A:  This is one of the most common questions I get every single day.  It also tends to be a controversial topic among pet owners.  People get a certain degree of psychological satisfaction out of providing what they believe to be the best quality care to their pets.  Unfortunately, this makes them prone to slick marketing, rumor, and innuendo regarding the best food.

In order to cut through the marketing, you need to have an understanding of animal physiology and nutrition, the specific health characteristics of your pet, and details about feeding options available to you.  This means that any decision on what to feed should be made in consultation with your family veterinarian after a thorough physical examination, discussion of lifestyle, and probably some general lab work.

Most people who ask this question are not simply asking about an “adequate” diet, meaning one that simply prevents deficiencies.  Instead, they are looking for an “optimum” diet designed to enhance health and improve longevity.

It is extremely unfortunate how difficult it can be to get even basic nutrition information on pet foods.  The bags are only required to have minimum and maximum levels of certain nutrients on an “as fed” basis.  The levels on the bag may or may not correlate with what is actually in the food.  In fact, the pet food manufacturer may not even know what is in it!  It is more and more common to find “calculated values” for numbers as simple as calorie content.  If a company can’t even tell you for sure how many calories are in the food, how can they claim better nutrition?

I am seeing more and more people fall into fad diets simply due to marketing.  Many of these diets look reputable and are touted as superior nutrition by well-meaning pet store employees.  Words like wild, wilderness, grain-free, human-grade, or organic catch the eye.  Exotic ingredient lists with unusual meats and vegetables make the diets look well-formulated.  Yet, these are the diets I often find only  “calculated values” when researching even something as basic as the calories in the food.

Many of these niche foods are also not even made by the company on the bag.  Often a contracted feed mill is actually manufacturing many different brands outside of the direct control of the food companies themselves.  That’s why so many recalls have included many different niche brands at the same time.

The worst thing is that many of these foods are so calorie-dense that the pets are getting fat on them!  People are paying a premium amount for what they believe to be a premium diet.  Instead, they are buying a product with undocumented nutrient content being made by an unknown feed mill based on an ingredient list driven by marketing concerns over pet nutrition – and their pets are dying sooner and are less healthy because they are obese.

My advice is to choose a diet that lists its manufacturer.  Look for “manufactured by” not “manufactured for.”  I also like to see an AAFCO statement that reads “ANIMAL FEEDING TESTS substantiate this food is complete and balanced.”  That means someone has not only calculated the nutrient content of the diet, but has actually fed it to other animals before yours.  Other than that, it is very difficult to find much useful information on bags of pet foods.  Even ingredient lists and minimum/maximum nutrient values can be misleading.

If you want “optimum nutrition” for your pet, consult your veterinarian.  If he doesn’t have an interest or in depth knowledge of pet nutrition, find a vet who does.  There are plenty of us out here.  Then, please value the advice over that of a pet store employee, an unknown Internet blogger, or the breeder down the street who has owned dogs for 150 years.  There is just too much MISinformation out there that sounds really good and really believable.