Choosing the Best Food For Your Pet: how to avoid the gimmicks and keep your pet healthy

By Dr. Shawn Budge, DVM

Questions on selecting pet food are among the most common that I receive as a veterinary general practitioner. Pet owners want to make sure that they are giving their pets the best possible nutrition– they are members of the family, afterall. Here is some basic information that you can use as a pet owner to help make the right choice in food for your dog or cat, and to help you avoid common pitfalls that pet owners run into. 

1. Only Some Pet Food Companies Perform Quality Control Measures

Unfortunately, the pet food industry is subject to few regulations and there are thousands of small companies that are producing pet food with little to no oversight. It is important for pet owners to know that USDA inspection of pet foods is voluntary. Well-established companies like Hills, Purina, and Royal Canin have quality control measures in place to catch problems such as formulation errors or contamination, but it is less certain that small “boutique” brands do so.

2. Beware of Bad Faith Marketing

Some pet food companies use owners’ good intentions against them, and rely on bad-faith marketing that makes unsubstantiated claims regarding nutrition without the food having been put through quality control measures or research protocols. These pet food companies will often use marketing that attempts to guilt pet owners into choosing their (often expensive and over-priced) brand of food.

3. Avoid Choosing Food Based on Trendy Buzzwords

Descriptors such as “natural”, “holistic”, “organic” and “grain free” sound appealing, but pet owners need to be aware that these claims don’t require any oversight, so they don’t need to be true or have any specific testing to be put on the pet food label. Additionally, some of these qualities in pet food aren’t even desirable (see the note on grain free food below). The only writing on a pet food bag that really matters is the AAFCO statement– this states that the food is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

4. Some Pet Food is Downright Bad for your Pet

This is particularly true when it comes to raw-food and grain-free diets. Raw food diets that were contaminated with salmonella and Shiga-toxin producing E. coli bacteria were responsible for several human and animal deaths in 2018, so I highly recommend avoiding these diets. In many circumstances, the pet will tolerate raw food with only some GI upset, but if a person comes into contact with that animal they are at risk of developing severe diarrhea, vomiting, even kidney failure and death

Grain free food has been linked to canine heart disease and will likely provide no nutritional or health benefits to your dog or cat. The most common food allergen for dogs and cats is chicken, followed by beef, lamb, turkey and much, much lower on the list (<1% of dogs affected) is grain. In addition to this there are studies that implicate grain free diets in the development of dilated cardiomyopathy (fatal heart disease) in dogs.

Raw food diets have been linked to a number of health issues in pets. It’s safer to stick with cooked pet foods.

5. Do your Homework Before Using Smaller Dog Food Brands

As stated, I generally consider large companies to be a safer choice than smaller pet food companies and can generally be trusted, but if you prefer a smaller boutique brand I recommend doing your homework. Research the credentials of any claims made by the company, and if there are any peer-reviewed articles to back that data up. Be wary of anecdotal information, for example, online reviews claiming things like “This food cured my cat’s kidney disease.” If you find yourself in doubt, it may be best to err on the side of caution, or consult with your veterinarian before going with the brand you are considering.

More Quick Tips on Pet Foods:

  • Do not feed dog food to cats

Cats have specific dietary needs that cannot be met by dog food. A cat cannot survive on a diet that consists of food formulated for dogs.

  • Be Consistent

When selecting a pet food it is a good idea to go with one that is convenient and easy for you to purchase. Consistency is very important for pet diets and sudden shifts in your pet’s diet can lead to vomiting and diarrhea. If your pet runs out of a food that can only be found at a specialty store with unreliable hours or availability, you run a higher risk of being forced into a situation where you need to introduce an entirely different food to your pet on a moment’s notice– a recipe for stomach upset and GI difficulties. On that note, In the event that you run out of your pet’s usual food, I recommend feeding boiled chicken and white rice until you are able to get a hold of your regular food.

  • When In Doubt, Go Big

Unless there is an underlying medical reason to advise otherwise, I recommend that my clients feed their pets food from an established company with good supply lines and quality control. In my opinion these include Purina, Hills, Royal Canin, Iams, Pedigree and to a lesser extent Blue Buffalo (as I see many dogs that have diarrhea on Blue and I worry they spend more on marketing than on good research or quality control).

  • Check with your veterinarian regarding how much to feed your dog or cat

The recommendations listed on a can or bag of dog food usually overestimate the amount that a pet actually needs to eat to maintain a healthy weight. (more food means more money for the pet food producer!)

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