This guide is provided by Dr. Jennifer Masucci, VMD. Jennifer earned her doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
You’ve likely seen the acronym “AAFCO” on the back of your dog or cat’s food label. So what exactly is AAFCO, and what role does it play in your pet’s food? In this article, we’ll explain everything you need to know about the organization, and how their work affects your pet’s health.
What is AAFCO?
AAFCO stands for the “Association of American Feed Control Officials” — a non-profit group made up of government officials, veterinarians, and scientists in the U.S. and Canada.
The organization uses research to determine which nutrients pet food should contain (and in what quantities) to be healthy for long-term feeding.
It’s been in existence since 1991 for dogs and 1992 for cats, and releases pet nutrition guidelines every year when new research becomes available.
Note: While states often use AAFCO guidelines to develop their pet food regulations, AAFCO doesn’t actually regulate the pet food industry. This is the job of the federal and state governments.
Where to Find the AAFCO Statement on Your Pet’s Food
Pet food labels often have a nutritional section, including an ingredient list, calorie content, feeding guidelines, and a “guaranteed analysis” chart showing the amount of each nutrient that’s in the food.
There’s also often a “AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy Statement”, which states whether the food has been tested for long-term feeding according to AAFCO guidelines. We’ll dive into what these mean a little bit later in this guide.
Example of an AAFCO statement on Taste of the Wild dog food. (source: Chewy.com)
Pet Food Nutrition
According to AAFCO, there are three main components of a balanced pet diet: protein, fat, and specific vitamins and minerals.
The necessary amounts for these vary by the breed, age, and life stage of your pet. For example, puppies and kittens require more protein, fat, calcium, and phosphorus than adults for their growth and development. Including too little of these nutrients can cause deficiencies, while too much can cause health problems.
AAFCO Nutrient Profiles
To ensure pets are fed appropriately, AAFCO created nutrient profiles that list the proper nutrients for each type of pet, and the minimum (and sometimes maximum) amounts of these needed for balanced food.
There are two main nutrient profiles for both dogs and cats:
- Adult Maintenance: fully grown, mature animals.
- Growth and Reproduction: young, growing animals and pregnant or nursing females.
Another category, All Life Stages, meets the nutrient requirements of both the Adult Maintenance and Growth and Reproduction groups, and can be fed to animals of any age or life stage.
When buying pet food, it’s important to purchase an option that meets the correct nutrient profile for your dog or cat. For example, puppies need food that meets the Growth and Reproduction profile.
How Does Pet Food Qualify?
Pet food can be accepted by AAFCO through one of the following:
- Laboratory analysis showing that it complies with one of the nutrient profiles.
- A feeding trial proving that animals remain healthy while eating the food.
All tests are performed by the food’s manufacturer, and not by AAFCO.
A small sample of food is analyzed to determine its nutritional content. Results are then compared to AAFCO’s nutrient profiles to see whether it’s appropriate for the intended life stage. Foods containing all of AAFCO’s listed nutrients (at the recommended amounts) can then be labeled as accepted.
In feeding trials, a group of 8 animals eat only the food for a period of time.
- Adult maintenance: healthy animals, older than one year, eat the diet for 26 weeks.
- Growth: healthy animals, younger than 8 weeks, eat the diet for 10 weeks.
- Reproduction: healthy animals older than one year, and on at least their second heat cycle, eat the food from the onset of heat until four weeks after giving birth.
For all groups, weight is monitored weekly, and physical exams are performed to measure health. If the majority of animals remain healthy, then the food can be labeled as acceptable for long-term feeding.
AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy Statements
You’ll likely see one of the following “Nutritional Adequacy Statements” on your pet food bag. Each one has a slightly different meaning:
1. Passed Laboratory Analysis
- “[Food] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO [Dog/Cat] Food Nutrient Profiles for [Nutrient Profile].”
2. Passed a Feeding Trial
- “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that [Food] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [Nutrient Profile].”
3. Similar to Other Food That Passed Trials
- “[Food] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [Nutrient Profile] and is comparable in nutritional adequacy to a product which has been substantiated using AAFCO feeding tests.”
This isn’t frequently used, but applies to food considered acceptable as it’s similar to a product that has passed a feeding trial.
4. Not Intended for Long-Term Feeding
- “This product is intended for intermittent or supplemental feeding only.”
This statement is used for foods or treats not intended for long-term feeding, or which haven’t passed a lab analysis or feeding trial. These can be given as treats for example, but not as a standalone diet.
5. Suitable for Large Dogs
As of 2018, food intended for Growth or All Life Stages must also include one of the following statements depending on its calcium content:
- “including growth of large size dogs (70 lb or more as an adult)”
- “except for growth of large size dogs (70 lb or more as an adult)”
Shortcomings of AAFCO Guidelines
While AAFCO guidelines encourage pet nutrition, the system isn’t perfect. Shortcomings of AAFCO’s labeling and testing include:
AAFCO Doesn’t Test Foods Themselves
AAFCO doesn’t actually test any pet food themselves. While law requires that food be truthfully labeled, having an AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement doesn’t actually guarantee the food has what it claims. This is why it’s important to always buy food from a high-quality company.
Minimum, but Not Always Maximum Levels
AAFCO includes minimum required levels for all nutrients, but not always maximum. This is because maximum safe levels aren’t known for all ingredients in pet food.
Final Product Can Be Different
When food makers test using lab analysis, they may test the nutrient content of the ingredients, rather than the final product. Ingredients can vary in their nutrient content, and food processing may change a food’s nutrient composition.
In short, the final product may not exactly match what’s been tested.
Small Sample Sizes
AAFCO feeding trials only require food to be tested on 8 animals. This small group may not accurately represent the large pet population that will eat the food once it’s sold.
Similarly, animals must eat the food for a maximum of only 26 weeks. This time period is much shorter than the lifespan of most pets.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are AAFCO-Compliant Foods Best for My Pet?
Yes. Despite these shortcomings, the FDA recommends that pet owners look for AAFCO accepted pet foods, as they are most likely to be nutritionally complete.
Which Pet Food Brands Are Best?
The best pet food brands are those with a strong history of AAFCO acceptance and nutritional adequacy. Companies with an animal nutritionist on staff also tend to be more reliable. We’ve reviewed certain dog food and cat food brands here at PetListed if you’d like to take a look at those.
Should I Feed My Pet a Home Cooked Diet?
Creating a balanced home cooked diet is difficult, as cats and dogs require nutrients in specific amounts to be healthy. Because of this, we recommend feeding your pet a pre-formulated food, as deficiencies can increase the risk of developing long-term health issues.
If you decide to feed your pet a home cooked diet, be sure to consult your veterinarian (or a veterinary nutritionist) to develop a proper diet plan.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
Tufts University – Cummings Veterinary Medical Center