Article Written by Dr. Rainer from our Spryfield Animal Hospital. Read her full bio here
For anyone who has a pet, especially if that pet is a dog or a cat, the glut of available diets and (mis)information out there can make it almost impossible to know what you should be feeding your furry companion to ensure she lives a long, happy, and healthy life. I wish I could tell you that there's a simple answer, but the truth is that this is an extremely complex issue with no “one size fits all” solution. What I will try to do in this article is guide you step-wise through the process of choosing the right diet for your pet, hopefully dispelling several myths along the way.
Every day in practice, I speak with clients who are unsure about whether their pet is eating a “good” food and who are overwhelmed by the options and marketing claims that exist in the world of animal nutrition. Truth be told, it is not just our clients who are confused. Many veterinarians find it difficult to sift through all the questionable information out there, and they cannot possibly stay abreast of all the new products and developments that emerge on a seemingly daily basis. But here's what we can do: we can arm you with the knowledge and skills to make an educated decision that works for your own animal. So here goes:
Step One: Choose a Reputable Pet Food Manufacturer
This is probably both the most important and the most time-consuming step. In order to see past all the marketing and determine if a pet food is genuinely of good quality, you can contact the company (contact information is required to be printed on the bag) and ask some key questions. Here are some of the most important ones: Do you have a full-time board-certified veterinary nutritionist or PhD nutritionist on staff? Ask for a name and whether he/she can be reached for consultation. Who formulates your diets and what are their credentials? Which of your diets are tested using AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) feeding trials? These feeding trials are the best available measure of pet food quality, but many manufacturers do not test their foods in this way, opting instead to formulate their diets by computer to meet minimum nutritional requirements. For a full list of questions to ask a pet food company, refer to this blog post http://www.halifaxveterinaryhospitalinc.com/blog/bid/325092/What-Should-I-Know-Before-Choosing-A-Pet-Food
Step Two: Choose a Food Appropriate for Your Pet's Life Stage
This is simple. AAFCO sets out nutritional profiles that meet the needs of dogs and cats at two distinct life stages: growth and reproduction (most commonly puppy/kitten foods) and adult maintenance. Some foods are labelled as “all life stages,” meaning it meets both nutritional profiles, but beware – if a food meets the requirements for growth and you're feeding it to your adult cat, chances are you will end up with an obese pet. Make sure to read the information on the bag (or online) closely, especially the Nutritional Adequacy Statement, which can be found near the ingredient list. This will tell you whether the food has been through feeding trials, and which life stage requirements it actually meets (e.g. a food may be marketed as an “adult” food, but if it actually meets the minimums for all life stages, then once again you may be looking at problems with weight management, among other things).
Step Three: Understand the Ingredient List and Let Go of Nutritional Myths
This is difficult for a lot of people. Every day, I have pet owners tell me they feed a very good food because meat is the first ingredient and there are no “by-products”. There seems to be a nearly-universal belief that “by-product” means hair, beaks, hooves, feathers, and generally whatever is swept off a slaughterhouse floor. In fact, here is AAFCO's definition of Chicken By-Product Meal: “consists of the ground, rendered, clean parts of the carcass of slaughtered chicken, such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs and intestines, exclusive of feathers, except in such amounts as might occur unavoidable in good processing practice.” These are some of the most nutritious parts of the bird; the problem is that they are not considered appetizing by our own Western palates. Many people think the only edible part of an animal is its muscle, but remember – animals in the wild will eat everything off the bones of their prey. So foods that list animal by-products as a primary ingredient are often actually nutritionally superior to those that claim to have only fresh meat. Another major problem with label-reading is that ingredients are listed in order of weight, including water. What this means is that fresh meat and vegetables will be listed higher than similar amounts of dry ingredients, while they contribute much less nutritional value to the food. Just try to remember that animals require nutrients, not ingredients, and try not to fall prey to manufacturers who add ingredients solely to make the diets more attractive to us as consumers.
Step Four: Outsmart the Marketers
By arming yourself with nutritional facts, you can more easily sift through all the false claims and hype that surround the products in our super-saturated pet food market. The current “grain-free” craze is causing many veterinarians to pull out their hair in frustration; in fact, I think many of us simply sigh with resignation and opt out of the conversation when pet owners proudly announce that they are feeding a “very good” grain-free diet to their pet. The truth is that grains (such as rice, wheat, corn, barley, etc.) contribute many valuable nutrients including vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids in a highly-digestible form. When manufacturers remove grains from a diet, they replace them with other carbohydrates – potato, tapioca, or other starch-containing foods – that are nutritionally inferior and serve only to facilitate the process of extrusion by which dry kibble is made. So unless your dog has an allergy to a specific grain, then there is no reason to eliminate grain from his diet. As an aside, the most common food allergies in dogs are actually protein sources, including beef, dairy, and chicken. Once you understand the actual ingredients and their nutritional value, you can start analyzing the multitude of marketing terms you will find on a food bag. The only one of these terms that has any meaning is “natural” - the guideline for the use of this word is that the product should not contain any chemically synthesized ingredients (with the exception of some synthesized vitamins and minerals which should have a disclaimer on the label). Terms such as “holistic,” “gourmet,” and “human grade” have no legal meaning and are simply used by marketers to trick you into buying their foods.
Step Five: Involve Your Veterinarian
Every animal is different, so even though your cat may do well on one particular food, your neighbour's cat may react poorly to it and need to try something else. If you have done your homework, there will probably be several foods you have found that could meet your pet's needs, so try them until you find one that both you and your pet like (just remember to transition to new foods slowly, over five-to-seven days in order to minimize gastrointestinal upset). If, however, your pet has any health issues you should speak with your veterinarian before choosing a food; she may need a prescription diet to meet her specific nutritional needs. In the case of an overweight or obese pet, a veterinarian can design a weight-loss plan using a variety of different veterinary-exclusive or commercially-available diets. Another reason to speak with your veterinarian is if you are considering feeding a home-made diet. These diets can be healthy and balanced, but it takes work and dedication to ensure you are doing it right. Your vet can direct you to resources that will help you formulate complete diets for your pet, and he can also recommend supplements that will fill in any nutritional gaps. Finally, if you are considering feeding a raw diet, know that very few veterinarians recommend raw food, and for good reason. There is no evidence that the nutrition your dog receives from a raw diet is at all superior to a cooked diet, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest health risks to both the animal and his human family. Also, almost all raw diets, whether home-made or commercially-available, are deficient in essential nutrients, and animals fed these diets are often clinically malnourished.
Perhaps now you can understand why your veterinarian may not have a good answer ready for you when you ask if you are feeding “a good food.” You may find that your vet consistently recommends foods available through the clinic; the reason for this is usually that we are comfortable with the diets we sell, and we can guarantee that Step One has been done for you and can more easily advise you on the rest. That does not mean that veterinary diets are right for every pet, so use the information in this article and make good, informed decisions. Just remember that price does not necessarily equal quality, and the best way to judge the food you have chosen is to look at your pet: if she has a soft, shiny coat, a good body condition (not too fat or too thin), good energy, and is having no digestive problems, you have probably found a good diet for her. All that work was worth it!
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