There are many different brands and types of pet food available on the market today. Because of this, it has become difficult for owners to navigate through the influx of information provided primarily through marketing strategies. It is important to understand how pet food is regulated in the United States, how to find and understand the information provided, and why choosing a balanced diet is paramount to the health and longevity of your pet.

Organizations That Aid in the Regulation of Pet Food in the United States

In America, pet food standards are firstly guided by the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, but those standards are loosely defined. This is in part because the FDA does not require premarket approval. The FDA is responsible for holding pet food manufacturing companies accountable for creating safe, properly labeled, and properly manufactured pet food. Though important and the basis of a good pet food, it is only a small piece of the puzzle.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO, is a nonprofit organization that was established in 1906. The AAFCO guides the state, federal, and even some international feed regulators with ingredient definitions, label standards, and laboratory standards, but itself has no regulatory authority. Pet food sold in America will have a label that includes a statement by the AAFCO. This label will state if the diet is complete and balanced for the species and designated life stage, as well as how the nutritional sufficiency was attained. The AAFCO does not regulate, test, approve, or certify pet food; it establishes model language for governing bodies. The longstanding purpose of the AAFCO is to develop just and equitable standards for pet food manufacturing companies.

The World Small Animal Veterinary Association, or WSAVA, is a nonprofit organization that is comprised of over 100 member associations, 200,000 veterinarians globally, and 20 specialty committees. Their goal “is to advance the health and welfare of companion animals through raising standards of veterinary care around the world.” One of the many committees within the WSAVA is the Global Nutrition Committee, or GNC. The GNC’s goal is to, “To help the veterinary healthcare team and the public understand the importance of nutrition in companion animal health by providing an expert source of accurate nutritional information and recommendations.” The WSAVA does not endorse or approve specific brands, but instead offers evidence-based nutritional information in regards to pet food on the market to aid in responsible decision making that will benefit the wellbeing of your pet.

What to Look for In a Diet

All the information needed to determine if a diet is adequate can be found on individual packaging. Lack of information is also a good indicator that a brand may be inadequate. Below is necessary information to look for when determining the nutritional value of a pet food before purchase:

  • Does the brand employ a nutritionist with a PhD or Board Certification by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition, or ACVN?
  • Is the diet formulated by a Pet Food Formulator with a MS or PhD in Animal Nutrition or a veterinarian?
  • Does the quality control process for ingredients and the finished product meet the standards of the AAFCO?
    • This information should include ingredient confirmation, final diet nutrient analysis, toxicology, bacteriology, and the shelf life.
    • Read the nutritional adequacy statement to be sure it is a complete diet or if it is intended to be “short term,” “intermittent,” or “complementary.”
    • It should also state what life stage it has been formulated for: “Growth and Reproduction” (puppies or pregnant/lactating dams), “Maintenance” (adults and seniors), or “All Life Stages.”
  • Has there been any product research or nutritional studies?
    • This is not a requirement, but does illustrate a commitment to pet health and wellness.
  • Are calories per gram of food available on the label?
    • Obesity is an ongoing issue in pets. Having access to caloric information is key to preventing overfeeding.
  • Is a phone number or email address provided?
    • This information should be easily accessible for additional questions or concerns.
  • Is the diet made by the manufacturing company or a third party?

Common Misconceptions Regarding Pet Food and Marketing Strategies

There are many ways that pet food manufacturing companies strategically advertise their product. Most brands aim to promote product sales rather than relay nutritional information. Some claim their product is free of fillers and by-products, while others claim their diet is “holistic” or “premium.” Boutique diets such as “grain-free” or “high-protein” have also been on the rise over the last several years. Pet food that is developed for “All Life Stages” has become popular, even among AAFCO and WSAVA compliant pet food brands, but carries the risk for obesity and nutritional deficiencies. It is important to look further into these ingredients and diets, what they are, and if boutique diets are adequate.

Fillers and by-products are both misunderstood by consumers in the pet food market. This is often taken advantage of by pet food manufacturers and used as a marketing strategy. Every ingredient in pet food must have nutritional value. Fillers are a cereal grain. Cereal grains are necessary when formulating a diet because of the fiber and starch content, which improves overall digestibility and provides energy. Cereal grains also provide essential fatty acids, minerals, and vitamins. By-product is a term used to describe an ingredient that is produced parallel to another. Animal by-product is the edible parts of an animal that are not commonly consumed by humans, but is nutrient rich and palatable to pets. Animal by-product is typically comprised of organ meats, but never hooves or feathers. Ingredient names do not equate nutritional quality. The final product that has been tested for adequacy to ensure that the nutritional requirements are met determines the quality.

