How to Read Cat Food Labels (cont.)

Tip No. 4: Meat Is Not Meal

After you figure out the product name puzzle, you'll want to quickly scan the ingredients to see where your cat's favorite item ranks. Ingredients are listed by weight, with the heaviest ones first. Here's a quick guide to some of the most common ingredients:

  • Meat: Cleaned flesh from chicken, lamb, turkey, cattle, and related animals that have been slaughtered specifically for animal feed purposes. However flesh means more than skin. It may include muscle, (including the diaphragm), fat, nerves, blood vessels from the skin, the heart, esophagus, and the tongue.
  • Meat by-product: Clean, non-flesh parts from the same animals mentioned above. This can include the blood, bone, brain, liver, lungs, liver, kidneys, and emptied stomach and intestines. There are no hooves, hair, horns, or teeth in meat by-products. Chicken by-products are feather-free.
  • Beef tallow: A fat made from beef.
  • Meal: Finely ground tissue.
  • Bone meal: Finely ground bone from slaughtered feed animals.
  • Fish Meal: Clean, ground undecomposed whole fish or fish pieces. The fish may or may not still contain fish oil.
  • Ground corn: Chopped or ground corn kernels.
  • Corn gluten meal: A product that forms after corn syrup or starch is made.

Tip No 5: Focus on Nutrients, Not Ingredients

Don't spend too much time trying to decipher that ingredient list. “Animals require nutrients, not ingredients," says Sherry Sanderson, DVM, PhD, University of Georgia, College of Veterinary Medicine. “You should be most concerned about the nutritional value of the end product, and less concerned about the ingredients that get you there.”

This is where the label's “Guaranteed Analysis” comes into play. It lists nutrients found in cat food. In general, cats need a variety of nutrients to survive, including protein, water, carbohydrates (fiber), vitamins, and minerals. The specific nutrients depend on your cat's life stage, among other things. But the way nutritional information is presented has often sparked debate. Some say current pet food labels, in general, are confusing and misleading, and one consumer advocacy group has even called for a total overhaul of the labeling rules.

Why the controversy? Cat food manufactures are only required to list the minimum and maximum amounts of four nutrients: protein, fat, fiber, and moisture.

  • They must list the minimum amount of crude protein and crude fat.
  • They must list the maximum amount of crude fiber and moisture.

For example, a box of cat food may read: “Crude protein (max) -- 32%”. That means it contains at least that much protein. It could have more, but no less. On the other hand, a box of cat food that reads: “Crude fiber (min) -- 20%” means it guaranteed to have that much fiber but no more. Keep in mind that the amounts are given as a percentage, and not in grams (weight).

Manufacturers may voluntarily include information about other nutrients, such as ash, magnesium, and taurine, which is a must-have for cats.