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Healthy Paws: Pet Food Part I, The Most Important Part of the Label

Healthy Paws

Editor’s Note: Healthy Paws is a column sponsored and written by the owners of Clarendon Animal Care, a full-service, general practice veterinary clinic. The clinic is located 3000 10th Street N., Suite B. and can be reached at 703-997-9776.

One of the most common questions we’re faced with is “What’s the best food for my pet?”  Though a full discussion of what makes up the ideal diet is well beyond the scope of our space here (and also hugely open to debate), we’d like to take the next few installments to address some of the more basic pet-food basics as well as answer specific questions you may have. Please submit specific questions via email, and we will address in subsequent posts.

Pet food companies deserve an A+ in the marketing department, but with all the great marketing, it takes a bit of work to sift through what really is the best nutrition for our pets.  When looking at a bag of dog food, how do you know if it’s a “good” food or not?  Our goal over the next few posts is to help you become more comfortable when evaluating a pet food label.

Perhaps the most important information on a bag of pet food is the AAFCO Statement.  The American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is a voluntary membership association of local, state and federal agencies responsible for regulating the sale and distribution of animal feeds.  They regulate not only the sale of pet food, but also livestock feeds (though they are responsible for regulation, they actually have no regulatory authority — this falls upon the FDA).

The AAFCO Statement is a declaration of nutritional adequacy which indicates 1) whether the food is complete and balanced, 2) what type of pet the food is for, and 3) for what life stages the food is suited for.  This statement is typically found in rather small print on the back of a bag of pet food (and if it is not found, this warrants further investigation before purchasing the food, in our opinion).

“Complete and balanced” means that all necessary nutrients for the particular life stage are included, and in appropriate ratios.  Different life stages have different requirements for quantities and ratios of key nutrients.

When addressing life stages, the different categories for both dogs and cats are:

  • gestation
  • growth
  • maintenance
  • all life stages

While an “all life stages” food is tempting, we typically recommend feeding for the more appropriate life stage – you wouldn’t necessarily want a six-month-old infant eating the same diet as a 75-year-old adult.

The AAFCO Statement will appear one of two ways:

  1. “[Name]  is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog (or Cat) Food Nutrient Profiles for [life stage(s)],” indicating that laboratory analysis have verified the nutrient profiles.
  1. “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate [Name] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [life stage(s)]” indicating that actual feeding trials have been completed and shown to provide appropriate nutrition for test animals.

For more information on interpreting pet food labels, visit AAFCO’s website at

Have a question about animal nutrition? Clarendon Animal Care wants to help! Submit your question to [email protected]com and use “ARLnow” in the subject line. Look out for the answer in an upcoming column.

The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

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