How to Read a Pet Nutraceutical Label
Educated pet parents know that what they feed their furry family members has a big impact on their pets’ health and wellbeing. There are some general things most of us know to look for when selecting a food – first ingredients should be meat or other protein source, low on fillers such as corn, free of by-products and artificial chemicals. That’s great and easy to see in an ingredient list on the back of a bag of food, but what happens when you pick up a supplement and reveal a complicated fact panel full of strange ingredients, cautions, warnings and reeeeeally long words? Not to worry! We are here to help explain how to read a label.
The first thing to look for is the NASC Quality Seal. While every animal is unique and may have their own sensitivities, products that carry the NASC seal contain only ingredients that are known to be safe for pets. The good news is that more and more companies are committing to following high standards of quality by becoming NASC members and earning the privilege to use the NASC Seal on their products. With so many options out there, it can be helpful to understand how the labels are set up so you know what you’re buying!
A good thing to keep in mind with pet nutraceutical products is that there are two different types of products out there. The first type is true Nutritional (Feed) Supplements. These products provide nutritional benefits to a pet’s general health and are regulated by AAFCO – just like pet food! The second type of product is a Dosage-Dependent Animal Health Product that supports a specific system or function of the body. Animal Health Products have a specific structure-function claim and would be classified more like a drug.
Why do pet nutraceutical labels need to be so complicated? Why are there two different kinds of label set-ups? We are not trying to confuse you! AAFCO (the Association of Animal Feed Control Officials) has been around since 1909 and was created to ensure that livestock feed was not only safe, but balanced and nutritious for the animals that would then become part of the human food chain. As AAFCO evolved, their guidelines branched out to include pet food. Ingredients such as herbs or nutraceutical ingredients (like glucosamine) are more condition-specific and have no place in your average feedlot because the dosage is tailored to each individual animal depending on their body size and condition. AAFCO and the FDA did not really have a home for these types of products because they’re not food and they’re not drugs, so the NASC was formed to work with both AAFCO and the FDA to ensure that all pet supplements are consistently and accurately labeled.
NASC Definition of a Nutritional Supplement: Products intended to provide nutritional value to the non-human food chain animal as a component of a complete and balanced diet.
What are some examples of products that fit into the Feed Supplement category?
- Vitamins & Minerals, Essential Fatty Acids, Essential Amino Acids
- Skin & Coat Products
- Hairball & Fiber Products
- Tartar & Breath Control Products
- Digestive Support such as Enzymes & Probiotics
- Hoof Supplements (for horses)
- Weight Control Products
Products in this category are meant as true ‘supplements’ because they are designed to supplement the nutritional needs of your pet in addition to the nutrients they are already getting from a complete feed. Labels will actually include the word “supplement” or the phrase “this product is intended for intermittent or supplemental feeding only” so pet parents know that it is not a replacement for the pet’s actual diet.
When you turn the bottle or bag over to the more complicated panels on the back, you will find the Guaranteed Analysis – just like dog, cat or horse food! The Guaranteed Analysis often contains nutritional content (moisture, protein, fat, fiber) and the ingredients always follow the same order of amino acids, fatty acids, minerals, vitamins, other nutrients. The Guaranteed Analysis is “guaranteed” because all of these nutrients can actually be analyzed by a lab and the level of activity can be confirmed.
Example: A product may contain fish oil for the omega 3 fatty acid content. You can test for omega 3s so they would be listed under the Guaranteed Analysis, but you cannot test for whole fish oil so that would not be included here.
Because AAFCO is concerned with pets receiving everything they need to meet their nutritional requirements, non-essential ingredients are designated by an asterisk. These non-essential nutrients are still AAFCO approved for use in feed, but animals would not experience any deficiencies without them. Examples include biotin or enzymes because healthy pets can produce these items within their own bodies if all of their essential nutritional needs are met.
Below the Guaranteed Analysis is the Ingredient List. Here every ingredient that went into the product is listed in descending weight order – again, just like dog, cat or horse food! Sometimes the nutrients under the Guaranteed Analysis are naturally occurring from a food source, like our example of Omega 3 Fatty Acids coming from fish oil. When the manufacturer mixes up the blend for their product the recipe calls for fish oil (not the fatty acids) so the ingredient list is the place to find all of the ingredients actually added to the recipe.
Feed Supplements can also have structure function claims, but they are limited to statements about general health, skin + coat, digestive health and other broad categories that are impacted by nutritional requirements.
Finally, Feeding Directions are included so you know how much to give your pet each day.
Dosage-Form Animal Health Products
NASC Definition: articles (other than food) intended to affect the structure or any function of the body other than providing nutrition.
To be clear, while drugs can certainly fit into this definition, these Health Products are not drugs. A drug is intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease. While safe, Animal Health Products do not have enough research to be able to make such strong drug or disease claims.
