One of the best things about my job is new puppy visits. Cute puppies, wiggling and wagging, not afraid of the doctor, with their happy, excited new families - what's not to like?
Well, there is one thing - the Food Question. I have to admit, when I'm asked, "What should I be feeding Scout?", I sigh inside - and maybe outside, too. A quick check of the available brands on a pet supply website shows 107 different brands of dog food and that doesn't include locally-produced boutique brands, proprietary brands from grocery stores or home-cooked diets. On top of being spoiled for choice, people bring the same concerns and emotions to their pet's diet that they feel about their own - if you're a vegetarian, do you want your dog eating meat? If you're gluten-intolerant, could your dog be too?
Honestly, it's confusing. And as a doctor, you're supposed to have a straightforward, authoritative answer like "42". I would love to give people the name of the world's best dog food - the one that works for every breed, every life stage, and prevents every disease. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, that diet doesn't exist. But, learning to make sense of pet food packages can help you navigate the aisles of the pet store and pick a diet that you and Scout will both enjoy.
Picking a Pet Food Manufacturer
Certain pet food manufacturers are known for the research and development behind their diets. They base their diet formulations on extensive nutritional research and analysis, along with actual feeding trials on real dogs and cats to ensure their diets achieve the desired results. Also, they manufacture their foods in their own plants, which gives them the highest quality control throughout the process. Two excellent manufacturers who meet this description are Hill's Science Diet and Royal Canin. Not all manufacturers come close to these standards, which is why knowing something about your pet food company can give you additional assurance that you are feeding the highest quality food to your pet.
Decoding Pet Food Packaging
Before digging into the actual nutrition analysis (usually a black and white box filled with tiny letters found in the most obscure location possible), first check out the rest of the package. Some of the terms you may see have legal definitions, such as:
- Natural - The food must consist of only natural ingredients without chemical alterations, except for vitamins, minerals and other trace nutrients.
- Organic - The manufacturer is required to follow the same rules from the USDA as applied to human foods, and the label should include the USDA seal.
- Human Grade is only allowed on diets made in a plant approved for manufacturing human food.
- Other terms may just be marketing. Holistic has no legal definition and is unregulated with regard to pet food - any pet food manufacturer can put it on the package. Grain free and gluten free are increasingly common phrases on packaging, but these terms are not regulated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the organization that sets the nutritional standards for pet foods sold in the US.
Reading the Pet Food Label
Now, move onto the pet food label, that box full of tiny letters containing the nutrition facts. Ingredients are listed in descending order, by weight. If a diet is called "salmon and sweet potato" on the front of package, you would hope to see those ingredients at or near the top of the ingredient list. Also, be aware there may be additional types of proteins or carbohydrates in the diet that aren't given "top billing" on the front of the package - scan the list carefully if you're concerned your pet may have a problem with a particular ingredient.
The guaranteed analysis indicates minimum or maximum levels of nutrients but does not provide the exact levels of nutrients, and doesn't guarantee nutritional quality. Also, keep in mind that moisture levels in pet foods vary, making it hard to accurately compare diets. You can convert the nutrients to a dry matter basis by taking a particular nutrient's percentage and dividing by the total dry matter percentage, then multiply by 100. (For instance, if you had a diet that was 10% protein and 25% dry matter, 10/25 x 100 = 40% dry matter protein content.)
A Note on Byproducts & Animal Meal
You may see byproducts listed in your pet food's ingredients. Sounds like the leftover bits that are of questionable nutritional value, right? However, in the world of pet food labels, byproducts are actually organ meat. Organ meat provides some of the most nutritious food your pet can eat, and they are often used because it allows the manufacturer to achieve the optimal nutritional profile for that particular diet. So don't shy away from the word byproduct if you see it on a pet food label, particularly when the food is produced by a premium and highly reputable manufacturer.
You may also see that animal meal is included in your pet's food. Some common examples are chicken meal or lamb meal. Animal meal is made by taking chicken or lamb meat, for example, extracting the water, and then pulverizing it into meal. This highly concentrated and nutritious source of meat protein is often used in dry kibble, in particular. Again, many premium brands of food use animal meal as the main source of protein in their dry diet formulations.
Determining What's Best for Your Pet
Finally, look for the AAFCO statement, a legally required assertion verifying the testing method used to determine a diet's nutritional adequacy. It will also list the lifestage that the diet is designed to feed, such as growth and reproduction, adult maintenance, or all lifestages. Ideally, look for a diet formulated for your pet's specific lifestage rather than "all lifestages" - it may contain excessive levels of some nutrients needed for the most demanding lifestage, growth. Even better, look for a diet that has been fed to real pets in an AAFCO defined feeding trial, which is considered the gold standard - then you know the food truly delivers the nutrients as it is "formulated" to do.
Dr. Anne MacFarlane