Pet Nutrition Myth Busters: How to Select the Best Food for Your Pet

Pet Nutrition Myth Busters: How to Select the Best Food for Your Pet

November 19, 2019 2 By Ewald Bahringer


Thank you for joining us today I’m Lisa
Freeman I’m a professor of nutrition at the Cumming School of Veterinary
Medicine and I’m a board certified veterinary nutritionist I teach
nutrition to veterinary students practicing veterinarians and pet owners
and I also do research and care for patients in our Hospital and I think one
of my biggest challenges that I see in all of these areas is a tremendous
amount of confusion about how to pick the best food for a pet so that’s what I
want to talk about today and give some tips on how to do this more objectively
so that that you’re picking what is really the best food for your pet this
has become even harder in recent years so this is a photo from a pet store just
one of the many aisles showing you know row after row of different foods that
owners can choose from and there are all sorts of you know vegan and homemade and
paleo grain-free all sorts of different diets that are available and it becomes
just overwhelming with the amount of choice and and really the confusion that
pet owners are having when we’ve done multiple studies looking at this this
was one from 2013 when we asked owners a number of different questions about how
they choose their pets food and we gave these different choices and in study
after study we’ve we found some very similar results and that’s that the vast
majority of owners select their pets food based on the ingredient list
unfortunately that’s one of the worst ways to make that decision and can
really end up getting pets and their owners in a lot of trouble because this
is not a very objective way to base that decision so what I want to do over this
next 15 minutes or so is give some information and tips on how you can make
more objective decisions people are passionate about their pets and their
pets nutrition now this is a graph from a study that we published earlier this
year it worked with a nutritional economist and we asked
number of pet owners over a thousand pet owners how they make decisions about
buying their own food and about buying their pets food I thought this was one
of the most interesting questions we asked we first asked the respondents how
important is buying healthy food for yourself
and this is the responses that they gave and you can see that buying healthy food
was really important to people either important or extremely important we then
asked a similar question that said how important is buying healthy food for
your pet and look at the response here people are even more passionate about
buying healthy food for their pets in this case it was dogs but we had similar
results for cats and and so it’s a very motivated group of people the pet owners
like myself who want to make the best decision and purchase the best food for
their pets the challenge though is that there are a tremendous number of myths
and lots of misinformation about pet food I’ve listed the top 10 myths that I
hear about pet food but there are many many others I grew these into myths
about pet food companies and the pet food industry and also into another
group that is really about the ingredients in pet food these are all
very very popular myths and unfortunately really are not true and
and often resulted in pet owners making the wrong decisions about their pets
food so we won’t talk about all of these today I’ll hit on a few of the more
common ones but what I’d like to do is give you some resources that will allow
you to make more objective decisions these many myths really have are very
similar in in pet nutrition and human nutrition and so a lot of the same fads
we see in human nutrition Atkins diets non-gmo grain free diets ketogenic all
of these things have translated very quickly into pet foods and we see these
same fads occurring in pet nutrition now some of these fads are fairly innocuous
so having kale and pet foods or having pumpkin spice favorite flavored dog
biscuits not really harmful it may not be a very
important thing to have but it’s not very harmful but some of the fans that
we see in pet nutrition are actually harmful so some of the negative
consequences of these many nutrition myths have negatively impacted our pets
we see the obesity rates for pets over 60% so over 60% of dogs and cats in the
US are overweight and that rate mirrors exactly the rates that we see in people
so we have a lot of overweight pets in our homes it also can result in health
issues for our pets this can result in nutritional deficiencies for example
this is a vegan cat food and it claims to be nutritionally complete and
balanced but you absolutely cannot safely feed a cat a vegan diet it’s just
not to their benefit and so this is just one extreme but there are a number of
fads that can result in nutritional deficiencies we also have a current
problem that I’ll talk about just a bit in a moment and that’s a heart disease
that seems to be related to a particular feeding style based on a nutrition myth
so we actually can have some important negative consequences on the pets
it also can adversely affect the owners I talked to a lot of owners who are
having a tremendous amount of stress over making this decision and over
trying to juggle all the many nutrition myths that are out there it even can
negatively impact the owners health for example with rami diets which put owners
