What is the Best Food to Feed My Pet?
“What is the best food to feed my pet?”
This is a question I hear over and over again being a small animal vet. With so many choices of pet food on the shelves now, how do you choose? Since pet food does not fall under the same government regulations as human food, here are some tips to help consumers make an educated decision.
The American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is an organization that has created nutritional standards for pet foods. All pet foods are required to have an AAFCO feeding label on each bag to ensure nutritional adequacy. Some pet food labels state that the pet food is “formulated to meet the needs” of a specific life stage of dogs or cats. This method is less expensive and less time consuming because no feeding trials are done on animals. This is a little scary because the food does not even have to be fed to an animal before it goes on the market. Just because it looks good on paper, doesn’t necessarily mean the pet will enjoy eating it, or all the nutrients will be bio-available, or it won’t give your dog diarrhea! The superior label states that a pet food has passed an AAFCO approved feeding trial. In other words, the food was exclusively fed to a specific species, and the animals performed well while on the food.
The AAFCO labels will also tell consumers what life stage the food is formulated for, such as puppy, adult, senior, or all life stages. Essentially, the food that is for ‘all life stages’ is a growth formulation because it has to be adequate for puppies and nursing mothers in order to carry this particular label. This food would not be appropriate for an adult or a senior pet, including patients with certain medical conditions. So when you look at bags of pet food be sure to check out the AAFCO label.
Another marketing tactic that pet food companies like to use are the terms holistic, organic, natural, etc. All of these terms sound great and healthy; however, they are not the same. “Organic” is a term that is regulated by the USDA. In order for pet foods to be called organic, they have to meet the same standards as human organic foods. “Natural” pet foods should have ingredients with no chemical alterations, and “holistic” is a term that is not regulated at all in pet foods. Any pet food can use the term holistic, and it has no basis whatsoever. The pet food companies feed on our desire to improve the health of our animals by using words that humans associate with being healthier. The truth is that pet food companies are great at marketing.
Grain-free food is also trending in the pet food industry as well as the human food market. Lots of my clients are under the false impression that grain-free diets will help with their pets food/skin allergies. Although an occasional pet may react to a grain during allergy testing, by far the majority of dogs and cats with food allergies are going to be allergic to a specific protein in the food, i.e. chicken, beef, etc. This is why veterinarians choose prescription hypoallergenic or selected protein diets to treat food allergies. Over the counter pet foods that use unique proteins in the food, such as bison, rabbit, kangaroo, venison, etc., also complicate the medical aspect of determining which type of food a pet may have an allergy to. When our patients have been eating such a variety of proteins their whole life, it can be very challenging to find a protein that the animal has never eaten. On a side note, over the counter pet foods are not substitutes for hypoallergenic diets. Usually these foods have hidden ingredients not listed on the label, so they aren’t appropriate for a food allergy trial.
Selecting and recommending pet food is often a touchy subject with my clients. I definitely want my clients to be educated about what they are feeding their pets, but we also have to be careful where we get information. The web has a vast array of knowledge on the subject, but quite a bit of it is just not true. Pet and feed store employees can be helpful as well, but keep in mind they are not
health professionals. They have not had extensive training on pet nutrition. As a matter of fact, some pet food companies use employees at these stores to market their products.
Veterinarians recommend certain pet foods because we truly believe in the quality of these foods, and that good nutrition can improve the length and quality of life of our beloved pets. We see the results of good food in the patients we treat over the years. We want what is best for our patients- just like our clients do. So next time you are stumped about which of the hundreds of pet foods to buy, check the AAFCO label on the bag, don’t fall into the marketing schemes, and ask your vet.
-Dr. Alison Bradshaw
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