Researching pet foods: What to look for

“Is this a good food? What should I feed my pet?”

I get asked these questions all the time, and it’s far more complicated than picking up a bag of food! Many clients base their opinion of a food or what to feed their pets on the marketing tactics that are designed to attract owners and appeal to their opinions on their own health. However, your decision on what to feed your pet shouldn’t be based on trends or opinions. When I am looking at a pet food, there are a number of things I check to determine if a food is “good” for your pet or not, and today’s post will take you through what to look for when deciding if a food is right for your pet and how to best assess its quality.

Many of these questions are based on the WSAVA guidelines (which I’ve included below) with a few of my own thrown in. As every patients needs are individual, it’s important to discuss your pet’s diet with your vet or consult with a nutritionist who can provide a specific recommendation of a diet that both fits your pet’s needs and follows the below guidelines.

WSAVA Global Nutrition Committee: Recommendations on Selecting Pet Foods (2013)

The company’s philosophy

What is this company’s philosophy on nutrition? Essentially you want to determine is this company or brand trying to sell you something that sounds good or are they trying to advance nutritional science and support their claims with research? This will tell you alot about the type of food they are promoting and if it will actually be suitable for feeding to your pet. As we’ve seen with boutique brands popping up recently, there are big claims being made that don’t really stack up when researched and tested, which can mean potential harm to your pet. Remember, pet food is for pets, not humans: you want a diet that satisfies your pet’s needs, not opinions or feelings around what nutrition should be. Some other things to look into would be:

• Does this company publish their own research, or do they back their claims with research? Can you look up these papers that are referenced and read them for yourself?

• Does the company promote inaccurate statements about nutrition? As covered in my marketing buzzwords post, not slapping on buzzwords on the package like “meat as the first ingredient”, “human grade meat” or “grain free” or any other new trend that is not backed by science but appeals to pet owners opinions on pet food.

• Does it discredit other types of food, to elevate itself? I see some companies doing side-by-side comparisons (usually not very truthful) of their food against other diets (generally kibble) to bash this type of feeding as inferior or low quality, however it is both inaccurate, biased and unhelpful to compare two vastly different types of food side by side, both due to guaranteed analysis being inaccurate (particularly when comparing on a dry matter basis and the diets are different formats such as wet vs dry) and the composition is so vastly different that you won’t really gather any meaningful information from it. If the food is superior, it should speak for itself without needing to tear others down.

The manufacturer

The brand may not be the manufacturer of the food or own their own manufacturing plants. Some manufacturers produce multiple different lines in the same factory or may ship their Ingredients or formulation overseas to be manufactured elsewhere. This is actually quite important when it comes to quality and safety of the food; companies that manufacture their own products and own the factories they manufacture in are usually of higher standard and more closely monitored than products who share production lines with multiple other brands and products. This is also of particular importance if you have a pet with allergies as the potential for cross contamination is much higher and allergens can get into the food (even if it’s not declared on the label).

You can also research or ask companies and manufacturers:

• What quality control & safety protocols do you have in place?

• Do you conduct routine testing on your food, both the ingredients before formulation and the end product after formulation?

• Can you provide a typical analysis not just a guaranteed analysis (either from calling the company or published online somewhere)

• I would also look into the brand’s reputation and history: Do they have a history of poor quality control? How have they handled any recalls?

• Where are their manufacturing plants and what standards do they follow?

The food

Now that you’ve done your research on the company and their manufacturing, let’s look at the food itself. This is where things get interesting; typically the food is going to reflect the company’s philosophy whether that is natural or boutique ingredients, raw or gently cooked, the format (wet or dry) or excludes certain ingredients. The most important thing for me, is that the food is designed with the patient’s lifestage, size, activity level and health needs in mind and is formulated to meet AAFCO guidelines – not ‘exceed’ them. Again, we need to remember that nutrition is a precise science and the nutrients must be balanced both in combination with eachother aswell as for the pet’s needs. Exceeding the AAFCO guidelines can potentially lead to nutrient excesses which are just as harmful as nutrient deficiencies, so a diet that claims to exceed the guidelines doesn’t mean the diet is more nutrient dense. The guidelines set minimum nutrient levels and only set maximums for some nutrients. It doesn’t mean meeting minimums is inadequate nutrition or less nutrient dense, it means it is ‘just right’ for that lifestage. In the same vein, it is my personal preference to avoid ‘all life stages’ foods, as nutrition is unique and individual to each pet and there isn’t a one size fits all solution that will suit all pets. That’s not to say some pets don’t thrive on All Life Stages foods, but just to be aware that as it is formulated to meet the most demanding lifestage (growth/lactation) it might be excessively nutrient dense for some lifestages (adult maintenance as an example).

