I’ve talked before about the wealth of information that, by law, has to be printed on all pet food labels. Today, I want to touch upon something that isn’t listed … the quality of the ingredients that make up the food.
Ingredient quality is extremely important. We know this when it comes to feeding ourselves (even if we don’t always chose the whole grain slice of toast over the donut in the morning), and the same is true for animals. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult for owners to determine whether their pets’ foods are made from ingredients of the highest quality — all "chicken" is not created equal, in other words.
First, let’s examine some terms that may or may not be helpful. If you look through the pet food aisle, you can find labels that contain the USDA organic seal, which has a legal definition attached to it. If the product as a whole is labeled as USDA organic, it must be made from greater than 95 percent organic ingredients. If the label states, "Made with organic ingredients," then 70-94 percent of the ingredients must be organic. In some cases, you might find organic items listed in the ingredient list, but this simply means that those ingredients alone are organic. We can debate whether organic is better, but at least consumers know what they’re paying for when they see the USDA seal.
The use of the word "natural" is also legally defined in pet foods — in this case by the Association of American Feed Control Officers (AAFCO). It means that a food or ingredient is derived "solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subjected to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices." Clear? Maybe not, but it’s better than no definition at all.
On the other hand, the term "holistic" is completely unregulated as it applies to pet foods. Any manufacturer can use it for any product with impunity.
Owners often hear that they should look for ingredients that sound like what they would (or should) eat, but this can be taken too far. Dogs and cats, after all, are not people. So while we may not seek out chicken meal in our diets, this ingredient is in fact made from chicken flesh, skin and bone — all perfectly appropriate ingredients in a pet food. The problem is that "chicken meal" (or "chicken," "chicken by-product meal," or any other ingredient for that matter) can come from high or low-quality sources. For example, I’d like to know whether or not the chickens in question were fed an appropriate diet, raised in a healthy environment, and processed in a clean facility, but this information is hard, if not impossible, to come by.
So, what can owners do? First, there is an element of "you get what you pay for" when it comes to pet foods. I never recommend that my clients feed their pets the cheapest foods that they can find. Instead, go with a company with a good and longstanding reputation. Next, look for foods that have undergone a feeding trial. The label should say something along the lines of, "Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Brand X adult dog food provides complete and balanced nutrition for maintenance of adult dogs." Food trials are not perfect, but they are superior to formulating a diet using only a computer program.
Finally, watch how your pet responds to a particular food. Is he maintaining a healthy weight? Is his digestive system functioning normally (i.e., firm stools, normal amounts of flatulence, no vomiting)? Does his coat shine? Is his energy and activity level appropriate for his age and overall health? A good diet is essential to well-being. If your dog or cat isn’t thriving, it’s time for a change.
Dr. Jennifer Coates