I can remember when there were only a few pet food brands to choose from, and I bet a few of you could still hum a few bars of their advertising jingles. Well, times have certainly changed. There has been an explosion of products within the pet food industry, and it has created a marketing extravaganza – to say the least. There are multifaceted marketing campaigns targeted for every demographic, and it’s not uncommon, even for a pet food, to have a celebrity spokesperson. The good news is that most pet foods are more nutritious than ever, however, choosing what’s best for your pet has become more difficult due mostly to the sheer magnitude of information available. Of course every pet food manufacturer will claim their food is the ideal combination of ingredients for your pet and in most ways – they are right. Let me explain.
The nice thing about the pet food industry in the United States is that it is overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA ensures that all pet foods are safe to eat and are manufactured under healthy conditions – just like human foods. The FDA also further assures that pet foods contain no harmful substances and are truthfully labeled. Many of the regulations are based on a model provided by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Very often one will see pet food containers indicate that they meet or exceed all AAFCO standards. Even with all these guidelines there is always a loophole, or two, that can create concern.
Recently I had a client present me with a photograph of two chemical analyses of different dog foods, and he asked me to make a recommendation on which food he should feed his pet. The breakdown in protein, fat, carbohydrates and macro and micronutrients were very similar in each photo. I thought this was an excellent endeavor to receive an unbiased opinion on which diet I thought was best. After several moments of contemplation he and I had a very thoughtful and meaningful discussion about canine nutrition. So here is how it panned out; a chemical breakdown is good to know, (all foods have to meet certain minimum/maximum requirements) however it doesn’t tell you much about the quality of the ingredients. Even with FDA oversight, poor ingredients mean poor digestibility. Horse hair and feathers will give excellent protein readings on a chemical breakdown but have very little nutritional value when consumed. So, reading the ingredient list is important.
Another big factor for consideration when selecting a pet food, is something called a fixed formula diet. Some pet food manufacturers will fluctuate between main ingredients in their product without changing their ingredient list. That’s right; the ingredient list says one thing but what’s actually in the bag of food is something else. There are a few loopholes in the pet food labeling laws that allow for this practice, as long as the manufacturer returns to what is listed on the label within a specified amount of time. This is why selecting a pet food that is a fixed formula is so important – with a fixed formula the ingredient list does not change so there is no risk of gastrointestinal upset due to an abrupt dietary change just because you open a new bag of food – even though it was the exact same brand.
An additional factor worth contemplating is the life stage of your pet. It only seems intuitive that a puppy’s nutritional requirement is different than a senior pet’s nutritional requirement. Indeed, pets’ nutritional needs change as they age. They may need more or less protein, more or less fiber – just to name a few examples; based on where they are in their life stage. Some pet foods are intentionally labeled for “all life stages” – now this means that this food meets the requirements for a puppy/kitten food and may not be the best choice for your 9 year old pet. When selecting a pet food, select one that is age appropriate – the highest protein level diet may not be the healthiest choice for your pet at their current life stage.
Lastly, I am occasionally asked about raw, or uncooked, meat diets. Raw diets in general, can be a source for bacterial pathogens that can not only sicken your pet, but can then be transmitted to you. Raw or under-cooked animal-source proteins may be contaminated with a variety of pathogenic organisms, including Salmonella, Campylobacter, Clostridium, E. coli, Listeria and Staphylococcus. The American Veterinary Medical Association discourages the feeding to cats and dogs of any animal-source protein that has not first been subjected to a process to eliminate pathogens because of the risk of illness to cats and dogs as well as humans.
So the take home message is Digestibility – Fixed Formula Diet – Life Stage Preparation. It’s easy to get caught up in (or completely lost in) the marketing, with so many products now available. Just remember that more of something, doesn’t always mean better, and just because a celebrity says so, doesn’t always make it so. Your neighborhood veterinarian is an excellent resource for your questions. They can also help ensure that what you are feeding your pet, is indeed providing the optimum nutrition needed for a long and happy life.
Dr. Patrick McCrory has been an active member and business owner of the Holly Springs community for nearly 15 years. He is with Holly Springs Veterinary Hospital.