Choosing a pet food from among the cans, bags, and boxes stacked on store shelves can be a daunting experience. Which formulation of food is best? Is my dog old enough for "adult formula"? Does my cat really need "premium"? Will Fido be healthier on "natural" food and will Fluffy fully appreciate "gourmet"?
U.S. consumers spend more than $11 billion a year on cat and dog food, according to the Pet Food Institute. And pet food manufacturers compete for these dollars by trying to make their products stand out among the many types of dry, moist, and semi-moist foods available. Pet food packaging carries such descriptive words as "senior," "premium," "super-premium," "gourmet," and "natural." These terms, however, have no standard definition or regulatory meaning.
But other terms do have specific meanings, and pet foods, which are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), must carry certain information on their labels. Consumers can be confident that their pets are eating a nutritionally sound food if they understand the full significance of these labels.
The Right Stuff: Choosing a Good Pet Food
So how can pet owners choose the right food for their pets? CVM's pet food specialist William Burkholder, D.V.M., Ph.D., recommends examining three parts of the pet food label: the life stage claim, the contact information for the manufacturer, and the list of ingredients.
Pet owners should look for the word "feeding" in the life stage claim (found in the nutritional adequacy statement on the label). This means the food was proven nutritionally adequate in animal feed tests.
Another item to check on the label is the contact information. Pet owners should look for the manufacturer's telephone number. Only the manufacturer's name and address are required, but people should be able to call manufacturers to ask questions about their products, says Burkholder, and manufacturers should be responsive. "They will not tell you how much liver, for example, is in their product, because that's part of their proprietary formula. But they should tell you how much of any nutrient is in the product."
The ingredients list on the label is an area of consumer preference and subjectivity. Pet owners who do or do not want to feed a pet a certain ingredient can look at the list of ingredients to make sure that particular substance is included or excluded.
Some people prefer to pass up animal by-products, which are proteins that have not been heat processed (unrendered) and may contain heads, feet, viscera and other animal parts not particularly appetizing. But protein quality of by-products sometimes is better than that from muscle meat, says Burkholder.
"Meal" is another ingredient that some people like to avoid. In processing meat meal or poultry by-product meal, by-products are rendered (heat processed), which removes the fat and water from the product. Meat or poultry by-product meal contains parts of animals not normally eaten by people.
Some consumers try to avoid pet foods with synthetic preservatives, such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and ethoxyquin. Ethoxyquin, in particular, has been hotly debated. Current scientific data suggest that ethoxyquin is safe, but some pet owners avoid this additive because of a suspected link to liver damage and other health problems in dogs. CVM has asked pet food producers to voluntarily lower their maximum level of ethoxyquin in dog food while more studies are being conducted on this preservative, and the industry is cooperating.
Many products preserved with naturally occurring compounds, such as tocopherols (vitamin E) or vitamin C, are available. These products have a much shorter shelf life than those with synthetic preservatives, especially once a bag of food is opened.
Some animal nutritionists recommend switching among two or three different pet food products every few months. Burkholder says nutritional advice for people to eat a wide variety of foods also applies to pets. Doing so helps ensure that a deficiency doesn't develop for some as yet unknown nutrient required for good health. When changing pet foods, add the new food to the old gradually for a few days to avoid upsetting the pet's digestive system.