If you've been down a pet food aisle lately, figuring out what to feed your furry friend isn't easy. Kibble packaging has become nearly as diverse and, in some cases, complicated as their human food counterparts. Should you pay more for premium pet food? Should you feed your pooch a gluten-free mix? What does "human grade" mean? And should you be worried about the safety of your pet's food?
If you're struggling with questions like these, start with your veterinarian, says Dr. Chris Lea, DVM and assistant clinical professor at Auburn University’s College of Veterinarian Medicine. "There's a tremendous choice in pet food that consumers have," Lea says. "Food labels can be misleading. So do your homework. Talk to your vet. And tailor the diet to the needs of the patient."
Read on for more advice on how to pick the right food for your dog or cat and how to read a food label.
Just like human food, the most important information on pet food packaging is the food label. It will list two things: the ingredients and what's called the guaranteed analysis. Ingredients are listed by weight or percentage. The higher up the list an ingredient falls, the higher the percentage it is in the mix.
"The number one thing that appears on the label is the ingredient that is most prevalent by weight," says Dr. Patrick Mahaney, VMD. "If it's grain-free food, for example, the first ingredient will probably be protein."
The "guaranteed analysis" portion tells you the overall mix of protein, fat, fiber, and moisture in pet food.
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Know the Quality of Protein
For higher quality pet food, steer towards whole ingredients, especially proteins, Dr. Mahaney says. A pet food might list whole chicken or chicken meal, for example. Whole chicken would refer to higher-quality protein, such as chicken breast. Chicken meal could include skin, cartilage, and feathers, which are not the highest value protein, Dr. Mahaney says. With foods based on meal, your pet will have to eat more to get all the protein they need.
Feeding your dog a food that has meal instead of whole ingredients is okay, says Dr. Marty Becker, DVM, popularly known as "America's Veterinarian", as long as the food is nutritionally complete. "You won't see any problems. If you feed them a food that has lower quality protein, you'll see more stool and probably a lower quality coat."
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Determine Your Pet’s Needs
Pet foods are formulated for age and condition. Puppies get more protein and other nutrients to help them grow just as older dogs get the right mix of nutrients for a less active life. They're also formulated for illness and allergy issues. Before you choose a kibble, talk to your vet. "They can develop a diet plan based on your pets needs," Dr. Lea says.
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Ensure Appropriate Nutrition
Many pet owners don't know this: Cats are carnivores and dogs are omnivores. "Cats have to have meat in their diet," says Dr. Becker. Cat food is formulated to ensure they get enough protein and the right amino acids. "If cats don't get enough taurine, for example, they will lose vision. If you switch cat food and they stop eating, they can get in trouble quick."
Dogs are omnivores and can cope with a varied diet, although they tend to thrive more with real protein, Dr. Mahaney says.
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Be Wary of Certain Preservatives
Though there is no direct evidence that common pet food preservatives cause cancer in pets, three types are often singled out for concern: butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), its cousin butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and propylene glycol.
BHA and BHT are used on fat to keep treats and food moist and crumbly, Dr. Mahaney says. Some lab studies have shown links to cancer, but the links are not conclusive.
Propylene glycol is also used to moisturize pet kibble and treats and can be found in some canned food, Dr. Mahaney says. It's more commonly used as pet-safe radiator fluid for cars. "In the doses in pet foods, it's not really toxic," Dr. Mahaney says. "But it's not something your pet needs."
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Look for Expiration Dates
Even the most basic kibble formula spoils, so look for an expiration date on the product. "Don't feed your pet past that date," Dr. Halligan says.
Packaging should also have a website and a phone number where you can contact the maker. "If you have questions, contact the company," Dr. Lea says. He recommends asking for their veterinarian nutritionist.
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Understand Popular Marketing Terms
Like people food manufacturers, pet food manufacturers make all sorts of claims on the packaging. Outside of the nutrition label, these claims don't mean a whole lot. Although there are some pet food manufacturers who make their kibble in human-grade kitchens inspected by the government, the term "human grade" doesn't actually mean much legally. Neither does "premium" or "natural."
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Pay Attention to Your Pet's Reaction
"There isn't one diet that works for all dogs and cats," Dr. Halligan says. "Some dogs do better on one food, and other dogs don't do well at all." Keep an eye on your pet's coat, which shouldn't be dry or flaky.
Cats and dogs should also have solid stool, Dr. Halligan says. "Not too firm, and not too soft. Stool can tell you a lot."
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Don't Be Overly Sensitive to Food Quality
Finally, for all the concern pet owners have over pet food and pet food quality, it's only one part of your pet's health picture. Feeding habits can have a bigger impact on heath than buying expensive foods. "Don't fall prey to thinking that you have to pay for super expensive pet food to have a healthy pet," Dr. Becker says. "It's not true. You can go to the pet store, fall prey to packaging, a sale, or a pet food representative there. Then you'll pay $5 to $10 a pound for food."
After you take your dog for a walk, Dr. Becker says, you'll see all that money on the ground. "Talk to your vet. They'll be able to steer you to the right food for your pet, whether you buy it at a grocery store, big box store, or specialty store. Ask your vet what's the best food to buy for your pet at that store."