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How Can We Accurately Assess Pet Food Labels?

Sometimes, the safest thing to do is call your pet food company and get some answers.

Organic doesn’t not necessarily mean high quality when it comes to pet food labels. By: acousticskyy

Many, many veterinarians get frustrated when clients believe they have found the yellow brick road to pet health by getting sucked in by yet another new, celebrity-endorsed pet food. Veterinarians far and wide try not to scream — or cry — when our clients demonize “prescription diets” because they “read the label” and didn’t like what they read.

I get it that people feel strongly about food, what they eat, what their pets eat, how that food is cultivated, processed, etc. It’s up there with their politics.

But, unlike politics, where opinions rule and truth may be impossible to find, we can establish some facts, not opinions or emotions, about pet food.

Marketing and Misleading Terms

Can your dog or cat read? Sometimes I think mine can, but they can’t go out and buy their own food based on what they read. You buy the food. So the pretty bags and the emotionally charged words on the bags or cans are directed at you — the consumer with the money.


Organic refers to the handling and processing of ingredients. That’s it. It does not refer to the quality of those ingredients. Organic does not necessarily mean high-grade or disease-free food.


According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), in order to use the term “natural,” a pet food has to consist of natural ingredients.

Meat, meat by-products, meat meal, grains, vegetables and fruit are all natural. But are they high-quality foods? They could be naturally great or naturally bacteria-ridden, poorly grown and poorly processed. Processed, you say? But it’s natural. If it’s in a bag, a can, a refrigerated tube or a frozen bag, it’s processed.


Whether labeled for human or pet food, “meat” refers to muscle but can contain blood vessels, sinew, nerves, skin and fat. “Whole meat” does not necessarily mean a pretty chicken breast or piece of filet mignon you pick up at your fancy butcher for your own dinner.


It means whatever you would like it to mean, but, legally, it means nothing. Anybody can put that on a label and it would be OK. Ideally, you want a pet food company that screams “holistic” on its label to be concerned with formulating a diet where  the “whole is more than merely the sum of its parts” but to use the term in advertising, the pet food company doesn’t have to do anything special at all.

Advertising information on websites and brochures on the internet is not regulated like pet food labels are. So “gourmet,” “holistic,” “human grade” and “human quality” have no legal definition. They sound nice. You might buy the food that says it’s holistic and human grade over another, more scientifically formulated, higher-quality food sitting right next to it.

Pet Food Labels

Now on to the label, which is subject to legal scrutiny and must meet certain standards if it is to meet the “minimum” of AAFCO requirements. I emphasize “minimum” because there are very low-grade pet foods on the market that meet this minimum.

Bloggers, pet food ranking lists and non-scientific pet magazines are fixated on “ingredients.” The ingredients on a label represent a big fat 0 — unless you want to trace each ingredient on the label back to the supplier, the slaughterhouse, the rancher, the farm, etc.

The fact is that unless you have a Ph.D. or equivalent degree in clinical pet nutrition and a neutral laboratory to perform a nutritional analysis at your disposal, you can’t make heads or tails out of reading a label. So what should you do to find out more information? Call your pet food companies.

Ask how they test their ingredients for contaminants, toxins and bacteria, and how they calculate the quality and nutrient specifications. Do you trust what they say? Try using the WSAVA (World Small Animal Veterinary Association) Global Nutrition Committee’s guidelines, which encourage you to call your pet food company directly and ask it a number of questions.

Some pet foods are clearly better than others. By: isasza

A Vet Calls Around

I did this with some of the smaller, popular, trendy food companies recently. The WSAVA suggests that if the manufacturer cannot or will not provide any of the information asked, people should be cautious of that food.


So here are some of the questions I asked:

1. Do you employ a full-time qualified nutritionist?

Answer: No answer after a week and still waiting. The companies told me to refer to their website. (No answer found.)

2. Who formulates your foods and what are his/her credentials?

Answer: No answer after a week and still waiting. The companies told me to refer to their website. (No answer found.)

3. Are your diets tested using AAFCO feeding trials or by formulation to meet AAFCO nutrient profiles? If the latter, do they meet AAFCO nutrient profiles by formulation or by analysis of the finished product?

Answer: The spokespeople did not understand the question. Still waiting for answers.

4. What kind of product research has been conducted? Are the results published in peer-reviewed journals?

Answer: No results published.

5. How much money do you put into research and development vs. purely marketing?

Answer: I don’t have that information available.

Prescription Diets vs. Store-Bought Pet Food

Pets can thrive on store-bought pet food, no doubt about it. Some pet foods are clearly better than others, and I recommend my clients choose a food they feel comfortable with and run their choice by me, if they like.

But what about the pet with medical problems? What about the fragile, diabetic Yorkie, the kidney cat, the obese Dachshund or the chronic-diarrhea German Shepherd?

For these cases, many veterinarians will turn to a prescription diet. When I call a specialty company that makes high-quality prescription pet food, I get immediate answers to my WSAVA questions. I can speak to a veterinarian who is board certified in clinical nutrition about my case. If a client questions a particular ingredient, I can get a highly reliable, scientific answer as to why that ingredient is in the pet food. Then the veterinarian can reference research studies done on that food for that medical problem.

Many of the boutique food companies cannot do this because they don’t have the information and have not done the research. I’m fine with food bags that picture cats with halos on their heads or dogs bounding through fields of natural ingredients. Most pets can do great on these trendy foods as well as foods bought at big box stores.

But when your pet has a medical problem and diet plays a big role in regulating that condition, I like to rely on science — not fuzzy, warm photographs.