A Guide to Pet Food: Valuable Information for Pet Owners

Veterinarians agree that pets are living longer, healthier lives since the use of commercially prepared pet foods became widespread. Decades of research have gone into the development of pet food to make sure the special nutrition needs of pet dogs and cats are met.

What does “complete and balanced” mean?

Unlike most foods for people, many pet food products are designed to be the sole source of nutrition for a pet dog or cat. Products that are labeled “complete and balanced,” as defined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), have been tested to make sure they meet the complex nutritional requirements of a healthy dog or cat.

What does it mean on a pet food label that a product has been tested using animal feeding trials?

There are two ways a pet food company can test the nutrition of its products. One method is the use of standardized animal feeding trials, designed by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), to make sure their products meet the complex nutritional requirements of dogs and cats. The animals in these tests are fed the food for six months and are closely monitored to make sure they stay healthy. A product using this test will have language similar to the following on the label – “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Nancy’s Food for Dogs provides complete and balanced nutrition for all life stages.”

What other tests are done to make sure the pet food is good for my dog or cat?

In addition to feeding trials, many companies also use the nutritional profiles developed with the help of feeding trials to make sure their products meet the requirements of dogs and cats at their various stages in life. A product using this test would have language similar to this on the label – “Nancy’s Food for Dogs is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for all life stages.”

Just like food for people, pet foods must be correctly labeled. In addition to a product name and specifying whether it is food for dogs or cats, pet food labels are also required to describe the product, list the ingredients in the food, and list the guaranteed analysis of the product.
All pet foods are required to have a specific brand and will also have the name of the company that made the food and usually a telephone number for consumers to call with questions.

Can I feed cat food to my dog?

Dogs and cats each have special dietary needs and should be fed the appropriate pet food. Cats should not eat dog food because it does not provide all the essential nutrients a healthy cat needs. In short, dog food is designed to meet the nutritional needs of a dog and cat food is designed to meet the needs of a cat.

When a pet food label says it contains “beef” or “chicken” how much of the food is beef or chicken?

The ingredients in pet food are listed in descending order by weight from largest to smallest. For example, if chicken is the first ingredient on the label then the pet food contains more chicken than any other ingredient.

Are fillers used in pet food?

Every ingredient used in pet food is there for a reason. Decades of research have gone into making pet foods that meet the nutritional needs of dogs and cats. The makers of pet food do not put in anything that’s not needed.

What is ingredient “splitting?”

Some people incorrectly believe pet food makers split up ingredients to give the illusion that some ingredients are at higher concentrations than others. Pet food makers are required to carefully label their products according to stringent government regulations. Just as the case with food for people, pet foods must clearly state what ingredients are included in the product. Each ingredient in pet food is there for a reason and to serve a nutritional purpose.

What does the term “guaranteed analysis” mean?

“Guaranteed analysis” is a regulatory requirement for pet food that refers to minimum or maximum values of key nutrients, such as minimum protein and fat, as well as the maximum fiber and water content.

How can I tell how much of an ingredient is in my pet food by just looking at the label?

Pet food labeling rules are much more strict than are those for human foods. For instance, a “Blueberry Pancake Mix” for people would probably have only a handful of blueberries in it. A dog food that says “Beef Dog Food” must be 95% beef. A pet food label that says “Chicken Dinner” or “Lamb Formula” only needs to have 25% chicken or lamb, while a “Duck and Potato Dinner” must have 25% of the food made of those two ingredients, with at least 3% being potato. A pet food label that says “…with beef (or “with” any ingredient(s) must have at least 3% beef (or any other named ingredient) in the formula. And finally, if a label says “Chicken flavor”, then there only has to be enough flavor so that pets can pick out that it tastes like chicken to them…people don’t have to be able to tell the difference. It doesn’t matter what the ingredient is, if the label mentions it, the contents must meet these rules.

Pet food is one of the most highly regulated of all food products. Pet food is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the states through their feed laws and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). This multi-layered regulation and the industry’s commitment to research and education help ensure that pet food products continue to be safe and nutritious for pet dogs and cats. The pet food industry in Canada is self-regulated; for more information on Canadian pet food, click here.

What is AAFCO and why is it listed on pet food labels?

“AAFCO” stands for the Association of American Feed Control Officials. AAFCO is a group of made up of state and federal officials who regulate pet food. For example, AAFCO defines the ingredients that can be used in pet food, establishes nutrition profiles for dogs and cats and sets the approved practices for conducting feeding trials.

Why do I need to follow the feeding directions on a pet food package?

