What to consider when picking a pet food

posted: by: Dr. Shawn Budge Tags: "Clinic Specials" "News" 

What to consider when picking a pet food:

Within the last few weeks, Hill's voluntarily recalled several of their canned dog foods including some of their prescription foods. 

This incident highlights the importance of quality control and monitoring of dog and cat food in general. Recently there was a massive recall of romaine lettuce in the human food chain. That recall was due to the possibility of bacterial contamination, the Hill's recall was due to the possibility of improperly mixed food with too much Vitamin D. Both scenarios are serious and could cause disease especially if a dog or cat was fed an entire bag of affected food over the course of weeks as many of us do when feeding our pets. 

Fortunately a company like Hill's has many fail-safes in place to catch problems like this before they become a significant problem. This recall is completely voluntary and few pets are likely to be impacted by it but it brings to light a larger issue. The pet food industry is much less regulated than that of humans and there are thousands of small companies that are producing pet food with no oversight.  USDA inspection of pet foods is voluntary so it is important that you know whether the food you are feeding has some oversight. The well established companies like Hills have quality control in place to catch problems like the formulation error they are currently recalling but I am not sure that a small dog food company would have the oversight in place to catch a potential problem before pets were affected.

Navigating the world of pet food can be daunting and very confusing.  There are so many choices out there touting so much misinformation and marketing that intends to mislead. The only writing on a pet food bag that really matters is the AAFCO statement - this states that the food is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Almost every commercial food will have this claim and should have some way of backing it up. Claims like "natural", "holistic", "organic" and "grain free" don't have any oversight so they don't need to be true or have any specific testing to be put on the label. Take them with a grain of salt.

Unless there is an underlying medical reason to advise otherwise, I recommend that my clients feed their pets a standard maintenance food that is made by an established company with good supply lines and quality control. In my opinion these include Purina, Hills, Royal Canin, Iams, Pedigree and to a lesser extent Blue Buffalo (as I see many dogs that have diarrhea on Blue and I feel they spend more on marketing than on quality control).  In general I consider larger companies to be safer than smaller companies and can generally be trusted, but if you prefer a smaller boutique brand I recommend doing your homework. Research the credentials of any claims made by the company and if there are any peer reviewed articles to back that data up. Be wary of anecdotal information I.E. a review claiming "This food cured my cat's kidney disease" as these can be deceiving.

I also generally recommend a food that is convenient - I.E. can be purchased at the grocery store. Consistency is very important for pet diets. It is important that diets are not changed suddenly as this often leads to vomiting and diarrhea. If your pet runs out of a food that can only be found at a special store on a Friday and you can't get another bag until Monday, there is a good chance that they will develop vomiting or diarrhea when they are suddenly changed to the food that you can get at the gas station or fed table scraps in the mean time. (If this situation happens to you I recommend feeding boiled chicken and white rice until you're able to get another bag of the regular food).

Long story short: My general recommendation to clients is to find a food that is convenient (i.e. can be purchased at the grocery store), that is made by an established company with good supply lines and quality control, and that your pet likes to eat. 

Other general information that owners should know about pet foods: 

Do not feed dog food to cats, they have specific dietary needs that cannot be met by dog food. If a dog eats some cat food it is OK but a cat cannot survive on dog food alone.

The recommendations listed on a can or bag of dog food usually overestimate the amount that a pet actually needs to eat to maintain a healthy weight. (They want you to buy more food!)

Grain free food is a marketing statement that largely plays very little role in terms of animal health. The most common food allergen for dogs and cats is chicken, followed by beef, lamb, turkey and much, much lower on the list (<1% of dogs affected) is grain. In addition to this there are new studies that implicate grain free diets in the development of dilated cardiomyopathy (fatal heart disease) in dogs.

Raw food diets that were contaminated with salmonella and Shiga-toxin producing E. coli bacteria were responsible for several human and animal deaths last year so I highly recommend avoiding these diets. In many circumstances the pet will tolerate raw food with only some GI upset but if a person comes into contact with that animal they are at risk of developing severe diarrhea, vomiting, even kidney failure and death. http://vet.tufts.edu/wp-content/uploads/raw_meat_diets_memo.pdf

The Savy Cat Owners Guide to Nutrition on the Internet:
The Savy Dog Owners Guide to Nutrition on the Internet:

Please contact us at 410-687-1111 to discuss any questions you may have.

Shawn Budge