Vet Blog

Behind the Label: How to Pick the Right Diet for Your Pet

April 17, 2022

Organic. Human-grade ingredients. Ancestral diet. All these words evoke strong feelings in pet owners-exactly as designed.

However, they may not benefit your pet in terms of their diet. Terms like organic and holistic are unregulated in the pet food industry, so any pet food manufacturer can slap those buzzwords on their labels. But you should not focus on flashy marketing and fancy claims, but rather on the nutrition contained inside the bag.

Choosing the right diet for your furry pal can be challenging, but our Stone Ridge Veterinary Medical Center & Pet Resort team is here to help you decode the labels on pet food bags. Use the following tips when determining which food will work well for your pet.

Consider Your Pet's Health Needs and Lifestyle

A huge variety of pet foods ranging from diets for giant-breed puppies to overweight senior cats is available on the market. The best place to start when searching for the right diet for your pet is to consider their age, breed, health status, and lifestyle. For example, a high-energy border collie who competes in agility events will need a much different formula than an overweight Cavalier King Charles spaniel with heart disease.

In addition, as your pet grows, their nutritional needs will change. A tiny kitten will grow extremely quickly, and require large amounts of calories, fat, protein, and other important nutrients to support proper growth. Once the kitten reaches adulthood, their energy requirements will greatly decrease, so a switch to an adult cat formula will help prevent unnecessary weight gain.

Opt for a Well-Known Pet Food Manufacturer

Although smaller manufacturers may produce pet boutique diets filled with exotic ingredients that sound delicious, kangaroo-and-blueberry food may not be the best choice. Stick to pet foods formulated by large manufacturers that have the funds to hire veterinary nutritionists, conduct rigorous feeding trials, and spend large amounts on research to ensure your pet receives top-notch, balanced nutrition.

Smaller, boutique brands generally do not have the financial backing to conduct feeding trials, which are particularly important for less common ingredients, such as kangaroo, eel, beaver, bamboo, and jicama. Exotic ingredients have not undergone studies like the more common ingredients, which means no information is available on their positive or negative effects on animal health, toxicity, long-term effects, palatability or acceptability, effects on stool quality, and tolerance.

Don't Focus on the Ingredients

Pet food manufacturers tend to draw pet owners in by filling their ingredient list with foods that sound good, but provide little nutritional value. Also, these healthy-sounding ingredients are often included in such small amounts that their nutritional benefits are minimal. So, when you see blueberries and kale on an ingredient list, think about how these foods are affected during the manufacturing process. While these products are listed from greatest weight to least, that weight is based on their pre-processed amount. Foods with a substantial amount of moisture (e.g., fruit, deboned meat) will cook down to much smaller amounts during the manufacturing process. So, the blueberries high up on the ingredient list would fall lower, if listed after being cooked.

Another sticking point with many pet owners is the protein sources in the ingredient list. They balk at the sight of byproducts and meat and bone meal, yet these ingredients provide fantastic nutrition for pets. Meat byproducts consist of organ meats, like the liver, kidneys, and tripe, that are chock-full of essential vitamins and minerals. Byproducts do not include hair, horns, teeth, or hooves. Meat and bone meal are highly concentrated, dehydrated products. For example, chicken is 70% water and 12% protein, but chicken meal is 65% to 70% protein, with 5% moisture content. When chicken meal is placed high on the ingredient list, the product provides a great deal of nutrition, since the water has already been removed from this particular ingredient, and won't cook down further.

Check for a Nutritional Adequacy Statement

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), a nonprofit organization made up of U.S. and Canadian government officials, veterinarians, and scientists, uses research to determine which nutrients pet food should contain-and in what quantities-to be healthy for long-term feeding.

To ensure pets are fed appropriately, the AAFCO created nutrient profiles that list the proper nutrients for each type of pet, and the minimum amounts needed for balanced food. The two main nutrient profiles include adult maintenance diets for fully grown, mature pets, and growth and reproduction diets for young, growing pets, and pregnant or nursing females. Check your chosen pet food for an AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement for your pet's life stage.

Speak to Your Veterinarian About the Best Diet for Your Pet

In some cases, a pet may require a special prescription diet for optimal health. If your pet has a chronic condition, such as kidney, heart, or liver disease, they may benefit from a prescription diet.

Are you unsure which diet suits your pet's health needs best? Talk to our Stone Ridge Veterinary Medical Center & Pet Resort team for our advice and recommendations.