at risk for bacterial contamination so these myths are very important because
they they can contribute to making decisions that aren’t necessarily in our
pets best interest so we have a real information gap in pet nutrition we have
very passionate pet owners who want to do the best for their pets but on the
flip side we have so many nutrition myths that are really making it
difficult to make the decisions so my goal here for the next 10 minutes or so
is to try and be a pet food mythbuster and give you some
factual ways that you can make better decisions to do that I need to give you
just a little bit of background on regulation of pet food so the the pet
food industry is actually regulated at a number of different levels from the
federal government all the way down so the Food and Drug Administration through
the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act it has regulation over pet food just as
it does over our own foods so pet food like human food has to be safe and
properly labeled for pet foods it’s under the Center for Veterinary Medicine
within the FDA the United States Department of Agriculture has a role in
regulation of pet food through labeling and identification of ingredients and
even the Federal Trade Commission has a role to prevent misleading advertising
the FDA is responsible for the recalls and so this is from the FDA website this
is probably a very useful thing to sign up for there be lists that so that you
can hear about any pet food alerts that come about pet food recalls can be of
three types they can be conducted on the firm’s own initiative so the the
manufacturer can identify a problem and recall there include the FDA can request
the manufacturer to recall a food or the FDA connects or actually order
manufacturer to recall their food and our most common recalls that we see are
problems with nutrient levels either excessive levels or deficiencies were
just as often bacterial contamination particularly with raw meat diets so this
can give you a list and find out if any of the foods that you’re feeding or are
considering have been recalled now another important organization involved
with pet food is the Association of American feed control officials or Affco
this is a group of government officials that are involved in regulating all
aspects of animal feeds not just pet foods but other animal feeds as well for
pet food regulations they promote they do two things they promote uniform
regulations and each of the 50 states has its own regulations but they are
based on this Affco model bill so that sets the standards
or those state feed laws the other thing that Affco does that’s very important is
they establish the dog and cat nutrient profiles so a list of the minimum and
maximum levels of different nutrients that pet foods have to meet so this is
an example of just some of the nutrients that are required there about 40 that
are required for dogs and cats and Affco sets up minimums for different life
stages so growth and reproduction and for adult maintenance and for some of
the nutrients there are also maximum that have to be followed so this is
these are the two very important roles of Affco what’s really important to be
aware of is that Affco does not certify foods or regulate foods so Affco doesn’t
go out and check that foods actually meet their minimums or meet their
maximum they also do not regulate Foods in any way they just set the standards
and the guidelines and then the regulation is actually done elsewhere so
there’s no such thing as an F Co certified or Affco approved food the
regulation of pet food is actually at the federal level in the state level so
at the federal level through these organizations that I previously
mentioned and then at the individual state levels usually through the State
Department’s of Agriculture and so that’s where the actual regulation of
pet foods occurs now it’s important then to understand that to be able to go to
the pet food store and look at the pet foods and make a good decision about
them one of the ways that a lot of pet owners make their decision is based on
the internet now there are lots of there’s lots of good information on the
internet there’s lots of not-so-good information on the Internet this is an
example I’ve changed the names to protect the innocent but this was a pet
owner who has a ten month old kitten that stopped eating Brand X cat food and
she saw a brand Y at the pet store and gave it to the cat and asked this forum
on Yahoo is this cat food any good you know I would argue that picking a
restaurant based on the internet based on internet forums is reasonable but
it’s not very objective way to make a decision on
something as important as your cat’s food so this is not a good way to base
your decision there are also ratings websites that rate pet foods gives them
a number of different stars or categorize them in some ways the problem
with both of these is that they are based on marketing and those pet food
myths they’re not based on any objective information so I strongly recommend you
don’t use internet forums or ratings websites to make decisions about
something as important as your dog or cat’s food so this is where we run into
a lot of problem with dr. Google the internet is certainly both a blessing
and a curse and so we can use the Internet to our advantage but we have to
know how to use it effectively and objectively and that is actually why we
