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K-State veterinarian shares tips on picking right pet food for cat, dog

Monday, Dec. 12, 2022

Cat eating

Good nutrition is essential for a healthy pet. A Kansas State University veterinarian has tips on how to select the right pet food for your cat or dog.



MANHATTAN — When it comes to selecting the right pet food for your dog or cat, a Kansas State University veterinarian says always check the package labeling carefully and be wary of some of the words used to describe the product.

Checking the product's ingredient list is the most common way pet owners select a pet food, but even the ingredient list and words on packaging can be misleading, said Susan Nelson, clinical professor at the Veterinary Health Center in the K-State College of Veterinary Medicine.

"When it comes to the marketing of pet foods, manufacturers know the ingredient list is one of the primary reasons consumers purchase a food, but manufacturers also know they can manipulate the list, staying within legal guidelines, to make the food more attractive to consumers," Nelson said. "Keep in mind, too, that the ingredient list doesn't tell you the quality of the ingredients used or if they are used in the proper amounts to provide optimal nutrition."

Ingredients on a pet food label are listed in rank by their pre-processed weight and not by their weight in the finished product. The heaviest ingredients — including those with water in them— are listed first.

"For example, if whole chicken is listed as the first ingredient, the amount of chicken in the food usually weighs much less after processing and would move down the list in rank if the ingredient weight was actually listed after it was processed," Nelson said.

Many of the words used to describe a pet food on its package are lures that make the food sound more healthful, but some of these words have no legal or scientific definition when it comes to pet food advertising, Nelson said.

One example is the use of the word "natural" to describe some pet food. Pet food in the U.S. is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which partners with the Association of American Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO, a voluntary organization that establishes guidelines for ingredient definitions, product labels, feeding trials and laboratory analyses of the nutrients that go into pet foods based on the latest findings of pet food research. While the FDA does not have a legal definition of what is natural, the association does.

"Per the AAFCO definition, the term natural can apply to a single ingredient or to a product as a whole," Nelson said. "All ingredients in a natural dog food product must meet AAFCO's definition of natural. In these formulas, all ingredients except vitamins and minerals must come from non-synthetic sources. If any synthetic ingredients are added, it must be stated on the label."

Another term Nelson said to be wary of is "holistic," which does not have a legal definition by the FDA or the Association of American Feed Control Officials.

"Because of this, the term holistic is used freely without any regulation or oversight," Nelson said. "Holistic is a marketing term used by many pet food companies to imply whole body health. If a dog food label claims it's both natural and holistic, only the word natural has any defined meaning."

Nelson also cautions that while many ingredients listed in the pet food — especially toward the bottom of the label — may sound appealing to a pet owner, they may have little or no nutritional value for the pet. Examples are apricots and parsley.

"Having a very long list of ingredients does not necessarily make it a better food," Nelson said. "Conversely, a very short ingredient list might indicate that a diet is not nutritionally complete and balanced for your pet."

According to Nelson, here are some of the ingredients a pet owner should avoid in their pet's food:

• Flaxseed in cat food as a source of Omega-3 fatty acids. Cats lack the ability to utilize flaxseed, Nelson said, so there is no added benefit when it is added to their foods.

• Garlic and onions. "Their use can lead to a type of anemia — destruction of red blood cells — in dogs and even more so in cats," Nelson said.

• Exotic ingredients such as kangaroo, bison and lentils. "Not as much is known about their nutritional effects, interaction with other nutrients, safety and bioavailability as with the more common, well-studied ingredients," Nelson said. "Studies are currently needed to assess these concerns."

• Grain-free pet foods. While grain-free pet foods may be popular with many pet owners, Nelson said most dogs and cats aren't allergic to grains, so grain-free foods aren't necessarily better for them. "Many grains provide a valuable source of protein and carbohydrates when processed appropriately," she said. "Research has shown that the modern dog's digestive tract has evolved over time to process grains more efficiently than their predecessors, likely due to their close relationship with humans."

Nelson does recommend looking for pet foods labeled "complete and balanced" for the life stage of the pet.

"The two life stages with AAFCO definitions are adult maintenance, and growth and reproduction," Nelson said. "Foods that are marketed for 'all life stages' must meet the more stringent AAFCO guidelines for growth and reproduction."

If the pet food does say it is complete and balanced, then it must also have a specific statement, known as the AAFCO statement, saying that it meets these requirements either by feeding trials and/or meeting specific formulation guidelines, Nelson said.

"This statement is often difficult to find on the bag as it can be in very small print," she said.

Always make sure any pet food selected meets the requirements for the life stage of their pet, such as puppy food for puppies and adult dog food for adult dogs.

"Pet owners should be aware that feeding an all life stages food to an already overweight adult dog or cat can contribute to obesity, as these foods often have higher caloric density to meet the needs of growing and reproducing animals," Nelson said. "Also, always double-check that the food chosen is not labeled for intermittent feeding only, as when fed long-term, these foods can lead to nutritional imbalances and inadequacies."

For more information on selecting the right pet food, Nelson recommends the World Small Animal Veterinary Association Global Nutrition Committee's 2021 Guidelines on Selecting Pet Foods and checking with your veterinarian.

Find out more about how K-State pet food research and pet health work are benefiting dogs and cats in the latest issue of Seek, K-State's research magazine.