Pet Food Labeling and Allergies

Pet Food Labeling and Allergies

People spend a lot of money buying food for their companion animals; according to Linda Bren,who quotes the Pet Food Institute, that figure tops $11 billion per year. And the pet food manufacturers compete for the consumer dollar by using terms such as "premium" , "super premium", "gourmet", and "senior" to attract the buyer's attention; these terms have neither a standard definition nor a regulatory meaning.

However, pet food labeling is regulated by the Center for Veterinary Medicine, a division of the Food and Drug Administration, and per Linda Bren, CVM's pet food specialist, William Burkholder, D.V.M., Ph.D., recommends examining three parts of the pet food label: the life stage claim, the contact information for the manufacturer, and the list of ingredients. To quote directly from Bren's article, "Pet owners should look for the word "feeding" in the life stage claim (found in the nutritional adequacy statement on the label). This means the food was proven
nutritionally adequate in animal feed tests.

Another item to check on the label is the contact information. Pet owners should look for the manufacturer's telephone number. Only the manufacturer's name and address are required, but people should be able to call manufacturers to ask questions about their products, says Burkholder, and manufacturers should be responsive. ‘They will not tell you how much liver, for example, is in their product, because that's part of their proprietary formula. But they should tell you how much of any nutrient is in the product.’

The ingredients list on the label is an area of consumer preference and subjectivity. Pet owners who do or do not want to feed a pet a certain ingredient can look at the list of ingredients to make sure that particular substance is included or excluded.

...No matter what choice they make, consumers can take comfort in knowing that pet food is manufactured under a series of standards and regulations. These regulations require some nutrients and additives, disallow others, and stipulate certain information that must be on the label. The labels of packages and cans of commercial cat and dog food must list five pieces of information: guaranteed analysis, nutritional adequacy statement, ingredients, feeding guidelines, and the manufacturer's name and address.

Guaranteed Analysis

The guaranteed analysis specifies the product's minimum percentages of crude protein and crude fat. It also gives the maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture. ("Crude" refers to a specific method of measuring the nutrient, and is not an indication of quality.) Although not required, some manufacturers also specify the percentages of other nutrients, such as ash and taurine in cat food, and calcium and phosphorus in dog food.

The amounts of crude protein and most other nutrients appear less for canned products than for dry ones because of differences in moisture content. Canned foods typically contain about 75 percent water, while dry foods contain only about 10 percent.

Nutritional Adequacy

The nutritional adequacy statement assures consumers that a product meets all of a pet's nutritional needs. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), an advisory body of state and federal feed regulators, develops recommended standards for nutrient contents of dog and cat foods. AAFCO also publishes ingredient definitions and regulations.

The FDA's CVM works in partnership with AAFCO to determine safe pet food ingredients and testing protocols. In addition to federal regulation of pet food, most state governments regulate pet foods and labeling through their agricultural departments. AAFCO has created a model feed bill that states often adopt in their own laws.

CVM gives scientific and regulatory advice to AAFCO and the states on pet food issues, and CVM representatives serve on AAFCO committees and meet regularly with AAFCO's board of directors. CVM investigators also team with AAFCO to check out questionable pet food ingredients or claims.

Manufacturers can show their food meets AAFCO's standards for nutritional adequacy by calculations or by feeding trials. Calculations estimate the amount of nutrients in a pet food either on the basis of average nutrient content of its ingredients, or on results of laboratory tests--but not animal feed tests. If the calculations show that the food provides sufficient nutrients to meet the specific AAFCO nutritional profile referenced, the pet food label will carry a statement like: "( Name of product ) is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO ( Dog or Cat ) Food Nutrient Profiles for ( specific life stage )."

Feeding trials signify that the manufacturer has tested the product (or a similar product made by the same manufacturer) in dogs or cats under strict guidelines. Products found to provide proper nutrition based on feeding trials will carry a statement such as: "Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that ( name of product ) provides
complete and balanced nutrition for ( specific life stage )."

Regardless of the method used, the nutritional adequacy statement on a cat or dog food label must also tell which life stage the product is suitable for. AAFCO has established two nutrient profiles each for dogs and cats- -growth/lactation and maintenance--to fit their life stages.

Every product must meet at least one of these two profiles. A product intended for growing kittens and puppies, or for pregnant or lactating females, must meet AAFCO's nutrient profile for growth/lactation . Products that meet AAFCO's profile for maintenance are suitable for an adult, nonreproducing dog or cat of normal activity level, but may not be adequate for an immature, reproducing, or hard-working animal. A product may claim that it is for "all life stages" if it is suitable for adult maintenance and also meets the more stringent nutritional needs for growth and reproduction.

Growth/lactation and maintenance are the only nutrient profiles authorized by AAFCO and CVM, so terms like "senior" or "formulated for large breed adults" mean the food meets the requirements for adult maintenance--and nothing more.

