There are literally thousands of different pet foods available. No wonder it can be so challenging to pick the “best” food to tantalize our pets’ palates!
The truth is, there is no “right” diet. Just like us, our pets’ diets need to be tailored to their particular life stage, take any medical issues into consideration, and only provide enough energy (calories) to maintain a healthy body weight.
Products are sometimes labeled with specific health claims in mind, such as those for urinary issues (feline lower urinary tract disorder), weight control, dental, or for skin and coat. When picking a product with a specific health claim, keep in mind that it is illegal for manufacturers to claim that their product treats, cures, or prevents any disease or condition. Products with such claims should be avoided.
Thinking of abandoning commercial foods and lovingly making your pet’s food fresh on a near-daily basis? Experts from the University of California’s School of Veterinary Medicine warn us it isn’t as easy as it seems.
“Home-cooked diets have the disadvantage of being more expensive than commercially prepared food, labor intensive, and prone to ‘diet drift,’”wrote Drs. Sean Delaney and Andrea Fascetti in a chapter of the book titled Encyclopedia of Canine Clinical Nutrition. They went on to explain that “diet drift” is how home-cooked diets are slowly (and often unknowingly) adjusted by the owner over time, either by eliminating or adding more of a particular ingredient/supplement that can potentially negatively impact the health of the animal.
Nonetheless, home-cooked diets may be a valuable option for pet owners who find commercial products unacceptable or if there is no one product available to meet a pet’s specific needs.
The Wet versus Dry Debate
If you’ve ever been snuggling with your pet soon after they have finished devouring a bowl of wet food, you are probably wondering if their diet needs tweaking. Aside from the horrific breath, the potential for tartar build-up and dental disease, and the propensity for weight-gain in animals that are only fed wet food, there are some instances when wet food is appropriate (e.g., animals with urinary tract issues because wet foods increase water intake). That said, dry foods are generally less expensive, can help clean teeth during mealtimes, and a larger volume of dry food (which can serve as a boredom buster for indoor animals) can be offered at each meal compared to wet foods.
Selecting a Particular Class of Diet
As if the decision to feed wet or dry wasn’t difficult enough, now you get to choose what kind of food to offer your pet. According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), many terms found on pet foods, such as premium, holistic and eco-friendly, are simply marketing strategies that don’t actually mean anything! On the other hand, foods labeled organic do have to meet legal requirements.
Organic means the food is grown with only animal or vegetable fertilizers and is produced through methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.
Organic can only be used on pet food labels that follow USDA rule. If the product label says:
· "100% Organic": the food can carry the USDA Organic Seal.
· "Organic": at least 95% of the content is organic by weight (excluding water and salt). It can carry the USDA Organic Seal.
· "Made With Organic…": at least 70% of the content is organic. The phrase can be followed by up to 3 specific ingredients (for example "Made with Organic Corn"). It cannot display the USDA Organic Seal.
· If less than 70% of the food is organic, it can list the ingredients that are organic in the ingredient list. The word organic cannot appear on the package front, and the USDA Organic Seal cannot be used.
AAFCO’s Official Publication says that "natural" means the food contains no chemically synthesized (synthetic) ingredients except for vitamins, trace nutrients and minerals. It has no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives.
Human-grade is less direct. It implies that the food is human edible. There is no legal definition for human-grade, but human-edible is a legal term. It means people can safely eat all ingredients in the product, and the product is manufactured, packed and stored according to the same federal regulations that govern human food.
These terms refer to how the food is produced – not the quality of the finished product. Organic and natural pet foods are not necessarily better for a pet. And, price is not necessarily synonymous with quality. What’s most important is to choose a high-quality food based on the information on the label.
Labels actually do contain important information that can help you choose an appropriate food for your pet. Be sure to look for these three key features on the label of quality foods: the AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement, the intended life stage, and complete manufacturer contact information.
Your Choice Matters
Nutrition is an essential component of your pet’s overall health and well-being. Nutrition should be discussed with your veterinarian at each appointment to ensure your pet is being offered the “best” possible diet at each and every stage of his/her life. Be sure to tell your veterinarian what and how much your pet is fed on a regular basis, including the main diet, treats, table scraps (be honest!), and nutritional supplements/vitamins. In some cases, consulting (telephone appointments are readily available) with a trained veterinary nutritionist may be beneficial. For more information and links to veterinary nutritionists visit:
Updated June 1, 2013