developed our website called pet food ology this is based out of the coming
school and this was really to provide an evidence-based approach to pet nutrition
and really provide good factual information and information on nutrition
that pet owners can trust so we have a lot of information a lot of blog posts
on many different topics one of them is on nutrition on the internet and I’d
encourage you to take a look at that so that you can be a more objective user of
the Internet in terms of pet nutrition there’s also a really good website
through the World Small Animal Veterinary Association and they have a
number of tools including this one which is the savvy dog owners guide to
nutrition on the internet which provides good tactics to using the internet for
nutrition and also provides some very good objective websites so then to base
our decision for the best food for our pet we we have to know just a little bit
more information to to make that objective decision and if we’re going to
look at the label we have to have an understanding of that and it’s important
to realize that the pet food label actually has two purposes it is a legal
document there are things that have to be on the label there are things that
are allowed to be on the label but not required and things that cannot be on
the label but the pet food label is also a form of advertisement that label
has to appeal to us as pet owners so as much as my dogs would like to go to the
store and buy their own food they rely on me to go purchase their food for them
so the label has to to appeal to us as pet owners and so a lot of what the
label is doing is presenting marketing information and unfortunately what most
pet owners do is they base their decision on the advertisement part of
the label rather than the factual part of the label so my goal is to get you to
flip that around and rely more on that factual information so the the parts of
the label are the principle display panel that’s the front of the label they
identify the product they have to say whether it’s a dog food or cat food so
here it says dog food they have to have the weight of the product and then
there’s something called a designator which is not particularly in useful
information so really everything on the front is not particularly useful to base
our decision it’s more marketing information the more important
information is on the information panel this is from a canned food usually so
it’s usually on the back it’s harder to find this information on a dry food
label because it’s often in very small font on the side of the label but a
label has to have an ingredient list guaranteed analysis feeding directions
calories are not required and then a nutritional adequacy statement and a
manufacturer’s name and address those are all key pieces of information that
are required on pet food labels now I mentioned that the ingredient list is
how most people base their decision and unfortunately this is also a marketing
tool so this is a way that a company will list different ingredients or have
them in certain orders to appeal to us as pet owners so this is a cat food and
it’s got artichokes and tomato and blueberries and broccoli but it’s way
down on the list way below the vitamins and minerals so there’s really not
enough in there to have any nutritional benefit for the cat it’s on there to
appeal to us as pet owners so this is mostly marketing information so the
ingredient list doesn’t tell us anything about the
absolute quantities and more importantly it doesn’t tell us anything about the
quality of those ingredients just because there’s rabbit is the first
ingredient we don’t know anything about the quality of that rabbit ingredient
and we also don’t know about the nutritional expertise of the company and
how they put all of that together in the right amounts and the right ratios so
the ingredient list did not really provide us with much information so the
ingredient list is not useful the guaranteed analysis is almost useless
feeding directions can be somewhat helpful in some foods calories can be
good because that’s how we know how much to feed our pets but the two most
important things are the nutritional adequacy statement and the
manufacturer’s name and address so the nutritional adequacy statement is one of
the first things I look at and here’s an example shown here it says that this
food is formulated to meet nutritional levels established by Affco so this
tells us three really important things it tells us first of all is this food
even nutritionally complete and balanced meaning it has all the minimum levels of
nutrients so above the minimums and below the maximum so if we look at this
food this is a food that is a canned diet for dogs and you know you would
think walking down the aisle this is a complete and balanced food but if we
flip this food over it says this food is intended for intermittent or
supplemental feeding only so that means that this food does not have all the
required vitamins and minerals in it to meet the needs of dogs so this is not a
good food to feed as an over-the-counter diet to a dog or a cat so first we want
to know is it even complete and balanced if it is complete and balanced the they
then have to tell us how they determine that ideally a company would do feeding
trials and Affco develops these feeding trial protocols and they have to follow
these protocols they have to be a certain duration they have to have a
