Dr. Brad Breon on Choosing a Quality Pet Food 

“What should I feed my dog or cat?” is a common question veterinarians are asked during any exam visit. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of choices of commercial pet foods, from the less expensive brands seen in your grocery store to the very pricey foods seen in pet boutiques. Nearly every week a pet owner tells me they are feeding their pet a food that I was previously unaware of or is new to the market. With such endless variety, it can be a challenge to keep up to date on all the foods and to make good decisions when choosing a diet. Not all foods are created equal and, in many cases, just because the food is more expensive that does not mean it is necessarily any better. The goal of this blog will be to give you, the pet owner, some helpful guidelines when choosing a quality pet food for your four-legged family members.

First, these guidelines are just that, guidelines. They are for assumed healthy, adult dogs and cats. They should not take the place of specific recommendations your veterinarian may have for your animal. There are many conditions that may require specific diets as part of their treatment, if your pet has been prescribed a specific diet for treatment of a medical condition do not make any dietary changes without first consulting your veterinarian.

Pet foods are regulated by the FDA for safety and only FDA approval is necessary to sell pet food in the United States. However, safety is not inclusive of nutritional content. A good place to start when choosing a pet food is to check the package for an approval statement by the AAFCO.  The Association Of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) ensures that the food meets at least the minimum requirements for a healthy food.

There is a lot of information and misinformation out there when it comes to pet foods. Always, always, always, consider the source when doing research on pet foods. Websites are used to promote agendas by different people, companies, and organizations. Pet food companies are also expert marketers, they like to use terms like “Natural” and “Human Grade” in their advertisements and packaging. These terms mean nothing and should not influence your buying decision. Remember too that even the smaller, sometimes seemingly healthier pet food companies are still out to make a profit. As stated previously, increased cost does not always mean increased benefits.

Dogs are omnivores, meaning they can utilize protein, carbohydrates and fats to metabolize energy. In general, I usually prefer a quality dry food over a canned diet for most dogs. When evaluating a food label the first thing I look at is the guaranteed analysis which tells me how the nutrients are divided throughout the food. I normally recommend a higher protein content and like to see it between 26-32%, and fat content should be less than 15%. Pet food companies are not required to label the carbohydrate percentages but it can be estimated by adding up all the percentages labeled subtract that from 100 and what you have is a close estimate of the carbohydrate percentage. For active dogs I look for higher that 50% carbs and for more inactive dogs less than 50%. If you hunt with your dog or your dog is very active, feeding a higher caloric diet (performance formulas) during those seasons may help with stamina. Keep in mind, however, that during the off season a high calorie diet may not be necessary and could lead to unwanted weight gain.

Next I look at the actual ingredient list.The first 5 items on the list are the most important and the first item should be a quality meat source –  chicken, beef, and white fish are examples of a quality meat source. The rest of the top five should include some grains and usually a meat by-product. By-product meal has a bad reputation, not completely deserved. Many things which are labeled as by-products are considered delicacies elsewhere, such as organ meat, and can be very nutritious for your pet. By-product meal also has a very basic function in dry foods, it holds the kibble together. Food labels are information heavy and you can get lost in the minutia, I try to just stick to the basics when checking food labels:  AAFCO approval, guaranteed analysis, first 5.

In the past, veterinarians primarily also recommended dry food for cats. The dry recommendation was driven by the thought that it was better for the cat’s oral health. However, over the past several years there has been a shift to recommending canned or a mix of canned and dry for our feline patients. Today we feel that the added moisture content in the canned foods can be very beneficial, especially as the cat ages. (Ideally, at home oral care is done, like tooth brushing, to help prevent dental disease.) As a cat ages it can have a difficult time staying hydrated, any additional water intake can be beneficial, especially in those cats with borderline kidney disease.

Raw pet food diets have become popular over the last several years. Due to the high rates of contamination I do not recommend raw pet foods. Studies have shown that nearly 20% of raw diets are contaminated with Salmonella. Salmonella can make your pet, and you, very ill. My advice to clients who insist on feeding a raw diet is to cook it!

This blog was purposefully left very basic. Your veterinarian can make specific recommendations of diet choices after visiting with you and your pet. If you have any questions about what to feed your dog or cat, the veterinarians at Community Pet Hospital would be happy to discuss them with you.