What to Consider When Selecting Food for your Dog or Cat
Take a deep breath… the choice is staggering. Dozens of dog and cat food brands line the shelves. Within each brand, there are an equally overwhelming number of formulas. From organic to natural to grain-free to limited ingredient to holistic to weight management to puppy… the list goes on and on. And then there’s the range of prices.
Let’s talk about how to select quality prepared food for your best friend. I’m drawing on great input from one of my favorite publications, Whole Dog Journal, along with advice and recommendations from our Veterinarian and PhD Animal Nutritionist, and our 25 years in the industry.
But, before starting down that aisle, think about WHY you’re seeking a new food. Is it because your beloved furry family member has put on a few too many pounds? Is there a new puppy or kitten in your family? Does your dog or cat’s skin and coat looking flaky, dry and lackluster? Are you tired of stinky, big poops? Or, are you just looking to upgrade what’s in the bowl?
All of these are great reasons to make a change. Go for it! Start down that aisle!
I’m not a big believer in changing diets on a regular basis just for the sake of change. Even though there’s lots of “chat” on the web, I haven’t seen definitive research confirming rotational diets or regular switching are good ideas for dogs or cats. We don’t practice this with our own dogs and never have; all of them (and they’ve all been large breed dogs) have lived well into their upper teens and have been as healthy as healthy can be.
If, however, your dog or cat suddenly decides to turn up their nose, be patient. Often they’ll come back to the bowl after a few hours or even the next day (if you’re feeding a natural or organic canned food, remove the bowl after several hours and replace it with fresh food). If they continue to snub the food, try warming it slightly and stir to release the aroma. Generally speaking, they won’t starve themselves!
OK, so you’re ready to head down the aisle. But, wait a second… do you know what to look for on the bag to help you evaluate the myriad of choices?
Start with the front panel. Look at the naming of the food– is it labeled organic, natural, for weight management, for puppies/kittens, for a specific size of dog, breed, grain free?
If it’s organic, confirm the organic certification by flipping over the bag and checking for the details of the organic certifying agency (for example, Oregon Tilth, OCIA). This is required as part of the USDA’s National Organic Program.
If it’s natural, look on the back of the bag for information about the natural ingredients used and the natural preservative system. The ingredient list will tell you about the preservative system; if it’s naturally preserved you’ll see something like “naturally preserved with mixed tocopherols, a form of Vitamin E” following the source of fat (for example, chicken fat).
If the diet is for any special need or if it’s promoting any special ingredient combination, read the ingredient panel carefully (more on that below) along with the descriptive text that explains why the formula is unique.
The front of the bag may tell you what makes the formula unique, what key ingredients are used, and what’s NOT in the bag (for example, no wheat, no corn, no soy). If photos depicting different ingredients are on the front of the bag, flip the bag over and look at the ingredient panel carefully to see exactly what form they take in the diet and where they appear on the ingredient list.
Speaking of the ingredient list, remember that ingredients appear in order of their weight, from highest to lowest. The top 3 to 5 ingredients really tell the tale of the food’s quality although every ingredient in quality foods is a contributor to complete and balanced nutrition. But, do watch out for ingredient splitting!
Ingredient splitting is when one ingredient (usually a grain or vegetable) appears in several different forms in the ingredient panel (example: ground rice, rice flour, rice bran). This allows an animal protein to appear first or second in the ingredient list when, in fact, if you added up the “split” ingredient, it would be #1 or #2.
On the ingredient list look for:
Named animal proteins like chicken, turkey, lamb, bison, or duck, should be at the top of the ingredient list. Since ingredients are listed by weight and these nutrition powerhouses contain a considerable amount of moisture, you should see several animal proteins at the top of the ingredient deck and/or named animal protein meals (for example chicken meal or turkey meal).
If you’re concerned about chemicals, antibiotics, sustainability, minimal processing, and overall ingredient quality, certified organic ingredients (and foods) should be a top priority for you.
Whole Vegetables, Fruits, Grains
Providing natural sources of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, prebiotics, and enzymes.
Also looked for NAMED fat sources (for example, chicken fat). Even “poultry fat” means it can come from any form of poultry. Similarly, look for named flavor sources – Natural Chicken Flavor rather than just Natural Flavor.
Avoid diets that use BHA, BHT or ethoxyquin as their preservative system. Again, look for a natural preservative system (see above in the “natural” paragraph).
Avoid diets with Meat or Poultry By-Products or By-Product Meal. While these can be outstanding ingredients, their quality can be inconsistent.
Look at the ingredient list to see if any artificial colorings have been added – these are chemicals! Your dog or cat doesn’t need them even if it makes the food look more appetizing to you.
These tell you so much about a food! Quite simply, you typically feed less of better quality foods. They are more calorically dense with few or no fillers. Digestibility is high. That means more of what goes into your dog or cat stays there rather than being excreted. (This is also the reason why higher quality foods usually result in firmer, smaller stools.)
Look at the feeding guidelines and compare them to other foods. Even though the bag you may be considering costs more than another food, your cost per day may be comparable or even less with a true quality diet.
If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. True premium organic and natural foods include quality sources of animal proteins, real fruits and vegetables, whole grains, egg, salmon, prebiotics, probiotics, glucosamine, chondroitin, L-Carnitine, DHA, antioxidants, and a host of other nutrients that cost more than diets without these ingredients. Price does make a difference!
Company Contact Information
You should be able to find the Company’s phone number and website easily. Give them a call and ask questions! I know our customer service team loves hearing from pet parents – we love sharing your stories (and photos!) and definitely want to address all of your questions and concerns.
Finally, don’t be taken by companies claiming to be “human grade” or using “human grade ingredients”. Only human food plants, inspected by the USDA, can legally claim they use human edible meats and other ingredients and this is only if not one single human inedible ingredient is on the premises. As such, the term “human grade” cannot be used by any pet food company using any ingredient that is not consumed by humans (is “inedible”). According to Federal law, any ingredient at a pet food plant is, by definition, “inedible” even if it’s the same organic chicken that is being sold down the street at Whole Foods Market.
And one last word (really!)… don’t believe everything you read on the Internet. There are so many unfounded rumors and stories swirling around the web. Check the source of information. Check the date of the information posted. Check with reliable, longstanding websites and companies; contact them with your questions and concerns. Avoid sensationalism – there’s certainly plenty of it out there.