Reading Cat Food Labels
How to determine what is really in your pet’s food.
By Sandy Robins
There is no question that reading cat food labels is not straightforward; in fact it can be very frustrating to the average cat owner. Cats are meat eaters (carnivores), meaning they require two to three times the amount of protein than omnivores, such as humans, do. Consequently, they rely mainly on nutrients found in animals—high protein, moderate fat and minimal carbohydrates—to meet their dietary needs.
For the layperson, the key is to look at the first three ingredients listed on the can packet or bag. By law, pet food ingredients must be listed on the label in descending order by weight, with the protein at the top of the list. However, it’s important to remember that the moisture content affects weight. So ingredients that are moisture-heavy, such as chicken or lamb, are listed higher on the ingredient list than the same ingredient that is added in a dry form.
In addition, similar materials listed as separate ingredients might out weigh other ingredients that precede them on the list. For example, chicken might be listed as the first ingredient, then wheat flour, ground wheat and wheat middling. In this instance, although chicken appears to be the predominant ingredient, when added together, all three wheat products could weigh more than the poultry. It gets more complicated because for a food to be called chicken, the ingredients have to be 95 percent or more of the total weight of the product. Then there are a variety of fancy names that crop up on the shelves—e.g., dinner, platter, delight and formula—that in fact means only 25 percent of the content is that particular ingredient.
A word about protein and feline basic nutritional needs: Proteins are the basic building blocks for cells, tissues and organs. They can be either animal-based (e.g.,chicken, lamb, turkey, fish and eggs) or plant-based (soy, vegetables and cereals). In addition, cat food often contains byproducts of animals or plants—the parts that people don’t normally eat. But don’t necessarily be put off by this. If a cat catches a bird it will eat everything—intestines, bones and all.
The type of meat products that most closely resemble what a cat would catch for itself in the wild comes from birds(chicken, turkey, duck and quail)and game animals(buffalo, ostrich, deer, and bison).Animal-based proteins also contain complete amino acids, such as taurine, arginine, cysteine and methionine. These are essential for cats because their bodies don’t synthesize them in adequate amounts. In particular, taurine is crucial to a cat’s diet and a deficiency is serious because it can cause blindness and fatal heart disease.
Cats also catch fish in the wild, so fresh fish can be an excellent addition to their diet. Fish is high in iodine and beneficial omega-3 fatty acids that promote healthy skin and fur.
Because ingredient definitions and designations are standardized, it is difficult to determine the quality of ingredients. Ingredient quality can only be determined from laboratory analysis and animal feeding tests.It is up to the pet owner to research various food manufacturers’ websites to get an idea of what they are offering. Once you’ve narrowed down the field, you should then discuss the diet with a very knowledgeable pet food retailer or, better still, with your cat’s veterinarian.
Since the pet food recall of 2007, cat food ingredients have come under scrutiny more than ever before.Accordingly,companies are going to great lengths to discuss their quality, such as human-grade contents.And inline with human food trends,organic ingredients are growing in popularity.
“A question we often get from pet parents is ‘how do I know if this food is organic?'” said Pete Brace, vice president of communications and pet parent relations for Castor & Pollux, a manufacturer of natural and organic food for pets. “There are strict labeling requirements around organic that enables pet parents to know the differences between products.”
A product with 70 to 94 percent organic ingredients can state on its label, “Made with organic…” but it cannot include the USDA logo, according to the USDA’s National Organic Program. However, those ingredients must still be certified by an independent third party. Products with 95 to 100 percent certified organic ingredients can use “organic” in the product name and bear the USDA logo. Both categories of organic products must include the name and contact information for the certifying agency on the back of the package.
Another growing trend is for single ingredient foods, which definitely makes it much easier to read a label.
Finally, you can read labels all you want, but the big question is whether you cat will eat the food.Pet food manufacturers, especially those whose products are grown and manufactured in the USA,try hard to be very transparent about what they are offering and are happy to talk to pet owners and discuss their concerns. So, once you have narrowed down the field, don’t be shy to ask for a sample directly from the manufacturer. Any company that proudly stands by what it sells will be only too happy to oblige.
About the Author: Sandy Robins is the 2013 winner of the “Excellence in Journalism and Outstanding Contribution to the Pet Industry Award.” Her work appears on many of the country’s leading pet platforms, such as MSNBC.com, MSN.com and TODAYShow.com. She is a regular contributor and columnist in multiple national and international publications, including Cat Fancy, as well as the author of the award-winning books “Fabulous Felines: Health and Beauty Secrets for the Pampered Cat” and “For The Love of Cats.” Learn more about Sandy on her website or Facebook page. #welovecats