Snacks and treats that are clearly identified as such are not required to include a nutritional adequacy statement. But these foods, in all other respects, must meet FDA and state regulations for pet food labeling. Dog chews made from rawhide, bone, or other animal parts (such as pig ears) are also considered "food" since pets eat them. These products must bear a list of ingredients and provide the manufacturer's name and address, but they are not required to give a guaranteed analysis, nutritional adequacy statement, or feeding instructions.


Like human foods, pet foods are regulated under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, and must be pure and wholesome and contain no harmful substances. They also must be truthfully labeled. Foods for human or pet consumption do not require FDA approval before they are marketed, but they must be made with ingredients that are "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) or ingredients that are approved food and color additives. If scientific data show that an ingredient or additive presents a health risk to animals, CVM can prohibit or modify its use in pet food.

Pet food ingredients must be listed on the label in descending order by weight. However, the weight includes the moisture in the ingredient, which makes it tricky to interpret. ‘A moist ingredient, such as chicken, which may be 70 percent water, may be listed ahead of a dry ingredient, such as soybean meal, which is only 10 percent water--yet the soy actually contributes more solids to the diet,’ says Susan Donoghue, V.M.D., owner of Nutrition Support Services, Inc., and past president of the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition. Similar materials listed as separate ingredients may outweigh other ingredients that precede them on the list of ingredients. For example, chicken may be listed as the first ingredient, then wheat flour, ground wheat, and wheat middlings. The consumer may believe that chicken is the predominant ingredient, but the three wheat products--when added together--may weigh more than the chicken. "

Labeling and Allergies

A quick trip to the pet food store or the local grocery store for a label comparison will show that pet foods have ANY ingredients in common: wheat and wheat byproducts and waste products, other grains, often soy products, and many preservatives. Additionally meat sources are often not named, and there’s no way to determine the animal sources for that category. This poses no problem for the pet UNLESS the pet develops an allergic response to one or more of the ingredients in the ration. At that point in time switching between brands offers no solution to the issue; many owners find the same is true when using a prescription diet for the pet.

This problem has been with me for many years, starting with a kitten that would not/could not eat a commercial ration. The vet was of the opinion that if I kept trying the kitten would eat as he had his teeth and there appeares to be no medical reason for not eating, but all that happened was the kitten was slowly starving. He even spit out baby meat when I spoon fed him.

Getting desperate, I tried raw hamburger, and miracle of miracles, he ate and asked for more. At this point in time I needed to work two directions: feed the kitten more hamburger, and get enough information together to present the kitten with a balanced ration based on raw meat.

From the outset I knew that cats are obligatory carnivores: ALL their nutritional needs must be met with meat. Cats are unable to manufacture their own taurine, and cannot synthesize vitamin A from beta-carotene. A lot of searching on this issue turned up a Bengal cattery with a web site called Animal Instincts; these folks not only raised Bengals but made the raw ration they fed their cats available for home use. I ended up modifying their recipe somewhat, but the ratio of chopped beef/beef heart/beef liver/egg yolk remained the same. The kitten loved the mix and thrived. The other household cats began eating the same mix and did well too. As the kitten got older he began eating dry food and at that point I cut back the raw ration, eventually eliminating it from the daily diet.

I had to return to the raw ration when Sherman Cat came to our house. The cat is allergic to absolutely every brand of cat food on the store shelves as well as the prescription diets the vets carry. He had external sores and ulcers as well as oral lesions and acute digestive problems ranging from nausea and flatulence to bloody bowels. Sherman prefers raw poultry to raw beef, so his ration includes gizzards and hearts, chicken livers, and ground turkey or chicken. It took about four months for his system to clear, but today his mouth and digestive system are clear, though there’s one area of dermatitis that doesn’t quite want to heal.

Now all the cats have a choice of beef based or poultry based raw food every day. The senior citizens in their high teens and early twenties who have few if any teeth eat the ration with as much relish as the juveniles and adolescents; I just make sure to mince the organ meats.

One of the dogs presented a different situation, though still relating to food. She has so many allergies she should have been raised in a bubble. The vet recommended-and we followed through- a series of desensitization shots to help her with her difficulties. While the program offered some benefits, she was still unable to handle grain based dog food, and
continued to dig and scratch as well as refuse food for days at a time. Here the strategy was somewhat different: I was able to find a commercial cat food she would eat that didn’t exacerbate her itchiness, and supplemented her ration with raw foods EXCEPT bones.

In each of these cases the pet food labels not only gave me an indication of what was in the product but told me what I had to avoid. I did not get much help from our vet; vets are not dietitians. The kitten that nearly starved is today a big strapping tomcat who fathered a beautiful litter of kittens. Sherman Cat is doing well; the previous owner’s vet had recommended euthanasia. And the dog is now an old lady of fourteen; she has lived on this diet for all these years.

The logic behind these choices is simple but not easy. Only one item in a defined problem can be changed at a time. Choices made and results obtained have to be noted. Everything is quantified and qualifed. Research has to be done not just to understand the problem but to avoid re-inventing the wheel. After a while these startegies and solutions do become a foundation for dealing with other problems, though, so the next issue is often easier to resolve.

Article submitted by: © Dulcea Harris