In 33 years of practice, I have seen many pet foods come and go. About 25 years ago, a marketing company predicted that by the year 2010, a segment of the pet food market known as “Super Premium” would grow into a 2.5 billion dollar market in the United States. Turns out they were wrong – it has reached almost 9 billion dollars in yearly sales!
This leaves the pet owner in a state of confusion. We all want to feed our four legged friends the best diet we can. How is one to distinguish between what is truly a high quality diet and merely a high priced one?
Let’s start with understanding pet food labels. These labels focus on ingredients, nutrient levels (known as “guaranteed analysis”), and nutritional adequacy or a statement by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) which verifies the testing method for nutrient guidelines. However, as with humans, our pets’ nutritional needs change with age, activity, reproductive status, health, environment, as well as breed.
While deficiencies in nutrition are obviously harmful, it’s important to know that excesses in nutrition are even more harmful in our modern society. Even more important to note is that excess nutrition for our pets is more common in our country than deficiencies. Some examples are: excess fat, resulting in diabetes and heart, joint or respiratory disease; excess protein can cause liver or kidney disease; and excess calcium can result in urinary bladder stones and skeletal disease. This is why the “Life-stage Nutrition” categorization, which is designed to meet a pet’s needs at a specific age and physical state, helps protect against nutritional excesses. Therefore, it is always important to choose a food that specifically addresses the stage of life your pet is in. This information is listed in the AAFCO statement.
If the AAFCO statement on your pets food says that it meets the nutritional requirements for all life stages it is required to meet the nutritional requirements for the neediest life stage, which are puppies/kittens and gestational mothers. This is a great example of nutritional excess! The food which must meet the nutritional requirements for puppies, kittens, and gestational mothers has more fat than is needed for the maintenance of an adult animal.
The next determining factor is where the food is sourced – where the ingredients come from. We‘ve all heard about foreign ingredients making their way into pet foods with disastrous results. While there is no guarantee of wholesomeness, as regulations are stricter in the United States and Canada, it is important to purchase food that is sourced in these countries, not just manufactured.
Terminology is another aspect of pet foods that can be VERY misleading so here is a guide on the legal terms that are permitted for pet foods sold in the United States:
- “Natural” has been legally defined and requires a pet food to consist of only natural ingredients without chemical alterations, except for vitamins, minerals and other trace nutrients.
- “Organic” has been legally defined for human foods by the USDA. Pet food companies can currently use the term “organic” if they follow the same rules as applied to human foods. Note that natural and organic are not interchangeable terms.
- “Holistic” has no legal definition and is unregulated with regard to pet food. Any pet food could use the term “holistic” in marketing their product. The term currently has nomeaning in pet food.
- “Human grade” is not an allowed term on a pet food label, unless the food is made in a plant approved for manufacturing human food. Because of this, there are very few pet foods that are labeled “human grade.” However, this regulation doesn’t apply to advertising and websites, so some pet food companies will tout “human grade” ingredients in their products.
Finally “Light” is the only USDA legally acceptable term to indicate that a pet food is actually LOWER in calories than the same brand’s regular maintenance diet. This is important in that, as with people, obesity in pets is the number one nutritional problem in the United States. Therefore a pet food that displays “Weight Control” or some other slick marketing lingo can actually be higher in calories than than a maintenance diet. Note: It is very important to realize that feeding a lesser amount of food is not the best way to weight loss for your pet because, while feeding less calories, you are also feeding less of the other necessary nutrients that go into a healthy diet.
As always, seek nutritional advice at the routine wellness examination from your veterinary healthcare team. This is another reason why it is so important to have regular checkups for your pet – every year that passes for them is equivalent to about 5 years for humans. Semi-annual wellness exams are ideal in this regard. Physiologic changes in your pet that might require special therapeutic diets occur much more rapidly for them than they do for us. Competent nutritional guidance is one more way to not only lengthen your pet’s life, but also keep them healthy during those precious years.