There’s a lot of options – good and bad – when it comes to feeding your pet, but you can use the variety to your advantage by learning to eliminate the bad and select the good.
The Basic Ingredient Check
Carbohydrates are an inexpensive way to get calories to your best friend, but it isn’t necessarily good for their health. Not all carbohydrates are created equally. Because dogs are omnivores, they need some carbs; look for vegetables, whole grains, sweet potatoes, quinoa, oats, and potatoes. Avoid corn and soy, as these are cheap fillers without much nutritional value. Cats are carnivores; accordingly, carbohydrates should make up only 10% of their diet. Look for foods that list a whole grain, and ensure that the carbohydrates are low on the ingredient list.
Protein is the most important component of your pet’s diet. While protein from plant sources like corn and soy are cheaper, they deprive your pet of vital amino acids they need to survive. Many pet foods have a high enough protein percentage, but oftentimes it comes from cheap plant sources that don’t have the necessary amino acids. Animal products (meat, eggs, chicken meal, fish, animal by-products) will have the nutrients your pet needs. Look to the ingredient label: any food you buy for your cat should have an animal product first; for dogs, an animal product should be at least in the first three ingredients, if not higher.
The Truth about Animal By-Products
Although you might have heard otherwise, animal by-products are not necessarily bad for your pet. They include the liver, heart, intestines, and other “left-overs” from animal slaughter houses. While some think this is gross, these parts of the animal are amino acid dense, giving your pet the nutrients they need without hurting your wallet. "Chicken meal" or "Beef meal" will include a mixture of by-products and muscle meat. If you don’t want your pet eating such unmentionables, choose a food that lists a specific meat source like “salmon,” “beef,” or “turkey.” Generally muscle meat will be higher quality than animal by-products or "chicken meal," but all of these ingredients will give your pet the basic nutrients they need to thrive.
Ingredients to Avoid
Animal Digest and generic animal protein, often labeled as “animal,” “meat,” or “poultry,” are two ingredients to avoid. Both of these ingredients come from “4-D” meat: the diseased, dead, disabled, and dying before slaughter. Because 4-D meats have lower regulation standards, these ingredients can be derived from roadkill and other unsavory sources.
Think about Your Pet’s Personal Health Needs
Once you’ve passed the basic check list, think about your pet’s health conditions. If you have a dog, research their breed and find out if you can prevent likely health problems with nutrition.
- Gastric torsion: Find a low-grain, high-protein food with plenty of fiber, and have your dog eat smaller meals more frequently.
- Skin problems and hot spots: Look for a food with a higher fat content, especially if that food contains fish oil, which is packed with Omega-3. Oftentimes Salmon and other meals with fish are good places to start.
- Overweight or suffering from Pancreatitis: Choose lower fat foods to keep away the strain on the digestive system and reduce calories.
- Food allergies: Try foods with limited ingredients, and if symptoms stop, slowly introduce new foods to see what causes your dog’s allergies
- Kidney Problems: Find a food with a lower protein content, to keep the strain off of kidneys.
- Bad breath: Bad breath is a sign of dental disease, so support dental health with crunchy kibble.
- Hairballs: Many foods are designed to prevent the gastrointestinal problems related with hairballs. Most of these foods will have high Omega 3 contents to reduce shedding, thus reduce the need for excessive grooming. Additionally, these foods will have a higher fiber content to make hairs more digestible, so that your cat doesn't have to expel his hair in a hairball.
- Obesity: While the best way to tackle obesity is to cut on poirtions, you can also choose a weight management food with higher protein content and fewer grains to reduce calories.
- Thyroid Problems, Urinary Tract Infections, and Cystitis: Try switching to wet food. Cats have a very low natural thirst drive and were meant to get most of their water from their food. Even with a full water bowl, cats who eat dry food have half the urine content of cats who eat wet food. Better hydration promotes good urinary health lessens the burden of chronic thirst that plagues cats with thyroid problems.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Many cats with IBS will have their problems subside when put on a grain free diet that more closely resembles the diet of their carnivorous ancestors.
Life Stage and General Nutrition
Make sure that you’re thinking about your pet’s life stage, too. Senior dogs generally gain or lose a lot of weight, so change their food to a high or low fat content based off of their body’s needs. Senior cats often start to have urinary health problems, so switching to wet food as your cat ages can prevent problems before they start by keeping your cat hydrated. You can find senior, puppy, and kitten food very easily, just make sure it passes the “basic ingredient check” before you buy.
If you have an adult pet with no specific health concerns, consider buying foods labeled “complete and balanced.” All foods labeled “complete and balanced” have been tested by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and have proven themselves to be healthy and nutritious.
Final Tips and Tricks
- Generally, everything from the first fat listed and above is a “primary ingredient” the rest will only be in small amounts.
- Sometimes manufacturers split fillers like corn into two ingredients (corn and cornmeal) on the ingredient list, making it look like meat is the primary ingredient, when really, the majority of the food is comprised of different forms of corn or another filler.
- Don’t trust the front of the package! Things labeled “Flavor,” “Dinner,” and “Nuggets” can be misleading. Oftentimes products don’t deliver on their promises – go through the ingredient label to make sure your pets get the nutrition they deserve.
Read More About Your Dog's Dietary Options
Dog Nutrition 101
Good Diet, Good Health: Using Nutrition to Prevent Disease in Your Dog
The Most Poisonous Foods for Dogs
Natural Dog Food: Holistic and Organic Dog Food Diets
Raw Food Dog Diet
Grain Free Dog Food: Cut Down on Carbs
What is in My Dog Food?
Finding the Right Food for Your Dog
Vitamins and Supplements: Vital or Superfluous?
Great Cat Foods
Wellness Chicken Formula Canned Cat Food
Merrick Before Grain Chicken Dry Cat Food
This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian or other qualified professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard or delay seeking professional advice due to what you may have read on our website.