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Understanding Cat Food Labels–Part 2


Can you read your cat's food label?

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Cat Food Labels–A Closer Look

Cat food labels can be downright misleading, and most manufacturers probably hope you won’t be reading them to begin with.  What are all those words you can’t pronounce?  Is there a difference between meat, meat meal and meat by-products?  How do you know which ingredients are good vs bad?  Can you trust the manufacturer to begin with?  If you’re left scratching your head you’re probably not the only cat parent out there who is confused. 

In Part 1 of Understanding Cat Food Labels we covered meat, meat by-products, meat/bone meal, soy products, and fillers.  We also took a closer look at the guaranteed analysis on the label.  Today we’ll explore the elements of fats, vitamins, minerals, and taurine.  Just for fun, go grab a bag or can of cat food and let’s dive in together.


Every cat needs a little fat in his diet, but getting the right kind of fat is just as important.  Fats are an energy source and are involved in cell integrity and metabolic regulation.  Fatty acids like omega 3 and 6 are essential for energy production, among other things, and must be obtained from their food.   Because cats can’t utilize plant sources of fat very effectively they need to get their fat from animal sources like meat and fish.   Other oils like sunflower, olive oil, and coconut oil may be added to help motility, prevent constipation, and improve skin. 

An article in Petnet explains that the added fat component of commercial pet food should come from named sources. Below is a list of commonly used higher quality fat sources in pet food. It is easy to recognize the exact source of each of these.

  • chicken fat
  • beef fat
  • lamb fat
  • pork fat
  • (named) fish oil
  • sunflower oil
  • safflower oil

Lower quality, questionable fats are mostly from ‘unnamed’ sources including:

  • animal fat
  • poultry fat
  • vegetable oil
  • mineral oil
  • beef tallow
  • lard

The article also lists canola oil as an acceptable source, but I would disagree.  The Non-GMO project shows that 94% of the canola grown in the US is genetically modified (GMO).  If it’s not labeled as organic canola oil it’s highly likely to be GMO.  Either way I would not recommend it as a fat source in pet food as there are other animal-sourced oils that are much better.  


Vitamins are essential for metabolism, growth and function of the body.  Once foods are cooked at high temperatures the vitamins that were once present in the meat and other ingredients are virtually destroyed.  This is why vitamins have to be added back into the food, and they are most often synthetically made in a lab.  Common vitamins listed on a pet food label include:

  • Vitamin E (mixed tocopherols)
  • Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
  • Vitamin D3
  • Vitamin A (beta-carotene)
  • B vitamins, including thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), pantothenic acid, folate (folic acid), niacin, choline chloride, biotin, pyridoxine (B6), and B12
  • Menadione Sodium Bisulfate (synthetic vitamin K).  The Truth About Pet Food exposes this ingredient to be highly toxic in high doses. Hazard information regarding menadione lists “carcinogenic effects” and states “the substance is toxic to kidneys, lungs, liver, mucous membranes. Repeated or prolonged exposure to the substance can produce target organs damage.”  


Minerals are absolutely essential for life.  The Feline Nutrition Foundation states they “contribute to enzyme formation, pH balance, nutrient utilization, and oxygen transportation and are stored in bone and muscle tissue. Biological availability may vary widely depending on the source of the nutrient. Elemental minerals are generally taken from the earth or water; chelated and proteinated minerals are those that are bound with other organic substances, often making them easier for the body to absorb.”  You’ll often see these listed on the label as:

  • Zinc Sulfate, Zinc proteinate, zinc oxide
  • Ferrous Sulfate
  • Copper Sulfate–be cautious as it has links to copper storage disease and death in dogs
  • Manganese Sulfate
  • Calcium Iodate, Calcium carbonate
  • Sodium Selenite
  • Potassium citrate

Susan Thixton from The Truth About Pet Food cautions against using sodium selenite in both dog and cat food due to its toxicity.

For cat food, I would look for a product that contained no selenium supplement (no sodium selenite); food ingredients in the pet food can easily provide the necessary selenium to the diet (the same holds true for dog food too).

Food sources that provide selenium are tuna, pork, clams, brown rice, seeds, broccoli, cabbage, spinach and many more foods. A small amount of any of these foods would meet the selenium requirement in pet foods; no supplementation is needed.


Taurine is an amino acid that is essential for cats in order to prevent blindness and heart disease.  They cannot produce it on their own and must obtain it from their food.  “Red meat and poultry, particularly hearts and livers, provide adequate levels of taurine for your cat’s needs. Eggs and dairy are also good sources. However, shellfish such as shrimp and clams provide even more taurine than other animal proteins, making them excellent foods to feed your cat.”


Can you read a pet food label?Final thoughts

Did you find any of the ingredients “not recommended” on your cat food label?  If anything is jumping out at you so far in this series it should be this:  in an ideal world you want to feed your cat a food that is in its most natural state possible, without cooking and processing it. The fewer ingredients the better!  The next time you set out to buy cat food check the labels, and test yourself to see how many of the ingredients you can now recognize!

Cats who are fed a diet they are biologically designed to eat will have bright eyes, clean teeth, a shiny, healthy coat, and great energy.  Chances for a long, healthy life start with the foundation of a proper diet.  

Stay tuned for Part 3 as we take a closer look at some of the most questionable and perhaps scariest ingredients yet!

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