How to make best pet food choices

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There are many different choices of food at the pet store, and short of sampling them yourself, you're going to have to rely on your pet's feedback to learn whether or not the food is appealing. But because pets can't fill out a review, we grilled veterinarians to learn what you should be looking at when shopping for cat and dog food to make the best decision.

Don't assume that your pet is sick. "The average dog is a happy, healthy dog," said Donna Solomon, a vet with the Animal Medical Center of Chicago. Too many pet store foods carry a notion that the dog is ill, and owners mistakenly think they should be buying food catered toward their sick dog. "They are creating a little bit of havoc in the world," she said, recommending that unless a vet says otherwise, you stick with food for a normal dog or cat diet.

Price doesn't matter. "Observe how your pet does on a particular diet," said Kurt Gallagher, director of communications and export development for the Pet Food Institute in Washington. "Some might do well on an economy brand, but some might do well on midrange, and some might do well on a specific product. There are a lot of different options."

Be careful with homemade food and treats. Be sure to check out the safety of the ingredients before feeding it to your pet.

One Chicago-area store was selling homemade dog treats with garlic inside, which can be bad for some dogs, said Michael Marmesh, a veterinarian with the Coconut Grove Animal Clinic in Miami. "It can make them anemic by damaging their red blood cells," he said.

Stay away from food with too many ingredients. The food should have a good protein source and a few ingredients -- and that's it, Solomon said. It should be simple.

For cats, you want the protein content to be 40 to 50 percent, Solomon said. "The first word should be protein," she said. For dogs, the protein content should be in the mid-30s, so the first word of the dog food could be a carbohydrate or a grain, but the second word should be a protein.

Check the label. "The first, but certainly not the only, thing pet owners should be looking for on a bag or can of pet food is an AAFCO statement," said Dan Sanchez, veterinarian and co-owner of the South Loop Animal Hospital. The AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) is the organization that defines ingredients and official nutritional terms and determines the protocols by which pet foods are tested.

The No. 1 allergy in dogs is beef, followed by milk and then soy, so if you're worried about allergies, you may want to look for foods that avoid those, said Kenneth Snyder, veterinarian with The Visiting Vet in Miami.