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Making an Educated Choice on Pet Food

By Lorie Huston, DVM

Pet food manufacturers use a variety of marketing tactics to encourage pet owners to purchase their foods. Many pet food companies are producing products that are marketed as being “natural”, a term which resonates with many pet owners who are seeking healthy choices for their pets. But what does the term “natural” really mean and does it equate with quality nutrition for your pet?

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What Does 'Natural' Mean

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has developed a definition for the types of ingredients that can be referred to as “natural”. These ingredients must be “derived from plant, animal or mined, unprocessed or subject to physical, heat, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not subjected to chemically synthetic process.” According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “for the most part, ‘natural’ can be construed as equivalent to a lack of artificial flavors, artificial colors, or artificial preservatives in the product.” It's important to realize, however, that the term “natural” does not guarantee the quality of the pet food or that your pet will do well eating the food. Let’s talk about some of the things you need to consider when evaluating a pet food.

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1. Is there a Balance of Nutrients?

Your pet’s food needs to be complete and balanced, providing all of the nutrients your dog or cat needs to sustain life and thrive. There are six basic nutrient groups that need to be present in your pet’s diet:

  1. Protein
  2. Carbohydrates
  3. Fat
  4. Vitamins
  5. Minerals
  6. Water

Each of these groups of nutrients plays a vital role in making sure your pet’s body functions normally, and it is the ingredients in your pet's food which are the sources for these nutrients. Each ingredient provides a unique set of nutrients. Whether “natural” or not, all the ingredients in your pet’s food contribute to the nutrient balance of the diet. No one ingredient can provide a properly balanced diet by itself. However, a proper mix of ingredients will provide complete and balanced nutrition for your dog or cat. Without the proper mix of ingredients and the resultant balanced and complete nutrient profile, your pet is at risk for potential illnesses as a result of excesses or deficiencies of specific nutrients. No one item in the ingredients list is more important than any other, even if that ingredient is listed as the first ingredient on the list. An ingredient list simply provides a list of ingredients ranked by weight.

2. Is there a Statement of 'Nutritional Adequacy?'

Each pet food label must contain a statement of “nutritional adequacy”. The label must also contain information about which life stage or stages for which the food is adequate. Choose a pet food that provides “complete and balanced” nutrition adequate for the life stage of your individual pet. For instance, if your pet is a puppy, you may want to choose a dog food labeled for "growth" or one labeled as "all life stage." The same goes for a kitten.

3. Has the Pet Food Undergone a Feeding Trial?

Another consideration in choosing a pet food is the method in which the nutritional adequacy statement was substantiated. There are two methods that are allowed. One method involves formulating a pet food to provide levels of nutrients that meet an established profile. The second method involves a feeding trial in which the product has been fed to dogs or cats under strict guidelines and found to provide proper nutrition. Diets that have been substantiated via a feeding trial are preferable to those formulated to meet an established profile. Look for a statement on the label that reads: “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that ABC Dog Food provides complete and balanced nutrition."

4. Is the Pet Food Easily Digestible?

Ingredients in the diet must be easily digestible for your pet as well. Most reputable pet food companies perform testing on their products to determine the digestibility of the food. However, one of the best methods for a pet owner to determine the digestibility of a given food is by examining their pet’s feces. Highly digestible pet foods will produce well-formed fecal movements of minimal volume. Poorer quality foods will often result in an increased fecal volume and sometimes loose bowels (Note: weight loss diets may also have the same result).

5. Is the Pet Food Company Reputable?

A company that doesn't have good quality standards or which doesn't invest in its pet food shouldn't be trusted. Here are few indicators of a reputable pet food company:

  1. Invests in research, continually striving to improve their pet food products and add to our knowledge of the nutritional needs of animals.
  2. Manufactures their own pet food products, giving them more control over the entire process (including the safety protocols) than those which outsource the manufacturing process.
  3. Only sources their pet food ingredients from trusted reliable sources. Sourcing ingredients from unreliable sources introduces an unnecessary degree of risk.
  4. Integrates quality control as a routine part of their manufacturing process. Quality control testing should evaluate the food at various stages of the manufacturing process for contamination as well as for excesses and/or deficiencies of specific nutrients.
  5. Employs veterinarians, veterinary nutritionists, and/or other scientists as part of their staff and relies on advice from these individuals in formulating their pet foods and caring for the pets in their research facilities.

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Don't Forget to Consult Your Veterinarian

Choosing a diet for your pet is an important decision and not one to take lightly. Your veterinarian is your best source of information about nutrition for your pet. Your veterinarian can help you make the right decision about what type of food is best for your pet based on your pet’s individual health, lifestyle and nutritional requirements.

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