certain number of dogs or there are a number of things they have to follow and
so that tells us at least dogs eating these foods or cats eating these foods
will stay healthy during that period there are limitations to the feeding
trials but it’s a good level of insurance too to know that
dogs can stay dogs or cats can stay healthy a company does not have to do a
feeding trial they do not have to feed that food to a dog or cat before they
sell it in fact what they can do is they can look at their food they can either
analyze it or calculate the levels of nutrients in their food and they can
compare it to the FV Affco profile and make sure it meets the minimums and is
below the maximums and sell that food without ever feeding it to dogs and cats
so the feeding trials are a better way it they don’t guarantee that it’s a good
food but it’s a good good step the formulation approach where it’s not
actually fed to dogs doesn’t account for bioavailability issues or interaction
between nutrients so as not as good so how can we tell this when we look at a
food label this nutritional adequacy statement this will tell us animal
feeding tests using africo procedures if it has that as the start of that
statement that means it has gone through feeding trials now compare that to this
one this one still talks about ASCO but it says formulated to meet new trouble
nutritional levels established by Affco so this one has not gone through feeding
trials and has been formulated and compared to that Affco profile so is a
food a complete and balanced how did they determine that and then the third
thing this tells this is the intended life stage of the animal sometimes how
the food is marketed matches who the food actually meets the requirements for
but it doesn’t always so this is an example of a food it is formulated to
meet nutritional levels so it has not gone through feeding trials and it says
for all life stages so that meats it means it meets the minimum nutrient
levels for puppies and it meets the minimum nutrient levels for adults now
the levels for puppies are going to be higher than for adults and similarly for
kittens are higher than for adult cats and that’s probably fine for most
healthy adult cats that they’re getting higher levels than they need but it may
not be optimal for all animals so an all life stage diet it’s just something to
think and talk to your veterinarian about
whether that’s appropriate for your individual dog or cat so that
nutritional adequacy statement is very important it tells you a lot of
information is really important to look at the other critical piece of
information that we can tell about that food is the manufacturer to be able to
recommend a manufacturer and to be comfortable that they know how to make
that food and they have really good quality there are a number of things
that I would like to see I would like them to have at least one full-time
qualified nutritionist ideally more and ideally to have other experts like
toxicologists and microbiologist and some scientists but at least one
full-time nutritionist that is qwop has qualifications I would like that company
to conduct research and publish that research in peer-reviewed journals that
helps to continue to enhance their own foods and it also expands our collective
knowledge about pet nutrition I would ideally like manufacturers to own their
own manufacturing plants that gives them more control over their their foods and
then finally I’d like them to have extremely rigorous quality control
standards that’s a really really important thing and that’s not just
putting a seal that says your food is oh is really has good quality it’s actually
having a lot of procedures in place that ensure quality control of that food so
this is a list of just some of the things that are really important audits
of suppliers having really strict specifications for ingredients that get
checked at delivery and if they don’t meet those specifications that
ingredient gets rejected testing for various bacteria having there’s a number
of certifications that can be obtained and used and and testing their end
products so actually evaluating the food and measuring the nutrient levels in the
end product before it’s released to make sure it does meet all the minimum
nutrient levels so these are important things to do not every company does this
but it’s a really useful thing to look for
now these guidelines these recommendations are listed in the world
small animal veterinary association this document recommendations on selecting
pet foods this is available on the WUSA VA website and then we also have a post
on our pet food ology website questions you should be asking about your pets
food so these are all really useful to think about rather than just focusing on
the ingredient list now people always ask me how do I find out all that
information about a company it used to be that you had to call each company
individually ask all of those questions one of the things that the pet nutrition
alliance did and this is an organization I’m involved in
we actually contacted all of those companies and asked them some of those
questions so in in this document you can see we asked about do they have a
nutritional expert what are their qualifications they asked do they own
all their own manufacturing plans or did they use a contract manufacturer and
then we asked them nutritional levels of a randomly specified ingredient a
randomly specified nutrient so this is a resource for you and we’ll be putting