The feeding directions on pet food have been developed specifically for a particular food, taking into consideration a pet’s breed, age and activity level. Feeding more or less based on experience with other products may not provide proper nutrition for your pet.
Pets, like some people, may eat too much if given the opportunity. Pet food feeding amounts are designed to prevent a pet dog or cat from eating too much food. Over consumption, like in people, can make a pet overweight and lead to health problems.

Do some pet food companies want consumers to feed more or less food to their pets?

Each pet food company conducts research to make sure their products are fed in the proper amount. Pet food feeding guidelines may vary from product to product based on its formulation as well as the amount of energy or nutrients in the food. A consumer with questions on how much pet food to give his or her pet should contact the product manufacturer or consult their veterinarian.

Can I feed my dog table scraps?

Since pet food is designed to be the sole source of nutrition for a healthy dog or cat, supplementing a pet’s diet with leftovers or with other foods for people is not necessary and may cause health problems. Many leftovers contain too much sugar, salt, fat or other ingredients that are not good for pets. Some foods, like chocolate for dogs and onions for cats, can actually make a pet very sick.

What is the best way to change my pet’s food?

If you decide to change your pet’s diet, veterinarians recommend you do it slowly. Rapid changes in diet can cause upset stomach and other problems. When changing pet food, start by mixing some of the new food in with your pet’s regular food. Over the next three to five days, gradually increase the amount of new pet food. After this transition, your pet should be more adjusted to the new food.

How do I know if my pet is overweight and should be fed a special diet?

The best way to determine your pet’s overall health, including whether or not your dog or cat should lose weight, is a visit to your veterinarian. If your pet needs to loose weight, your veterinarian might advise a new pet food or reducing the amount of pet food you feed. Also, to avoid an overweight pet it is advisable to avoid feeding table scraps that might contain a lot of fat and sugar.

How can I learn more about good pet nutrition?

In addition to asking your veterinarian, many pet food companies offer customer service numbers on their products. If you have questions about a product, a call to this number might help. Also, a number of pet food companies have websites that describe their products and research in pet nutrition. Visit the Pet Food Institute for a list of member company websites.

Pet food manufacturers use a wide range of agricultural ingredients. These products include meat, poultry, seafood, feed grains and other agricultural products and products produced during food processing for human consumption.
Vitamins, minerals and preservatives are added as needed to assure that products provide total nutrition and remain wholesome during distribution and on the shelf. All ingredients used in pet food are approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the same agencies that regulate human foods.

Are the artificial colors used in pet food and are they safe?

Yes, artificial colors are used in some pet food products. Just like those used in food for people, the artificial colors used in pet food are approved as safe by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

What are by-products?

By-products, simply put, are the parts of animals people do not normally eat.For example, if a chicken were raised for its white meat then the remaining meat would be considered a by-product. The by-products used in pet food are an important source of protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids. Like all pet food ingredients, by-products from animals or grains are safe, nutritious and approved for use in pet food by federal and state government agencies.

What are rendered meals and are they safe?

As with all ingredients in pet food, the use of rendered meals are safe and are approved for use in pet food. Rendering is a process used to reclaim proteins and fats. The rendering process involves cooking ingredients at very high temperatures. At the end of the process a fine, protein and mineral rich “meal” is made. This meal is an important source of nutrition for use in pet food.

I heard on the news that calcium carbonate is dangerous for dogs. Is this true?

Calcium carbonate is a common pet food ingredient and is completely safe. Calcium carbonate is an important source of calcium in pet food. Recently there have been some news reports that calcium carbonate is dangerous, this is not the case.

I read that there might be rendered cats and dogs in my pet food. Is this true?

Absolutely not. Pet food companies take great care to formulate products that meet the needs of pet dogs and cats. They understand the great affection we have for our pets and have gone to extreme measures to make sure no ingredients from dogs and cats go into their products.
Pet food companies have exacting specifications and work closely with their suppliers to make sure they receive only the ingredients they specifically request.

I heard that raisins and grapes can be bad for dogs. Is this true?

Yes, grapes and raisins have been linked to kidney failure in dogs. Veterinarians are not sure how many grapes or raisins it takes to be a problem or if they only cause problems in some breeds of dogs. Just to be safe, raisins and grapes should be avoided. However, grape pomace should not be confused with grapes. Grape pomace is source of antioxidants in some pet foods and is safe ingredient.

Are horses used to make pet food?

Horses are not raised for food in the United States so they are not generally used in commercial pet foods.

What preservatives are used in pet food and can they harm my pet?

The same preservatives are used in food for people and pet food. They are approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, are safe and are used in very small quantities. Pet foods contain preservatives for the same reason food for people does – to keep it fresh. Preservatives keep food from spoiling. Eating spoiled food can cause illness in pets just as it can in people.