Nutrition, Choosing Pet Food

What makes a good pet food?

By Dr. Karen Burgess

Pet food quality is an often discussed but poorly understood hot topic. Ask ten people and you will likely hear ten different opinions on how to best feed your pet. Unfortunately the pet food industry is not well regulated allowing many well-intentioned but often uninformed opinions to circulate. Feeding decisions are often based on descriptive marketing, emotion, and passionate beliefs. Addressed in this article are several objective ways to evaluate your pet’s diet. While pet food is a 21 billion dollar industry, your pet is a one and only, and these tools will help make the best feeding decisions for them.

Essential in the selection of an appropriate pet food are the following:

  • Trust in the company producing the food, knowing that they have the ability to develop a safe product from recipe to the bag you open
  • Finding a food your pet does well with, there is not one right food for all pets, finding a product that your pet enjoys and thrives on physically is essential
  • Affordibility, good pet food does not have to be expensive
  • Accessibily, are you able to obtain fresh bags when needed

How important is the ingredient list?
While ingredient lists are the primary focus of many, it is one of the most misleading and easily manipulated areas in pet food production. It is important to look at the complete nutrient profile of a food not just one or two individual ingredients. For this reason, it is one of the last things Dr. Burgess would recommend using to choose an appropriate pet food. Some common myths with regard to ingredient lists include

Myth– Whole meat such as chicken listed as a top ingredient makes for a better pet food.

What most do not realize is that ingredients are listed in order of weight from high to low before processing. But this includes water which in the case of meat is typically 75% of its weight. In addition, using chicken as an example, bone is included in the definition of chicken. Thus a pet food could contain very little meat relative to bone and still have chicken listed as a top ingredient.

Myth– By products are low quality and undesirable in pet food.

Using chicken again as an example, by products which include liver, organ meat, and brain are often very nutritious and while not regularly eaten by people in the US, they are considered delicacies elsewhere. It is the quality of the by-product being used that is important which comes back to a pet food company’s commitment to produce a safe and nutritious food every time. This involves process and quality controls throughout.

Myth– Grain is not good for dogs and of no nutritional value.

Dogs are not pure carnivores and can absorb nutrients from non-meat food items. Gluten intolerance is also extremely rare in dogs. Often grain free foods are higher in calories and fat then traditional pet foods leading to weight gain and digestive issues for some pets.

Myth– Corn is a filler and if found in a pet food means it is lower quality.

Ground cooked corn is very easy for pets to digest and a good source of energy, fatty acids, antioxidants, and carbohydrates or energy. Ground corn flour is considered a good protein source. While often suggested to be allergenic, corn has been shown to be less of a problem than other proteins including dairy, wheat, chicken, egg, beef, lamb, and soy.

Other little understood facts. All dry pet food contains preservatives. Processed food can be as simple as peeling, cooking, or chopping of an item. Just because a food is processed does not make it inferior.

Is the food manufacturer’s contact information readily available on the packaging?
Probably the easiest of the criteria to understand, it is surprising how difficult it can be to find contact information for a pet food manufacturer. A reliable company should be easy to get ahold of and eager to answer a consumer’s questions about their product. Information that should be readily offered includes caloric density of the food and complete nutrient analysis (NOT just minimum and maximum values). Pre production regulation of pet food does not exist and problems are only addressed after complaints have been made and ironically proof is only required that a particular ingredient is unsafe, not that it is safe or of actual value. This makes trust in a pet food company that much more important.

Who creates the diet (makes the formulations) and what are their qualifications?
Passion for pets and a love of cooking does not qualify someone to create a consistent quality nutritionally balanced pet food. Unfortunately as far as the pet food industry is concerned, no real experience or education is required to develop pet food. Nutrition is an extremely complex science. Pet food development should involve a veterinary nutritionist or PhD in nutrition. Larger companies such as Hills retain full time employees with these qualifications.

What is the diet’s AAFCO certification?
AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) is a “voluntary membership association of local, state and federal agencies charged by law to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds and animal drug remedies”. They are the primary means by which pet food is regulated in the United States. While having no regulatory power, AAFCO establishes nutrient guidelines for pet foods. AAFCO statements are discussed in more detail in a separate handout, but foods are either formulated to meet AAFCO nutritional standards or have been fed to animals in an AAFCO approved food trial setting (more desirable and more expensive).

Where is the diet manufactured/produced? Does the company own their plants or are they subcontracted/co-manufactured?
A co-manufacturer (or co-packer) is a company that is contracted to make pet food, provide ingredients, and often even develop the diet. Large pet food companies like Hills and Purina will typically own their own plants and control the manufacturing process from ingredient delivery through distribution. This involvement with the product from beginning to end is both an investment financially and contributes to the overall quality of the final product.

What type of testing is done on the food to ensure its safety (i.e from bacterial contamination) and consistency from bag to bag?
Ingredients are tested by suppliers, but proactive pet food manufacturers will independently test ingredients before accepting them into their plants to ensure their safety and quality. Large manufacturers will test their food numerous times during the production process to make sure their product is reliable and safe from start to finish. Hills will not release product from their plants until batch cultures and analysis are completed. Feeding trials and palatability testing are not required but very beneficial in the development of a successful food. Likewise shelf-life and packaging testing are not mandatory but obviously essential for a reliable product.

How well are the nutrients in the pet food analyzed?
Analysis of the nutrients in pet food is legally required in the US. However the frequency is not. Higher quality pet foods will have their fat, fiber, protein, carbohydrate, and moisture composition analyzed throughout the production process. While this is more expensive it ensures that the final product retains the nutrient profile promised.

Are claims made by the company reputable?
Anecdotal claims are common in the pet food industry, and package labeling laws make these difficult for owners to determine what are opinion and what are fact. Independent testing and peer-reviewed journal articles are reliable references that pet food companies should be able to provide for claims made. Also be aware that advertisements and website claims for pet food do not have to be true, only the pet food label is regulated.