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Ask a Vet: Semantics muddle pet food labels
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If you read my column, you have probably picked up on the fact that I am very annoyed by the ways pet foods are marketed to the public.

Word games are frequently played to make one food sound wonderful and another sound downright sinister. It’s a game of semantics, which is the branch of philosophy and linguistics concerned with meaning. Without knowing what a word means to another person, talking to the person when that word is used becomes meaningless.

Now, how does this relate to pet food?

First, a quick rundown on ingredient lists on pet food labels.

Ingredients are listed in descending order of proportionate level in the food. This means the first ingredient is the most plentiful, the second is the next plentiful, and so on. However, it has no meaning as far as how much of a difference between two spots there is. Listing beef first and then water could mean 99 percent beef, one percent water, or 5 percent beef, 4.9 percent water. Thus, the label can be a bit misleading.

Now, on to semantics. The U.S. pet food industry is regulated for listing food ingredients by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. This agency determines what each word means, and companies are obliged to follow it. But a wily company can abuse your lack of knowledge related to this.

“Chicken” is often advertised as the first ingredient in allegedly wonderful foods. The AAFCO definition for this word includes skin and bones. A company listing this ingredient is not obliged to include any lean muscle tissue, or what most humans would call “meat.”

“Byproducts” also sound bad, like your dog is eating something from Chernobyl. But the legal definition includes things such as the liver, which is a prime target for animals that hunt. And for people that love soul food.

Yes, your grandma may love eating byproducts. And I bet if your cat hunts, she does too.

So just keep a grain of salt handy when you hear those commercials.

Matthew Sisk is a practicing veterinarian from Habersham County. Have questions about your pet? He can be reached at

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