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“Complete and Balanced” Pet Food

Like most pet owners, you likely know it’s better to feed your dog or cat pet food rather than table scraps. While an occasional treat of “people food,” like a piece of bacon or a bite of hamburger may be fine, eating too many table scraps may cause your pet to have an unbalanced diet. You can determine if a pet food meets your pet’s nutritional needs by looking at the nutritional adequacy statement on the label. If this statement includes the phrase “complete and balanced,” then the product is intended to be fed as a pet’s sole diet and should be nutritionally balanced. Treats, snacks, and supplements are typically not intended to be a pet’s sole diet, so these products are often not complete and balanced.

To have "complete and balanced" in the nutritional adequacy statement, a dog or cat food must either:

For a product to meet one of the AAFCO nutrient profiles, it must contain every nutrient listed in the profile at the recommended level.

The association established the first Dog Food Nutrient Profiles in 1991, and shortly after, in 1992, the first Cat Food Nutrient Profiles. Since then, AAFCO has updated the nutrient profiles for both species when new nutritional information has become available, most recently in 2016. The profiles incorporate the most current information on good nutrition for dogs and cats and provide practical information for pet food manufacturers.

All the nutrients listed in each profile have a minimum level, and some also have a maximum level. Because not all life stages are the same in terms of nutritional needs, AAFCO established two nutrient profiles for both dogs and cats—one for growth and reproduction (which includes growing, pregnant, and nursing animals) and one for adult maintenance. A growing kitten or a dog nursing six pups, for example, has different nutritional requirements than an older, spayed or neutered pet. Pet food made for adult dogs and cats contains lower levels of some nutrients, eliminating unnecessary excesses.

When you see a reference to either an AAFCO nutrient profile or a feeding trial using AAFCO procedures on a pet food label, you’re better assured that the "complete and balanced" claim is valid. Endorsements and seals of approval from other organizations are not assurances of nutritional adequacy and may be misleading.

AAFCO publishes the nutrient profiles for dogs and cats in the association’s annual Official Publication.

Comparing Pet Food Products

The AAFCO Dog and Cat Food Nutrient Profiles express nutrient levels on a "dry matter," or moisture-free, basis. But, the guaranteed analysis on a pet food label expresses nutrient levels on an "as-fed," or moisture-included, basis.

Canned pet food is typically 75 to 78 percent moisture, whereas dry pet food is typically 10 to 12 percent moisture. You can directly compare nutrient levels between products with near-equal moisture content. However, if you want to compare nutrient levels between products that differ widely in moisture content—say between canned and dry—you must first convert the levels in the guaranteed analysis from an as-fed to a dry matter basis so that you’re comparing at near-equal moisture content.

To do this conversion, divide the percent guarantee for the nutrient (listed in the guaranteed analysis on the label) by the percent dry matter of the product and then multiply by 100. To get the percent dry matter of the product, subtract the percent moisture guarantee (listed in the guaranteed analysis on the label) from 100.

An Example
Your cat is healthy with a normal appetite. You want to compare the crude protein level in two cans and one bag of adult cat food. The AAFCO Cat Food Nutrient Profile for adult cat maintenance sets the minimum level of crude protein at 26 percent on a dry matter basis. But remember, the guaranteed analysis on each product’s label expresses the minimum crude protein level on an as-fed (moisture-included) basis. You must convert this to a dry matter basis to make a meaningful comparison.

Variable Canned Food #1 Canned Food #2 Dry Food
Minimum crude protein guarantee listed on the label (%) 12 11 37
Moisture guarantee listed on the label (%) 78 78 12
Dry matter of the product (%) 22
Protein level on a dry matter basis (%) 54.5
[(12÷22) x 100]
[(11÷22) x 100]
[(37÷88) x 100]

If you simply looked at the crude protein level listed in the guaranteed analysis on the products’ labels without converting to a dry matter basis or taking into account each product’s moisture content, you would mistakenly think the dry food has the highest level of protein. In actuality, it has the lowest protein level when you compare the products at near-equal moisture content. All three products contain more than 26 percent protein on a dry matter basis, so they all meet AAFCO’s minimum level for crude protein in adult cat food.

Note that if you want to compare only the two canned food products, you don’t need to do the conversion calculations because the products have the same moisture content (the same moisture guarantee). You can just look at the crude protein level listed in the guaranteed analysis on each product’s label and see that Canned Food #2 contains slightly less protein.

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