Labels can be confusing. So where to begin? First, look for a food that follows AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) guidelines. The AAFCO has developed guidelines to test various animal feeds based on the dried contents of the food so all can be compared equally. But this does not guarantee a good food. It just means it meets the standards.
As most of us know, the ingredients are listed in descending order. Therefore, a food with Chicken listed as first should have more chicken than grains. Look closer: If several grains follow the chicken, there may be more grain content than meat. Bad? Well, this will depend. Many weight loss foods or senior diets have a grain as the first ingredient but several types of meat listed next. But for an average cat or dog, you want to look at the next ingredients and see how much meat comes before the grains, or vice versa… Cats are carnivores where dogs are more omnivorous with tendencies towards more meat, so cats and dogs have different nutritional needs. Cats need more meat than dogs and they also need taurine, which is not found in dog foods. Cat foods are formulated for cat needs and dog food for dog needs. Do not interchange them. Now, let’s look at basic label reading starting with meats.
What about the type of meat you see? Are By-products really feet-n-beaks? Is meal bad? To simply outline the meats in dog foods:
This is the clean flesh from an animal. It may also include organ meats, tendons, blood vessels, etc. (Regardless of the meat used).
Rendered meat, it may NOT contain hair, hooves, or stomach contents. Rendering is to extract all usable bits from the animal by heating – such as taking oils from rendering fat. Meal gives a better true weight as is it dried when used.
These are elements (cleaned) such as organs, bone, blood and fatty tissue. No hooves or hair should be in by-products.
Clean parts of chicken like organs, feet, and heads but no fecal matter.
Poultry By-Product meal
Rendered by-products and no feathers added.
Meat and Bone Meal
From meat and bone but does not contain hooves, hair, blood, manure, hide pieces, stomach, etc.
This is hard white fat that is hard to digest.
This is NOT the stomach content, as the name would imply. This is chemically broken down animal tissue. It does not contain horn, beaks, hair, hooves, feathers, etc.
Clean and dried fish. Great source of Omega 3 fatty acids and Salmon meal is great for both Omega 3 and 6!
Dog and cat foods will also contain various grains and other products. Common grains found in foods are corn, wheat and rice. There are concerns with allergies to corn and wheat. Other grains used may be brewer’s rice, soybean meal, sorghum and oatmeal. There may be various vegetables in pet food, probiotics, Glucosamine, lecithin, shark cartilage, cider vinegar, etc.
What about preservatives? Most dog and cat foods that are commercially made (not including the pre-made raw diets that may not meet AAFCO standards) will have some form of preservative. They have to or the food will spoil. But not all preservatives are equal. BHT and BHA (butylated hydroxytoluene and butylated hydroxyanisole respectively) have raised concerns as preservatives.
Ethoxyquin has been under much debate as it has been linked to health issues but there has been no concrete proof of this. Propylene Glycol is the chemical preservative found in some "safer for pets" antifreeze and is used to create theatrical smoke. It is not as bad as Ethylene Glycol (what makes most antifreezes deadly) but can still be toxic. Sodium Nitrate is used as a red food coloring and also as a preservative. This preserves color but can also be toxic. Tocopherols sound scary as well. But these are vitamin-based preservatives and considered safer.
Now, what about those colored bits or the semi-soft pieces? These are added garbage to be blunt. Semi-soft food (like those red burgers and bits found in that brand with crunchy and soft pieces, many cats foods, etc.) is high in colors, sugars, preservatives and basic junk. It would be like subsisting on food from your local corner gas station or fast food restaurant.
Let’s look at cost of food and quality. Often, the cheaper the food, the lesser the food’s quality will be. If you can buy a 40lb bag of food for $10.00, do you really think the company can afford to put in high quality sources of protein and grains? No. It would cost more to make that bag than to sell it! Cheaper pet food is often less digestible and less nutritious than more expensive brands.
However, this does not mean all expensive brands are top quality. Some may use more harmful preservatives and more meat digest than meat or meat by-products. Read the labels of the desired food carefully. Even if your veterinarian recommends the food for general feeding (I am not referring to prescription diets here), read the labels. Many foods are marketed directly to vets but may not be the best quality.
Foods are not created equal. Foods with less nutritional value are cheaper in the short run but the pet may have to be fed more to maintain the correct weight and poor nutrition can lead to other issues down the road. This article is just a very quick overview of the basics in dog and cat food ingredients.