How to Read The Cat Food Label
When you’re in the store, looking at the cat food, you’ll notice a few similarities between the brands. Despite the huge range of cat food available, and the many marketing specialists that put their time into making you choose one in particular, the label looks fairly similar from one product to the next. This is because cat food labels are required by law, and there are certain things that have to be included. Even the wording is sometimes decided by law.
The American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is in charge of pet food manufacture in the US (although they’re regulated by the FDA). They regulate what goes on a label and also formulate the nutritional ranges the food has to abide by in order to be considered ‘complete and balanced’.
The Parts of a Cat Food Label
So, what will you see on every package of cat food you pick up? Legally, pet food manufacturers have to include the following on their foods:
The brand name, and contact details for the manufacturer
The species the food is designed for
Ingredients (listed by weight)
The ‘guaranteed analysis’ of nutrients in the diet
Feeding directions, and calories per gram, kg, or cup
A nutritional adequacy statement
The weight of the bag, tin, or pouch.
Understanding a Cat Food Label
It can be hard to decipher cat food labels, so let’s look at some of these in a little more detail:
The ingredients in a diet must be listed by weight, with the heaviest first at the point of formulation. Note that this doesn’t mean the most important ingredients come first – diets that use a dried protein will often have it lower down the ingredients list than one that uses a fresh protein, as the water in the fresh protein will make it heavier. There are certain rules as to the names allowed for ingredients, and in some cases, ingredients can be grouped. For instance, manufacturers may list the individual organ meats in their food, or they may choose to use a group name like ‘meat and animal derivatives’ which has a specific legal definition. Ingredients may only be included if they’re approved and considered safe.
A ‘guaranteed analysis’ section lists the minimum crude protein and crude fat, and the maximum moisture and crude fiber. It may also include how much of a certain vitamin, mineral, or supplement has been added, if these are advertised on the packaging. These are required to be within certain ranges to be considered a ‘complete and balanced’ diet. It’s easy to think this section can be used to compare diets to find the one with the highest protein, or lowest fat, but it doesn’t work like that. Due to differing moisture levels in the food, you have to convert each guaranteed analysis to a ‘dry matter basis’ in order to compare them.
Feeding Directions and Calories
You’ll also find feeding directions on your pet food. This should be a minimum of ‘feed [amount] per weight of cat’. However, they’re often more complex, perhaps with a table showing different weights of cats and their requirements. Remember, these feeding directions are guidelines, and you need to adjust the amount you feed your cat to take into consideration your pet’s individual needs. The label should also include a calorie statement, which makes this easier. It may be in calories per kg or calories per cup/can. Once you know your cat’s calorie requirements, you can use this information to work out exactly how much to feed your cat.
Nutritional Adequacy Statement
The nutritional adequacy statement is there to confirm that this is safe to feed as the only source of nutrition. It will say that the diet is ‘complete and balanced’ and tell you which life-stage the diet is designed for. This is because growing kittens need different nutrition to adults, so diets need to be formulated for one or the other. ‘Senior’ diets are also available, but there are currently no rules that determine what a diet has to do to be considered ‘senior’. Some packs will say ‘suitable for all life stages’ – this means the diet has been formulated for kittens. It’s safe to feed to adult cats, but it might be a little nutrient-dense and risk them gaining weight too easily.
How do you evaluate cat food?
To evaluate whether a cat food is suitable for your pet, you should start with the label. Check the diet is complete and balanced, and suitable for your pet’s life-stage. Next, find out more about the brand – ideally, you want a brand that’s using a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to formulate their recipes. The WSAVA has useful information to help pet parents choose pet food.
What percentage of cat food should be protein?
The percentage of cat food that should be protein depends on your cat’s age (life-stage). You also can’t compare diets with different moisture contents. A dry cat food with 12% moisture and a protein content of 32% actually has more protein than a diet of 7% moisture and 33% protein. As long as a diet is complete and balanced for your cat’s life-stage you can be confident it has the right percentage of protein for your cat.
Cat food labels aren’t necessarily easy to understand, but they do contain the information you need to find out if a cat food is a good choice for your pet. If you’re confused by your pet food label, you can ask our veterinarians, who are qualified to discuss your cat’s diet and help you choose the best cat food for your cat.