What’s in your pet’s food?

When you are choosing a can or bag of pet food, you have dozens of choices. In addition to the normal “tuna delights” and “beef dinners,” there are many specialty foods on the shelves that are designed to control weight, combat renal (kidney) disease, and control allergies—plus there are foods for all-around nutrition.

Have you ever wondered how these specialty diets are formulated and what goes into their development?


         Tip! Your veterinarian may recommend or stock foods that are proven to help maintain your pet’s wellness through special diets or all-around   good nutrition. Be sure to follow recommendations to keep your pet healthy.


First, it is important to understand some of the rules about labeling pet foods. Pet food labeling is regulated at the state and federal levels. On the federal level, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has standards for all types of animal feed. These standards require proper identification of the product, net quantity statement, the manufacturer’s address, and proper listing of ingredients.

On the state level, the Association of American Feed Control Officers (AAFCO) has its own set of regulations, which many states use. AAFCO labeling guidelines cover aspects such as product naming standards (for example, “beef food,” “beef dinner,” and “dog food with beef” will all contain different percentages of actual beef—95%, 25%, and 3%, respectively); guaranteed analysis (minimum percentages of protein and fat and maximum percentages of fiber and moisture); and nutritional adequacy.

The FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) states that “an AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement is one of the most important aspects of a dog or cat food label.”

In order for a pet food to be considered “complete and balanced,” or “100% nutritional,” it should carry an AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement. There are two main ways that AAFCO substantiates claims of nutritional adequacy in a food.

[Pet Food] Chemical analysis. The food contains ingredients that AAFCO has determined provide the proper amount of nutrients for a particular animal. The statement will say: “ABC Dog/Cat Food is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog/Cat Food Nutrient Profiles.”

Feeding test. The food has been tested on animals under AAFCO’s strict feeding protocols and was found to provide proper nutrition. The statement on this type of food will say: “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that ABC Dog/Cat Food provides complete and balanced nutrition.”

The statement will also say for what stage of life the food is appropriate; for example, “for maintenance,” for growth,” or “for all life stages.”

If there is no AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement and the food claims to be “complete,” then the food may not have been tested and could be unsafe. The exception to this rule is a “therapeutic” food.

Several companies, such as Hill’s. Iams, Purina  and Royal Canin, produce therapeutic pet foods. These foods have specific ingredients designed to treat certain conditions such as obesity or kidney problems.

“Most therapeutic diets do not have AAFCO nutritional adequacy statements and carry language to the effect of ‘use under direct supervision of a veterinarian,’” says Joe Bartges, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, DACVN], professor of medicine and nutrition at the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “This allows companies to continually ’tweak’ the formulas based on newer research.”

Bartges explains that therapeutic foods do not have actual drugs in them, but rather are comprised of ingredients that have been developed and tested by researchers employed by the pet food companies.

“Some of the research is cell culture and some is whole animal,” Bartges says.  “Most therapeutic diets are not based on clinical trials. Much of the research now is done by evaluating individual ingredients in animals with spontaneous disease.”

Amy Thompson, a spokesperson for Hill’s Pet Nutrition, says Hill’s food formulas are developed using specific ingredients based on key nutritional factors (KNFs). KNFs are the nutrients that are important for each life stage or special need of an animal.

“Examples might include: addition of fish oil as source of DHA to enhance healthy development of puppies and kittens; addition of vitamin E at levels that enhance the immune system; developing formulas that allow the pet to have a urine pH that helps prevent formation of certain urinary crystals and stones; providing a natural fiber source in the food to help control formation of hairballs; providing high levels of specific fatty acids (EPA) that are clinically proven to reduce pain in dogs with arthritis,” Thompson says.

Mark Roos, PhD,  director of product development at Nestle Purina PetCare, explains that once a specific therapeutic need is identified in a dog or cat, Nestle Purina scientists try to come up with nutritional solutions.

“Appropriate studies in human and other species are reviewed and assessed to evaluate if that work may be considered for transfer into a dog or cat,” Roos states. “With these prospective solutions, initial dog or cat testing is conducted to determine if the particular nutrient is efficacious or not. If efficacious, then the nutrient in a respective ingredient and the particular formula undergoes a 30-point checklist to take it from an idea to a final product that can be marketed.”

Roos says that a recent example of ingredients identified as having beneficial properties were soy germ meal and colostrum.

According to Nestle Purina, colostrum (milk from a mammal immediately after it gives birth) boosts immunity and has intestinal health benefits. It also serves to stabilize intestinal microflora and reduces the risk of stress-related diarrhea.

Soy germ meal is a source of soy isoflavones, Roos says, which are beneficial in weight management and have been shown to increase metabolism and reduce weight gain.

Thompson, of Hill’s Pet Nutrition, said another example of a food additive is L-Carnitine.

“Carnitine is a water soluble, vitamin-like nutrient that plays a key role in burning fat and maintaining muscle by helping convert fatty acids into energy,” Thompson says. “It supports healthy liver function, a strong heart and lean muscles.”

With the vast number of options available in the pet food aisle, it is important to make the best choice for your particular pet. Pet food labels can give you a good idea of how the product you are buying was tested and formulated, and what it can do for your best friend. And, of course, if you have concerns about a particular type of food, always ask your veterinarian.

This article originally appeared in PetsMatter May/June 09 – Volume 4 Issue 3, published by the American Animal Hospital Association. Copyright © 2009 AAHA. Find out more.

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