Linda P. Case – How to (properly) read a Pet Food Label
- Exclusive interview with Linda Case -
Linda Case, author of the internationally recognized pet nutrition text book (Canine and Feline Nutrition: A Resource for Companion Animal Professionals) is a well-stablished Pet Nutritionist and an idol of mine. I’ve studied her book and I admire all the work she has done in the nutrition and animal behaviour fields.
Your pet’s proper nutrition and their health is a serious matter. I see nutrition as the foundation of good health. I know it sounds cliche, but we are what we eat. And if you don’t believe me, try for yourself. Spend one full week eating a strictly healthy diet (visit FeedRight for People for ideas) and then compare to your usual routine. It is fantastic how many benefits you can experience in just a week, let alone a lifetime of good healthy choices.
The same is true for your pet. Proper nutrition is a must, but knowing what to look for is equality important since you are responsible for making those choices for your pet. The amount of information about pet food and pet nutrition available these day can be pretty intimidating. How to separate the good from the bad? That’s where we come in!
In April of 2012 while attending the PetFood Forum in Chicago, I had the opportunity to meet Linda and chat about my passion for pet nutrition. Linda is a fantastic individual, positive and upbeat and it is with great pleasure that I share her insights on the art of properly reading a pet food label.
Juliana: In your opinion, what is the major obstacle consumers face when selecting the right pet food for their pets?
Linda: Today, dog and cat owners have too many choices when it comes to pet foods. Products are designed for pets of different ages, breed sizes, activity levels, and lifestyles. In addition, a wide variety of flavours, textures, kibble sizes and forms of food are available. Given all of these choices, it is not surprising that selecting a good pet food can be a daunting task! Information that is found on the pet food label can help pet owners to select the best food for their pet’s age, lifestyle and health status.
Juliana: What are your recommendations regarding what to look for and what to avoid?
Linda: It is important for pet owners to realize that pet foods and the pet food label follow defined rules. The two most important in the United States are the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).
(Juliana’s note: in Canada, many pet food product developers also use AAFCO to ensure minimum nutrient requirements)
Current pet food labels of all packages of commercial foods include five primary pieces of information. These are the guaranteed analysis panel, nutritional adequacy statement, list of ingredients, feeding guidelines, and the manufacturer’s name and address. Let’s look at the most helpful of these:
Guaranteed Analysis panel: The guaranteed analysis panel reports the food’s minimum crude protein, minimum crude fat, maximum moisture and maximum crude fibre contents. (Note: the term “crude” refers to specific laboratory methods used to measure these nutrients and does not reflect nutrient quality). The “minimum” rule for protein and fat means that the food must include at least the stated level of these nutrients and may contain more. Similarly, the “maximum” rule for moisture and fiber tell the consumer that the food may contain less than the printed amount but cannot contain more. Although not required, some manufacturers also include optional nutrient information such as magnesium, taurine, omega-fatty acids, or ash.
(Juliana’s note: for products being exported to the European Union, the Guaranteed analysis panel is replaced by the Typical analysis table which reports the same nutrients at average lab values. So for example, a diet that has Protein (min) 32% can appear as Protein (typical) 32.4%).
When examining the guaranteed analysis panel, large differences in moisture content between canned and dry pet foods can lead to confusion when attempting to compare nutrient levels. Because the pet food label displays nutrient levels on an “as-fed” basis, the large amount of water in canned foods causes reported nutrient levels to appear very low. Therefore, owners should avoid making comparisons between a canned and a dry food when looking at this panel (it is necessary to correct for these differences in moisture content if this is attempted).
(Juliana’s note: Dry pet food contains approximately 8 to 10% water, while canned foods can be as high as 80% water!)
Ingredient List: Just like human foods, the ingredients that are included in pet foods are listed on the label in descending order of predominance by weight. The ingredient list can provide pet owners with general information about the type of ingredients that are included in the product. However, a limitation is that this list does not provide information about ingredient quality. For example, some premium foods with high quality, highly available ingredients have an ingredient list that is almost identical to those of foods that contain poor quality ingredients with low digestibility and nutrient availability. Because of this limitation, the ingredient list alone should never be used to compare the quality of two pet foods.
