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Islington Village Animal Hospital

What I Know About Pet Food

Dog food bowl

Ok, so it has been a while since my last blog. Two years to be exact. I can’t believe how time flies, but running a veterinary practice keeps me so busy, I blinked and it was 2016!

I figured it was time to get back on that blog horse, and start talking about things I feel are important for my patients and my clients.  There is one particular area I am getting so passionate about, and that is pet nutrition.  Not a day goes by that I am not asked by at least one client about how to feed their pet.

Let’s face it, the pet food world is a maze of confusion.

Just take one step into a large pet food store, and the options are overwhelming.  The majority of the time the staff working in these stores are highly unqualified to discuss pet nutrition.  Generally, the staff is educated by the store owner, or company mandate, about which brands to sell and recommend. Talk about a conflict of interest! A lot of the time recommendations are based on the store’s bottom line, meaning what brands are going to make them the most money, and not what is really best for your pet.

You should know the pet food world is not very well regulated. 

The rules on pet food labeling are very simplistic, and the nutrient profile does not have to meet any standardization. The best we have is an AAFCO statement on the bag, which says the food was made to meet basic nutrient minimums or maximums. AAFCO stands for Association of American Feed Control Officials. The very basic AAFCO formulas state what is considered appropriate macro and micronutrients in a portion of food considered optimal for health in animals.  Then these basic nutrients are listed under “Guaranteed Analysis” somewhere on the product. 

If the profile says a minimum protein of 21%, that is what is guaranteed as the minimum amount in the product. The scary part is that is really nonspecific and easy to mimic when just following a formula.  Just to give you an idea, Dr. Meg Smart from the University in Saskatoon made a concoction made of leather boots, wood shavings, and motor oil, that still passed one of the minimum standards for pet food!

Next, pet food ingredient lists are made in the order of the heaviest ingredient first, down to the lightest. THAT IS IT!

It has no reflection of the quality of the ingredient or the actual amount of the ingredient.  Many pet food labels have used this to their advantage by listing ingredients with their full water content like animal meat since it makes it heavier.  Then dried materials like corn are further down the list.  But ironically the amount of corn in the food could actually be lot higher if it was compared to the meat on a dried matter basis.

Lastly, there are no regulations on marketing terms that can be attractive to clients. 

Anyone can list “Natural”, “Holisitic”, “Premium”, etc. on the label and it means nothing!  The only term that has some regulation is “Organic”, as it has to follow certified organic processing.  There may be some benefits to organic foods, but nutritionally speaking there has been little proven difference.

So, in a three-part series I am going to outline what facts we have on pet foods, and then my personal opinion on what is best to feed your pet. 

I start here with generalized statements:

  1. Whole food is best – when it comes to the best diet, unprocessed whole food is the most nutritious.  I mean really, is this not the same for our own diet?  Why are pets any different?  If you have the time and inclination, a homemade, well-balanced diet can be the healthiest for your pet.  The downsides are that it can be more costly, time-consuming, and difficult to ensure proper balance of micronutrients.  Ways around this are to buy food in bulk, make it in batches and freeze it.  Follow a balanced recipe created by a certified animal nutritionist.  And supplement with a vitamin/mineral source to ensure your pet gets everything it needs. Alternatively, there are pre-made whole-food fresh diets out there as well, just make sure you read the label and do your own research on the quality of the company.

  2. Next best is high-quality commercial pet food – there are many very good, trustworthy, and high-quality pet food companies out there.  The trouble is knowing which one to choose.  I have a set of principles that makes a pet food company stand out:

    1. Nutritional research – the recipe is actually based on animal science and nutrition.  They have a veterinary nutritionist on staff, and their formulations are based on careful studies on pet health.  These companies have typically done feeding trials to prove their diets are healthy, and not just based on formulations. Locally sourced – I love pet food that is Canadian-made.  Look for brands that are locally sourced in Canada, or the United States.  If it is not clear on the bag, research the company online and inquire where they source their ingredients.

    2. Transparency – any pet food company that is reputable will be easy to contact for consumer questions, be willing to discuss their nutritional profiles and ingredient sourcing.  To find out it is best to call the company you are interested in and see how willingly they will answer your questions.

  3. Don’t get duped by marketing ploys – many companies mislead the public with the wrong facts that play on our emotions for our beloved pets.  Sure a well-written ingredient list sounds good to us, but it no way guarantees a healthy diet (see pet food labeling above).  Your cat really does not need blueberries!  Others I like to dispute:

“Your dog is a carnivore” – NO.

They are omnivores, meaning they are not just meat eaters but also eat vegetable matter like grains.  Their ancestors were not wolves, but a wild canine variant that was a scavenger that split off the wolf line millions of years ago. High-protein meat diets are actually bad for most domestic dogs.

“Grain-free is better” – NO. 

There are some very good grain-free diets, but grains are not bad either.  Corn can be a highly nutritious source of protein.  Wheat is NOT a common pet allergen.  Some grain-free diets are packed with too much fat and sugar because they have had to replace grains with higher amounts of animal protein and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and carrots .

“All-Life-Stages diets for the life of your pet” – NO.

In what world does it make sense that a puppy’s nutritional needs are the same as an adult, and as a senior?  Would you eat the same thing as your infant or your elderly parent?  Most of these foods are based on profiles okay for puppies and young dogs, but not balanced for adults and seniors.

I could go on for a while but let's leave it at that for now.  Stay tuned for my next blog on how to feed your cat.

Forever your guardian for all creatures great and small,

Dr. Erin Spence