A Message from the Vet - November 2013
Demystifying Pet Food

Pet food aisles can be overwhelming, not to mention all the commercials, ads, and reviews on TV and online. There are thousands of pet food choices and thousands of opinions claiming each one is the best. How do you decide? This article will expose a few common myths related to pet food, and help you make a fact-based decision when choosing a pet food for your beloved pet.

What are "by-products", really?
Many pet food companies and breeders would have you believe that "by-products" in the ingredient list means hooves, feces, or road kill are in the pet food. WRONG! Items such as hooves, hair, horns, teeth, feces, road kill, and euthanized pets are specifically forbidden in any type of pet food. "By-product" simply means a part of the animal or plant that is not used in the human food industry. Because humans like eating muscle meat the most, meat by-products are clean organ meats such as lung, spleen, kidney, liver, blood, stomach, and intestines. These organ meats actually provide more nutritional content per weight than muscle meat. Using meat by-products in pet food also reduces waste by utilizing organ meats that would otherwise be thrown away by the human food industry.

How important is the ingredient list?
Food labels must list ingredients in order of weight, but don't forget that water content will make things much heavier. Foods with high water content (non-dehydrated sources) will be listed higher on the list, but this does not mean that they provide any more or better nutrition than sources lower on the list. A pet food's nutrient profile (measured calories, fat, vitamins, minerals) is a more accurate way to compare foods than simply looking at the list of ingredients. Beware of being attracted to ingredients listed at the end of the list; remember they're listed by weight, so these ingredients are unlikely to be present at any beneficial or noticeable level in the food.

What does "organic", "holistic", or "premium" mean on my pet food bag?
NOTHING! These labels are not regulated in the pet food industry, so ANY pet food company can claim their food is organic, holistic, premium, gourmet, or human-grade without any testing or verification to prove it. These terms are used because they catch pet owners' attention, not because they represent a higher quality food. Dirty trick, huh? A label you can trust is the USDA Organic seal, which means the food has been produced, processed, and certified to be consistent with national organic standards.

What does "natural" mean on my pet food bag?
"Natural" is a valid claim regulated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). It means that no chemically synthesized ingredients were added to the pet food. However, there is an exception for vitamin and mineral additives, so you will often see labels that claim "All Natural, with added vitamins and minerals!"

Is a grain-free diet better?
In most cases, not at all! Grains have great nutrient value and are not simply a filler ingredient. For example, corn supplies protein, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and antioxidants to a pet food. Both dogs and cats CAN utilize and digest grains. Diets that are grain-free also tend to be higher in calories, protein, and fat, and may actually be less nutritious than foods that incorporate grain into a balanced diet. If you are worried that your pet might have food allergies, don't blame the grain! Grain allergies are RARE, while the most common food allergies are to dairy, chicken, and beef.

So how do I pick??
The basic consideration should ensure your pet food is appropriate for your pet. AAFCO provides a "Nutritional Adequacy Statement" on every bag of pet food. Read this statement closely and you may be surprised to find your "puppy food" is formulated to meet nutritional levels for adult maintenance only, or that your "adult food" has been proven to provide complete and balanced nutrition for all lifestages. "All lifestages" sounds great, doesn't it? But this means the food contains enough protein, fat, and calcium to support a growing puppy; these high levels may be detrimental to a large breed dog or contribute to obesity in adult dogs. Also distinguish between foods that have been actually tested and substantiated to provide the nutrition it claims, or those that have only been formulated to meet a certain nutrient profile.

Do some research into the pet food manufacturer. Don't just read customer reviews! Find out if the company uses a full-time veterinary nutritionist or has a research department to formulate and test their diets. The most reliable manufacturers will have their own private manufacturing plants (a more controlled, clean environment), rather than using one that produces food for multiple pet food companies (more opportunity for cross-contamination and error).

Ask your vet! Bring your pet food bag with you at your pet's next appointment or annual check-up. Have your vet interpret the AAFCO statement and check the nutrient analysis. Ask them whether the diet is appropriate for your pet's lifestage or any health issues your pet may have. Your vet has access to a lot of valuable information and training that will help him or her make the most helpful dietary recommendation for your best friend.

Jill Yoshicedo, DVM

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