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Guidelines for interpreting pet food labels

As you walk down the pet food aisles of your pet supply or grocery store, do your eyes glaze over as you read the labels? Descriptors such as "natural," "organic," or "for all life stages" may sound enticing. To add to this confusion, nutrition myths float around the internet from manufacturers' advertisements as well as testimonials (and rumors) shared by pet owners. To help pet owners sift through this information, Dr. John Kable has provided information for today's column. Dr. Kable is the co-owner of Airpark Animal Hospital and past president of the Maryland Veterinary Association. He frequently attends pet nutrition seminars and studies nutritional research from evidence-based information.

A good place to start when selecting an appropriate pet food is to have a discussion with your veterinarian. The vet may recommend specially formulated prescription diets for pets with health issues (such as heart or kidney disease and obesity).

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To help owners narrow their search for healthy pet foods, Dr. Kable recommends that careful and thorough examination of labels on bags and cans is warranted. He states that" a pet food label is a legal document which does not convey the quality of the diet from the label." He feels that the two most important pieces of information on the label are manufacturer's name (not just the retailer's name) and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) statement.

Some pet food manufacturers may produce expensive products under different names for grocery store and big box store brands. The label should provide the manufacturer's address and a phone number for customer service as well to provide more detailed information regarding their products in case of food recall, adverse reaction, or if you or your vet has a question about the diet. The manufacturer's longevity, investment in researching their products to substantiate their claims, and the presence of a board-certified veterinary or PhD nutritionist on the staff serve as Dr. Kable's criteria for reputable pet food manufacturers.

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The AAFCO is an independent entity that provides guidelines, regulation and standards for the manufacture, distribution and sale of animal feeds. When examining a pet food label, look for the AAFCO statement just below the nutritional information. Most pet food labels have one of the following statements:

A) "This food is formulated to meet AAFCO nutritional levels for (____) life stages."

B) "Animal feeding trials using AAFCO procedures substantiate that this diet provides complete and balanced nutrition for (_____) life stage."

C) "This food is for intermittent or supplemental use only."

Which of these statements sounds better to you? Dr. Kable prefers statement "B" because the company has done its homework and there is assurance that you are getting what you paid for. Manufacturers with longevity and integrity conduct additional food and regular batch testing, have an open company approach to questions, tours and scientific information (not testimonials). Companies like Purina, Hill's, Science diet and Royal Canin adhere to such standards.

Life stages refer to gestation (pregnant pets), lactation (nursing mothers), growth (puppies, kittens), maintenance, and all life stages. Dr. Kable recommends "all life stages" or "growth" diet formulas for puppies or pregnant pets but not for an adult, senior or overweight pet which can lead to obesity. He much prefers the "feeding trial" method of substantiating label claims to the "formulation method." Be sure the label states "complete and balanced" on the AAFCO statement.

Most reputable manufacturers recommend that puppies be fed on puppy food until 12 months of age. However puppies that (when mature) will weigh over 50 pounds should be fed "large breed" puppy food until 12 to 24 months of age to help keep them slender to avoid the onset of many food-related conditions like osteoarthritis, heart disease and cancer.

A confusing aspect for owners is differentiating between nutrition and ingredients. Dr. Kable states: "Pets require nutrients, not ingredients." Ingredients on labels are listed in order of weight (including water) so meat (which contains water) really does not contribute significantly on a dry matter basis as a source of nutrition. Currently there is the marketing myth that grains are bad for dogs, but whole grains are not fillers and contribute many nutrients, amino acids, vitamins, essential fatty acids and fiber for pet nutrition. Many "grain free" diets substitute potato or tapioca (relatively pure starches) that contribute minimal amounts of most nutrients and have a high glycemic index (which is what you were trying to avoid with the "grain free" formula).

The popular term "natural" really means that no synthesized ingredients were used (except vitamins and minerals) in the manufacturing of a product. In reality an "all-natural diet" is generally not made to be a complete diet and is a supplement only. Words like organic, human-grade, and holistic are often used for marketing purposes. Some ingredients that appeal to us (like glucosamine/chondroitin which aid joint health) are added in very small amounts and provide minimal (if any) nutritional benefit to your pet.

Claims that sound too good to be true may be "red flags." Dr. Kable states that there are inexpensive diets that are excellent and have years of rigorous research and scientific testing behind them, and there are many expensive diets lacking evidence to substantiate their claims.

Dr. Kable concludes by saying, "The most important things for a long healthy life of your pet are to feed a good diet (with the appropriate AAFCO statement) and to keep your pet slim for life." He also suggests asking your veterinarian for a good diet recommendation.

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