices of two or more foods.