By: Dr. Clayton Greenway, B.Sc., DVM | Oct 22, 2016
Grain free, organic, all-natural, balanced, holistic, biologically appropriate…with so many different types of pet foods making so many claims, it’s no wonder that myths and misinformation about pet food abound. We all want to pick the best possible food for our pets, but how do we decide? Let’s start by debunking some of the most common myths.
While we’re busy researching manufacturers and ingredients to find the single best diet for our pet, we might not stop to question whether such a thing exists in the first place. Different pets do better on different foods. The best cat food and dog food depends on their breed, age, activity level, weight, existing health conditions, and of course, whether or not it will actually eat the food in question! Your pet’s needs will change over its lifetime and the ‘best’ diet for your pet will change. Your veterinarian can help guide the selection process and determine the right portions for each meal.
While pet food sold in Canada is not required to meet AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) standards, most AAFCO cat food and dog food on the market in Canada are sold by manufacturers that choose to meet these nutritional standards. Any pet food is more likely to be nutritionally complete, regardless of the price. Cheaper products may actually be better for your pet than the expensive alternatives if the company that produces them uses more rigorous scientific testing, or has more stringent quality controls. Generally, larger manufacturers are more likely to have years of testing behind their products. If in doubt, call up the company and ask questions about their practices.
While checking the ingredient list is an important part of evaluating a pet food, ultimately, the nutrients in a food are what matters, not the ingredients. Some expensive foods try to justify their cost by highlighting the fact that they exclude “bad” ingredients or include special ingredients to justify its cost. These additional ingredients sound good, but they may have no proven benefits or be present in minuscule amounts.
The first ingredient listed is often intended to deceive you because of the difference in weight of wet protein and dried protein-meal. For instance: chicken meal actually has more nutritive value than whole chicken because it contains less water. The order of ingredients can also be misleading as different forms of the same ingredient may be listed separately, to make them appear lower in the ingredient list.
While pets need protein, they need the right amount of quality protein. A balanced diet of protein, carbohydrates, and fat is much better than a diet that is simply high in protein. Ask your vet for advice on what balance is appropriate based on your pet’s lifestyle, age, and size. Protein is high in calories and too much can lead to weight gain. A diet that is too high in protein is also taxing on your pet’s kidneys.
Grains, especially corn, have gotten a bad rap as a cheap source of “filler” calories in low quality pet foods. It’s true, these ingredients are cheap. But a balanced diet includes carbohydrates. Grain-free foods simply substitute a different source of carbohydrates, such as potato. For pets that are allergic to grains, they are the obvious choice. But otherwise, whether or not a food contains grains is not a useful indicator of quality or healthfulness.
Plenty of safe and nutritious ingredients are byproducts. A byproduct is simply something that was created during the process of making something else. Organ meats suitable for pets are a byproduct of the meat industry. By weight, these are more nutritious than muscle meats.
Terms such as all natural, holistic, and even organic are unregulated in the pet food industry. Manufacturers can slap on the label “natural pet food” on any product they like.
Products making these claims often use other marketing tactics such as emphasizing that they use “human grade” ingredients, or highlighting that they contain no artificial preservatives. These sound great, but they don’t mean much. Quality pet food ingredients don’t need to be human grade: chicken viscera, for instance, is not human grade but highly nutritious for pets.
A raw meat diet may seem like the most “natural” choice. Having complete control and knowledge of exactly what your pet is eating also sounds great. Unfortunately, there is no scientific evidence that these diets are healthier. Pet food formulations seem complex for a reason: providing the right nutritional balance is a science. Many raw food diets/home recipes are not nutritionally balanced, which can lead directly to illness. Raw meat also creates an unnecessary risk of exposure to bacteria and parasites every time you feed your pet. If used properly, and introduced slowly, raw foods can be of benefit but you should consult your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet and meet with them regularly to monitor your pet’s health.
While you’re sitting in the waiting area, the displays of a limited selection of prescription pet foods in a veterinary clinic can seem a bit suspicious. Especially when you compare the cost of these products to the cheapest grocery store pet foods, it may seem as though your vet’s recommendation of a particular brand isn’t entirely objective.
There’s no conspiracy at work here. Vets feel safe recommending particular brands simply because they trust the research and quality control that established manufacturers can provide. Having a suitable product on hand is convenient for both the veterinarian and the people whose pets need a prescription diet. Are there other diets out there that could work just as well for your pet’s particular needs? It’s certainly possible. Veterinarians often carry medical diets that will address certain needs for your pet, but in the end, every food is a trial. You have to find the right diet that your pet responds to.