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PetMeds® Pet Food Definitions


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AAFCO guidelines   AAFCO, the Association Of American Feed Control Officials, Inc., is an association of state and federal officials that help develop the guidelines for animal feeds and pet food in regards to the production, labeling, and selling of these products. A pet food manufacturer is allowed to claim its food is "complete and balanced" by meeting an AAFCO nutrient profile (dog or cat) or by passing a feeding trial.

To meet AAFCO dog or cat nutrient profiles, the pet food must meet the required amounts of protein, fat, and essential nutrients. View the AAFCO Dog and Cat Nutrient Profiles. Pet foods that meet these requirements are allowed to display the message "(Name of product) is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO (Dog/Cat) Food Nutrient Profiles."

For pet foods passing a feeding trial, the manufacturer is allowed to display, "Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (name of product) provides complete and balanced nutrition."

Although feeding trials may seem like a more stringent testing method, the feeding trials are viewed by many as being too lenient. Although before the trial starts and after it ends the participating animals must pass a physical examination by a veterinarian -- evaluating general health, body and hair coat condition -- it is only at the end of the trial that 4 blood values are measured and recorded: hemoglobin, packed cell volume, serum alkaline phosphatase, and serum albumin.
  • Each trial involves only 8 animals (either dogs or cats) and there is no restriction regarding breed or sex. Only 6 of these 8 need to complete the trial, which lasts for just 26 weeks.
  • The food being tested must merely keep 6 out of the 8 seemingly healthy dogs/cats alive for 6 months, without them losing more than 15% of their initial body weight, and without the average of the 4 certain blood values falling below minimum levels. (Most nutritional deficiencies or excesses will not be apparent within a brief 6 month period, as they tend to take much longer to develop.)
Pet food manufacturers may also include a statement about the life stages for which their brand is most suitable. There are two different life stage nutrient profiles:
  • Growth and Reproduction – For growing puppies/kittens, pregnant dogs/cats or lactating females.
  • Adult Maintenance – Any adult dog or cat that is non-reproducing and has a normal activity level. (May not be suitable for dogs or cats that are growing, reproducing, or highly active/working.)
By-products The leftover parts of the animal that are not suitable for human consumption and used in lower quality pet foods. By-products can include animal parts such as necks, feet, bones, intestines, lungs, etc. Although this ingredient is not desirable, and should not comprise the majority of your pet's food, it is better to have a byproduct from a named animal species. For example, "chicken by-products" or "beef by-products" are better than "poultry by-products" or "meat by-products."
Colors/Dyes Common coloring agents include Red 40, Blue 2, Yellow 5, Yellow 6. There is no nutritional need for these types of ingredients, but they are often used to enhance the appearance of the food, and are very common in kibble/dry pet food.   These artificial colors are also believed to cause allergic reactions and tumors in the brain (Blue 2) and adrenal gland and kidneys (Yellow 6).
Dry Matter Dry matter is determined by a simple calculation involving the protein and moisture amounts in your pet's food. This equation is important because it can help you compare the nutritional information across both wet and dry foods. Although the Guaranteed Analysis label gives percentage amounts of protein, fat, and fiber, this information includes moisture which can greatly vary the amount of nutrients in the food.

To calculate the dry matter basis of your pet's food: Subtract the moisture amount of your pet's food from 100%. For example: 100% - 10% moisture = the pet food contains 90% dry matter. Next, convert the protein, fat, and fiber levels to a dry matter basis. Using the 90% dry matter amount above as an example, divide the nutrient's percentage amount by the pet food's dry matter amount. For instance: If your pet's food contains 28% protein, you would divide: 28% protein / 90% dry matter = 26% protein dry matter. By following the same procedure with fat and fiber content you can use these calculations to compare the nutrients in both wet and dry pet foods. Although this is helpful in comparing pet foods, the ingredients list is still a very important piece of information in determining the source of the food's nutrients.
Fillers Various ingredients that provide little to no nutritional value, but are added in for dietary fiber. Common fillers found in pet food include corn bran, rice bran, oat hulls, cereal by-products, feathers, soybean hulls, cottonseed hulls, peanut hulls, rice hulls, wheat mill run, citrus pulp, modified corn starch, weeds, and straw. Many foods also have corn, corn gluten, brewers rice, wheat gluten, soybean meal and rice protein. These ingredients are often used as plant-based sources of protein–cheaper sources of protein when compared to meat or fish. They are often given the name "filler" because they are used by pet food companies (instead of meat or fish) to "fill" up the bag of food with cheaper protein. The term filler is a misnomer, however, if filler is defined as a non-nutritive fiber source, because some of them do provide value. It is usually best to look for a pet food that is free of any fillers or cheaper sources of protein.

