I stopped by one of the major pet store chains last night. I spent about 40 minutes cruising the food aisles (Three for dogs, two for cats!), trying to sort out what’s available and how to fairly compare and contrast the many options. It’s a daunting task! There are nearly as many factors to consider as there are brands of food as you try to make a decision.
In order to make this topic manageable, I’m going to split it into two posts. This first part will give a little background on dog and cat nutrition as well as the state of the pet food industry.
The second post will cover reading labels and making the decision on a particular food. I’ve got a number of photos to share that will help illustrate the discussion. I’m going to leave out some of the really controversial things (like how much protein should be in pet food) for the time being.
Part 1 : Background
From the AAFCO web page: “The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is a voluntary membership association of local, state and federal agencies charged by law to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds and animal drug remedies.” Simply put, AAFCO is a group that determines the minimum standards that a company has to adhere to when producing animal feed. They give “best practices” guidelines for labeling, naming of ingredients, production facility cleanliness, etc.
Foods that meet the nutritional requirements of a particular group of animals will get an AAFCO seal. Any food carrying the AAFCO seal will meet the nutritional requirements of the animals listed. Generally, it will say something similar to: ” (Food) provides complete and balanced nutrition for (life stage).” In other words, “Hutchinson’s Adult Canine Complete provides complete and balanced nutrition for adult dogs.”
The key thing to remember here is that AAFCO essentially sets MINIMUM standards for foods. There’s a tremendous amount of debate about AAFCO and its standards. AAFCO approval does provide us with the comfort of knowing whether a food we’re choosing will meet the nutritional requirements of our pets.
Dogs and cats are domesticated animals that can trace their family trees back to animals in the wild. Wolves, for example, are the ‘parent’ species for domestic dogs. Yup, even a chihuahua is considered a brother to wolves. Cats share most all characteristics with relatives in the Felis genus, but primarily with the African Wildcat.
This ancestry is important when we consider what an ‘ideal’ diet is for our domestic pets. If left to their own devices, as much as we hate to consider this, our pets could fairly readily return to being the predators that their wild cousins are. Cats in particular retain their hunting prowess even in domestication. Dogs can survive on a wide range of foods. Cats are called ‘obligate carnivores’ because they are designed to survive on meats (and really should be fed as such, but more on this later).
Live prey such as buffalo and deer (for wolves), and myriad small mammals (for wild cats), provide all of the nutrition that these animals need. They’re not raiding farmers’ fields to eat corn and wheat and barley. Some ‘vegetarian’ material is consumed by way of eating the live prey, but it’s not the primary component of the diet.
Tying the Concepts Together
Now that we know about minimum requirements and wild diets, we need to differentiate between “acceptable” and “ideal” foods for our pets. For quite a long time, the major pet food manufacturers have created foods that meet the minimum nutritional requirements for pets as set by AAFCO and their own research. What’s important to realize is that knowing that a particular animal needs a certain amount of protein does NOT mean we can make assumptions about the source of that protein. Some proteins can be obtained from vegetable sources, for example. Does that really matter? I believe that it does!
While most pets can be maintained on AAFCO-approved foods from the major companies, we need to start asking whether there is a -better- way to feed our pets. I’m not trying to imply that major pet food companies are harming pets with their food, nor that these are -bad- choices. I’ve been in practice for 9 years, and I don’t believe that the food we feed is directly harming our pets with every meal. I do believe that there are some consequences for our decision to feed pets a certain way, mainly in that we may not be seeing our pets at their peak health.
Decisions about food sometimes come down to dollars and cents. The good news is that you can feed your pet a diet that’s balanced and good without breaking the bank. The major brands out there all have acceptable foods at a range of price points. No one should feel guilty for avoiding the most expensive food out there. I also make a habit of not arguing with success. If a pet is healthy on a given diet, why rock the boat? If our clients are interested in making a change from good to better, we’re happy to make recommendations.