Manufacturers go to great lengths to appeal to owners of fussy felines, and when you're looking for a cat food, it pays to look closely at the label.
Guidelines in the voluntary Australian Standard governing the manufacturing and marketing of pet food (AS 5812-2011) can be complicated, particularly when it comes to labelling. (The standard is currently being reviewed and we've told the PFIAA about our concerns which they'll take into account.)
Many cat foods, such as the wet adult cat foods we've tested, aim to provide a nutritionally complete food. This means they're designed to provide a balanced diet for your cat and claim to meet the recommended nutritive requirements outlined by AAFCO (the American Association of Feed Control Officials). Look for a quote like this on the label. There are different recommendations for cats depending on whether they are in the "growth and reproduction" life stage or the "adult maintenance" stage.
You'll see a lot of other claims on cat food labels. Some, such as "essential fatty acids to maintain healthy skin and a shiny coat" are not part of official AAFCO nutrient profiles. Others are important: taurine is an amino acid that is essential for cats as it prevents blindness, among other things, and manufacturers who provide complete cat food must make sure there's enough of it in their cat food products as cats can't produce it themselves. We've found that nearly all manufacturers whose products we tested add sufficient taurine, with the vast majority going well above minimum requirements.
Foods that don't meet the minimum AAFCO guidelines must be labelled "intended for occasional or supplemental feeding". You'll also see words like "treat" or "snack".
Working out what is in your cat food, exactly, might be a bit of a mystery.
The standard aims to "ensure consumers receive relevant and accurate information about the pet food". But consumers may not realise the following guidelines for wet pet food:
- If a wet pet food is labelled "with tuna", tuna only needs to make up 5% to 25% of the meat component.
- A "sardine and tuna" variety means sardine and tuna together only have to make up 25% of the meat product. Tuna only has to make up at least 5% of the product.
- A "sardine and tuna dinner" means that sardine and tuna together make up 25% of the meat component but they are not the major meat. Apart from "dinner" you may see names such as "casserole" on labels.
- "Meat" is defined as "any part of an animal, game or bird which contains protein, and which is ordinarily or in nature used as a food by dogs or cats, whether fresh, chilled, frozen or dried". Ingredients should be listed in descending order of inclusion to clarify different levels of meats if a product contains multiple meat sources.
- There's no definition in the Australian standard for "meat by-products" or "meat derivatives" which are often found on pet food labels, and these are not endorsed by the Australian pet food industry body, PFIAA. The AAFCO definition for meat by-products in animal feed "includes but is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially defatted low temperature fatty tissue, and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth and hoofs".
It's a no-brainer – if you see your cat's favourite food on special as a multi-buy, then snap it up. It has a long shelf life, and judging from the price per 100g differences we've seen when you compare budget brands with ones priced at the premium end of the market, there are many savings to be had.
In our review, price based on 100g of "as fed" cat food is only one part of the story. As part of our complete wet adult cat food test, we also compare price on a dry matter basis (without moisture).
Given that cat food is 75–85% moisture, the remaining dry matter is the most important part. Moisture isn't a bad thing as water is essential for a cat, and fussy drinkers may get most of their moisture from food, but it's worth considering when you compare brands.
And if you really want to get technical, our wet cat food test also compares prices for the same amount of energy. If the food meets nutrient guidelines, you may be paying far more than you need for your food (although your cat may have the final decision in the matter!).
The energy requirement of a cat will vary depending on whether it has been neutered or stays indoors, or whether it is active. Feeding guidelines on the labels are good to give you a general idea of what the cat should be eating, but cats are largely able to self-regulate their energy intake (unlike dogs).
Palatability is one way manufacturers can successfully market pet food and get higher profit margins on tasty treats that use cheap ingredients. Much of the wet cat food we tested has very high levels of salt which is one way manufacturers make the food more palatable. High levels are able to be excreted by a healthy adult cat.
Pet food palatants are closely guarded secrets, and there is a significant industry devoted to making bland cat food recipes tastier. If they are meeting nutritional requirements this shouldn't be a problem. But it's an interesting aspect to think about, particularly as there may not always be a complete picture of what sorts of mystery meats may be in the food.