“What Should I Feed My Pet?” The Skinny on Pet Diets

Oct 02, 2019

One of the most common questions that we hear from clients is, “What is the best food to feed my pet?” This should be a simple question, yet diets have become so complicated these days that it can be overwhelming to choose just the right one.

‘Grain-Free,’ ‘Holistic,’ ‘All-Natural,’ ‘Human-Grade,’ . . . With so much marketing involvement and recent research findings in pet nutrition, it is tough to know which way to turn when deciding what to feed your pets. Additionally, there are many sources out there that can be misleading to good-intentioned pet owners.

Understandably, many pet parents have strong opinions about their pet’s diet. In fact, pet (and people) diets have become such a hot topic that even we, your veterinarians, feel like it’s almost like discussing religion or politics (usually not a good idea, even amongst friends). Nonetheless, as advocates for your pets, it is our duty to help you navigate your way to the best choice that feels right for both you and your pet.

So, how do you choose the right one? Which sources should be trusted to provide the right information to make the right decision? What information should we look for to find a good, quality pet food?

First and foremost, please allow me to squash a common myth about pet nutrition which says that veterinarians are not trained to be knowledgeable about pet nutrition. Your veterinarians have completed at minimum 4 years of specialized training in all things pet medicine; and that does include extensive training regarding nutrition. Since pets in different life stages and/or those that have certain medical conditions may need specific diet recommendations, a discussion with your veterinarian is the best first step. What may be a great diet for one of your pets might not be the best choice for another. Please allow your veterinarian be your go-to source for nutrition-related questions. We can help steer you in the right direction.

The most helpful tool that you can use in choosing your pet’s food is the AAFCO Statement. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is an organization that helps in the regulation and nutritional assessment of pet foods. Every bag of commercial pet food that is legally able to be sold in stores must have an AAFCO statement on its label. The AAFCO Statement tells us a few very important pieces of information: 1) The life stage for which the diet is appropriate (i.e. puppy, adult, all life stages); 2) The purpose of the food (i.e. for management of kidney disease, etc.); and 3) By what means they have substantiated that the food is nutritionally balanced and does what the label says it does.

This third piece of information is probably the most important because there are 2 different ways that they can establish this. One way is by formulating nutritional levels in a particular food by following standardized Food Nutrient Profiles established by AAFCO. This essentially means that they put in the ingredients based on profiles to make the food complete and balanced. This method, although safe, does not provide the best representation of an animal’s use of the ingredients once it is digested (called bioavailability). The other way to establish that a food is balanced and that it does what the label claims is through feeding trials. In feeding trials, a specific AAFCO-approved feeding protocol is used to feed the diet to a study set of pets. Veterinary nutritionists consider feeding trials to be the ‘gold standard’ compared to formulating nutritional content alone. For this reason, choosing a food with an appropriate AAFCO statement that has undergone feeding trials is the best way to assure that your pet’s food is high quality.

If you’d like to see more information on AAFCO labeling, including reading labels and what they mean, please follow this link: https://talkspetfood.aafco.org/readinglabels

A brief word on Grain-Free diets:
Recently, grain-free diets have come into the spotlight due to an increase in a type of heart disease (dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM) in dogs. Studies by veterinary cardiologists and nutritionists have led to the implication of grain-free diets in these cases of DCM. There are many contributing factors, and not only grain-free diets are thought to be the cause. Studies are still ongoing to determine the precise risk factors involved in diet-related DCM. With their current knowledge, however, veterinary nutritionists and cardiologists are advising AGAINST grain-free diets unless your pet has a dermatologist-diagnosed grain allergy (which is actually extremely uncommon in dogs in the first place). If your pet currently eats a grain-free diet, please contact your veterinarian to discuss a possible switch. Studies have not been completed in cats yet, but specialists are still recommending a switch for cats that do not need a grain-free diet as well.

When in doubt, please feel free to contact your veterinarian and bring up your pet’s diet at your next visit. We are happy to discuss this important topic so that you can feel good about the food that you choose for your furry friends to eat!
- Tashina Elswick, DVM

P.S. I have not received compensation by any pet food company to write these statements. Cross my heart X<3.