“What do I feed my pet?” It’s a common question that we are asked at almost every new pet exam. It seems that everyone you ask will have a different opinion on the best food to feed. There is a lot of marketing involved in pet foods (it is literally a $99 billion dollar industry) and it can be completely overwhelming trying to pick – especially when every brand is vying for your money. So, how do you know what food is the best?
In simple (but vague) terms, pick a food that provides all the essential nutrients in all the right amounts and proportions for your pet’s species and life stage. And make sure it is from a reputable company. Easy, right? The first step is to make sure it has an AAFCO statement. AAFCO (The Association of American Feed Control Officials) sets the standards for a pet food, defines the ingredients, standardizes the feeding trials, and determines the minimum/maximum nutrition required for different life stages. Without this statement, we don’t know if the pet food is adequate or even safe. Look for companies who employ a veterinary nutritionist and whose diets were formulated by a veterinary nutritionist.
Also, try to look past the trigger words/statements such as “no fillers”, “no corn”, “no byproducts”, “natural”, “human grade” etc. Nothing in pet food is a filler – every ingredient has a purpose (a true filler would have no nutritional value). Corn is a well-rounded grain that provides energy while being high in essential fatty acids, vitamins, and is highly digestible when cooked. By-products are defined as something that is produced in the making of something else (i.e. molasses is a byproduct of refining sugar). In pet food, by-products are the edible parts of the animal other than muscle meat. It is not feathers, beaks, horns, hooves – those are illegal to add to pet foods. Liver is a by-product. The claim “natural” only means the ingredients came from plants, animals or mined sources and were not chemically/synthetically made. The ingredients can still be processed. And there is no definition for what human grade means – it has nothing to do with the quality of the ingredients. When companies put these claims on the label, it is a marketing strategy.
Lastly, many people think feeding grain free is better. For a few pets this can be true, but it is not always beneficial. In some instances, it can be detrimental. Most food allergies/sensitivities in our pets come from the protein sources and grains are highly digestible when cooked. Some grain free diets are balanced using higher fat content and can have more calories. Some use refined starches (i.e. potatoes) which can be less nutritious and more expensive than grains. There is also a possible link between grain-free diets and heart disease in some dogs.
In summary, there are an overwhelming number of pet foods to choose from and a lot of money goes into marketing those foods. Have a discussion with your veterinarian or contact a board-certified veterinary nutritionist if you have questions or if your pet has special needs due to an underlying illness.