We love our pets as much as we love our children and we want them to eat the best quality food possible. Does this mean that we should be cooking for our pets or buying them a raw or high-end diet? It is important to know that most pet food companies put a lot of research and effort into developing these diets specifically for dogs and cats. Their dietary requirements are different from ours and something as simple as excess nutrients can have an impact on a pet’s health.
This is especially important with homemade diets and raw foods, where the diet is not scientifically calibrated for a pet. When making a homemade diet for a pet, it is not sufficient to feed them a portion of a protein, a carbohydrate, and a vegetable each day. The diets need to be much more balanced and orchestrated than that. Some examples: excess sodium may play a role in heart failure and cause the progression of renal disease; and excess calcium may cause skeletal disease or urinary bladder stones. In large breed puppies, too much calcium can predispose to diseases like hip dysplasia. Magnesium, which is a nutrient we don’t traditionally think much about, can worsen feline lower urinary tract syndrome, which is an ailment many domestic cats struggle with. In general, the nutrients are more important than ingredients, despite the claims of the pet food companies that emphasize grain free, or no corn.
Corn is overall a great ingredient in pet food and it is low cost, making the foods more affordable. Corn provides good energy, fatty acids, and protein; it is a carbohydrate with the added power of vitamins and antioxidants because of the color (vs. rice with a general lack of color). There is no evidence that grains are bad for your pets. This is a marketing strategy employed by pet food companies that has become a fad in the pet food industry. Ingredients such as cartilage, tendons and ligaments count toward the protein level in pet foods, but they’re not good proteins.
The quality of the protein provided in the pet’s food is important. The higher the quality of the protein, the less of the actual protein you will need to include in the diet. For example, eggs offer a higher quality protein available to your pet than other products like wheat, rice or whole corn. Of the protein in an egg, your pet can use 94% of those proteins, compared to the amount in beef, chicken, or pork where only 74% of those meat’s proteins can be used. This does not mean chicken is a bad protein. It is still a great protein source, especially compared to something like rice, which only 64% of the protein is available to your pet. The quality of the protein is especially important in pets with kidney disease; the less protein volume a pet has, the less strain on those ailing kidneys.
Pet Food Labels:
When evaluating a pet food for your pet the first thing you want to look for on the bag is the AAFCO Statement. Check for it to say “feeding test” vs. “formulated”. Feeding test will indicate that the food was actually tested for a minimum of 6 months following requirements set by AAFCO before going on the shelf, whereas formulated indicates no testing was done. We are all in the habit of looking at the nutrition facts on our own food and the “guaranteed analysis” is the pet food equivalent, but it does not offer all of the same information. The analysis does not provide an actual percentage of a nutrient, just the minimum and maximum amount that could be found in that food.
Here are some guidelines for how they label foods to give you more of an idea of the actual content of the diet.
- If the food is called an “entree, dinner, formula”, 25-95% of that diet contains that ingredient. That is a large range! If the word “with” precedes an ingredient in the title, then only 3%-24% of the diet is made of that ingredient.
- If a diet is turkey “flavor”, then 3% or less of the food in the bag is actual turkey.
- If you are looking for a diet food, the label “light” has to follow AAFCO standards, “Lite” does not.
- To label a diet as “organic” it must have a USDA organic seal on it which indicates that 95% or more of the ingredients are truly organic. The diet does not have to be 100% organic to obtain the label!
- If a label says “organic ingredients” and does not have a seal visible on it, then that is not an organic diet.
- The term “natural” on the label would indicate that there are no chemical alterations to the food. However, it is important to note that GMO ingredients are not restricted from a natural diet, only from organic diets.
- If you are looking for a holistic diet, interestingly there is no legal definition, and this has no guarantee if you see it on a label.
- If you are hoping for a diet labeled as “human grade” then the USDA must monitor the entire production process and no pet food at this time qualifies as human grade.
Dr. Destiny Coleman
(with her dog, Rex)