out a new version in the next month or two one of the big issues that’s
happening right now is grain free pet foods there are a lot of grain free pet
foods and this is I found this on the internet this not only is addresses the
grain free foods but also has a dog food rating which as I mentioned can be a
challenge because it’s often based on myths and marketing information grain
free pet foods are very popular it is now 40 percent of market share of pet
foods so it has really grown dramatically in the last 5 or 7 years
and that’s interesting because there are zero health benefits of grain free pet
foods so it has taken up a huge percentage of the market based just on
marketing and misinformation and so this has become a real problem because there
is currently a possible health risk between boutique exotic ingredient or
grain free diets and a heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy the FDA is
currently investigating this problem and this this is something that is
important to be aware of I’m not going to talk about this today about maybe two
good resources to learn more about this particular problem I have three posts on
our petrodollar G website and then a very good website called touring DCM org
that has lots of good information about this issue now I want to just finish up
about how we assess an animal and whether they’re healthy and whether the
food is the right food for them so if we go through and we base all of our
decisions and we we make good accurate decisions about pet food based on this
information we’re accurate information and objective information rather than
the marketing we still want to then look at our dog our cat to make sure they’re
doing well on that food the the thing is we they we typically look at would be
coke quality we want them to have a nice shiny coat you want that I have a good
fetal consistency now the challenge with coke quality and fecal consistency is a
dog can be on a very poor quality diet it but if it has a lot of fat in it
there coat will typically look nice and shiny so a shiny coat does not mean it
is definitely a good quality food we certainly want them to have a nice shiny
coat but that does not guarantee that’s a good food we also similarly want them
to have good fecal consistency but just good fecal consistency doesn’t mean it’s
a good food we also want that dog or cat to be able to do their job and then we
want to look at their body weight and their body condition score so body
weight is important but body condition score is even more important because if
you think about in your head a 75 pound Labrador Retriever it might be a dog
that looks like this one in the picture but it might also be this dog it
probably should weigh about 60 or 65 pounds and is very overweight so the
body condition score actually tells us the level of fat on the dog or cat and
whether it’s ideal too little or too much so their body condition scores one
for dogs and one for cats through the world small animal veterinary
association and in this scale a one is very very thin a nine is very obese and
between four and five is consider I deal so this is something you can
check on your own dog or cat and find out what your pets body condition is and
if it’s over five then you would want to decrease your pets body weight but this
is something you can definitely talk to your veterinarian about and find out
what they think your pets body condition is as well
so again one for dogs and one for cats body condition we feel lightly over the
sides we want to be able to easily feel their ribs and we should be able to look
at them from the top and see a waist behind their ribs so the important thing
here is feeling very very lightly and we do have a body condition score and
muscle condition score video on our pet food allergy website if you want to
learn more about how to do that the reason I emphasize this is that
maintaining a trim body condition throughout life has a tremendous number
of benefits for our pets it reduces risks as an orthopedic diseases like
arthritis and hip dysplasia it reduces the risk of diabetes and slip disks and
other back problems can improve their breathing and immune function and it
actually can help our dogs and cats live longer there’s studies that show almost
a two-year longer lifespan for dogs that are kept trim versus ones that are even
just a bit overweight so really important to keep your dog or cat nice
and trim so I’ll stop there and I just want to leave you with some trusted
resources again the the pet food ology website is I think a very useful one for
you and I’d encourage you to look at that the world small animal Veterinary
Association nutrition toolkit has a lot of the resources that I’ve mentioned I
talked about the taurine DCM website if you want to learn more about the diet
associated heart disease and then if you have questions about nutrition or one a
nutrition console particularly for animals that have medical conditions and
need modified diets I’d encourage you to talk to a board certified veterinary
nutritionist many of them can be can schedule appointments by telephone or
video conference if you don’t have one your area so these are all listed on the
american college of veterinary nutrition website so i’d encourage you to take a
look there so I’ll end there and thank you for
joining us today and I hope this has been helpful to this so that you can
make more objective decisions about your pets diet thank you