When we brought Coco home 4 years ago, I knew next to nothing about cat food. But I try to be a pretty healthy eater, and I wanted my Bengal cat to eat healthy, too, so I set out to find the healthiest cat food on the market.
What I came to realize is that there’s no simple answer to the question: “Which is the healthiest cat food?” But a great many people have invested time and effort to ensure the food you give to your cat is adequate for sustaining his health.
If there’s one guiding principle about cat food, it’s this: Ask your veterinarian what and how much to feed your cat. They go to school for the better part of a decade to learn about the inner workings of cats. If for some reason you don’t trust your veterinarian, find a new one.
But you should still know what you’re getting yourself into.
What’s in a cat food label?
Most state feed control board regulations use some version of the standards created by the Association of American Feed Control (AAFCO), which in turn uses standards created by the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academy for Sciences.
As a result of all these organizations providing regulations, there are eight things that must always appear on cat food:
- Product name
- Name of species for which the food is intended
- Guaranteed analysis
- Nutritional Adequacy Statement
- Feeding Directions
- Manufacturer name and location
- Net weight
The regulations for naming cat foods are actually quite stringent.
Because consumers tend to look for particular ingredients in cat foods, companies like to put those ingredients into the product names, like “Salmon Cat Food” or “Salmon Dinner with Rice.” But how much salmon is necessary to call something a salmon dinner?
There are four rules companies must follow when using ingredient names in the cat food. They are:
- 95 Percent Rule: If a cat food uses the name of an ingredient with no other qualifications, like the aforementioned “Salmon Cat Food,” then the food must consist of at least 95 percent salmon. If it says “Salmon and Tuna Cat Food,” then the two named ingredients together (salmon and tuna) must comprise 95 percent of the total weight.
- Dinner Rule: If a company refers to its product as “Salmon Dinner,” then it must be at least 25 percent salmon. If it is labeled “Salmon and Tuna Dinner,” the combination of the named ingredients must total at least 25 percent of the product.
- With Rule: If the cat food label says “with” some ingredient, as in “Salmon Dinner with Rice,” then the product must contain at least 3 percent of that ingredient.
- Flavor Rule: This rule is less stringent. Basically, there just needs to be a trace amount of whatever the flavor is.
Name of species
The type of animal the food was created for must be prominently displayed on the label. It may also be included on the product name.
Ingredients listings on cat foods are the same as on people foods.
The ingredients are listed in order by weight, with the ingredient that makes up the highest percentage of the total weight listed first. So if chicken meal is the first thing listed on the label, then that product contains more chicken meal than anything. That does not mean the product consists mostly of chicken meal — only that chicken meal appears more often than anything else.
All of the ingredients on the label are either “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA or approved food additives, including those things you’ve likely never heard of before. But listing ingredients isn’t entirely helpful because you don’t know how much of each ingredient is included in your cat’s food. That’s why there’s another required section called “Guaranteed Analysis.”
The Guaranteed Analysis is not something you typically see on human foods, but it’s similar to the “Nutritional Facts” that appear on human foods in that they both include a breakdown of the basic nutritional information for that product.
The difference between Guaranteed Analysis and Nutritional Facts is how the information is presented. We eat lots of different foods throughout the day, but many cats rely on cat food as their sole form of nutrition. So it’s important that the ingredients in cat food meet certain minimums of composition for things like protein, vitamins and minerals.
The Guaranteed Analysis states the amount of each component based on a maximum or minimum threshold. The minimum percent of crude protein and crude fat, as well as the maximum percent of crude fiber and moisture (aka water), are always required.
Nutritional Adequacy Statement
You can be sure that the food you’re feeding your cat meets AAFCO’s standards for daily nutrition if the manufacturer makes an AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement.
Specifically, if a manufacturer meets AAFCO’s cat food nutrient requirements, the label will say: “[Name of product] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Cat Food Nutrient Profiles for (life stage).”
Manufacturers also can test its products using AAFCO feeding trail protocols. If a product passes an animal feeding trial using those protocols, the label will say: “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (name of product) provides complete and balanced nutrition for (life stage).”
At a minimum, the label must state how much of the food you should feed your cat (based on the animal’s weight). It also must state how often you should feed him.
Net weight and manufacturer information
Finally, you have net weight and manufacturer information.
While this may not seem like a big deal, if you’re trying to compare prices, you should use this measurement instead of the size of the bag. Some companies produce relatively larger kibble containing lots of air between the actual food.
More weight is generally better than less weight.
The manufacturer or distributor must also list their company name and address on the bag. This information isn’t terribly useful, though, because it doesn’t necessarily include the address of where the food was actually manufactured.
Everything else you see on your bag or can of cat food is there for marketing purposes. Some claims are regulated, including:
- Natural: AAFCO has a definition, but it’s vague. All AAFCO definitions are published annually in the AAFCO Official Publication, which can be purchased from its website or checked at a local library
- Organic: This claim must follow the same rules as human food does.
- Health Benefits: If there is a specific claim of a health benefit, such as “reduces hairballs,” the FDA requires evidence to support the claim.
- Made in the USA: The Federal Trade Commission (remember when I said they had a small role?) regulates this claim. In order to use the “Made in the USA” claim, the product must be “all or virtually all” made in the United States. In other words, all significant parts and processing that go into making the product must be of U.S. origin. However, it’s possible to make qualifications such as “Made in the USA with Lamb from China.”
But other claims are not regulated. For example, you might see food labeled as premium or ultra-premium. Sometimes these terms are used to differentiate product lines from the same company, but they shouldn’t be used to compare products from different manufacturers. One company’s premium might be another company’s standard.