With so many options—and a mile-long list of ingredients on every label—it’s tough to know what food is best for your furry family member. “Choosing a food depends on many factors,” says Joseph Wakshlag, DVM, PhD, a veterinary nutritionist and associate professor of nutrition at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “Your pet’s age and health, the cost, and your personal philosophies, such as whether you wish to feed your animal organic food, are all part of the decision.”
Take these tips with you when shopping for pet food.
Get the right food for your pet’s life stage
Kittens and puppies have different nutritional requirements than adult animals, so choose a food that’s labeled for your pet’s age bracket. For example, kitten food has more protein. However, older dogs may not need senior food containing less protein. “You need to talk to your vet about your pet’s specific needs,” says Wakshlag.
If your pet has complex health issues, such as Cushing’s disease, consider seeing a veterinary nutritionist. Visit the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN) to find a veterinary nutritionist near you.
Learn buzz words
Some labels are just using marketing tactics. For example, the ACVN says there’s no legal meaning for the terms ‘holistic,” “premium,” “gourmet” or “human-grade” on pet food labels.
On the other hand, the word “natural” is defined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) as a food or ingredient derived only from plant or animal sources with no synthetic additives.
As the USDA develops criteria for pet food to be considered organic, it allows manufactures to display the “USDA Organic” seal on pet products if at least 95 percent of the ingredients are organic.
Ingredients are (sort of) important
Many ingredients are marketed to sound healthy to consumers—salmon, berries, kelp—but that may not indicate the actual nutritional value of the product. Look for the AAFCO nutritional statement on the label. Although it doesn’t regulate, certify or approve pet foods, the AAFCO does establish standards for what constitutes complete and balanced nutrition for cats and dogs.
Understand the grain-free trend
“Companies have substituted ingredients such as sweet potatoes and field peas for ingredients such as corn, rice and barley in pet foods,” says Wakshlag. “But unless it’s been shown through feeding tests supervised by your vet that your pet has specific food allergies, there’s no reason to stay away from grains in general.”
Use raw foods with care
Some pet owners believe raw diets are better for animals because they are closer to what our pets would eat in the wild, though according to the ACVN this theory has not been scientifically proven. Raw diets include uncooked meat, organ meat, bones and raw eggs.
Here’s the potential danger: raw diets sometimes expose pets—and people—to disease-causing pathogens such as salmonella, E. coli and listeria, says Wakshlag. These bacteria can be spread when handling raw foods, when cleaning up your pet’s feces, or when your pet licks you. You, your pets and family members—especially older adults, kids and immuno-compromised individuals—can become ill with diarrhea, fever and vomiting.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, some raw diets may not be well-balanced, resulting in vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and small bones or bone fragments can result in intestinal obstruction.
If you choose a raw food diet, get guidance from your vet or a veterinary nutritionist to ensure it’s complete. Wash your hands when handling raw foods, regularly sanitize your pet dishes and only cut raw meat on a cutting board (an immediately clean it afterward) to avoid spreading bacteria.
By Arricca SanSone