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The old adage “you are what you eat” is just as true for cats as it is for people. Cats need the correct balance of fats, carbohydrates, proteins, and minerals to stay healthy, but their nutritional requirements are quite a bit different than humans.
This means that the label of a bag of cat food may look very different from those of foods designed for people. It is important that people know a bit about the nutritional requirements of cats before they learn how to read cat food labels.
What do cats eat? Meat. They are true carnivores. That means that their systems are designed to get almost every nutrient they need from the consumption of meat. They also require some fat in their diet but very little carbohydrates.
Not any one type of meat is likely to provide cats with all of the nutrients they need, so most manufactured cat foods also add specific amino acids, minerals, and vitamins to ensure a balanced diet. Some of these nutritional additives include:
Taurine – an essential amino acid for cats, it is involved in many bodily processes, including digestion, pregnancy and fetal development, vision, and blood flow.
Phosphorus – essential to the cat's health but only in small quantities, too much can lead to kidney problems
Vitamin A – necessary for healthy bones, teeth, skin, mucus membranes, and plays a role in reproduction
Calcium – necessary for bone growth and maintenance and heart health
There are many others, including vitamins for cat coats, but they are not required to be listed on the label, so pet parents may not find information about their content in the feed there.
In some circumstances, probiotics for cats are a helpful dietary aid. Cat parents should talk to a vet to see if they will benefit theircat. Also, young cats have different needs than adults do so be sure to consider vitamins or probiotics for kittens when looking at foods for them.
Here are a few things to consider when reading a cat food label.
Cat food manufacturers often used bright colors and adorable pictures to attract the eye of the consumer. While fun to look at, none of that will help to determine if the food meets all of the cat's nutritional requirements.
Don't make a decision based on the images on the front. Turn the bag around and read the information on the back. That is where the manufacturer is required to list the ingredients and other details about the nutritional content of the food.
There is one notable exception to the need to look for information on the back of the packaging. If the name of the food contains the name of a specific meat (Chicken, beef, lamb, etc), how that name is worded can provide helpful information about just how much of that meat is contained in the food. For example:
Chicken food – must be at least 95% chicken
Chicken dinner – must be at least 25% chicken
Food with chicken – must contain at least 3% chicken
Chicken flavored food – this does not have to contain any actual chicken
Much like their pet parents, cats need change as they age. To be sure that they get what they need at the right stage of life, cat parents should look for the words "kitten," "adult," or "senior" on the packaging. Each of those labels signifies that the food is adjusted to meet the different nutritional needs of cats in those life stages.
There are also foods designed to help obese cats lose weight and with cat digestive issues. This information should be clearly labeled on the packaging.
Somewhere on every container of cat food intended for retail sale, there is a nutrition label. On this label will be found all the ingredients found in the food, listed in order from highest amount to least. The amounts are determined by weight, so dry materials, like bone meal, may appear lower on the list than a vegetable but this is only because wet ingredients weigh more.
Knowing what ingredients a food contains, and in what amounts is only the first step in learning how to read a cat food label. Now it's time to find out if the nutritional breakdown meets a cat’s requirements.
The more essential cat vitamins and minerals should be listed as a percentage of daily intake per serving. The goal is for 100% to be able to be reached in the course of a normal daily feeding schedule. If that can’t be accomplished then consider a different cat food or talk to the cat’s vet about vitamins for cats.
Perhaps the easiest way to know if a cat food will meet nutritional requirements is to look for the AAFCO assurance that it does.
The AAFCO, or Association of American Feed Control Officers, is an organization devoted to ensuring that the feeds being produced for animals in this country meet the basic nutritional requirements of the animals they are to be fed to. If they determine that a food lives up to the basic requirements, the manufacturer may add the words, “Found to be Complete and Balanced by the AAFCO” to the label. This is usually found in the small print under the nutrition label.
For more information about how to read a cat food label or any other cat questions cat parents may have, reach out to an expert. Fuzzy offers its members 24/7 Vet Chat for all pet wellness questions.