In the pet food industry, it is common to see phrases such as “holistic,” “premium,” or “whole body health.” These terms are used freely and without any regulation. These terms can be applied to a highly processed, unbalanced diet or a minimally processed raw diet. It is important to gain a deeper understanding of what makes a quality pet food to avoid playing into emotion-based marketing techniques used by pet food manufacturers.

Feeding a high protein can be detrimental to a pet’s health for several reasons. Most commercial diets on the market are produced with protein levels well beyond the minimum requirement. Feeding a high protein diet does not have any health benefits to a young, healthy animal, but if fed to a senior pet or a pet with existing kidney disease, it can cause potentially serious health issues. High protein diets are not environmentally sustainable since protein is considered a limited resource.

Grain free diets are detrimental to a pet’s health because they have been associated with Dilated Cardiomyopathy, or DCM. Diet-induced DCM has been studied in pets for over 40 years. It was first linked to diets with a lack of the essential amino acid, taurine, causing diet-induced DCM in cats. In more recent years, hundreds of cases of dogs that have been diagnosed with diet-induced DCM are being reported to the FDA. The largest link to pets and this disease are grain-free diets that do not have enough bioavailable taurine. The FDA and the WSAVA have all recommended owners steer clear of grain-free diets to prevent this fatal disease and for pet food manufacturers to produce diets that meet the standard set for quality pet food.

Most, if not all pet food manufacturers sell pet food that caters to “All Life Stages.” To meet the minimum requirements to be considered a diet appropriate for any life stage, pet food manufacturers have to cater to the life stage with the most stringent nutritional needs: “Growth and Reproduction.” A sedentary adult or senior, does not have the same nutritional needs as a lactating dam or a puppy. Feeding a diet made for “All Life Stages” greatly increases the chances for obesity because it is much more calorie dense than your average pet needs. Since it is not made specifically for the life stage “Growth and Reproduction,” it is not formulated with the correct ratio of essential nutrients such as calcium and phosphorous. Owners need to be mindful of the excess protein, fat, and nutrients when feeding to a dog intended to be on a maintenance diet and vice versa when feeding to a dog meant to be on a diet for growth and reproduction. Overall, the diet can be fed safely if monitored carefully, but feeding a pet food made for the appropriate life stage is the best standard to follow.

Homemade and Raw Diets

Raw and homemade diets are on the uphill trend. There are many arguments about why owners and others in the dog community advocate for these diets deeming them to be “natural” or “evolutionarily correct,” but there are many studies that have debunked these claims.

Properly formulated homemade diets can absolutely be obtained, but not without correct protocol or knowledge. Homemade diets need to be formulated by a veterinarian or a certified animal nutritionist to be sure they are balanced in all essential nutrients. The diet also needs to be thoroughly cooked to ensure that there is no risk of bacterial or parasitic contamination. Unlike commercial diets, homemade diets are not able to be tested for adequacy, meaning the final nutritional profile cannot be determined. It is recommended that a biannual exam and blood work be done to be sure the pet is in good health while being fed a homemade diet. Homemade diets can be expensive and laborious, but can be beneficial when necessary and done correctly.

Raw diets should never be implemented. There is a high risk for bacterial and/or parasitic contamination to the pet, the owner, children, or immunocompromised people in the household that encounter the pet or their stools. Freezing, dry freezing, or dehydrating a raw diet does not negate this risk. Bones are often given to a pet as a part of a raw diet for their perceived dental benefits, but often will end up causing broken teeth, intestinal or esophageal obstruction, or constipation, as well as no real dental benefit. Because this diet is not approved by veterinarians or certified animal nutritionists, the diet will be unbalanced, causing nutritional deficiencies when fed long term, potentially negatively affecting the pet’s health.

Pet food should be chosen based on each individual pet’s needs such as life stage, size, and health status. Knowing what to look for in quality pet food and understanding the ingredients and final nutritional profile is important. It is important to be aware of marketing schemes used to sell pet food and the health risks associated with boutique diets. At this time there are only five brands that follow the guidelines set by the AAFCO and the WSAVA: Royal Canin, Hills Science Diet, Purina (One and ProPlan), Iams, and Eukanuba. Feeding a diet that meets FDA, AAFCO, and WSAVA standards should always be the goal, but remember that meeting your pet’s basic nutritional and caloric needs is top priority, however that may look for you and your companion.