Two weeks ago, I shared information on the serious heart disease that has been linked with feeding some grain-free diets to dogs. Many, many people have asked good questions about their pet’s food since then. Perhaps, the silver lining from these illnesses and the raw diet fiascos earlier this year is that more people will seek their veterinarian’s opinion before choosing a pet food. For the next few weeks, I would like to explore the answers to some of these questions.

Q:  What should I look for on a label?

A:  Choosing a pet food is a difficult and confusing proposition. Nearly everything on the bag can be manipulated for marketing purposes (especially the ingredient list). The nutrition fact labels on the bags make the task even harder.  You will usually only find minimum or maximum levels of a select few nutrients.  One bag of food with 32% dry matter protein and another bag with 19% dry matter protein will both say, “minimum 18% protein.”  When looking at a bag of food, I almost never pay any attention to that information.

Likewise, the ingredient list is often manipulated to play into consumer demands. I will discuss this further in next week’s column. For now, I will tell you that the only things that I completely avoid on ingredient lists are artificial colors, artificial preservatives, and added sugar.

The first thing that I look for on the bag is the manufacturer name.  Many diets will have a distributor name or a statement that the food was manufactured for the brand.  It will not have the manufacturer. Without manufacturing their own product, a brand will not be able to implement the kinds of quality control that I want to see. Therefore, the starting point should always be to see “manufactured BY” a certain company. If it says “manufactured FOR” or “DISTRIBUTED by,” then look for another food.

The second thing to look for is the AAFCO statement.  The American Association of Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO, regulates pet foods.  This statement should be labeled for the appropriate life stage of your pet.  Categories include growth, maintenance, and pregnancy/lactation.  Some are even labeled, “for all life stages.”  Be sure to buy a food approved for the correct life stage.

The AAFCO label statement should also include the words “animal feeding trials substantiate this food is complete and balanced.”  This means that after the food was formulated, it was actually fed to animals for a period of time to ensure it met their nutrient needs.  Since this method takes extra time and expense, it also means manufacturers are unlikely to change formulations frequently.  If the words “formulated to meet AAFCO standards” are on the label, the company just used standard book values for nutrients.

Book values are lists of ingredients and their average nutrient contents.  The final nutrition information is based on adding up the expected nutrients for all of the ingredients.  The problem with this method is that it doesn’t account for differences in ingredient quality.  Corn from the farmers market is quite different from Indian corn from the nursery.  Yet the book value method can’t tell them apart.  In addition, relying on book value methods allow manufacturers to change the ingredients fairly easily if commodity prices change.  I used to say that these methods were frequently used in the lower cost, lower quality diets.  However, in recent years, many “ultra-premium” diets (including many of the “grain-free” varieties) have used this technique. They are designed to make life easier for the food company and are not in the best interest of your pets.

At a minimum, you should insist on purchasing food actually manufactured by a reputable company that has used animal feeding trials to ensure the food meets the needs of the appropriate life stage for your pet.  The manufacturer name and AFFCO label have just given you more information about the diet than everything else on the bag put together.  By looking in only those two places, you have taken a major step toward feeding a good quality food to your pet.  Next week’s column will explore additional information you may consider when purchasing pet foods.