by Dr. Cayla Iske, PhD
With more and more pet food options entering the market each year, interpreting your little loved one’s food packaging is an increasingly difficult task. If you’re like most pet parents, you may find yourself asking how to decipher what’s good, what’s bad, and what is just marketing speak. Sound familiar? Don’t worry – you’re not alone!
The amount of required information listed on a pet food label, coupled with the claims companies use to catch your attention, can make pet food packaging a source of frustration and confusion for even the most knowledgeable of pet parents. To help demystify these labels, we’ve put together a list of key elements to look for when shopping the small animal pet food aisle.
What’s Inside the Bag?
Before reading the outside of a pet food package, start by taking a look at the product inside. In many cases, you can do this through clear windows on the package designed to let you inspect the product. If a window isn’t present, you will likely find a picture of the food in its place.
In many cases, a visual inspection of the food itself may be all you need to decide against certain options. For species such as rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas, for example, it’s generally advisable to steer clear of foods featuring chunks or pieces of single ingredients. While whole pieces of fruits, veggies, grains, or seeds may look appealing and natural, these components are likely to lead to selective feeding and an unbalanced diet. A safer bet is a uniform food featuring complete nutrition in every bite.
What’s On the Front of the Package?
The first thing you will see sitting on a shelf (or online product listing) is the front panel of the pet food packaging. The front panel features valuable information such as:
- The species and life stage (adult, young, senior, etc.) the food is intended for
- The company/brand that makes the product
- May also include other important descriptors that could be important to you in selecting a pet food, such as non-GMO or organic certified.
In addition to this basic but important information, you’ll likely find miscellaneous marketing callouts about the food which may include adjectives like “natural” and claims such as “supports healthy digestion.” Other common claims may suggest the food leads to more foraging or natural feeding habits.
These callouts are designed to catch your eye and while there are regulations that govern what you can and cannot say on a bag of pet food, many of these marketing claims are subject to interpretation and not backed by research.
What’s On the Back of the Package?
While there is beneficial information on the front of a package, the most valuable information is located on the back. If you were only going to look at one portion of the food packaging before making your purchase decision, this should be it. Before you take anyone else’s word, decide for yourself if the food is high quality by looking at the actual ingredients and nutrients the food contains.
There are much stricter rules and regulations around what is listed in the ingredient statement than what can be said on the front of the bag. Therefore, the ingredient list serves as more of an unbiased way to gauge the quality of a pet food.
Ingredients are always listed in order of descending inclusion, so the first ingredient has the highest inclusion while the last has the lowest. When thinking about a high quality small herbivore food, for example, the first ingredient should always be a high fiber grass hay to support their unique digestive tracts.
High starch and sugar ingredients should be absent or appear far down the ingredient list to avoid potential digestive upset or gastrointestinal stasis.
For small omnivores such as rats, mice, gerbils, and hamsters, diversity is the key, so it is important to factor in the entire ingredient list. Diets for omnivores will often include more grains for energy but should also include insoluble fiber in the form of hay or other plant-based ingredients to support a healthy gastrointestinal tract as well as maintain proper body weight.
A couple of good rules of thumb when it comes to interpreting ingredients include:
- The more specificity, the better
- Look for ingredients that you’ve heard of
- Avoid all artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives
1. Ingredient Specificity
Ingredients can either be listed by specific name (such as “Timothy Grass”) or by grouping similar ingredients by type (such as “Forage Products”). While groupings may still sound like quality ingredients, listing ingredients this way allows companies to change their formulas without updating their packaging. For instance, if you read “Grain Products” in the ingredient list what is actually included in that food could vary with each production run and include barley, wheat, rice, corn, or several other grains.
Furthermore, that food could include barley as an ingredient on one occasion and then change to corn the next, and you will never know because the ingredient listing stays the same. Selecting a product that provides specific ingredient listings rather than groupings ensures you know what’s in your pet’s food every single time you feed them.
2. Ingredients You’ve Heard Of
Looking for ingredients you’ve heard of can mean looking for “whole barley” or “oat groats” but also means avoiding “hydrolyzed” or “isolate” ingredients, such as “hydrolyzed soy protein” or “soy protein isolate,” unless your animal has very specific needs or requirements. These kinds of ingredients have been heavily processed to isolate certain components of ingredients to make them more absorbable by the animal or provide certain flavor profiles. While increasing absorption may sound like a benefit, this is unnecessary in a healthy animal and the heavy processing of these ingredients makes them best to avoid if possible.
Don’t Fret About “Fractionals”
It is not uncommon to see fractions of grains or other ingredients listed on a package of pet food. This may include oils, hulls, or meals from ingredients such as soybeans, wheat, or canola.
It is tempting to think these fractions may be lower quality or unhealthy to the animal, but when used in the correct amounts, these specific components allow greater control over formulations as well as nutrient profiles and result in a nutritionally superior product. Some whole ingredients may actually contain imbalanced levels of specific nutrients which could be detrimental to the animal if not accurately balanced. For example, if using whole canola as a protein source it may provide excessive levels of fat.
Furthermore, for small herbivores whole plants do not supply as much fiber compared to ingredients such as hulls which bring much more beneficial fiber to the diet. Including plant fractions in very specific amounts allows precise formulation to meet protein, fat, fiber, and other nutritional targets.
Vitamins Are Vital (But May Be Hard to Pronounce)
One caveat to the “ingredients you’ve heard of” rule can be some vitamins that often have complex-sounding names but are vital in the diet.
