The Truth About Pet Food in America

pet-food-todayThere is a lot of information available to pet owners about pet food today, but none of it really gives definitive evidence as to which brand or type is best for your pet. New studies have shown that American pet owners spend approximately $18 billion on pet food each year. That’s a lot of money being invested into this ever-growing industry, so as pet owners it is important to take the time to learn all you can about the brands available and find out which is best for the nutritional health of your pet.

The Humane Society states that there are currently over 77.5 million dogs and 93.6 million cats owned by American households in the United States. As a nation, we really love our furry little companions! Choosing which type of food – dry, wet or trendy menus, such as “raw food” diets – can be difficult, especially for new pet owners. Celebrities, chefs and other well-known personalities have also gotten into the pet food and pet product game, swaying owners by who’s face is on the bag, in some cases, over the quality of the food on the inside.

Identifying the Best from All the Rest
Putting aside the wet vs. dry debate, what really counts is reviewing the ingredients used in your pet’s diet, whether you have a dog, cat, hamster or reptile. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (the AAFCO), provides strict labeling requirements for any U.S. manufacturers of pet food.

This is important to know. Reading labels to know where your pet food and treats are manufactured and distributed is key to making sure that you are giving them safe and quality nutrition. While the AAFCO does not regulate the actual production of pet food in the United States, the guidelines that they put forth are updated on an annual basis and help pet owners make more informed decisions.

Understanding the Lingo
So now that you are reading all of the labels, its important to know what the words mean. There is a certain lingo that is used in all industries, and the pet food industry is no different. We all know the terms that salesmen use in order to make a product seem more valuable or beneficial to the consumer. Here is a list of terms used in the pet food industry and their actual definitions to help you make better choices based on your pet’s needs:

  • Dinner – Any food that uses this term must include a single ingredient (chicken, fish, beef, etc.) that accounts for a minimum of 25 percent of the overall product weight.
  • 100% or “All” – If the pet food contains more than one ingredient – outside of the water that is required to process it or a trace amount of preservatives or condiments – it cannot rightfully use these terms on its label.
  • Flavor or Flavored – When you see a brand of pet food that is labeled “seafood flavor” or “beef flavored”, all this means is that the product contains an ingredient that will give it a distinct flavor characteristic. It might not contain any seafood or beef at all, as long as it uses artificial flavor or flavorings that come from beef parts, it can use this label. This particular label is vulnerable to a lot of “play” by marketers.
  • With – As long as a product contains at least 3 percent of the ingredient referred to it can use this term. An example would be “with chicken,” meaning that 3 percent or more of the ingredients used are chicken.

What About Nutrition?
So now you know what to look for in the terminology used to quickly identify how much of the ingredients are actually used in the product. The next step is to understand what ingredients are most important in order to provide a balanced diet for pets. Cats and dogs, for example, tend to thrive on diets that are composed primarily of proteins. Healthy carbohydrates are also beneficial, especially for dogs. Vitamins, minerals and even healthy fats in small amounts are also important for both cats and dogs. How much – or how little – your pet requires is what is most confusing to pet owners.

The labeling requirements of the AAFCO can be helpful here as well. They require manufacturers to list ingredients in descending order according to the weight of each ingredient on the list. It is important to remember that this is done by weight and can include “heavy” additives, such as skeletal muscle, nerves and blood vessels, as well as other not-so-good-sounding parts of clean, slaughtered animals. Manufacturers of pet food, however, can use any part of the animal in order to achieve the required percentage of an ingredient in order to make such claims.

What About By-Products?
This is the term that you want to watch out for most when shopping for pet food. The use of the term by-product with any other poultry or meat ingredient will directly refer to the use of internal organs. There has been a lot of debate over the years – and still today – about the ingredients that are used in by-product production.

In fact, the Animal Protection Institute (API) accused some pet food companies in the past of using road kill or carcasses in their by-product mix. Today most pet companies will deny ever using such practices, but currently there are no laws that prevent them from doing it, so it is up to the consumer to read labels and know what to avoid.

What About Fillers?
It is also important to avoid any ingredients that could be used as a filler, which results in a pet food that has little to no nutritional value. Some of the more popular choices include oats, wheat, corn and flour – ingredients that we, as humans, might see as healthy options. Other filler ingredients can include peanut hulls and other less savory seeming ingredients all with the purpose of “taking up space” in the food so the manufacturer can use less of the expensive protein ingredients.

Watch out for manufacturers that use a combination of filler ingredients. This is done not to provide a balanced diet for pets, but to be less obvious about using these ingredients as fillers. One example would be a product that contains wheat, oats and corn. Sounds good for a high-fiber human diet, but not so good for Fido or Missy.

How to Choose Wisely?
Gaining an understanding of the language used, the ingredients to choose and the ones to avoid, can all help in making smart choices for your pet’s diet. Your best bet is to consult with your Southeastern Massachusetts veterinarian for a diet that will specifically address your pet’s nutritional needs and requirements.

Some examples of pets that might need specific nutrition include active dogs that require more calories, versus more sedentary dogs that would benefit from low-calorie nutrition. Older cats have different needs than kittens, while indoor cats might need different vitamins and minerals than outdoor cats. Each pet is unique and each stage of life can change your pets needs as they grow older.

Annual check-ups with your Southeastern Massachusetts veterinarian can help to ensure that your pet is getting the nutrition that he or she needs, without all of the fillers and by-products that could be harming their health. Make an appointment today to address your pet’s unique needs and to make sure that you are providing the best possible nutritional health of your pet at home between check-ups.