The pet food industry is huge — after all, our furry friends need to eat. Just walking down the aisle at the supermarket, big box store, or pet specialty retailer can be a daunting task. If you learn a little about labeling and ingredients, however, you can make a sound decision on what to feed your four-legged family member.
Pet foods are regulated by each state individually, but the standards are set by the Association of Animal Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Much research has gone into animal nutrition and the protein, vitamin and mineral requirements for dogs, puppies, cats and kittens have been well-established. All foods sold should be meeting or exceeding those requirements. Their website at AAFCO.org contains tons of information
There are a number of different things common to all the labels. Protein is usually at the top. In general, cat food is much higher in protein than dog food. That is because cats are true carnivores and they require certain amino acids (building blocks of protein) in their diet. The most important one is taurine. Lack of this amino acid can lead to heart disease and blindness. Once this was discovered, it was added to all cat foods and those diet-related diseases essentially disappeared. Some dog foods labeled “performance” or “max” contain larger amounts of protein. Excessive protein can lead to weight gain and hyperactivity in the average dog.
You will also find the amount of fat as a percentage. The lower the fat, the fewer calories the food may have. Currently, pet foods do not have the calorie content on the label. This will be changing in the future, but for now, if you call the manufacturer, they can give you that information. Bear in mind also that diets labeled “light’ or “less active” cannot be compared to each other. That label only means that the formula has fewer calories or less fat than their regular adult formula and does not compare it to other brands.
It is interesting to note that the AAFCO does not have a definition of “senior”. Foods labeled for older pets do not have any specific requirements and will vary tremendously between brands. “Growth and maintenance” needs are established, however, for puppies and kittens, as they require more protein, calcium, phosphorous and other nutrients. In foods labeled “natural”, the only synthetic ingredients can be vitamins and minerals. No artificial colors or preservatives are permitted.
As far as the actual ingredients, unless there is a food allergy or hypersensitivity, that is more a matter of personal and pet preference. You can keep in mind that you do get what you pay for. Many of the high-end premium diets do contain higher-quality ingredients which of course cost more for them to buy. This can affect the digestibility of the diet. For example, two brands may have the same percentage of protein but the higher quality one may make that protein more available for the pet to digest and thus use effectively.
Many owners have been nervous about pet foods with all the recalls in the past few years. A great tip is when you open a new bag, cut the product code off of it and put it in the bottom of your storage container. That way, you can quickly check it. For canned diets, cut it off, put the date you opened it on it and keep it in an envelope for a few weeks.
Picking the best diet for your pet can be very confusing. Talking to your veterinarian about your specific pet’s needs will help make that decision much easier.