What is and is Not Included on a Cat Food Label

By PetMD Editorial on Feb. 29, 2012

Interpreting the Cat Food Label

Brought to you by petMD in partnership with Hill’s® Science Diet Ideal Balance®

Pet food labels are legal documents. Much of what is included on them is regulated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) so that owners can understand what a particular food offers in the way of nutrition and can accurately compare Food A to Food B. When looking at cat food labels, you should pay close attention to the AAFCO statement, guaranteed analysis and ingredient list. Here's why…

AAFCO Statements on Cat Food

The following two types of AAFCO statements can be found on cat food labels:

  1. Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Brand A adult cat food provides complete and balanced nutrition for maintenance of adult cats.
  2. Brand B Cat Formula is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials Cat Food Nutrient Profiles for maintenance.

At first glance, the two statements appear to be saying more or less the same thing, but a closer examination reveals that Brand A was actually fed to cats in order to make sure that it meets their needs while Brand B was simply formulated on a computer. Feeding trials are the best way to determine the nutritional adequacy of a cat (or dog) food.

The Guaranteed Analysis on Cat Food

AAFCO rules state that a guaranteed analysis must include information about a cat food’s minimum percentages of protein and fat and maximum percentages of water (i.e., moisture) and fiber. Some companies also voluntarily make note of the amounts of other nutrients like vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids or ash- low levels of which help maintain a cat’s urinary health.

You should look at a cat food’s guaranteed analysis and compare the values for protein and fat to the percentages that are recommended in the MyBowl tool for cats. To make this comparison as accurate as possible you first need to mathematically “remove” the water that is included in every cat food.

Begin by subtracting the percent moisture from 100. This is the percent dry matter for the cat food. Then, divide the protein or fat percentage on the cat food label by the percent dry matter and multiply by 100. This gives you the protein or fat percentage on a dry matter basis. For a food that has a crude protein minimum of 32% and a moisture maximum of 6%, the calculations would be as follows:

100-6=94 and then 32/94 x 100 = 34% protein on a dry matter basis

The Ingredient List on Cat Food

A pet food label must present its ingredient list ranked according to the weight of each ingredient included in the food. The first named ingredient is the most predominant, the second ingredient is the second most predominant, and so on; but you need to know that this ranking is put together based on an ingredient’s weight prior to the food being processed. Therefore, an ingredient that includes a lot of water (e.g., chicken in comparison to chicken meal) actually contributes a relatively smaller amount to the nutrient value of the cat food because of its high water content.

Unfortunately, the ingredient list and guaranteed analysis provide no information about the quality of ingredients included in a cat food. In other words, you have no way of knowing whether or not the chicken, meat meals, eggs, etc. that combine to make up a diet’s 34% protein are of high or low quality, which certainly can affect a cat’s well-being.

If the diet in question went through a feeding trial you can at least be assured that the cats in the study thrived while eating the food and that the company cared enough to go through the trouble and expense of running a food trial that conformed to AAFCO protocols. The next step is to offer the food to your cats. If they look forward to meal times and enjoy good health while eating the product, you have found an excellent food for them.

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