Nutrition plays an important role in maintaining the health of your pet. Additionally, many health conditions can be managed or treated with specific diets.
Our pets eat healthier than we do! Every food sold with the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) label has to meet minimum standards for nutritional value. This means that if your pet is being fed a commercial diet, he or she will be eating a well-balanced diet.
Here is some important information about pet foods:
1. One of the most important things to look at on a bag of pet food is the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) nutritional adequacy statement. Nutritional adequacy is achieved through 1) feeding trials, or 2) formulation tests. An AAFCO statement through feeding trials is preferred over formulations.
2. It is best to feed pets with a food designed to match their life stage (maintenance for adult, or growth and reproduction for puppies and kittens). AAFCO requires that foods meet and disclose one of these two nutrient profiles. There is no AAFCO defined nutrient profile for senior/geriatric life stage and these products can vary widely.
3. It remains optional for pet food manufacturers to include calorie content on packaging. Without this information it is easy to risk over-feeding pets which can result in obesity and other health problems. Selecting a food from a company that chooses to report the calories is preferred as it is easier to select the appropriate feeding portions.
4. Many pet food rating systems and reviews are based on judgments about ingredients. Unless your pet has had a reaction to a particular ingredient or has known food allergies, the ingredient list is not very useful for deciding nutritional values and how the food will affect your pet’s health. Additionally, ingredients commonly labeled as food allergy culprits (such as corn and other grains) are in fact very nutritious and well-tolerated by most pets. Also, the major ingredients commonly used in pet foods, like beef or lamb meal, are fairly well regulated and defined by AAFCO. However, other ingredients such as fruits and vegetables have no AAFCO definition and therefore, “apples” may actually be apple seeds, stems or leaves that do not have nutritional value.
5. Labels such as “low fat”, weight control” or “less active” are not meaningful. The FDA places no limit on how much fat or calories a food with one of these labels can have. In the same vein, foods labeled “with” an ingredient only needs to have 3% of that ingredient, and the word “natural” has no meaning. Finally, there are currently no guidelines in place to define the term “organic” in pet food. More information on pet food labels can be found on the FDA’s website link.
6. At BPPH we carry a large selection of both over-the-counter and prescription diets. Here are links to the most common brand that we carry:
A word about Grain Free diets:
Grain free pet food became popular about 10 years ago, when there were massive recalls of commercial pet food due to tainted ingredients (including melamine, a plastic derivative added to some ingredients from China). Additionally, people started to limit gluten in their own diets and assumed that doing so would benefit their pets as well. Grain free food now consists of 44% of the pet food market.
However, do pets benefit from grain free food? According a Dr. Lisa Freeman, a veterinary nutritionist at Tufts University, there has been no research to demonstrate that grain free diets offer any health benefits over diets that contain grain. Additionally, grains are an important source of protein and other nutrients and have not been linked to any health problem except in the very rare situation when a pet has an allergy to a specific grain.
Grain allergies are, in fact, rare. The top ingredients that cause food allergies are dairy, beef, lamb, chicken, eggs, soy, and wheat gluten. As you can see, most of the top allergens are animal proteins, and not grains such as corn, rice, or barley.
Until recently, it was thought that the only “harm” that comes from feeding a grain free food is to the pocketbook, as they tend to be more expensive. However, in 2018 a veterinary cardiology group in Washington DC notified the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that they surveyed 150 dogs that they diagnosed with a specific heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy, and they found that the vast majority were on a grain free food.
Nutritionists and cardiologist now suspect that legumes such as beans, soybeans, chickpeas, peas, and lentils, as well as potatoes and sweet potatoes can inhibit the absorption of taurine, an essential amino acid, from the diet. Low taurine levels have been known to cause dilated cardiomyopathy. Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a disease of the heart muscle and results in thin heart walls and weakened contractions of the heart. This results in heart failure and eventual death. Some, but not all, of the dogs who were on grain free diets had a complete reversal of the disease when they were placed on a commercial diet that contains grain.
The FDA released a list of the top brands that were implicated in the DCM/grain free link. The lists include Arcana, Zignature, Taste of the Wild, Fromm, Blue Buffalo, Merrick, Nutro, and Rachael Ray.
What can you do to minimize the risk of your dog developing DCM? The obvious answer is to avoid grain free diets, especially those containing legumes or potatoes. Additionally, it is generally best to feed well known larger brands of pet foods, as the smaller “boutique” brands often do not employ nutritionists and may not have controls in place to guarantee the quality of the ingredients. Finally, if you have questions about the best food for your pet, ask your veterinarian!
Jami Stromberg, DVM
For more information, check out