Answering Owner's Questions about Pet Foods
Adapted from Lisa M Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACVN
Tuffs Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, North Grafton, MA, USA
With hundreds of pet foods available today, a pet owner's decision about what to feed his or her pet has become more and more complicated. There is not one simple answer since the "best" food for a pet depends on many factors, such as life stage, body condition, exercise, environment and health status. Too often, these decisions are based on marketing, rather than on objective nutritional information. The two most useful pieces of information on a pet food label are the nutritional adequacy statement and the manufacturer.
The Nutritional Adequacy Statement: A pet food that is intended as a complete and balanced diet must be established as such in one of two ways: 1- by formulation to meet the levels established by the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials). 2 - by feeding trials via AAFCO nutrition requirements. Feeding trials provide better assurance that the food meets a dog's or cat's requirements. The nutritional adequacy statement provides two important pieces of information: 1- which life stage profile the food meets; and 2) how this statement was substantiated.
One of the most important factors to consider is the quality of the pet food manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer with any questions or concerns. Some suggested questions are: 1- Do you have a board certified veterinary nutritionist or PhD nutritionist on staff full-time? 2- Who formulates your diets and what are their credentials? 3- What are the quality control measures used to ensure consistency and quality of your product line? 4- Will you provide a complete product nutrient analysis for any of your products? What kinds of research on your products have been conducted, and are the results published in peer-reviewed journals?
What is the best food to feed my pet? There is no best diet, despite all the marketing claims to the contrary. Every pet is unique and the goal is to find the best diet for your individual pet. A good rule of thumb is that if the marketing of a product sounds too good to be true, the manufacturer cites studies or research that they cannot provide to you or makes claims that cannot be substantiated, then that's a red flag that the diet should be avoided.
How can I pick a good diet to feed to my pet? Primarily you should look for a diet made by a reputable company with a long history of producing quality diets. Diets that have the AAFCO statement on the label saying the diets have undergone animal feeding trials for the appropriate life stage are generally preferable to diets that are formulated by computer to meet AAFCO nutrient profiles. Manufacturers should be engaged in both internal and external research to improve their products and increase our collective nutrition knowledge. Advertisements and websites should not contain unverifiable claims, perpetuate nutrition myths or promote products solely by bashing other manufacturer's products.
Is the ingredient list a good way to determine the quality of a pet food? Pets require nutrients, not ingredients; a diet full of great sounding ingredients can be less nutritious than a diet containing less appealing (to people) ingredients. Although ingredient lists are commonly used by lay people to determine the quality of pet foods, this approach has many pitfalls and is very subjective to intentional manipulation by the food manufacturers.
I've heard that raw diets prevent and or solve a lot of health problems in pets. Is this true? There is currently no evidence that raw diets offer any benefits over cooked diets. However, there is substantial evidence that these diets may be associated with dental fractures, bacterial and parasitic infections and other health concerns in pets. There is also potential risk to people, especially those that are immunocompromised such as young children, the elderly and patients with immune mediated diseases or cancer. Pets that eat contaminated raw diets have been demonstrated to shed viable pathogenic organisms in their feces and it is likely that areas that they frequent are also contaminated. As numerous recalls and some pathogen surveys in the last few years have proven, all raw meat, regardless of source, should be considered to be contaminated until proven otherwise. In addition, nearly all home-prepared raw diets and most commercially available raw diets are deficient (or excessive) in essential nutrients.
My friend says that grains are bad for dogs, is she correct? Whole grains contribute valuable nutrients including vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and fiber to diets while helping to keep the fat and calories lower than if animal products were used in their place. The vast majority of dogs and cats are very efficient at digesting and utilizing nutrients from grains. While a very small number of dogs are allergic to specific grains, these allergies are no more common than allergies to animal proteins such as chicken, beef and dairy. It is becoming more common in the saturated pet food market for manufacturers to perpetuate myths to sell diets. Grain-free diets are often an example of this strategy. Many of these diets merely substitute highly refined starches such as those from potatoes or tapioca in place of grains. These ingredients often provide fewer nutrients and less fiber that whole grains, while costing more.
I read online that by-products can contain hair, hooves and floor sweepings. Is this true? By-products (mainly organ meats and entrails) often provide more nutrients than muscle meats on per weight basis and are important components and even delicacies of human diets in other countries. The term by-product comes from the fact that they are the leftovers from animal carcasses once the desirable (for Americans) muscle meat has been removed. AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) definitions of mammal by-products specifically EXCLUDE hair, hooves, horn, hide trimmings, manure and intestinal contents, as well as anything that is not specifically part of the carcass (such as floor sweepings). Like all ingredients, the quality of by-products can vary, so it is important to select manufacturers who have stringent internal quality control standards.
American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition (www.aavn.org)
American Animal Hospital Association Nutritional Assessment Guidelines (www.acvn.org)
Association of American Feed Control Officials (www.aafco.org)
FDA Animal and Veterinary Site (www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/default.htm)