Have you ever been overwhelmed by the pet food aisle? Do you sometimes feel ashamed when pet food commercials insist that you are all but abusing your best friend by not feeding their product? When faced with the relentless badgering about your nutrition, do you start to wonder about your pets’ food? Have no fear! The food isle doesn’t have to be a scary place. Once you know what to look for on the bag (or can), you’ll be good as gold and ready to grab the right food and move on to the fun section- the squeaky toys!
Just like you, your furry friend needs certain amounts of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals to keep healthy and happy. Basic standards for the amount of each nutrient have been created by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. Foods that carry a label stating that they are “complete and balanced” must meet these standards. Different life stages have different standards. Growing puppies, for example, need more protein and calories than do healthy adult dogs. Have you noticed that little chart about Guaranteed Analysis? That means that what’s inside of the package contains, by weight, those percentages of protein, fat, fiber, and moisture. It does not mean necessarily mean that those nutrients come from quality ingredients or are “bioavailable” (useable) to your pet. If a food item is too hard to digest, then the nutrients that it contains cannot be utilized by the animal. And what about that word “crude?” No, it doesn’t mean that the food is 20% protein with poor manners; it simply refers to the method of testing used to calculate the percentages. The analysis is a good place to start, but the ingredient list can tell you much more about what you hold in your hands.
Ingredients on animal foods are listed by weight, starting with the heaviest. For example, if the first ingredient is beef, then the heaviest portion of the recipe is beef. The general recommendation is that the first two ingredients, at least, be good sources of digestible protein, such as meat, fish, or eggs. Many foods list a “meal” as their meat source, like “chicken meal” or “fish meal.” Meals are made of dehydrated meat, so “chicken meal” has more protein by weight because regular “chicken” has a large percentage of water in it. Water, if you recall, weighs one pound per pint.
Now that we’ve figured out what the ingredient claims mean, what about the statements relating to age? How does a person choose between adult and “all life stages?” Do puppies and kittens really have the same needs as senior animals? Generally speaking, foods that claim to be fit for all life stages contain more protein, calcium, phosphorus, and calories so that growing babies and nursing mothers have adequate nutrition. This means that you may have to feed less to an average adult to prevent weight gain. Puppy and kitten foods contain more protein and calories while foods formulated for seniors tend to have less protein, fat, and sodium. Be sure to read the feeding recommendations for each food as they can differ quite a bit. Better yet, consult with your veterinarian. Because your vet is familiar with your pet, he or she is in a better position to make specific recommendations than food companies are.
Should you decide to change your pets’ food, go about it slowly. A sudden change in diet can lead to badly upset tummies or, in some cases, refusal to eat. Food changes should happen gradually, over a period of 7 to 10 days, by mixing the new food with the old food. The starting ratio should be mostly old food and shift slowly toward being mostly new food.
What about those other claims, written so colorfully and provocatively across the front of the bag? Some of these terms are specifically regulated while others are marketing tools. “Natural” means that no chemical alterations, in line with the Food and Drug Administration’s definitions, have been made. “Organic” refers to compliance with the United States Department of Agriculture’s production requirements to be certified as such. “Holistic” is a term that does not have a regulated definition. None of these terms actually refer to the quality of the ingredients.
Just how can you tell which food is best for your best friend? After checking the ingredients, go with the food that your furry buddy likes and that keeps them spunky and healthy. Every animal is individual and will respond to foods differently. Choosing a pet food doesn’t have to be scary. All you need is the ability to decode those labels.