Pet food: what does the label tell you, and how much does it matter to your pet?

Do you ever wonder what actually goes into pet food? Everyone with a pet has to provide food for them every day, but most of us are unaware of the background to what we are feeding. That’s not to say that we don’t care about it: pet food manufacturers know that we want to do the best for our pets, so labelling and packaging tends to give a sense of wholesome ingredients and tastiness. But what’s going on behind the scenes?

There’s an anti-corporate trend in the modern online world, with an underlying emotion of distrust in big companies. While this may sometimes be justified, the truth is that most companies are just bigger versions of small businesses, doing their best to provide products and services in an efficient, effective way. Pet food companies are no different: while some pet owners may dislike the idea of mass produced pet food, it’s still the method that most pet owners use to feed their pets, and for the most part, it works very well. Pet food production is regulated by law to ensure that it’s safe and nutritious. Recent research showed that 70% of owners and 85% of vets agreed that commercially prepared pet food provides optimum nutrition. Almost 60% of owners and 95% vets would go as far as to say pets are living longer as a result of advanced nutrition. Of course there are individual animals that have special nutritional needs, just as some humans do. But for most pets, commercial pet food does a good job.

Pet food manufacturers produce products in line guidelines that are regularly reviewed by independent nutrition experts. There is also strict legislation governing what ingredients can be used, laid down by European law, but also applicable to imported commercially prepared pet foods.

So what actually goes into commercial pet food? ‘Ingredients’ is the general term used for raw materials and additives in pet foods. Typical pet food ingredients include protein sources such as poultry, beef and fish plus vegetables, cereals, vitamins and minerals, all combined according to recipes designed by veterinary nutritionists to create a balanced diet.

Many supermarket type pet foods seem to have ingredients that are easy to criticise: the classic example is “meat and animal derivatives“. This may sound like a vague term, but it’s actually precisely and legally defined in the Animal Feed Regulations 2010. Manufacturers are legally obliged to use this term because it accurately describes what goes into the food. In reality, the term refers to by-products of the human food industry that come from animals slaughtered under veterinary supervision e.g. heart, lung, or muscle meat, which may not be traditionally eaten by people in this country. The ingredients have been inspected and passed as suitable for human consumption, so there’s nothing “low quality” about them.

The term “ash” is also often criticised: after all, who would like a sprinkling of ashes from the fire mixed up in their food? In fact, again, this term is legally defined: it refers to the mineral content of the food and is determined chemically by the burning of the product. It is a legal requirement to include the ash content on a pet food label.

What about more expensive pet food, sometimes called “premium” or “super-premium”? How is this different, and are these diets worth paying for? Such terms are not legally defined, and so they are more of a marketing term than a technical description. Factors include type of ingredients used, quality of ingredients and investment in innovation in the product. “Super premium” diets tend to include specific ingredients, such as particular types of meat, antioxidants for immune support and glucosamine for joint care. If you read the ingredients label yourself, you should be able to see what you are paying for.

What about home-prepared diets? Many people do cook food for their own pets, but you need to be careful: it can be difficult to be sure that you are providing the right balance of nutrients without having a recipe checked by a qualified nutritionist. A simple rule of thumb is that 90% of a pet’s diet should be commercially prepared, with just 10% as extras or treats. This will ensure that your pet does not suffer from any unexpected nutritional deficiencies.

So what’s the ideal food for pets? The answer, as for humans, is that it depends on the individual. Many pets fed on grocery-supplied standard pet food are in excellent health. Others thrive on premium type pet food, sold through pet shops and vet clinics. And some pets do well on a more “natural” type diet, such as home-prepared or “raw” diets. It takes up to six weeks for the effect of a diet to become visible in an animal: if your pets enjoy their daily meals, and have bright eyes, a shiny coat and a muscular, sleek body, then you can be sure that you are feeding a diet that suits them well.

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12 thoughts on “Pet food: what does the label tell you, and how much does it matter to your pet?

  1. Very interesting read Pete but you didnt mention raw feeding or Barf which is becoming increasingly popular here in Ireland. It is now readily available in most pet stores in freezer departments and is generally on par with the average cost of feeding commercial dried food. Apart from knowing what’s in a bag of kibble it is also very important to develop an eye to notice that your dog suits the brand of choice. I feed raw which is tripe based but would include beef, chicken, lamb and veg (mainly green). Over the course of the week eggs and fish would be added along with multi vits. I feed 6 dogs and feed according to their weight, breed and most importantly work.

  2. Very interesting read Pete but you didnt mention raw feeding or Barf which is becoming increasingly popular here in Ireland. It is now readily available in most pet stores in freezer departments and is generally on par with the average cost of feeding commercial dried food. Apart from knowing what’s in a bag of kibble it is also very important to develop an eye to notice that your dog suits the brand of choice. I feed raw which is tripe based but would include beef, chicken, lamb and veg (mainly green). Over the course of the week eggs and fish would be added along with multi vits. I feed 6 dogs and feed according to their weight, breed and most importantly work.

  3. Hi Jules – in fact, I did mention raw feeding – “And some pets do well on a more “natural” type diet, such as home-prepared or “raw” diets” with a link to a UK raw feeding product, Honeys. As I say, no method of feeding is perfect for every dog. Raw diets in the US have been linked with salmonella infections in humans in the same home, so if vulnerable humans (elderly, children, immunocompromised) are around, this fact should be taken into account. Read this link before considering raw: http://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/ResourcesforYou/AnimalHealthLiteracy/ucm373757.htm

  4. Hi Jules – in fact, I did mention raw feeding – “And some pets do well on a more “natural” type diet, such as home-prepared or “raw” diets” with a link to a UK raw feeding product, Honeys. As I say, no method of feeding is perfect for every dog. Raw diets in the US have been linked with salmonella infections in humans in the same home, so if vulnerable humans (elderly, children, immunocompromised) are around, this fact should be taken into account. Read this link before considering raw: http://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/ResourcesforYou/AnimalHealthLiteracy/ucm373757.htm

  5. Hi Pete

    I’ve heard all sorts of stories about some of the more popular dog foods not being that good for dogs, but then you don’t know who to believe on the web sometimes! We have always few our dogs James Wellbeloved, do you have any knowledge of this product? Our vet says it’s very good. It’s certainly expensive enough!

  6. Hi Pete

    I’ve heard all sorts of stories about some of the more popular dog foods not being that good for dogs, but then you don’t know who to believe on the web sometimes! We have always few our dogs James Wellbeloved, do you have any knowledge of this product? Our vet says it’s very good. It’s certainly expensive enough!

    1. Hi Jane, there are so many diets for weight loss available, it would be difficult to say. The major food companies give good advice for weight management on their sites (Hills, Royal Canin etc) or of course your local vets can help with weighing and possibly nurse weight clinics. This website is also good http://www.pfma.org.uk/dogs/

    1. Hi Jane, there are so many diets for weight loss available, it would be difficult to say. The major food companies give good advice for weight management on their sites (Hills, Royal Canin etc) or of course your local vets can help with weighing and possibly nurse weight clinics. This website is also good http://www.pfma.org.uk/dogs/

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