What are some examples of products that fit into the Dose-Form Animal Health Product Category?
- Hip & Joint Support
- Calming Aids
- Organ-Specific Support such as heart, bladder or brain
- Immune Support
- Most Herbal Products
Products in this category you will see described as “formulas” and “products”. The word “supplement” is not allowed because it technically implies nutritional benefits. AAFCO (feed) ingredients are allowed in Animal Health Products, but they need to be contributing to the purpose of the product. Going back to our fish oil example, fish oil and fatty acids are considered feed ingredients, but are perfectly acceptable to use in a joint support product because omega 3 fatty acids help support a healthy inflammatory response and thus support joint health and comfort.
Now the back of the bottle or bag of an Animal Health Product is set up very differently than the Feed Supplements previously discussed and looks more like a human dietary supplement or an over-the-counter drug, but labels indicate “Product Facts” as opposed to “Drug Facts”.
Now that you’re a Feed Supplement Label Expert (*wink*) you will notice that this label does not contain a Guaranteed Analysis. Instead you will see Active Ingredients per serving. All of the active ingredients are listed in descending order. Active ingredients can be obvious items such as pure glucosamine hydrochloride or chondroitin sulfate which can be analyzed by a lab OR they can be whole / natural materials such as shark cartilage or chicken collagen that is a natural source of glucosamine and chondroitin. You could test shark cartilage for the chondroitin content, but you cannot test for whole cartilage because it is too complex of a material. That’s okay though because shark cartilage itself is known to support joint health and therefore can be used in the formula. All NASC members will list the active ingredients the same way from product to product. Consumers can easily compare one product to another to see who has higher levels of various ingredients. You may have to do a little homework to find out what levels you should be giving your pet to address a specific condition, but once you know what you’re looking for the labels should be easy to read.
Animal Health Products do allow the use of “Proprietary Blends” on label claims so companies do not need to disclose their secret recipe. Proprietary Blends still need to list all of the ingredients within the blend (they cannot include anything that is not listed on the label!), but instead of providing the exact level of each ingredient individually the total weight of the blend is given and the active ingredients within the blend are listed in weight order. This option protects companies that discovered or invented a really great blend of ingredients that work together in a special way for maximum benefit so that other companies cannot copy them.
Below the Active Ingredients are the Inactive Ingredients. This set up is one of the major differences between Feed Supplements and Animal Health label templates. Inactive Ingredients are ONLY the ingredients that are included for flavor, texture, preservative function, filler, binder or flow agents and do not add any benefit to the animal. Inactive Ingredients are still safe and necessary to make the product, but they do not play a part in supporting the intended use of the formula. Because manufactures put a lot of working into creating the perfect flavor & texture, the ingredients are listed in alphabetical order instead of by weight to protect their recipes.
Feed Supplements Animal Health Products
Ingredient List = Inactive Ingredients =
ALL ingredients listed Only the base ingredients
in descending weight in alphabetical order
order (like food)
That means when you read the Inactive Ingredient list of an Animal Health Product it does not tell you the amount of the material relative to each other. The first ingredient listed simply starts with the first letter to show up in the alphabet and does not mean it is the main ingredient in the formula.
Below the ingredient info, you will see a list of cautions and warnings. Sometimes reading all of these statements can be a little scary, but the point is that these products need to be taken seriously even though they are natural and not drugs. All of the ingredients used in Animal Health Products that contain the NASC seal have been reviewed by the NASC’s Scientific Advisory Committee to ensure they are appropriate for use in dogs, cats and/or horses, but specific safety studies are not always done on the final combination of ingredients so it is best to talk to your vet if you have any concerns. Every animal has their own body chemistry and can processed nutrients differently. Each species digests & metabolizes ingredients differently as well so the label will specify the species for which the product is intended. A product labeled for horses was formulated with a horse’s body in mind so it may not be safe to give to your sheep that has a completely different digestive tract. Some ingredients may have interactions with other ingredients or pharmaceuticals so it is important to read all of the cautions and follow the directions so you are using the product correctly. You will note that the directions here say “Directions for Use” instead of “Feeding Directions” because the product is NOT a feed.
All Animal Health Products will include a structure-function claim on the back to concisely describe exactly what the product was designed to address. These structure function claims focus on how the product supports a healthy response and cannot make claims about diseases or prevention because they are not drugs. Examples include “To support healthy joints” or “To help maintain proper urinary tract function”. Many companies will get creative here describing features of various ingredients and this section will help you understand what makes each product different from the rest.
All products, whether they are Feed Supplements or Animal Health Products, should include the manufacturer’s contact information with their phone number as well as the product lot number and expiration date. Companies that are NASC members are required to include their phone number so they can address any concerns such as adverse reactions to a product or accidental over-doses.
The bottom line is that these labels are meant to provide you with complete, accurate and consistent information on the products so pet parents can make informed decisions about nutraceuticals.