Pet food: What is in a name?

One of my most enjoyable hobbies is cooking, and of course, eating.  I do try to be health conscious for myself and my family, and so I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about food.  There has recently been abundant attention paid to how human food products are labeled, and this brings to the forefront how the diets we feed to our beloved pets are labeled as well.  Does “chicken” by any other name, offer the same nutrition and taste? What do “chicken” and “chicken by-products” really mean?  Here we will help to “decode” the pet food label.


When pet owners see “chicken” listed first on an ingredient list, what we see in our heads is a nice whole chicken breast or a drumstick, like we would eat for dinner.  In reality, the group that standardizes food labeling refers to “chicken” as any combination of chicken flesh, skin and bone.  So when a chicken is processed, who gets the nice drumsticks and breast meat?  You guessed it, humans.  “Chicken” that is in pet foods is really skin and bones, but it still counts as “chicken”.  Additionally, ingredients are listed in the order of preprocessed  volume- the key word being preprocessed. Any ingredient that starts out with higher water content (like chicken with some skin and bone) can be placed first on the list, but when processed and dehydrated the volume will shrink significantly, and we as consumers are not informed.  “Chicken by-products” consist of the head, neck and viscera.  They don’t seem too appetizing to us, however these parts offer a rich source of protein, and are usually the first parts eaten by wild carnivores.  At the very least if this is listed as one of the first couple ingredients on a label you can be assured that a protein source is one of the main components in a food.  Recently there has been a vocal opposition to the use of grains in pet foods.  Corn can offer highly digestible and bioavailable protein when formulated in a pet food.  Proteins are broken down in to their amino acid parts and then used by the body to build and maintain muscle, and for energy.  An animal’s body cannot differentiate between proteins derived from different sources, be it from chicken, beef, corn, soy, elk, salmon or kangaroo.   It is another marketing strategy that is deceptive.  Foods labeled as “Holistic”, or using the terms “human grade, human quality or people foods” have not been legally defined for pet labels and are false and misleading.  For those animals on a diet, only foods labeled as “light” or “lite” have been proven to be formulated for weight loss, “reduced calorie, less active, low fat and healthy weight” do not need to conform to those standards.

One other important label listing to check is the AAFCO statement.  This will tell you how the food company has determined this diet will provide nutrition to an animal, and what age/phase of life it is appropriate for.  Diets whose AAFCO statements say “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures” have been rigorously tested and fed to animals to see how the diet actually works in an animal’s body.  These tests are very expensive to perform, so only companies that are very dedicated to producing the highest quality foods, with the best guarantees will do this.  Diets whose AAFCO statements say “This diet has been formulated to meet AAFCO standards” have not had these tests done, and instead the diet has been broken down and analyzed chemically to confirm it meets the minimum standards.  The problem with these diets is that there is no proof that the ingredients are digestible and bioavailable to the animal eating it.  Tendons and ligaments offer high amounts of protein when broken down in a lab, but when fed to an animal they cannot be digested and absorbed as usable protein sources. For more information regarding AAFCO regulations visit

Wading through the maze of legal terminology that is put on a bag of pet food can be mind-numbing.  Certainly, not everything is as straight forward as it seems.  So where can a conscientious pet owner go to for reliable information?  Definitely, call your veterinarian!

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