Choosing The Right Pet Food Is Not Easy

Beach Metro News

By Dr. Nigel Skinner • September 20, 2011 • Print This Article
I WALK INTO any one of the many great pet supply stores in our neighborhood and one thing you’ll notice is an almost overwhelming variety of pet food choices. It can be a very daunting task for a pet owner, wanting the best for their companion, to know where to start.

Even as a veterinarian I have to admit that when I ask the question “what do you feed your pet?” (and we always ask), probably once or twice a month the answer is a brand I’ve never heard of. It’s literally not possible to keep up.

So where do you start when trying to decide on the best diet for your cat or dog? This is a fairly contentious area with many different sides offering many different opinions; this of course only makes the whole process more confusing for the average pet food shopper. Many people will swear by a particular brand of food or a specific homemade diet that seemed to cure all that ailed their pet. While this may be true in some cases, it’s wise to be cautious. What works for one individual may not work for another.

This brings us to the first point you should understand when it comes to pet diets; there can be tremendous difference in the requirements of different individuals. This is particu- larly true when dealing with nutrition for a pet with specific health requirements. Your vet will carry diets that are intended for use as part of the management of specific diseases. While there is room to work with your vet through a few appropriate choices offered by different manufacturers for any given condition, your vet is the best person to advise you on the diet for your diabetic dog, or cat with kidney failure for instance.

For the majority of pets with ‘normal’ requirements, it is still important to keep this principle in mind, and narrow your options to one appropriate for the life stage of your pet. Now you’re at the part where you need to start reading the label and here’s where it gets tricky! Most of the pet food sold here is manufactured in the US or Canada, and there are some differences the consumer should be aware of.

In the US, the pet food industry is regulated by the Association of American Feed Control

Officials (AAFCO) and they have defined regulations for the labeling of pet foods. Presently in Canada the only regulatory enforcement of pet food labeling comes from the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act and the Competition Act, administered by Industry Canada and their regulations are far less comprehensive.

However, you can take some comfort in knowing that the vast majority of our pet food manufacturers do follow the voluntary guidelines of the Pet Food Association of Canada (PFAC) which is an industry association comprised of pet food manufacturers and compa- nies that supply materials or services to the pet food manufacturing industry. Their voluntary guidelines are the same as the AAFCO require- ments. If you’re not sure if a particular Canadian food is listed as following the PFAC guidelines you can contact them directly at 416- 447-9970.

We shop for our pets like we shop for ourselves, and this fact is not lost on the pet food marketing people. They want to capture your attention with the ‘main’ ingredients, knowing that ‘Chicken and Seafood Dinner with Gravy’ is likely going to leave you feeling better than bringing home a can of ‘Beef Cat Food’. Knowing the AAFCO guidelines, regarding these titles, will be the first thing you’ll want to understand.

If an ingredient is specifically named in the title, as in the Beef Cat food example, it must contain at least 90% of that ingredient not counting the water needed for processing. If however the ingredient includes a qualifying descriptor such as the word ‘Dinner’ in the first example it only needs to contain 25% of that ingredient. Moreover, if there are two ingredi- ents in the ‘dinner’” (or entrée, nuggets etc.), they only have to total 25%, with the second being no less than three per cent. So that can of Chicken and Seafood dinner actually only needs to contain three per cent seafood! Three per cent is also the minimum amount needed to qualify as an ingredient listed as being ‘with’ the main ingredient, as in ‘Chicken with real liver’.

It’s worth noting that statements like ‘Natural’, ‘Gourmet’ and many others have no actual clear definition, so if you’re unsure contact the manufacturer.

As with human food labels the ingredients are listed in descending order by their quanti- ties present by weight, so if you’re suspicious, see how far down the list the ingredient falls.

Looking at the finer print on the label, pay particular attention to the ‘Guaranteed Analysis’ which must include minimum percentages of crude protein and fat and the maximum percentages of crude fibre and moisture. Because canned food has about four times the moisture content of dry food, to roughly compare the guaranteed percentages of the ‘dry matter’ (i.e. all the stuff that’s not water) multiply the percentages in the canned food by four. So, five percent crude protein in a canned food is about the same as 20% in a dry food.

The label also should include a nutritional adequacy statement, something like “‘complete and balanced’ which means that the food is adequate for the demands of the lifestage it is for when given in the recommended amounts under normal circumstances. There are two ways a food can show this; one is to show that its analysis meets certain known pre-estab- lished guidelines, the other is to show that it has been feed to pets under strict conditions and monitoring and proven to be adequate. Look for the statements: “Formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO (Dog/Cat) Food Nutrient Profiles” in the former and “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (name of product) provides complete and balanced nutrition” in the latter.

I don’t know whether being armed with this little bit of information will make your quest for the right food for your pet easier or harder, but it never hurts to go in with a few facts. Remember you need to feed a diet that is nutritionally complete and balanced and appropriate for your pet, and you may need to carefully experiment before you find the right one for any given individual. There are many great pet foods available these days but they’re not necessarily the ones you think you might choose for yourself!