(Juliana’s note: This is an absolutely correct statement. Similarly to human foods, the more defined the ingredient description the better, for example: Fish oil versus Salmon oil – Salmon is a fatty fish and a fantastic source of Omega-3 fatty acids. However, not all fish are the same. The term fish oil is a more generic ingredient name and may contain fish with lower Omega-3 profile. If possible, I recommend looking for Salmon oil).
Nutritional Adequacy Statement: The nutritional adequacy statement identifies the stage of life for which the pet food is designed and describes the method used to prove that the food supplies all of a pet’s nutrient requirements for that life stage. A common statement is the “complete and balanced for all life stages” claim. This claim signifies that the pet food will supply all of a dog or cat’s nutritional needs for all stages of life, including pregnancy, lactation, growth, and adulthood. Other foods may include a claim for a specific life stage, such as growth or adult maintenance. Manufacturers also must describe the method that was used to prove nutritional completeness; either through the completion of AAFCO-sanctioned feeding trials (the most thorough method), or by stating that the food’s nutrient content was formulated to meet or exceed standard dog or cat nutrient profiles.
Feeding Recommendations: All dog and cat foods that carry a “complete and balanced nutrition” claim must include feeding guidelines on the label. These instructions provide pet owners with a general volume to feed based upon their pet’s body weight. This amount should always be adjusted up or down in response to an individual pet’s needs. Although pet food manufacturers are not yet required to include information about the caloric content of the food, this information is of interest to many pet owners and can help when selecting a food for a pet’s lifestyle and activity level. For example, a sedentary adult dog will benefit from a food that has fewer calories per unit weight or volume than a food that is needed by a hard-working herding dog. If caloric information is not provided on the label, pet owners should contact the company or visit the brand’s website to obtain this information.
(Juliana’s note: Feed intake may vary due to gender, age, environment, activity level and desired body condition. Paying close attention to your pet during feeding and regular vet visits are crucial for good health.)
Juliana: What other resources can pet owners benefit from?
Linda: Today, most pet food companies have websites for their products. A website can provide additional information about a food that is not included on the label, plus helpful educational materials for pet owners. Another helpful resource is the NRC’s Pet Nutrition Guide; this is written to help pet owners select a good food for their dog or cat, and is free to download at:
With many thanks to Linda P. Case for her collaboration with this article. Your work is inspiring and it has been a pleasure and honour to have you write for FeedRight!
Linda has a B.S. in Animal Science at Cornell University and a M.S. in Canine/Feline Nutrition at the University of Illinois. Following graduate school, she taught the undergraduate program in the companion animal Science at the University of Illinois for 15 years! She currently owns AutumnGold Consulting and AutumnGold Dog Training Centre in Mahomet, IL (
). AutumnGold Consulting provides scientific writing, educational programs, and research support to pet-related companies and organizations. Their training center provides training classes and educational programs for dog owners and pet professionals. AutumnGold’s most recent project is The Dog Talk Project, a web-based survey research program that studies many facets of the relationship between people and dogs (
). Linda is also the author of a variety of pet-related publications, including four books, most recently “Canine and Feline Nutrition: A Resource for Companion Animal Professionals” (2010) and “Canine and Feline Behavior and Training: A Complete Guide to Understanding Our Two Best Friends” (2009). All of her books are available at Amazon or directly though the publisher. She and her husband Mike share their lives with four dogs; Cadie, Vinny, Chip and Cooper and two cats, Pumpkin Joe and Pete. In addition to dog training, they both enjoy running, hiking, and traveling with their dogs!
Linda Case’s contacts:Owner, AutumnGold Consulting(www.autumngoldconsulting.com)
The Dog Talk Project (www.dogtalkproject.com)
email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org