Pet Food Label Checklist
This is a simple checklist to help you start asking the right questions when you shop for foods for your “healthy pet” (i.e. no known underlying conditions or predispositions towards disease that would be best treated by a prescription food)
We are well aware that some of this may contradict information found on the Internet and from other sources, all of this information comes directly from board certified veterinary nutritionists not employed by pet food companies, who have no bias except healthy pets!
There are often many solutions to the same challenge. We present this science based information to begin the dialogue of what the optimal nutrition is for YOUR pet …. which is as varied as the over 300 breeds that exist! We look forward to the dialogue!
Again, all of this information has been obtained from board certified veterinary nutritionists that work in private practice and have no affiliation with pet food companies! (don’t “shoot the messenger”, we know this will be an interesting journey as we all love our pets dearly and want to feed them well!)
( ) 1. AAFCO FEEDING TRIAL STATEMENT – The American Association of Feed Control Officials is the only assurance we currently have of quality control. Somewhere on the bag it should say “meets or exceeds AAFCO standards by a performed feeding trial” or “meets or exceeds AAFCO established nutrient profiles” (not as good as no feeding test performed but better than no AAFCO statement.
( ) 2. INGREDIENTS LIST – Ingredients are listed in order of their % based on weight. Water rich ingredients will rank higher than dry ingredients and splitting (multiple forms of same basic ingredient) will sometimes distort which ingredient is truly present in the greatest amount.
( ) Protein source – According to most veterinary nutritionists, a meat protein source should be listed in the top 3 listed ingredients, but doesn’t need to be the only protein source. Dogs are omnivores not carnivores, so nutritionally they are closer to foxes than wolves in their eating habits. (wolves are apex predators and can & do actually kill and eat their prey-dogs are more opportunist and for centuries have eaten what they can get from humans!) Their diet does not have to be as high in protein as wolves or cats and is much more varied and included virtually anything they could scavenge (things that are now called “by products”). Thankfully we have much more control with today’s commercial foods.
( ) Grains – Corn, soy and wheat are adequate protein sources when cooked into meals and used in a combination that is complementary amino acid wise. Although sometimes referred to as “fillers” they are anything but. They are actually more consistent in quality than most meat protein sources. Gluten intolerance is very rare in dogs so avoiding wheat it is not generally necessary. Beef and chicken are actually a more common allergenic agent than corn according to veterinary dermatology studies. Some concern does exist that dogs can be allergic to storage mites that are found with corn. Food allergies are uncommon affecting less than 5% of all pets.
( ) Carbohydrates – Although dogs have no true need for carbohydrates, as omnivores they certainly can digest and use them as an energy source. Too many carbohydrates especially sugars should be avoided to maintain ideal weights.
( ) Antioxidants like Vit E, (often called tocopherols), are necessary to preserve dog food, especially fats. Natural antioxidants such as rosemary and other natural are fine but shorten the shelf life of a food.
( ) Fish oils (EPA & DHA) are sometimes lumped into “Omega 3 category” Sources like flax seed are poorly utilized by dogs & cats. The ratio of Omega 6 fatty acids to Omega 3 fatty acids is NOT as important as adequate levels of EPA & DHA (the true fish oils). DHA is very important for retinal and other nervous tissue and for bladder health in cats, cognitive improvement for puppies & older dogs. EPA has been shown to be VERY important for general anti-inflammatory action; the skin, heart, osteoarthritis,cancer, and recently even dental health (see westsidefamilypet.com or consumerlab.com for more info)
( ) Glucosamine & Chondroitin sulfate cannot be legally put into foods at a therapeutic level so they must be supplemented. (Quality and effectiveness are both issues see consumerlab.com or westsidefamilypet.com for more info) Knowing how much is therapeutic can be based on evidence based supplements that have forceplate or other studies to prove that effect.
Other - You will see other ingredients that you don’t recognize, most of which are antioxidants (natural or synthetic), stabilizers, mineral supplements and flavorings all of which are regulated by AAFCO. A great trick is to not worry about anything after salt as those are micro ingredients and in such small amounts as to be insignificant. They are often minerals and trace ingredients that are necessary additives.
( ) 3. APPROPRIATE CALORIC DENSITY for your dogs activity (most dog foods typically need from 250 to 500 Cal per cup (a full 2 fold difference!) Many are in the 400 to 500 range and the ”light formulas” are about 300 Cal/cup .A discussion with your veterinarian is recommended for ideal food and amount to feed.
( ) 4. TARTAR or PLAQUE CONTROL – Unless the bag has a VOHC (veterinary oral health council) seal of approval, any tartar or plaque claims are not supported. A VOHC plaque claim is more valuable that a tartar claim. See vohc.org for up to date list
( ) 5. NAME & PHONE NUMBER OF MANUFACTURER – The bag should have contact info so you can call and get your questions answered, such as:
1. Do you have a board certified nutritionist on staff?
2. Are all ingredients North American sourced (local or regional would be even better)
3. Do you routinely do quality control and have premises processes inspected?
4. What specific levels of fish oils i.e. EPA (Eicosapentanoic Acid) & DHA (Docosahexanoic Acid) are present per cup of food when fed?
5. Do you process the food in your own plant?
6. Do you have adequate controls in place to track bags and the willingness to do voluntary recalls?
Note: If the answer to any of these is no/declined we suggest perhaps finding another company!
( ) 6. APPROPRIATE LIFESTAGE – Growth (puppy), lactation and maintenance are the only AAFCO recognized categories (Senior is NOT a recognized or established category and in fact those foods are often too high in fat for a dog that is becoming more sedentary-discuss wellness testing with your veterinarian to find the optimal food for your senior pet)
The following seminars were used to compile this information
The Fundamentals of Integrative Veterinary Medicine Dr Rob Silver DVM MS Nov 2006
Using Nutrition to Enhance Patient Care Dr Lisa Freeman DVM DACVN Oct 2007
Hills Symposium of Evidence Based Nutrition Dr Phil Roudebush DVM DACVIM Nov 2007
UW Orthopedic Considerations for the Canine Athlete Dr Paul Manley DVM DACVS Nov 2007
International Veterinary Rehabilitation Symposium Dr Julie Churchill DVM DACVIM Aug 2008
Practical Small Animal Nutrition Dr Kathyrn Michels DVM MS DACVN Feb 2009
We welcome your input!
Drs Ken, Sarah, Tina, Katie, Dawn & Deanna