Flavorings (Digests) Digests are the waste from an animal's intestine. Some lower quality pet foods will include digests from animals to add additional flavoring to their food. Foods with digests of any animal should be avoided (even if it is a named animal digest like "chicken digest"), because there is no nutritional value in this ingredient.


Meat-based diet

Both dogs and cats ideally should be fed a pet food consisting of animal protein, which includes meat and other ingredients from animal origin, such as eggs.

Meat meal Meat meal is rendered meat, a popular ingredient used as a source of protein in pet food. This ingredient is made by crushing, cooking, and grinding the meat until it becomes a powder-like form to be mixed in with other ingredients. There is no regulation on the quality of meat meals, so the quality can greatly vary.
It is possible for this ingredient to be from a quality source or it could contain "4-D animals" (dead, diseased, disabled, or dying prior to slaughter). Meat meal is less desirable in a pet food than a whole named meat or fish such as "chicken" or "salmon."
Named meat meals Named meat meals are believed to be higher in quality than unnamed meat meals because the animal of origin is disclosed.
Named meat meals Example: Chicken meal (Good) is superior to poultry meal (Bad), because poultry could be a combination of various birds.
Partial Grains High quality pet foods tend to use whole grains (whole corn, whole oats, rice, etc.), while lower quality pet foods will use partial, or fractionated, or only certain parts of the grain because they are cheaper. These ingredients also tend to have little or no nutritional value and may be used as filler. Common partial grains include brewers rice, feeding oat meal, oat hulls, wheat gluten, corn gluten, and soy flour.

Preservatives Higher quality pet foods will use natural preservatives such as mixed tocopherols (Vitamin E), ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) and herbs like rosemary extract. Although these ingredients help to prevent the food from quickly spoiling, pet foods with natural preservatives generally spoil faster than those with artificial preservatives.
Preservatives There are two classifications of preservatives: artificial and natural. Artificial preservatives like butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) or ethoxyquin are considered to be unhealthy preservatives for pets, yet they are still allowed in small doses in pet food. In addition, it is believed these preservatives may cause cancer when consumed over a long period of time.
Rendered meats Higher end pet food manufacturers generally use meats from a named animal source such as chicken (Good), while some commercial pet food manufacturers may use a mixture of animal meats, like poultry (Bad).

Rendered meats

Meats that are cooked (usually through heat or steam) to create meat meals. The quality of the final product can vary depending on how and where the meat was sourced.

Sweeteners Sweeteners are usually sugar used to enhance the overall flavor of the pet food. Too much sugar is not good for pets, so it is not good if it is high on the ingredient list.
Unnamed animal proteins Pet foods containing unnamed animal proteins (meat meal, poultry by-product meal, etc.) are viewed as low quality ingredients because their quality is not regulated. Because it is uncertain where these ingredients were sourced, it is also possible for them to be from "4-D animals" (dead, diseased, disabled, or dying prior to slaughter). For higher quality animal proteins, seek out a pet food with whole named meats or meat meals (Ex: chicken, turkey meal, chicken meal).
Whole grains Whole grains (rice, wheat, barley, oats, corn, etc.) are commonly used as a carbohydrate source for energy and can also provide natural sources of vitamins and fiber. However, in lower quality pet foods, they may be used as the main ingredient, which is not healthy for most dogs.
Whole named meat or fish When a meat is named, it provides information regarding from which animal the meat was sourced. For example, "lamb" on the ingredients list reveals the pet food contains some lamb meat. The higher this ingredient appears on the list, the greater the amount of meat that was used in the food. Ideally, it is best to have a whole named meat as the first ingredient. For example, "chicken" or "salmon" are whole named meats/fish and are found in the highest quality pet foods as the first listed ingredient. 'Poultry" or "chicken meal" would not be whole named meats and are of a lesser quality.
Click & Learn
Meet the Experts
Dr. Michael Dym, VMD
Veterinarian (Bio)
"I believe in providing our pets with as close to an evolutionary diet as possible. Many of the processed commercial pet foods today are made with lower quality ingredients, too many refined carbohydrates, as well as sometimes unhealthy additives and preservatives. A proper and balanced homemade diet is ideal; however, when looking for a natural commercial diet, I try to find one that has good quality meat ingredients in two out of the first three ingredients listed on the label, preferably not meat by-products.  For my feline guardians, I am a strong believer in wet food or meat-based diets, as many dry food only feline diets may lead to an increased incidence of obesity, diabetes, and/or feline urologic syndrome, especially in those cats who graze on dry food throughout the day."
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