Are All Pet Foods Created Equal?

You can walk into any pet store, grocery store or big box store and be faced with an overwhelming array of food choices to feed your dog or cat.  So, how does one make an educated choice when purchasing a diet for your pet?

The first question to answer is whether your pet needs to be fed a Veterinary Prescription/Therapeutic Diet or if it is appropriate to feed a Commercially Available Diet.  A Veterinary Prescription/Therapeutic Diet is one that has been nutritionally altered to address a specific disease condition.  Examples of these include: Lower Protein and Phosphorus diets to help manage Kidney Disease; Low-Residue/Easily Digestible diets for Gastro-Intestinal Diseases; Urinary Tract Disease Diets; Diabetic Diets and others.  These diets require a doctor’s prescription and are only available through your veterinarian’s office…it is important to note that if your veterinarian has recommended a Prescription/Therapeutic Diet, there is not an equivalent diet available over the counter.  If your budget is tight, there are some decent “second choices” available but none that will be able to provide the optimal nutritional requirements your veterinarian is seeking.  A Commercially Available Diet is one that has been deemed “complete and nutritious” for consumption by a healthy dog or cat.  Some good examples of these include: Hill’s Science Diet, Iams, Eukanuba, Purina and others.

If your pet has been cleared to eat a Commercially Available Pet Food, then the next step is deciding whether your pet has any special “Life Stage” or “Nutritional Needs” requirements.  Many lines of pet food produce diets designed to address specific stages of life for your pet:  Puppy/Kitten; Adult Maintenance; Adult Weight Control and Senior.  It is usually a good idea to match up the diet you are
feeding  with the appropriate life stage of your pet.  It should be noted that diets labelled as “Appropriate for All Life Stages” are probably not the best idea for obesity-prone or elderly pets.  If the caloric content, protein levels and calcium/phosphorus balance are adequate to meet the high demands of a growing puppy or kitten, the diet should not be considered appropriate for a pet “battling the bulge” or living in “the golden years”!  Many lines of pet food are now marketing diets as being beneficial for specific Nutritional Needs for your pet:  Sensitive Stomach Diets; Hairball Control Diets; Small vs Medium vs Large Breed Diets and even “Breed Specific” Diets are available.  It is controversial whether these diet choices make a huge difference in your pet’s health, but may be worth a try if you are dealing with one of the above mentioned conditions.  Special protein source diets can sometimes be helpful in pets dealing with a food allergy.  It is always a good idea to discuss diet changes with your Veterinary Health Care Team before switching to some of the more novel protein sources, as these changes can make a diagnosis of food allergy more and more difficult.

Now to address the dry kibble vs canned food debate.  Traditionally we have sided on the dry kibble side of the table, but there is some compelling evidence to re-consider the canned food options.  Dry kibble does have more dental/tartar control benefits, is easier to feed and store, is usually more economical and since it is a bulkier product our pets don’t feel “hungry” as quickly.  However, more and more, feline nutritionists are recommending that we start feeding our cats more canned food.  The higher moisture content of canned diets is
beneficial for healthy kidneys and urinary tracts and the lower carbohydrate content is better for healthy pancreas and GI Tract functioning.  Therefore, it is usually recommended to feed primarily dry kibble food to our dogs and a combination of dry and canned food (usually at least 50% of the daily ration) to our cats.

The take home message can be summarized as follows:
1)  Choose a food from a reputable pet food company that has invested time and finances into nutritional research.  Look to companies that have stood the test of time and have a proven track record on providing good nutrition for pets.

2)  Make sure that the diet meets the appropriate life stage and nutritional needs of your pet.  This should be determined by your AND your Veterinary Health Care Team.  Your Veterinarian and Veterinary Technicians have been trained in Animal Nutrition and are your best resources for guidance and recommendations. They will also have available the nutritional information and results based knowledge on the diets they feel comfortable recommending to you.

3)  The rest really becomes personal preference.  You want to choose a diet your pet will eat…based on the flavor, palatability and texture of the food.  Even the most expensive foods will not do your pet any good if he/she is not willing to consume them!  Choose a diet that you are going to be able to feed.  Consider the availability of the diet (is it easy to find?), the cost of the diet (does it fit within your budget?) and the ease of feeding.  Finally, choose a diet you want to feed your pet (does it meet your personal nutritional philosophy?).  If you are more comfortable feeding an Organic or Holistic Diet to your pet rather than a more traditional diet, then this should figure into your decision making process as well.

Once you have decided on a diet, then monitor your pet and judge the quality of the diet based on your pet’s response to the diet.  Does your pet have a healthy, shiny hair coat or is the skin flaky and the hair dull and dry?  Is your pet maintaining a healthy weight or is he/she getting too thin or too overweight?  Does your pet have an energetic personality or are you noticing a lack of “pep”?  How is your pet’s GI Tract tolerating the diet….is there any vomiting and/or soft stool?  Overall, how does your pet look?  If you are not satisfied with the response to a diet (usually best to assess after 2-3 months of feeding time), then maybe it is time to give your Veterinary Health Care Team a call and discuss a change in your pet’s dietary routine.

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