Learning to read and understand cat food labels is a basic skill every smart breeder can learn. Over the course of your career as a cat fancier, you may want to experiment with new foods. In addition, the cat food industry continues to make advances in manufacturing and designing new foods for the better health of your cat. Formulas change or are upgraded. By understanding how to read and understand a cat food label, you will be able to find the best food for your cat.
Reading The Label
Reading your cat food label is one of the best ways to determine the quality of the food you are feeding. The most important items to look at are:
- Moisture Content
- The Guaranteed Analysis (amounts of protein, fat, carbohydrates and fiber, and other nutrients)
- The Ingredients
- Feeding Guidelines
Different cat foods have different levels of moisture.
- Canned foods often have up to 80% moisture, whereas some dry foods can have as little as 6%.
- Cat food is priced by the pound, so when you buy cat food that is 80% water you get 20% food and the rest is water. The actual amount of nutritional food your cat consumes is small and expensive.
- Moisture content also helps you compare crude protein and fat between canned and dry foods. The listings on the label are for the food as it is, not as it would be on a dry matter basis. To compare different types or brands of food, you need to convert them to a dry matter basis
- If a dry cat food has 10% moisture, it has 90% dry matter. Let’s suppose the label reads that it has a protein level of 20%. To determine the amount of dry matter protein, divide the 20 % protein by the 90% dry matter = 22% protein.
- If a canned food has 80% moisture, it has 20% dry matter. The label shows 5% protein. 5% protein divided by 20% = 25% protein on a dry matter basis.
- The canned food actually has more protein/pound on a dry matter basis after all the water is taken out. Repeat the same calculation for fat, fiber, etc.
- The guaranteed analysis on the information panel of the cat food label lists the minimum levels of crude protein and fat and the maximum levels of fiber and water.
- The protein and fat are listed as crude sources and not as digestible sources. The digestibility of protein and fat can vary widely depending on their sources. The list of ingredients should be examined closely to determine how digestible the sources are.
- The other factor in determining actual protein and fat percentages is the amount of moisture present in the food as already discussed. While the guaranteed analysis is a start in understanding the quality of the food, be very careful about relying on it too much.
- A cat food manufacturer once made a mock product that had a guaranteed analysis of 10% protein, 6.5% fat, 2.4% fiber, and 68% moisture, similar to what you see on many canned cat food labels. The only problem, was that the ingredients were old leather work boots, used motor oil, crushed coal, and water.
All cat foods must list the ingredients present in the food. The ingredients must be listed in order of weight. This is one of the best ways to determine the quality of the food. With a little knowledge of the ingredients, you can choose a food that is highly digestible and free of unwanted products.
Manufacturers sometimes try to disguise undesirable ingredients by breaking an ingredient into several different smaller ingredients and listing them individually. This moves these undesirable ingredients farther down the ingredient list. For example, a product list could contain chicken, ground corn, corn gluten, ground wheat, corn bran, wheat flour, wheat middling, etc. If we were to group all of the corn ingredients as one, they would probably far outweigh the amount of chicken, and wheat. As a consumer, you must read all of the ingredients carefully including the ingredients at the end, to know the type of preservatives and colorings that are used.
Some of the more common ingredients are:
- Meat: Meat is the clean flesh of slaughtered animals (chicken, cattle, lamb, turkey, etc.). The flesh can include striated skeletal muscle, tongue, diaphragm, heart, esophagus, overlying fat and the skin, sinew, nerves and blood vessels normally found with that flesh.
- Meat Byproducts: Meat byproducts are clean parts of slaughtered animals, not including meat. These include lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, liver, blood, bone, and stomach and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth, or hooves.
- Poultry Byproducts: Poultry byproducts are clean parts of slaughtered poultry such as heads, feet, and internal organs (like heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, abdomen, and intestines). It does not contain feathers.
- Fish Meal: Fish meal is the clean ground tissue of whole fish or fish cuttings, with or without the oil extracted.
- Beef Tallow: Beef tallow is fat derived from beef.
- Ground Corn: Ground corn is the entire corn kernel ground or chopped.
- Corn Gluten Meal: Corn gluten meal is the byproduct after the manufacture of corn syrup or starch, and is the dried residue after the removal of the bran, germ, and starch.
- Brewers Rice: Brewers rice is the small fragments of rice kernels that have been separated from larger kernels of milled rice.
- Brown Rice: Brown rice is the unpolished rice left over after the kernels have been removed.
- Soybean Meal: Soybean meal is a byproduct of the production of soybean oil.
- BHA: BHA is butylated hydroxyanisole, a fat preservative.
- Ethoxyquin: Ethoxyquin is a chemical preservative that is used to prevent spoilage in dog food.
- Tocopherols: Tocopherols (e.g., vitamin E) are naturally occurring compounds used as natural preservatives.
- Feeding instructions or guidelines are included on most every bag and most cans of cat foods. These guidelines give the recommended amount to be fed based on growth level and weight. These are very rough guidelines.
- Every animal has a different level of activity and metabolism.
- Breed, age, and other environmental stresses all impact daily requirements.
- If your animal is thin or hungry, feed it more often and in greater quantity.
- If your cat is obese, feed it less. There are now “light” or calorie-reduced foods to help the overweight cat.
- Dry food is usually more economical — and the larger the bag, the lower the price per pound. Many times, a 40-pound bag is less than half as much per pound than an equivalent 5-pound bag.
- Lower priced foods may not always be cheaper to use than a more expensive food if you need to feed more.
- Have to feed more of the cheaper food to satisfy your cat’s nutritional requirements.
- To compare the cost of different types or brands of cat food, calculate the price/pound or the price to feed your cat/day.
- Some of the higher priced foods, especially foods sold only through veterinarians, may not be as good as the less expensive brands. Check the ingredients – they will tell the real story. Most healthy cats do not need specialty foods, just quality food.
The fact that there are so many types and brands on the market shows that there are hundreds of options and opinions about what is best for your cats. Only you can truly make the decision about what is perfect for your situation. Read those labels.