Some vitamins can be listed in a straightforward way (e.g “Vitamin A Supplement” or “Vitamin E Supplement”), while others such as vitamin C can have longer, more scientific names (e.g. “L-Ascorbyl-2-Monophosphate (Vitamin C)”). In the case of vitamin C, this complex listing is due to the specific form of stabilized vitamin C companies such as Oxbow use to protect the vitamin against degradation as well as to ensure shelf stability.
Pet food labeling requires some vitamins be listed by their proper names rather than abbreviations. This is seen with many B-complex vitamins. For instance, “Vitamin B1” must be labeled as “Thiamine Mononitrate” and “Vitamin B6” must be listed as “Pyridoxine Hydrochloride.”
This can be the case for many vitamins and minerals, so before ruling it out as an inappropriate ingredient do your research to ensure it’s not a vital micronutrient in the food.
3. Avoid Artificial Colors, Flavors, and Preservatives
The pet food world is making great strides to remove artificial flavors, preservatives, and colors, but some do still exist in lower quality foods. With the natural color, flavor, and preservative options available today, the use of artificial ingredients is wholly unnecessary and used only as a way to cut costs and catch your (or your children’s) eye with a “fun” presence on the shelf.
Common artificial ingredients to beware of include:
- Artificial Flavors: Acetaldehyde (ethanal), Glycerol, Ethyl Acetate, Benzaldehyde, or anything just labeled as “Artificial Flavors”
- Artificial Colors: Titanium Dioxide, Citrus Red No. 2, FD&C colors, or anything just labeled as “Artificial Colors”
- Artificial Preservatives: Benzoic Acid, Potassium Sorbate, Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT), Ethoxyquin
The guaranteed analysis (GA) outlines the nutritional composition of the food. While it is tempting to look at the guaranteed analysis before the ingredients, it’s important to remember even low-quality ingredients can result in a food that meets all the nutritional needs of an animal. This is why you should always factor both ingredients and GA into your food choice.
Pet food companies have the option to list additional nutrients on the GA but minimally foods for exotic companion mammals must include the minimum amount of crude protein and crude fat and maximum amount of crude fiber and moisture. Let’s talk about each of these nutritional factors:
Protein is made up of chains of individual amino acids that are required in certain amounts by each species. Upon ingestion, proteins are digested and absorbed as amino acids which are used in the body for thousands of processes, such as growth and maintenance of muscle, hair, skin, and nails to name a few.
Additionally, many molecules in the body are made up of amino acids including enzymes, hormones, and antibodies; without sufficient amino acids to synthesize these molecules, their functions deteriorate. If a diet is lacking in protein (or any individual amino acid) it can have serious negative health implications.
When shopping for small mammal foods, ensure the following protein levels are met:
- Herbivores: adult – minimally 12%; young – minimally 15%
- Omnivores: minimally 15%
Fats (also referred to as lipids) are also made up on individual components called fatty acids. These fatty acids are integral components of cellular membranes which keep the body functioning. Fatty acids are essential for things such as brain development and some serve anti-inflammatory roles.
Fats in the diet are an essential source of energy and aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, and E.
Fat levels in small mammal foods should fall within the following parameters:
- Herbivores: 2-5%
- Omnivores: minimally 4%
We have written at length about the importance of fiber in small herbivore diets as a way to promote proper dental health and gastric motility. Fiber also serves to provide energy to small herbivores and promotes colon health and intestinal integrity via products of fermentation (short-chain fatty acids).
While omnivores need less fiber in the diet, appropriate levels are still essential and provide the same benefits as seen in other species. Soluble fiber can come from ingredients such as oats and barley and can help mitigate obesity and control cholesterol levels. Unfortunately, the type of fiber is not discernable from the GA, so it is important to review the ingredient list to determine what types of fiber are included in the food.
Soluble and insoluble fiber are important for both herbivores and omnivores, but herbivores benefit from more insoluble fiber (grass hays) while omnivores require more soluble fiber (grains).
The following general guidelines can serve to evaluate fiber in small mammal foods:
- Herbivores: minimally 18% (>20% preferred for adults)
- Omnivores: less than 15%
On most pet food packages, you’ll find the feeding directions near the ingredient list and GA. It is important to remember that these guidelines are developed using “average” individuals, so there will be variation. Use the feeding directions on the bag as a starting point but don’t be afraid to slightly adjust the feeding volumes based on your animal’s specific needs which are affected by body condition, lifestyle, activity level, overall health, etc.
Work directly with your exotic animal veterinarian to consider these factors when building and adjusting your animal’s individual feeding plan. Also, be sure to note how the food fits into the overall diet of the intended species. For small herbivores, bagged food should only make up a portion of the overall diet (~20%) with loose grass hay being the major dietary staple and fresh greens and veggies also playing a key role in an enriching and well-balanced diet.
Uniform kibble should make up a larger portion of a small omnivore’s diet (~75%) but should also be supplemented by a wide variety of appropriate produce, proteins, fats, and grains.
Reading and understanding pet food packaging is understandably intimidating and confusing. Diet is the single most important decision you will make for your pet and is the foundation of a long, healthy, happy life, so you want to make the absolute best choice. The decision should not be taken lightly so don’t be afraid to do your homework and reach out to pet food companies if you have questions.
The following steps can help alleviate some stress in the pet food aisle:
- Avoid mixes with whole chunks of fruits and veggies and/or whole seeds/nuts
- Start with the back of the package
- Look for specific ingredients rather than vague groupings
- Avoid artificial ingredients or those that are “hydrolzyed” or “isolates”
- Remember some complex-sounding ingredients are essential vitamins or minerals
- Ensure the GA meets your animal’s needs through the use of high-quality ingredients
- Take note of other dietary items that should be fed alongside the food