Other things to look for:

• Is the food targeting a life-stage, health condition or activity level? You want it to be specific to your pet, not generalised or one size fits all.

• Is the packaging built to be fancy and eye catching to you? For example, is the package plain, scientific and state the necessary information in a matter of fact way or does it include alot of emotional and persuasive language and imagery to attract you to purchase it.

• Check that the AAFCO guidelines are met (not exceeded) and statement is on the bag (and AAFCO is spelt correctly!). Therapeutic diets do not need to carry an AAFCO statement as they are designed to have different nutrient levels to target and treat specific disease states.

• Does the company conduct feeding trials? This helps ensure that the food is safe and suitable for feeding. It’s not a requirement but it is ideal to trial the food with real patients, rather than your pet being the test subject.

• Does the package include all the necessary information? This includes an AAFCO statement, any other certifications, ingredients list, guaranteed analysis, net weight, etc. You’d be surprised how many foods simply do not!

Who made it

And finally, who actually came up with the formulation of this diet? You can gather alot of information about a food by who is formulating and overseeing the diets. Animal nutrition is not the same, or as simple as human nutrition (no offence to human nutritionists and dietitians!) as animals have very different nutritional requirements to us. Formulating a pet food that is complete and balanced, safe and scientifically backed, takes many years to master. Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionists are best placed to be formulating diets, and alongside them people with a PhD or Masters degree in Animal Nutrition. Unfortunately, there has been a rise in trendy diets lately that claim to be created by ‘pet parents’, or ‘vet approved’. To me, this is concerning as a layperson is nowhere near qualified enough to formulate a diet is suitable for companion animals. A diet that claims to be ‘vet approved’ again doesn’t actually claim to have a vet formulating the diet, only that they ‘approved’ the final product (which again, most vets aren’t qualified to formulate pet foods unless they are Board Certified or hold a higher degree in Animal Nutrition). Bigger companies often have a team of Nutritionists that both formulate and oversee the finished product; you should be able to see a list of who they have on staff or at least a mention on their website, when companies hide or omit this information, I find it concerning and deceptive.

There is so much that goes into choosing a pet food, and it should be something you take time with. Do you research through reputable sources and think about what your pet really needs – leave your own feelings out of it as much as possible. As I mentioned above, if you want a specific recommendation, reach out to your vet team or nutritionist who are best placed to provide these suggestions and have generally done the hard work for you. If you want to look more into companies and how they stack up against the WSAVA guidelines, a great resource is PetNutritionAlliance “Dare To Ask” tool – it provides a comparison of how all the major pet food companies answered the questions. And, don’t be afraid to contact companies directly and ask your own questions too! When understanding pet food companies, I’d recommend you steer clear of “rating websites” as these are very inaccurate; they evaluate foods based on ingredients and recall history, which as I’ve covered before is no indicator of quality. Usually these websites are heavily biased towards boutique brands and are not from a reliable source – another tip is to look at the About Us page on these websites which will (hopefully) tell you what the qualifications are of the people writing the articles and assessing the foods. If you want to ask a Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist a direct question about pet food, you can also check out which is a fantastic resource! There is both a database of frequently asked questions and the ability to ask your own!

If you have questions about a specific food, I am always happy to answer you and you can also see some of my responses on my instagram @nutritionrvn or ask me directly through the contact form! Please consider sending me a small donation as a token of appreciation through if you found my information helpful!

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