6 min read

How to Read Cat Food Labels

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Overview

If you've ever been on a diet, you probably know how tough food labels are to understand, and cat food labels aren't any easier.

Unlike nutrition labels for human food, pet food labels list the nutrient content in minimum and maximum percentages and use confusing terms like "crude fiber" and "meat by-products". The purpose of nutrition labels is to inform consumers, but the terminology often leaves pet parents with more questions than answers.

But that's what we're here for! With the help of Dr. Linda Simon, MVB MRCVS, member of Wag!’s licensed veterinary team, we'll explain everything you need to know about decoding cat food labels, from understanding the terminology to finding the best formula for your pet.


Ingredients

Most pet food ingredients fall into 6 categories:

  • protein
  • fat
  • carbs
  • vitamins
  • minerals
  • preservatives

Let's explore the purposes of these key ingredients and some examples of each.

Protein   

Protein is one of the most important macronutrients for felines. Since they're obligate carnivores, most of a cat's calories should come from animal protein. However, a small amount of plant-based protein is acceptable in commercial cat foods.

Some cat food companies use plant-based proteins in addition to animal products to increase the protein content while keeping production costs low. Common protein sources in cat food include meat, meat-byproducts, meat meal, soybean meal, and brewers yeast.

Fat  

Fat is another essential macronutrient cats require in their diet. Animal fats are especially important since they contain fatty acids, which cats need to develop and maintain healthy nervous and immune systems.

Carbs   

Cats don't require carbs for normal bodily functions. However, many cat food companies often add carbohydrate sources to their formulas since they boost energy and increase the overall calorie content. Examples of carbohydrate sources that pet food manufacturers often include are beans, grains, and corn.

Vitamins   

Like humans, there are several essential vitamins that cats can only get from food, namely B-complex vitamins and vitamins A, D, E, and K. Vitamins play a role in several bodily processes, from wound healing to fighting off illnesses. 

Minerals     

Cats require 12 minerals for their bodies to work normally. Calcium, zinc, phosphorous, and iron are especially important since they are involved in bone formation, oxygen transport, enzymatic processes, and healthy immune function. Deficiencies in any one of these minerals can cause serious health problems like poor growth, muscle problems, and hemolytic anemia, to name a few.   

Preservatives    

Preservatives are natural or artificial additives that pet food manufacturers include in their formulas to increase product shelf life and prevent bacterial growth. Tocopherols, ascorbic acid, BHT, and ethoxyquin are just a few preservatives pet food companies use in their products.   


Cat foods should be high in protein, and this should be from meat and fish rather than their by-products. While grains and other carbohydrate sources aren't the "devil" some food manufacturers would have you believe, they should not be present in high quantities.

— Dr. Linda Simon, MVB MRCVS

What should be the first ingredients in cat food? 

Real meat should be the first ingredient in cat food — not meat by-products, bone meals, or grains. High-quality cat foods will always have real meat as the first ingredient, while lower-quality budget brands may have meat by-products or corn as the first ingredient.

All nutrition labels list ingredients in descending order from most to least abundant based on product weight. The weight of the ingredients may change during cooking and dehydrating, but pet food companies are required to list the ingredients by weight before processing.

For instance, if a cat food contains 5 pounds of raw chicken, 2 pounds of rice, and 4 pounds of raw meat by-products, the order of the ingredients would be chicken, meat by-products, and rice — even if the weight ratio changes during processing.

Chicken, salmon, or turkey are all great first ingredients, but beef and lamb are also nutrient-dense options. Avoid cat foods with corn, wheat gluten, or other fillers as the first ingredient since these are usually lower quality and not as nutritious. 

tabby cat eating cat food from a green bowl

What meat is used in cat food?    

There are three main types of animal products in commercial cat food:

  • meat
  • meat by-products
  • meat meal

The FDA has strict definitions of which animal products fall under these titles.

According to the FDA, meat is skeletal muscle or striated tissue in specific organs, like the heart. The FDA also considers any naturally occurring vascular or connective tissue connected to the muscle to be meat.

On the other hand, meat by-products are the edible innards, bones, blood, and fat of slaughtered animals and do not contain any striated muscle meat. The innards in meat by-products may include kidneys, brain tissue, intestines, liver, and tripe. 

Meat meal is powderized meat by-products that have been boiled and baked until completely dehydrated and granular in consistency.  


Guaranteed analysis

Federal law requires that all pet foods display a guaranteed analysis of the product's nutrition content. You're probably familiar with this little black box on the back of your cat's food bag — but what does guaranteed analysis in cat food really mean?

The guaranteed analysis must include the following information for cat food products:

  • Protein (min)
  • Fat (min) 
  • Fiber (min)
  • Moisture (max)
  • Taurine (min)

Depending on the claims listed on the product packaging, the manufacturer may be required to include additional information in the guaranteed analysis, like the maximum ash content. Some cat food companies list additional information not required by law, like the zinc or probiotic content. Guaranteed analysis labels do not list the exact nutrient content in the food, but rather the minimum and maximum percentages of nutrients allowed in the formula.

Unfortunately, the guaranteed analysis isn't ideal for comparing pet foods since manufacturers analyze the food "as is" — water content and all. The guaranteed analysis may be an unreliable indicator of food quality, especially when comparing wet and dry foods, since it doesn't account for the difference in moisture. A more accurate way to compare foods is to use a dry-matter calculator, which uses the values listed in the guaranteed analysis to determine the nutrient content without factoring in the moisture content.


Nutritional adequacy statement

Every commercial cat food must have a statement of nutritional adequacy from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) — but the wording of this statement can look different depending on the criteria used to verify the manufacturer's claims.

There are two ways pet food products can earn an AAFCO nutrition statement. The first way is for the product to undergo a feeding trial. The AAFCO does not perform feeding trials — it's up to the pet food manufacturer to organize, fund, and perform the tests in accordance with AAFCO protocol.

AAFCO standards dictate the minimum number of test subjects, how long the animals must remain on the diet, and the medical tests researchers should perform to ensure the nutritional adequacy of the food.

Pet food companies that formulate their products according to the AAFCO nutrition profiles can skip the feeding trials altogether. The manufacturer must send off a sample of the food for analysis to confirm its nutritional adequacy. If AAFCO determines the product is nutritionally adequate based on established nutrition profiles, the statement will read "[product] is formulated to meet nutritional levels."

If the company chooses to go the feeding trial route, the label will read, "Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that [product] provides complete and balanced nutrition."

All AAFCO nutrition claims will specify the life stage the product is suitable for (e.g., kittens, seniors. or adults).


two cats eating cat food from two bowls

Frequently asked questions about cat food labels

Understanding nutrition labels can be confusing. Here are some of the most common questions pet parents have about cat food labels.


What does "crude" mean in cat food?

Pet food companies use the term "crude" to denote the testing methods they use to measure certain nutrients like protein, fiber, and fat. Put simply, "crude" refers to the total amount of the nutrient in the food without accounting for digestibility, which might cause the actual nutrient content to vary.


What does kcal/kg mean in cat food?

Pet food manufacturers use kcal/kg as a unit of measurement to express the average calorie count within one kilogram of food.


Does the USDA regulate cat food?

No. The USDA does not regulate any part of the pet food production process, but it does offer an optional certification program for pet food products.

The FDA is solely responsible for regulating the pet food industry. The association dictates which ingredients companies can use and outlines acceptable production procedures. The FDA also regulates product labeling, health claims, and which products are considered organic in the pet food industry.




Unsure about an ingredient in your cat's food? Use Wag! Vet Chat to talk to a veterinary professional about which ingredients to look for and which to avoid.


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