Pet Food 101

February 14th, 2014 by capeway


I often have clients ask me “What’s the best food to feed Fluffy?”  Sometimes I have people tell me that the Big Name pet food companies produce inferior products with a lot of fillers. And every so often I get the opinionated few who inform me that certain pet foods contain beaks, fur, and hooves in their products!  I have found that opinions on pet food can be very strong, often like opinions on religion. So, it is not my goal to change anyone’s opinion, but to help people make better informed decisions. I recently had the privilege  of listening to an excellent  lecture given at The North American Veterinary Conference by an esteemed veterinary nutritionist from Tufts University, Dr. Lisa Freeman. Much of this blog is a summary of what I learned.


There is in fact no one best food for every pet because, as every pet owner knows, every pet is different and special. Decisions should be made on evaluation of the product, reputation of the manufacturing company, age and health of the pet, cost, and of course palatability. Too often, choices are made based on media, how attractive the label is, and negative ad campaigns (“would you feed your dog brand X food that contains corn?!”) Effective advertising sells, there is no getting around that (I myself am a Maxxinista), but what do Rachel Ray or Chef Michael know about dog food? Here are a few tips on how to read a label, without falling for the dog howling at the moon pretty picture on the front.

– The most important thing on a label is not the ingredient list, but the Nutritional Adequacy Statement. This tells you if a food is complete and balanced, as well as how they make that claim. The Gold Standard way to make the claim of nutritional adequacy is if the manufacturer states the food went through feeding trials (ie testing the food on actual animals), established by AAFCO. AAFCO is the Association of American Feed Control Officials, a regulatory body that oversees pet food labeling.

– The second most important thing on a label is the manufacturer. This is where the average person doesn’t do a lot of research, but if you really want to know if a company has a good reputation, don’t read 100 opinions on the internet,  ask a few questions. Does the company employ a full time nutritionist with credentials? ie a board certified veterinarian or a PhD. Does the company have a research and development department and if so, do they have any peer reviewed studies of their products to back up their claims? Can they list their quality control standards? (where do their ingredients come from, how is the quality of ingredients assessed, are ingredients and end products tested for toxins, how often are their manufacturing plants inspected)?

– What most people evaluate a pet food by, the ingredient list, is actually one of the least important things on a label. Ingredient lists can be misleading because ingredients are listed in decreasing order BY WEIGHT, which includes water weight. So meats and vegetables may be listed first because of their high water content, but actually contribute less nutritionally than a dry ingredient like corn meal listed further down. Ingredient lists also do not tell you the quality of those ingredients. And if something is at the end of the ingredient list, it is often in too small of an amount to actually provide any nutritional benefit. But it may make the product look appealing to a consumer.

A few words on marketing

– “grain free” – whole grains are actually digestible sources of protein, vitamins and minerals, and fibre. They seldom cause allergies, obesity or diabetes and are not fillers. If a food is labelled “grain-free” see what the grain has been replaced with. If it is tapioca or potato, it may actually be less nutritious.

– “human grade” “premium grade” “holistic” – there are no AAFCO definitions for these terms. Anyone can put these on a label as there are no standards to be met.

– “by-products” – these can be internal organs but do not include beaks, fur, nails or intestinal contents. They vary in quality, just like meat, and do not indicate an inferior product. In fact, people spend good money to eat goose liver…its called Foie Gras!

Information on regulations, labeling and other facts about pet food : www.

FAQ’s about pet foods :

Pet Food Institute : Information on ingredient definitions, nutrition myths, labeling regulations –

World Small Animal Veterinary Association Nutrition Toolkit –