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Tips on choosing a pet food

There are so many choices available for pet foods these days, it can be overwhelming. Armed with a little knowledge and common sense, you can choose a healthy, balanced and safe diet for your pet.

Firstly, it's important to know there are a lot of marketing myths that can add to the confusion. Are grains inherently bad for dogs and cats? Absolutely not and they can provide a healthy source of protein and fiber if provided in the right balance with other nutrients. Domesticated dogs and cats have evolved significantly from their ancestors, but even their ancestors had some grains in their diets. Wild cats and dogs consume grains within their preys' gastrointestinal tracts, as well as "graze" on some grasses and grains. So grains can be a part of a healthy, balanced diet for dogs and cats, though it's not recommended that they constitute the main source of protein.

Cats are obligate carnivores and require a high percentage of protein and limited carbohydrates in the diet. In particular, it's best to limit carbohydrates in most cats to between 2-12% of their caloric intake. Domestic dogs are more tolerant of carbohydrates and have actually evolved over the last 10,000 years to digest starches and carbohydrates better than their wolf relatives. It's not unusual to see dogs thriving on diets with over 50% carbohydrate content.

When choosing a protein source, it's tempting to go for the exotic: Bison! Wild boar! Tilapia! But if we think about what cats would naturally eat -- small critters such as birds, bunnies and mice -- then poultry and rabbit make more sense. Also, cats don't naturally catch and eat fish for the most part. In fact, large animal proteins such as beef and lamb, as well as fish and seafood, are among the biggest offenders in adverse food reactions in cats. Dogs are also more likely to react to beef than other proteins.

Neither cats nor dogs tolerate dairy well in general. After being weaned from their mothers, they gradually decrease production of lactase (an enzyme that helps break down dairy during digestion). Dairy is also high on the list in many studies of common food reactions in cats and dogs.

Another common misconception is that feeding dry, "crunchy" diets and treats helps to clean the teeth and stimulate the gums. The average dry dog or cat food is too brittle and too small to affect oral health (similar to chewing on dry cereal), but there are a few diets and treats that have been specially formulated for dental care. Unfortunately, label claims for oral health are poorly regulated so you can't tell just by reading the bag. However, you can look for the Veterinary Oral Health Council seal to ensure a food meets the required standards to control tartar and plaque.

Additionally, are raw diets the "all natural" panacea claimed by some? The meats contained in raw foods are not caught and eaten "in the wild" but are typically processed through manufacturing plants and handled by humans, similar to meats in grocery stores but often without the same level of quality control. See "The Raw Truth," Parts 1 and 2, by Dr. Karlin on the Westgate Pet Clinic website. 

Some of the reported risks of feeding raw diets include:

  • Human and pet exposure to bacterial contamination (e.g., salmonella, e. coli, listeria). Please see the FDA Pet Food Recall website (www.fda.gov/animalveterinary/safetyhealth/recallswithdrawals/) for a list of safety / contamination recalls that is updated frequently.

  • Fractured teeth, gastrointestinal perforations and blockages from bone ingestion.

  • Hyperthyroidism from consumption of excess thyroid tissue.

  • Pancreatitis and / or gastroenteritis (inflammation of the pancreas and / or gastrointestinal tract).

  • Joint problems in rapidly growing large breed puppies.

Reading through labels can also be confusing, especially with all the myths repeatedly found on internet searches. For example, do meat by-products really contain hair, hooves, horns and teeth? Absolutely not.  AAFCO (the Association of Animal Feed Control Officials) is an organization that regulates the terms used on labels, and by definition, "by-products" are made up of the clean parts of the animal other than the "meat" (muscle tissue). These items can include organs, fat and bone but not hair, hooves, etc. Please see the website www.aafco.org/Consumers/What-is-in-Pet-Food for more information on the many terms used on pet food labels.


A few additional quick tips:

  • If you have a small pet, buy the small bag of food. Buying in bulk may seem cost-conscious but it's safer to buy less than a 30-day supply at a time to prevent spoilage, especially if the food uses natural preservatives.

  • Look for the AAFCO statement ensuring that the food has been shown to be complete and balanced for your pet's life stage, and that actual animal feeding tests have been performed to substantiate this claim (as opposed to a diet simply being formulated on paper to meet basic requirements).

  • Pay attention to how your pets look and act on the diet - Do they have normal / regular bowel movements? Healthy coat and skin?

  • In general, you shouldn't need to seek out exotic protein sources and grain-free foods unless your pet has a very specific dietary intolerance. In fact it may be best to initially avoid these types of food for your healthy pet, as he or she may eventually need a specialty diet and early exposure can sometimes sensitize a pet to a particular protein.

Finally, when choosing a diet, look for a reputable pet food company. Does the company own the manufacturing plants where the food is made? How much control do they have over their suppliers? Do they participate in research and use a boarded veterinary nutritionist to formulate diets? Do they have a good safety record with few or no recalls? Have their diets been tested through actual AAFCO feeding trials? You can check company's websites, help lines and the FDA pet food recall website to learn more before you buy.

Hopefully this information helps ease some of the confusion regarding the many pet diet options available today. And remember, the Westgate staff members are happy to answer your diet questions and provide recommendations tailored to your pet's needs.

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We provide the quality care our clients expect and their pets deserve, by relying on the expertise and
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4345 France Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55410
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