What does it mean to research pet food?

Around the New Year, I saw a post on social media about a New Year’s resolution of finding out more about the food that we feed to our pets every day. The author suggested a few things that could be helpful when deciding which food they would like such as the country of origin of the ingredients and where the pet food was made. I really liked the idea that this author was giving people the tools to critically evaluate their pet’s diet and I am a big advocate of doing research on the foods we feed, but unfortunately this is not an easy thing to do. Every day I say to people that it is difficult to choose the right food for their pet because there is not a lot of regulations placed on the pet food industry. Every day I hear from pet parents that they have researched their pet’s food and decided on what they think is the best diet for their best friend. But the question becomes- how does someone go about researching pet food? Who do you trust when it comes to recommendations? Everyone has a stake in their food suggestion from the pet store clerk to the web-guru selling nutrition supplements to the vet sitting at his computer writing a blog post (full disclosure, the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association estimates that pet food sales make up about 15% of yearly revenue at the average veterinary hospital). Luckily, there is help out there.

In 2013 the World Small Animal Veterinary Association came out with Recommendations for Selecting Pet Food and produced the document listed below to help people critically evaluate pet foods. A lot of marketing, fads and slogans are used in the sales of pet foods that have little science-based evidence to back them up and this document was created to help guide people to the things that really matter about foods. We will go through the document to show the highlights, but in reality, the information that you need to know about a food is not provided on the label or in the marketing material, so a call to the manufacturer is required.

https://www.wsava.org/WSAVA/media/Arpita-and-Emma-editorial/Selecting-the-Best-Food-for-your-Pet.pdf

The questions to ask your pet food company are:

    1. Do you employ a full time qualified nutritionist? Appropriate qualifications are either a PhD in animal nutrition or board-certification by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN)- This is important because it is easy to say that an animal nutritionist works for the company without that qualification giving you any certainty that they know what a dog or cat needs to eat. One should look for these specific qualifications.
    2. Who formulates your foods and what are his/her credentials? – With the popularity of boutique or home made diets, lot of people are formulating pet foods with great sounding ingredients, that simply are not nutritionally complete. Be aware of who formulated your pet’s food and if they know what they are doing?
    3. Are your diets tested using AAFCO feeding trials or by formulation to meet AAFCO nutrient profiles? If the latter, do they meet AAFCO nutrient profiles by formulation or by analysis of the finished product?This sounds like a technicality but it is a very important distinction- Is the food tested to make sure it provides the nutrition it is supposed to provide or do we just assume it will because it looks good on paper? If it just looks good on paper do you actually test the food to see if it looks good or do you just assume the ingredients will work? This testing is expensive and most companies will opt out to save money
    4. Where are your foods produced and manufactured? We like to know the country of origin of any product that we recommend feeding to pets, but also that the company has control over the production facility, rather than getting another company to make their pet food along with multiple other foods in the same facility. While knowing this information won’t guarantee quality, when foods are made locally by a single company, we have more transparency as to what goes into them.
    5. What specific quality control measures do you use to assure the consistency and quality of your ingredients and the end product? This is a very general question, but because of the lack of systemic control measures in the pet food industry, it is good to find out how your pet’s food is safe guarded against nutrient deficits, contamination and spoilage.
    6. Will you provide a complete nutrient analysis for the dog or cat food in question? On the pet food label is a minimum or maximum guaranteed nutrient analysis that assures us that safety levels will not be exceeded, but to know exactly what levels are typically available requires more advanced testing. This doesn’t seem like an unreasonable thing to ask for (eg-”How much protein is in your food?”), but again this information requires more cost to obtain and since standards do not exist, most companies just provide min/max nutrient analysis to save on costs. This becomes especially important when dealing with pet experiencing medical conditions who require specific dietary restrictions.
    7. What is the caloric value per gram, can, or cup of your foods? Many foods are listed as kilocalories per kilogram of food, which is not very easy to work with as often foods are fed by volume not weight. Ideally, all of this data will be available for people who feed by cup, by can or by using a gram scale
    8. What kind of product research has been conducted? Are the results published in peer reviewed journals? This is the question that lets us know that a company is striving to produce better food and to prove that it really works. Science based nutrition is the best way to know that a food is going to do what it says it does, and companies that want the best for pets will be constantly researching better ways to feed them, testing those diets and publishing their findings in scientific journals. As a veterinarian, this is perhaps the most important piece of information I need to know about a food and it is NEVER readily available on the packaging. Sadly, there are few brands of food available on the market today that meet this final requirement

If the manufacturer cannot or will not provide any of this information, owners should be cautious about feeding that brand.

As you can see, doing research on pet food is not as easy as picking up a bag and reading the label. The nutrient analysis and ingredient list is as much a part of the advertising for a food as the sign hanging on the shelf in the store. To find out the information we really need requires contacting the company and asking pointed questions, then critically looking at the answers. This shows why it is difficult to look at a bag of food and decide if it is right for any given pet. Everyone of us has to decide what level of commitment we have to researching foods, but if you need help navigating the world of pet nutrition, the staff at our hospital can help, so don’t be shy, give us a call.

-Dr Rob