Q: Between periodic recalls and TV commercials touting pet foods with special ingredients — or the absence of undesirable ingredients — we’re confused about what food to buy our pets. Can you please shed some light?
A: According to the American Pet Products Association, Americans spent $22 billion on pet food in 2014. Consumers have never had more pet food options. So how do you choose?
One starting point is the AAFCO standard. AAFCO — the Association of American Feed Control Officials — is a voluntary, nonprofit association of local, state and federal agencies that regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds and medications. AAFCO establishes standards for ingredients and nutritional adequacy but does not test foods.
Manufacturers do their own testing — by lab analysis, or lab analysis plus actual feeding trials — and submit findings to AAFCO for evaluation. The AAFCO approval seal means a food meets minimum standards for “complete and balanced nutrition” for “adult maintenance” or “growth and reproduction.” Foods meeting the growth and reproduction standards may also be labeled as suitable for “all life stages.” In addition, AAFCO doesn’t evaluate all aspects of nutrition; amounts of some important nutrients and the quality of ingredients are left up to food manufacturers.
We consumers can learn what’s actually in a food by reading the nutritional and ingredient information on the package. While not as comprehensive as on human food packaging, pet food labeling can help you choose the proper nutritional balance (protein and fat content, for example) for your pet. Your veterinarian can assist you in weighing factors including your pet’s age, weight, activity level and overall health. For instance, a couch potato pup will need less protein than a dog who roams a farm all day.
In addition to information on nutritional balance, package labels also list the protein source (chicken, beef, lamb, fish, etc.) and form (whole meat, meal or byproduct meal) and ratios of more expensive meat versus cheaper grain. There’s nothing inherently wrong with grain — grains can be part of a good pet diet or an inexpensive filler.
Veterinary nutrition expert Sherry Sanderson, an associate professor at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine who is board-certified in small animal clinical nutrition and a consultant for Eukanuba Foods, notes that corn, for example, is a source of linoleic acid (an essential fatty acid for dogs and cats), antioxidant vitamin E and many essential amino acids. Properly processed, corn is very digestible for dogs and cats. But other experts caution that not all grains are equally nutritional.
Package labels can also tell you if a pet food contains lots of chemical ingredients, which you may choose to avoid. Just as humans are advised to eat more “real” food and less processed food with artificial ingredients, some veterinary nutritionists suggest the same guideline for pet food.
Check the kind of preservative used in your pet’s food. While most manufacturers have switched to natural preservatives like vitamin C, vitamin E or tocopherols, some foods and treats still use chemical preservatives, including BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin. Whole Dog Journal notes that BHA and BHT have been linked to cancer in laboratory animals, though it’s unknown whether they are equally carcinogenic in people and pets. The publication also points out that manufacturers have favored artificial preservatives because they preserve food longer and are cheaper. If you choose naturally preserved food, be ready to pay a bit more, and don’t buy a huge bag for a small dog — while food past its prime may not make your dog sick, it may lose nutritional value over time.
When you know more about what’s in pet food, you’ll be better able to choose one that meets your preferences, your pet’s needs and your veterinarian’s recommendations. Many animal hospitals have staff members who specialize in nutrition; if yours doesn’t, they may be able to refer you to one or point toward accurate and helpful information.