Pet Articles

Pet Food – Choosing Dog and Cat Food

Shopping for your pet’s meal can sometimes be as confusing as shopping for an electronic device such as a cell phone. Which one is the best? Am I getting a good deal? Is there any fine print? How reliable is this company? Everyone wants to give their pet the best there is, but often it is a difficult task because of all the different choices of foods available.

When choosing a pet food, there are several factors that need to be kept in mind: palatability, digestibility, suitability for medical conditions, and cost. Lifestyle feeding is important to meet the nutrient requirement of different age groups, and diets are available for puppies/kittens, adults, and geriatrics.

Other factors that may be important to some people include whether or not the food is “natural” or “organic”. One must keep in mind that a term such as “natural” is not legally defined or regulated, and as a result is open to interpretation.


Taste is perhaps one of the most important aspects of a pet food. Kibble that is not appealing and tasty to a pet will not be eaten readily. Palatability is a result of the combination of smell, taste, and texture of the food. For example, dogs generally prefer moist food over dry food because the increased water content makes it more appetizing. Pets generally prefer their food served at body temperature, which is normally not necessary, but may be of great assistance in getting an animal that is ill and not interested in food, to eat.


After ingested, food is digested (broken down by enzymes) into nutrients that can be taken up into circulation and distributed around the body, for use as energy and to build organs. Commercial diets can vary greatly in digestibility based on the ingredients used and how they are processed. An estimation of digestibility can be made by measuring the difference between the amount of nutrients in the food and the amount in the feces. Higher digestibility of the food means more energy and nutrients to the body, therefore, resulting in more efficient feeding (decreased feeding costs) and less feces. Furthermore, digestibility can be affected by the physiology of the animal. For example, large and giant breed dogs have an increased gastrointestinal transit time, and can benefit from highly digestible foods.

Diets for Medical Conditions

Feeding a specially formulated diet for a medical condition will not cure the disease, but may slow down the progression or minimize the clinical signs of the illness. Most of these foods are available only from a veterinarian and require a prescription. They are specially formulated to meet the needs of the animal’s specific medical conditions and have also gone through extensive palatability and digestibility trials. For example, a dog with heart failure can benefit from a diet lower in salt, reducing the amount of fluid that can pool in the lungs. A dog with kidney impairment or failure requires a lower protein diet to keep clinical signs under control. There are also diets formulated for common problems, such as obesity, diabetes in cats, gastrointestinal problems, food allergies, constipation, joint disease, dental health maintenance, and many more. It is best to consult your veterinarian about these diets as he or she represents your expert source on feeding.


The cost of food is perhaps one of the greatest driving factors in choosing one diet over another. Feeding a dog can be an expensive endeavor, especially for owners of large and giant breed dogs. In general, there are four categories of diets: the generic grocery store brand, the premium pet store brand, the veterinary products recommended for pets with specific medical issues and the top of the line holistic foods. Of course, as quality of the food increases, so does the price. However, even though the net price of a bag of high quality food may be more, the actual cost of feeding your animal may not be excessively increased. Consider a bag of food purchased at a grocery store: A 9kg bag sells for $25.00. This will feed at 20kg dog for 40 days (if fed according to label directions), working out to a feeding cost of $0.62 a day. On the other hand, an 18kg bag of your highest-quality veterinary exclusive maintenance diet sells for $60.00. When fed to a 20kg dog the bag will last for 81 days (according to label directions), resulting in a feeding cost of $0.74 a day! This small difference in price is almost negligible when considering the benefits of a diet much higher in quality. Furthermore, premium diets are superior because the ingredients used are consistent, and do not depend on which ingredients are cheaper at the time of manufacture. You can be certain that your animal is receiving consistent, high-quality ingredients.

Reading Pet Food Labels

One of the most confusing things when choosing a pet food is making sense of the label. Ingredients are listed from greatest to least by weight, and can often misrepresent the true composition of the food. For example, if the first ingredient is “chicken”, it may be the heaviest component because of its moisture content, but it may not be the main source of nutrients in the diet. Once the food is cooked at a high temperature, the moisture is lost and the chicken is no longer the heaviest ingredient. If the meat is in “meal” form, like chicken meal or salmon meal, the moisture is already removed, so the weight before cooking is virtually the same as the weight after cooking. Also, in most dry pet foods, the bulk of the nutrition is made up of the ingredients that occur before the first fat source (i.e. canola oil, chicken fat, etc) on the ingredient list. That means that if a meat source falls after the fat on the ingredient list, it is likely that there is such a small amount of it that it isn’t really a significant source of nutrition.

Many of the terms used in the ingredient lists have been misconstrued by rumors and myths. It is important to understand the true meaning of the terms before making a decision about the diet. Meat-by-products for example, are the not-rendered, edible organs (liver, kidney, lungs, spleen, etc) that are of high nutritional value. This does not include any added hair, horns, teeth, or hooves, other than that which is included accidentally or unavoidably, but it may include the “4-D” animals (dead, dying, diseased and disabled) and as such by-products are still not considered an ideal meat source. “Meat meal” is the rendered tissue and organs of the animal, with no added blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide, stomach content or manure. Meat and bone meal is the rendered mammalian tissue including bone, but again no blood, hair, hoof, etc. However, some studies have shown that foods with vague terms to describe their mammalian meat sources, like “meat meal” or “bone meal”, have traces of Pentobarbitol, a drug used to euthanize dogs and cats. Without specifying the meat source specifically, rendered dogs and cats might make their way into the pet food without the food manufacturer having to say so on the label. The same idea applies to “poultry meal”, which can include turkey and chicken, but also crow and sea gulls. When choosing a food, it is best to avoid vague meat terms, like “poultry meal”, “animal fat”, “meat meal”, etc and head for foods with specific meats on the label.

A common source of trouble is the “Ash” that is in feeds. Ash is defined as non-combustible material, and is essentially salt and other important minerals such as magnesium, and is an important part of a well-balanced diet. Most pets can tolerate a small amount of ash, but pets with kidney issues or other special medical concerns may need a special low ash diet.

The percentages on the food labels indicate the worst case levels and meet the requirements of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO, the regulating body of pet foods) requirements when becoming AAFCO accredited. Crude protein indicates protein quantity but not quality or digestibility. Crude fat indicates the lipid content, and estimates energy density. A diet higher in crude fat but the same in everything else will provide more energy. Crude fiber is the indigestible portion of the food, and usually underestimates the true level of fiber in the diet. Fiber is not required in a diet, but is needed to maintain the health of the colon. Overall, all these should be well balanced according to regulations, as too much or too little of anything can be nutritionally problematic.

By Beverly Wong – writer

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