Chosing a pet food can be a positively overwhelming experience. Here are some tips to guide you along the way. And remember, your veterinarian is a really good source of information. He or she would be happy to offer some advice and help you with your dog or cat food choices.
What’s on a label?
The food label is a legal document and provides some insight into the quality of food. Most of the food sold in Canada comes from the US (85%) where AAFCO is the official source of information on pet food labels, ingredients and testing. There are two different ways to label a bag or can of food under AAFCO regulations; the formulation/analysis method and the feeding trial method. The feeding trial method is better because it studies and documents how an animal performs when being fed the food in question. In addition, some food companies, conduct their own, more extensive trials. Here in Canada, the CVMA (Canadian Veterinary Medical Association) Pet Food Certification Program establishes nutrient standards, lifestage feeding protocols and digestibility feeding protocols for dogs and cats. Their pet food labeling requirements are more stringent that those of the Canadian Governement.
The foods are listed by weight such that the ingredient weighing the most will be listed at the top. Manufacturers though know a few tricks: by listing ingredients in their separate components such that they weigh less might seems more desirable to the consumer and their pet, listing ingredients in a moist form such that they weight more (i.e., fresh chicken vs chicken meal). So, while looking at ingredients is important, the information gained from the ingredient list is limited. Furthermore, the ingredient list does not speak to the digestibility, quality/grade or water content of the ingredient. It is easy to review the ingredients of pet foods and think they are similar in quality when in fact they may not be.
To compare two foods, you must look at them on a dry matter basis. If moisture is 10%, dry matter is 90%. If the total protein is 20% and you want to look at it on a dry matter basis you divide the 20 by 90% and it gives you 0.22 (22%).
Guaranteed analysis gives good information as well but once again, does not speak to the quality or digestibility of the ingredients. One can make a food out of old leather shoes, motor oil, coal and water and get a guaranteed analysis of 10% protein, 6.5% fat, 2.4% fiber and 68% moisture.
What’s the deal with corn?
Some people view it as a cheap filler only and feel it is undigestible. Others, tout is as a common allergen. The truth is that corn is rarely associated with allergies in pets and that corn, from a nutritional standpoint can be an excellent source of nutrients- both a good source of linoleic acid and biotin, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals and it is a good source of fiber which is not associated with flatulence. Corn gluten meal is a very good, highly digestible protein source.
What about grain free, low carb/no carb?
All kibble must contain carbohydrate. The carbohydrate is the binding agent, the glue, that holds the kibble together. Grain free foods most commonly contain ingredients such as potatoe, sweet potatoe or peas. Common grain sources include barley, rice and wheat.
What’s the difference between beef, pate, stew, entrée, formula and “with beef”?
Foods labeled with simple terms must contain at least 90% meat. It is labeled as dinner or a similar qualifier, it must have at least 25% and labels such as with beef must contain only 3% of the “with” ingredient.
What does natural mean?
The term has no official definition but typically taken to mean no artificial flavors or colors and no artificial preservatives. The truth is that artificial flavors and colors are not commonplace in petfood. Products with natural preservatives such as tocopherols (vitamin E) and vitamin C, are commonplace though other preservatives are held to same standards as those in the human industry. Natural preservatives do have a shorter shelf life, especially when a bag is opened. Remember, just because the label says it’s “ natural”, doesn’t mean the foods have been subjected to more rigorous testing or held to higher standards.
What’s the deal with by-products?
Let’s face it. By-products have a negative connotation. By products, like every other ingredient can vary tremendously in composition and quality but what it is not is: meat from rendering plants, meat scraped off factory floors, euthanized pets, chicken heads, beak and feathers or other ingredients that are not a good source of nutrients. By products often means liver, heart and other organ meats/ingredients which supply good protein, texture and palatability to foods. By product sounds undesirable to us but the truth of the matter is, from a nutritional standpoint, they typically have more nutritional value than muscle. By-product is what is leftover on the carcass after the meat designated for human consumption is gone (minus head, beak, entrails and feathers in the case of chicken).
Not all chicken is created equal, or is it?
When you read chicken on a label you might associate it with a nice plump juicy boneless skinless chicken breast (after all that is what is depicted on the bag). Really though, if it was chicken breast, the label would state chicken breast. What about fresh chicken? Doesn’t that sound delicious? Fresh chicken is the same as chicken. All it means is that it came to the processing plant in moist form and was processed into dry form in the plant. Chicken is flesh, skin, fat with or without bone derived from part or whole carcasses or combination, but does not include heads, feet, feathers, entrails. And chicken meal, doesn’t that sound appetizing? Chicken meal is the same chicken but it has been dried and ground. So, chicken and chicken meal are one and the same just that one sounds more desirable to the consumer. Clever. What about chicken flavored? So, in essence, fresh chicken, chicken and chicken meal are the same. A diet that has chicken flavored stated on it doesn’t actually even need to contain chicken, only needs to have a flavor detected for the animal that it is meant for (whatever that means).
We hope this information helps those who are interested in making more informed decisions when chosing a diet for their beloved pets. There are a few factors which you may want to consider when making a choice. Is buying local/Canadian important to you? This will certainly limit your choice as only about 15% of foods sold in Canada are Canadian. Where does the company source the ingredients from? Can you tour a factory? What kind of quality assurance do they have? Have they gone above and beyond AAFCO standards? Try to be objective when looking at the bag and do not be deceived by words like all natural, gourmet, super, ultra or premium. These designators are used from a strictly marketing perspective and have no meaning. Foods with these descriptors are neither held to higher nutritional standards nor are they more palatable than any other complete and balanced food products.
This information is not meant to replace discussions with your veterinarian regarding your beloved pet’s diet. If this is a topic that is important to you, please educate yourself and discuss diet with your veterinarian. We are here to help.