Friday, Mar. 2nd 2012

Pet food ingredients and selection

Veterinary Alternatives March 2012 Newsletter

What should I feed my pet? Is this a good food? What do you feed your pets?

I’ve been getting a lot of questions of this type lately. This newsletter will be dedicated to helping readers make informed decisions on what to feed their pets based on finances, time available, and the level of desire to optimize their pet’s nutritional status.


Disclaimer: Be aware that any diet changes should be made gradually, over at least a week, unless the pet is already used to a varied diet. Once they are used to a variety, food changes won’t bother them as much. Some pets may have special nutritional needs due to age or health concerns. Always consult a veterinarian if you feel these may be factors in food choices.


There are two factors to consider when choosing a pet food. The first is what style of food to choose, with choices ranging from “people food” to commercial fresh diets to canned foods to dry kibble. This choice, or combination of choices, is determined by the amount of time and effort you wish to put into pet food preparation and the amount of money you are willing to spend. There is a balance for each family that is right for them. Do realize that you get what you pay for with most pet food, and cheaper diets may mean more frequent visits to the vet for health issues so there is a tradeoff.


Here is my idea of “best to worst” as far as pet food quality in the style of food. (1) is best. You can (and I do) feed a combination of foods, depending on time and what I have on hand. If I am running out of home-made food or in a hurry, they may get all commercial diets for a few meals. They may also get some of what we’re having for dinner on occasion. I use choices 1, 3, and 5 in combination, with a little of 4 but carefully monitoring ingredients.

(1) Home-prepared diet, whole ingredients, preferably organic, raw or cooked or some of each

(2) Commercial whole-food diet, usually sold raw but many can be steamed or cooked if desired, preferably organic (OK, at this point we’ll just assume organic is better no matter what food you use)

(3) Canned, all-natural food following ingredient-selection choices below

(4) Canned high-quality store brand, not whole-food, not natural, following a few of the choices below

(5) Kibble, all-natural food following ingredient-selection choices below

(6) Kibble, high-quality store brand, not whole-food, not natural, following a few of the choices below.

(7) Cheap store-brand canned or dry foods ignoring all ingredient-selection choices below.

(8) Anything that says “Made in China”—don’t do this. Many of the recent food and treat recalls for pet products (and many toys) will say this on the label. See past newsletters or my Facebook page for more information.




So, how do you read an ingredient label? Here are my recommendations for what to look for in pet food regardless of whether it is raw, canned, or dry.

1. First ingredients, preferably 2-3, should be whole meat. Chicken, fish, beef. They should not be followed by the words “meal” or “byproducts”. Meal has been pressure-cooked under intense heat and pressure and this processing alters the structure of the protein’s amino acids so they are less bio-available to your pet for digestion. Byproducts are any leftovers from carcass processing and may include skin, feet, ears, tails, and other poorly utilizable protein sources. It is difficult to find foods that do not contain “meal” in some form. Try to have it lower than the third ingredient on the list, as ingredients are listed by percentage in the food.

2. If grain is included, it should be lower than the third ingredient and should be a whole grain. I prefer rice and oats to wheat, soy, or corn in pet food. I give even higher preference to vegetable carbohydrate sources such as peas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and the like. Corn and soy are often genetically modified these days, and most pets are not built to digest them well anyway. Too many carbs in our pet’s food is what is making them fat, causing an increase in diabetes, and is to be avoided.

3. Avoid corn syrup, sugar, and other sweeteners. These are especially prominent in “soft-moist” burger-style food and soft treats.

4. Avoid artificial preservatives, colorings, and flavorings of any kind. Examples include sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, et al.

5. Look for other whole-food ingredients. These may include tomato, garlic, beans, chicken fat, kelp, etc. They will read like the ingredients in a recipe you might prepare for yourself.

6. The only “chemical”-sounding ingredients should be vitamins and minerals, and you will probably be able to recognize these from your own cereal box. Look for thiamine, niacin, cobalamine, beta carotene, etc. These are fine and probably should be added to most pet foods. Calcium is also important, and if a home-prepared diet is being used MUST be supplemented in an appropriate amount as determined by your nutrition counselor/vet.

7. I prefer organic ingredients when possible. Our pets are smaller than us with a higher metabolism. The less chemicals they are exposed to, the better.

8. Don’t get excited about a food that shows whole peas, large chunks of carrot, etc. in the diet. Dogs and cats do not have the enzyme hemicellulase in their gut, which is necessary for breaking down plant cell walls. For this reason, veggies, fruits, and grains in their diet need to be cooked, pureed, or both for full utilization. Whole or large pieces are just for show.


How much should you feed? Many pet foods come with a feeding chart on the label and this can be an aid, but not a rule. Every pet is different as far as metabolism and exercise levels. Use the chart as a guideline and adjust up or down according to your pet’s weight and any changes. Remember if you can’t easily feel your pet’s ribs and see a “waist” if you look either down on their back or at their side view, your pet needs to lose weight. Yes, even bulldogs and mastiffs and Rottweilers should have that waist, or “tuck” just in front of the hind legs. Feed your pet for the weight it SHOULD be, not what it is. Most pets reach their ideal body weight around 18-24 months of age, or you can check with your vet to see what they think. If your pet is losing weight, increase their food, and have them checked by your vet if they continue to lose. If your pet is overweight, feed them 10% less for a month. Decrease another 10% at that time if they still aren’t losing. You may also wish to have an overweight pet checked for thyroid problems if decreasing food and increasing exercise isn’t doing the trick. If you are feeding them a food that does not have a chart, just feed a volume of food approximately the same as your previous food then adjust up or down weekly according to their weight. The higher the quality of food, the less food your pet will need to maintain body weight, because better foods are more digestible, meaning a smaller percentage will be wasted (and end up in your yard or the litterbox).

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