A look at what manufacturers and nutritionists have to say about your pet’s diet
By Katie Marisco
When you’re on the go in the grocery store, you still somehow make the time to pay careful attention to what you toss in the cart. Like so many 21st-century shoppers, you’re likely wary of what additives are used in cereal and how much artificial sweetener is floating in your can of soda. And it goes without saying that, as a responsible pet guardian, you also are concerned about the ingredients and overall nutrition that constitute the meals consumed by the four-footed members of your family.
What makes up a balanced diet for pets, and what should consumers look for on labels before they buy a bag of kibble?
Since the massive media attention given to the pet food recalls of spring 2007, guardians around the world have become more aware of what makes up their animals’ diets. As a member of Nature’s Variety Pet Nutrition Council, based out of Lincoln, NE, Dr. Susan Lauten is convinced that this is an example of how the recall ultimately changed things for the better. “[Prior to the recall], there was probably too much trust placed in a chain of distributors, which resulted in products being imported to the United States and other countries that were not of acceptable quality,” Lauten says. She notes how the recall has made manufacturers more sensitive to what goes into food—both of the human and dog variety. “Quality manufacturers will readily disclose where their sources come from. Then the consumer can choose if that source is acceptable to them.”
From the perspective of Dr. Edward Moser, a consulting veterinary nutritionist for Wellness Pet Food of Tewksbury, MA, this enhanced education places a great deal of power in the hands of pet guardians. “What a story the modern-day pet food label tells,” he remarks. “Diligent, package-studying consumers are able to discern healthful ingredients from lower-quality ingredients. The information is right there for anyone interested in gleaning it. Whether the food contained in the package is an exclusive designer formula or a mass-marketed kibble, every … label must list all ingredients in the order of their addition by weight, from highest to lowest.” In addition to granting average shoppers better insight into what’s being placed in the doggie or kitty dish, the events of spring 2007 prompted guardians to consider other aspects of their pets’ eating habits as well.
According to Lucas Wysong, vice president of the Wysong Corporation in Midland, MI, the recall also offered some important lessons in maintaining variety within an animal’s diet. “If pets had been eating a wide variety of foods to begin with,” he says, “even if they had been exposed to melamine, they likely would have recovered or been asymptomatic. The melamine moral is vary the diet and feed different fresh, whole foods.” Lauten concurs and restates the central role that variety should play in nutrition. “Think about feeding your pet the way humans eat: Rotating healthy foods to get the benefits from each one creates a balanced whole. Like humans, pets need to be exposed to a wide array of healthy ingredients, including proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, as well as vitamins and minerals.”
Keeping variety in mind, however, what should consumers keep their eyes peeled for—both in terms of pluses and red flags—when they review labels and attempt to decide which product best suits their dog or cat? Tails checked in with sources at a handful of pet food manufacturers on the market to answer this question.
“They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but the very opposite is true of pet foods,” comments Moser. “It’s not only possible to make an educated assessment of a product’s nutritional profile from its ingredient label, but it’s also a smart, responsible measure for those who love their four-legged companions.” Yet to make such an assessment, people with pets already need to be conscious of what defines a healthy diet for their animal companion.
“Formulating a balanced diet for cats and dogs is a bit like putting together a puzzle,” explains Dr. Melissa Brookshire, director of veterinary services at Premium Edge Pet Foods, based in Meta, MO. “Years and years of research by many different companies and universities went into the development of charts of nutrient requirements for dogs and cats that were put together by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). These charts vary by life stage, so that growing puppies or kittens have different nutrient requirements than adult dogs or cats.”
Brookshire recommends that, in conjunction with the aforementioned dietary studies, consumers look on ingredient panels to verify that pet food contains fresh meats and/or animal sources, such as chicken, chicken meal, lamb, or lamb meal. She also suggests that guardians make sure that the product features a quality fat source, such as chicken fat or canola oil, and a balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in ingredients like flaxseed, fish meal, and fish oils.
“In addition, consumers should seek out nutritional features that specifically suit their pet’s age or lifestyle,” she adds. “For instance, senior pets may benefit from higher antioxidant content, such as would be found with vitamin E and selenium … and lower fat content and calories. Puppies and kittens benefit from the addition of DHA, an important omega-3 fatty acid. Finally, indoor cats may do well with formulas that help control hairballs with the use of insoluble fiber ingredients like powdered cellulose.”
But once people have some idea about what they want to see included in their animal’s diet, shouldn’t they also be aware of which ingredients they should try to avoid? Per Wysong, consumers can answer this question by drawing some comparisons with their own eating habits.
“Any pet food or treat that reads like your favorite candy with artificial sugars or high-fructose corn syrup should be avoided,” he cautions. “In addition, though it is now fashionable for pet food manufacturers to offer claims such as ‘no corn,’ ‘no soy,’ ‘no grains,’ and the like, such [wording] is misleading. They attempt to make consumers believe that there is something special about their food, leading [guardians] to feed it to their animals exclusively. The key to healthy food is variety, not feeding ‘no this’ or ‘no that’ diets meal after meal.”
Even with some basic guidelines to aid guardians as they select which pet food product will best fill Fido’s bowl, evaluating labels and interpreting ingredients can be a tricky process. Although speaking with a veterinarian is certainly one option for obtaining additional information, Brookshire admits that vets don’t always have all the answers. “Because of the extreme number of foods available on the market, many veterinarians may not have detailed knowledge of each and every product. If you need additional advice about which particular formula produced by a particular manufacturer is best, the customer service contact numbers on packaging can be quite useful.”
Regarding specific feeding schedules, Lauten makes the following recommendations: “Similar to humans, dogs and cats are individuals, and caloric requirements can vary widely. I recommend young puppies and kittens should be fed three to four times daily right after weaning. At 12 weeks, three meals will suffice, and by 6 months of age, all cats and dogs can be fed twice daily at 12-hour intervals.”
Whatever nutritional plan you ultimately choose and regardless of how you obtain the facts, it’s critical that you monitor your dog or cat’s weight and activity level at home, in conjunction with regular checkups from your vet. That said, happy shopping and bon appétit to your pets!
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