Considerations When Choosing Food for Your Pet

By: Carol S. Hillhouse, DVM, DABVP

TVMA Member
Panhandle, TX

Published September 2015

Pet Nutrition

The safest and most convenient way to feed your pets is by choosing to use a commercially produced pet food brand. These food brands are typically produced by companies that employ a veterinary nutritionist, invest in research and development, maintain consistent stability and quality control standards, and are closely monitored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Since the nutritional value of a pet food and how it will perform cannot be determined by looking at the label alone, a certain amount of trust must be placed in the producer. The pet food label will have the contact information of the manufacturer or distributor for consumer inquiries. Are their claims based on science or a marketing gimmick? Since humans purchase pet food, it is designed to appeal to them with colors, shapes and tasty or healthy-sounding names. Truthfully, pets don’t care about such things. As any pet owner knows, pets don’t always have the pickiest palates!

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) sets the standards for pet foods sold in the U.S. AAFCO requires certain information on the label, such as a guaranteed analysisthe pet food industry's version of the Nutrition Facts “panel” printed on every package of human food sold in the U.S. and Canada. The purpose of the Guaranteed Analysis panel is to make it easy for consumers to compare four critical nutrients and an ingredient list. The brand and type of food that is selected should be formulated for the species and for the pet’s life stage because requirements vary accordingly. For example, cats are true carnivoresan animal that feeds on flesh. and require more meat protein, but dogs are actually omnivoresan animal or person that eats food of both plant and animal origin. and need both plant and animal products. Increased calories and protein, along with a precise mineral balance, will ensure that young pets develop normally. Senior pets require less of some nutrients but increased amounts of fiber. Each food label will have a nutritional adequacy statement, assuring that the nutritional levels have been determined by one of two methods. Try to choose a food that has undergone a food trial, as this method of testing is the best way to document how animals will perform when fed a certain food. Alternatively, a pet food company can use the formulation method. This method is less expensive, but there is no guarantee of pet acceptance or nutrient bioavailability because actual feeding is not done. The method employed must be stated on the package, but it is often in very small print.

There are many misconceptions about feeding pets, and it can be difficult for veterinarians to dispel certain beliefs. Research is helping to educate veterinarians and pet owners about pet nutrition.

  • Though dogs do well on dry diets alone, feeding canned food to cats may actually help prevent obesity and diabetes and aid in the management of urinary disease.
  • Many commercial diets contain corn because it is a good source of energy and many other nutrients like protein, antioxidantsan-made or natural substances that may prevent or delay some types of cell damage and fatty acidsbuilding blocks of the fat in our bodies and in the food we eat.. Combinations of grain are often used because each grain has strengths and weaknesses. Grains are not a common cause of food allergies.
  • Ingredients are listed on the label by pre-processed weight. The water content in meat makes it heavier and skews the comparison. It might be listed first, but that doesn’t mean there is a large amount of meat in the feed.
  • There is no evidence that raw food diets are nutritionally superior. Many are unbalanced, and feeding raw diets also increases the risk of bacterial contamination and foreign body obstruction. As with any raw meat, there is a potential for contamination with bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, Clostridium spp. and many others. This has raised concerns for foodborne diseases in pets and also in humans in the household. More research is still to be done to prove the validity of these concerns.
  • The term “organic” refers only to the processing of a product, meaning that it has been grown with animal or vegetable fertilizers. It is a label that appeals to humans, but it is not an indicator of quality, digestibility or palatabilityacceptable or agreeable to the palate or taste.

In conclusion, there is no best or perfect diet, and no single ingredient makes a food better or worse. The most important factors are the health and performance of the pet, palatability and the ability of the pet owner to feed it. You wouldn’t seek nutritional advice for your family from the stocker at your local grocery store, and nor should you rely solely on a pet store employee’s opinion about the best diet for your pets. Your veterinarian has completed rigorous and extensive training in animal nutrition and can help you choose the most appropriate diet for your pet’s specific needs.

Dr. Carol Hillhouse owns two mixed animal practices in the Texas Panhandle: Carson County Veterinary Clinic and High Plains Animal Hospital.