Many people consider pets members of the family. Understandably, they want high-quality foods for Snowball and Fido, just as they do for other family members. The good news is that there are more natural, healthy pet-food choices available today than ever before. But consumers still need solid information on how to make the right choices for their furry loved ones.
First, not all ingredients are created equal. Though every pet food must meet certain requirements in terms of total protein, fat and carbohydrates per serving, not all ingredients are equally digestible for animals.
"You could formulate your food with leather as your protein source, and it would meet the minimum protein requirement," says Edward Moser, DVM, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and consulting nutritionist for Wellness pet food, produced by Old Mother Hubbard in Chelmsford, Mass. "In reality, the digestibility factor comes into play."
For example, if the first ingredient in a particular dry food is chicken or chicken meal, customers are assured that this product comes only from the meat and fat of the chicken. On the other hand, if the ingredient is chicken byproduct meal, it will be made up of chicken heads, necks, feet, viscera and unformed eggs. Though this ingredient may technically offer the appropriate amount of protein, less of that protein is usable.
"Higher-quality ingredients are more digestible, so more goes into the system and less goes out on the ground," says Phil Brown, DVM, a natural pet consultant for Newman's Own Organics pet foods, based in Aptos, Calif. "As long as you have meat as the first ingredient, you're in good shape."
All pet foods contain a certain amount of grains to meet carbohydrate requirements, though cat foods tend to have a higher percentage of protein because cats are true carnivores, while dogs are omnivorous. Common sources of carbohydrates include barley, rice, oats, corn, wheat and soy. The first three are considered healthy for all pets, and rice offers the additional benefit of minerals in the bran. But some veterinarians question the wisdom of the latter three—corn because of digestibility, both wheat and corn as possible allergens, and soy because it is thought to cause bloating in some animals.
However, there is certainly no universal agreement that these can't be excellent ingredients. "I happen to be a big fan of soy as a protein source, especially now that we're seeing more animals with cholesterol problems," Brown says. "And I believe that wheat and corn are more perceived allergies than real allergies."
There are other ways to determine whether a particular food meets a customer's requirements for quality. For example, Pet Promise pet foods, based in Westminster, Colo., uses only meats free of hormones and antibiotics, sourcing chicken from Petaluma Poultry and beef from Coleman Natural Meats, both recognized names in the natural meat industry.
"Conventional pet food is based on the cheapest stuff you can find, formulated at the cheapest cost," says Dave Carter, co-founder of Pet Promise. "We started looking at conventional food and saw a need for something better and healthier. Our mission is to change both how farm animals are raised and companion animals are fed."
The bottom of the ingredient deck is the other place to look for clues to quality. Natural foods will have a natural preservative, such as mixed tocopherols, a form of vitamin E. Conventional foods—even many premium brands—will contain BHT, BHA and ethoxyquin, an ingredient first used as a rubber stabilizer and considered moderately toxic. Colorants, artificial flavors and flavor enhancers are also common, particularly in foods formulated with lower-quality main ingredients.
A final consideration is whether the food is fortified with additional ingredients beyond the required vitamins and minerals. For example, many pet foods include glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health, especially in formulas for mature animals. For customers who are buying these fortified foods, dosage may be the biggest concern. "If there are 1,000 milligrams of glucosamine for every two pounds of food, and you feed your dog two pounds a day, you're going to have a very fat golden retriever," Brown says. "I'm a fan of stand-alone supplements."
"If a company is making claims for things they're adding in, take a look at the ingredient deck," Carter says. "It may be no more than pixie dust."
Perhaps the most pressing question for pet owners is the wet versus dry debate. Both wet and dry foods must adhere to Association of American Feed Control Officials requirements to meet an animal's nutritional needs if serving size information is properly followed. The right decision is based on a number of factors, such as owner preference and health issues of the companion animal, including periodontal disease, obesity and, in cats, previous urinary-tract conditions.
"Because of the kibble manufacturing process, dry foods tend to have more plant matter and grain," Carter says. "Carbohydrates are what give us the ability to make the food in dry form." He adds that animals suffering from digestive disorders might benefit from a higher proportion of wet food in the diet.
Cats who have had urinary-tract issues may also benefit from a wet-food diet, as cats often fail to drink enough water for optimum health, Moser says. The high percentage of water in wet foods ensures that a cat that is a picky drinker will still get adequate water intake.
Price and odor also play a role in whether wet food is acceptable. "A lot of people will not allow canned food in the house, and certainly not in the fridge," Moser says, "while others purchase based on a perception of what their cat or dog likes the most. You can raise cats or dogs very well on either exclusively wet or exclusively dry food."
Dental health is another issue related to the wet versus dry debate. "I've seen comparisons of dogs on an all-dry diet versus dogs on an all-wet diet, and those with the all-dry diet had healthier mouths," Brown says. However, as many as 85 percent of dogs over 3 years of age suffer from some form of periodontal disease, suggesting that the issue goes beyond the choice of food.
"What's good for teeth are raw bones," says Tina Aiken, DVM, a member of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association who works at Kilshannagh Veterinary Clinic in Ancramdale, N.Y. "I'd suggest 50 percent dry food, 50 percent raw food or canned food, and a bone once a week."
Luckily, there are enough natural and organic pet-food choices to meet any customer's needs. "We've seen significant growth in the category since we launched two years ago," says Pet Promise's Carter. "The natural pet food category has been growing up to 30 percent a year. Not only are the products improving, but retailers are paying attention to pet food as a significant, potential-growth category in their stores."
The price of pet foods varies significantly, even within the natural and organic category. But price is only one factor shoppers use to make buying decisions. Environmental and health issues, such as organic and hormone- and antibiotic-free ingredients, also resonate with natural shoppers. Retailers who can decode pet food labels will make customers' decisions both easier and better informed.
Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 10/p. 92, 94, 98