pet food ingredients santa cruz
September 2019

What's in my Pet's Food?

Talking Pets: September 2019

Dr. Nichole Brooks

The pet food industry has gone from zero to sixty in a nanosecond!  We went from a few choices on the shelf to a shocking amount of all types of foods, each designed to cater to a particular need. 

Dr. Nichole Brooks Santa Cruz vet

Deciding which food is best for your beloved canine or feline can be overwhelming and the information provided can be confusing.   

There are some resources available that can help guide us through the mystery of our pets’ food.  In my opinion, we all take on huge responsibilities for our pet’s nutrition. We, including myself, feel compelled to control their diets simply because we want them to live forever and feel their best.  We often choose our pet foods based on history with a certain brand, food that makes our pet feel better, pet store recommendations, a recommendation from another pet owner, a Netflix show, the pretty package or the price.  Beware of how powerful and seductive marketing can be.  Many claims are just not important. There are also some new developments in our pet food world that we need to learn about.   Things such as grain free, raw, wild, and homemade!  

AAFCO, the Association of American Feed Control Officials established in 1957, is a voluntary group of local, state and federal agencies that regulate the sale and distribution of animal food and animal medications.  This organization provides pet food manufactures the minimal nutritional requirements needed for our dogs and cats. Congress enforces a NO tolerance for any and all feed additives that are known to produce cancer in humans OR animals.  The AAFCO guidelines for basic nutrient allowances are published periodically and are updated based on current research. 

pet food ingredients santa cruz
Buddies hanging out at the SCM Pet Fest. Photo Credit: Kristin Vincent Photography

All dog and cat food that is based on the AAFCO guidelines is created equally when it comes to the basic nutrition.

The primary display panel on a pet food is what most of us read when shopping, it must include who it’s for (dog, cat, guinea pig….) and the net weight, however the manufacture and brand name are optional.  The information provided will follow its claims. For example, a diet that states “100% beef only” contains beef and water. If it says “Beef for dogs” then the food is 70% of its weight in beef. If the food claims a term such as “entrée”, “dinner” or “recipe” and uses a word such as beef, then 25% of the products weight is beef.  The term “flavor”, such as “beef flavor”, means the food may have less than 3% of its weight in beef and the pet should be able to “recognize” the flavor as beef. If you read the words complete/ balanced/ nutritional/ organic or other information then read the information panel for clarity.  

It’s our job as pet parents to ensure we are giving our pets what they need.  We often do this by interpreting the pet food labels and trying to decipher the nutritional panel located somewhere on the product.  It resembles what is on our own packaged foods. It often has an ingredient statement, guaranteed analysis, nutritional adequacy statement and the name of the producer or manufacturer.  Ingredients are listed by weight (heaviest first), however, weight and the list can be deceptive. An example is the meat protein in the food. If whole chicken is added to the recipe and it states whole, it includes all the water and fluids.  This “whole” chicken is then processed into a dry form or chicken meal. This process reduces the weight significantly. Therefore, at the end of preparing and packaging, the chicken should be listed last as its weight has been altered by cooking and preparing.  So, to ensure the most chicken is in your pets’ food, chicken meal (which is the dry form of whole chicken) gives you a much higher weight of chicken in the food than the original whole chicken. And any meal form of carbohydrate or protein is easier to digest.

Nutritional panels can also have “split” ingredients.  These are the same ingredients that are broken down into different forms so that they can be listed as different weights, making them seem less significant.  For example, corn (which is not bad for your pet, I promise!) can be broken down into corn meal, corn flour, whole grain corn, corn gluten, or even corn feed.  These all can be listed separately and therefore be listed with a lower weight making the ingredient list appear more appealing to the consumer.

So, what is guaranteed analysis?!  This is where the pet food must display the minimum protein, fat, fiber and moisture content.  This DOES NOT have anything to do with nutrients or AAFCO recommendations. For example, when we measure protein, we are actually measuring nitrogen rather than the protein quality or digestibility.  The same goes for fiber, which just measures plant cells, not quality or digestibility. Overall, this information is “FYI”

The ingredients listed on the pet food do not reflect ingredient quality, availability or digestibility.  Ask the pet food company or your veterinarian to help determine if the ingredient listed is acceptable quality and is digestible.  Foods that are designed for varying medical conditions that are not prescribed by your Veterinarian can also be confusing or allude to treating an underlying disease.   These include allergy, joint disease diets, urinary diets and others. Consult your Veterinarian before investing in these types of products.  

Raw foods…….OMG there is so much talk about them!!!  Between the mass media, Netflix, Facebook and the general dog park gossip, it would appear raw foods are the new thing!  My Mom was at her local garden (which is, of course, all organic and pesticide free) and was seduced by her fellow community gardener to change her dog, Calley, to a raw diet.  We discussed Calley’s health and elected to choose a more traditional type of food. The most important part of raw foods to be aware of is foodborne illnesses!! They are the same as in us:  salmonella, e-coli, neorickettsia, clostridium, mycotoxins and many more.  Our pets can suffer the same consequences from contaminated e-coli and other outbreaks.  Even if your pet does not become sick from food poisoning, some pets can become carriers and shed the bacteria and spread it to you or your family! There are marketed raw pet foods that are sold commercially, these often follow AAFCO guidelines and have been treated to eliminate the food borne illnesses.  

I recently discussed the new epidemic of raw foods with Nutritionist at UC Davis Dr. Fossati.  She cautioned me about these types of diets. Far too many times we deprive our pets of their proper nutrition, even when we have the best intentions.  The patients referred to her were recommended a commercial well-balanced diet and have improved dramatically.  

Lastly, don’t fear the recall!!  This is our modern way of guaranteeing that the foods we and our pets eat are safe.  I applaud the pet food companies who issue these alerts and recall contaminated food.  Just as with our own human food, recalls are issued whenever there is contamination. Contamination can occur at the farm, packing plant or in transit.  Recalls improve the quality of products we have today.

Choosing the right pet food is a very personal choice.  We want it to be the best one and we all choose them for different reasons.  Hopefully you can use some of these tips to choose the best diet for your pet.  Please email me if you have any more questions, would like the references or have another question you would like answered.  Bon Appetite to our healthy pets!

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