This article first appeared on LinkedIn
I’ve spent nearly 25 years in the pet care industry and the one question that I am asked more than any other is, “What’s the best pet food out there?” My response is always the same, “What do you and your dog need?” I’m not trying to be a smartass (well, maybe just a little). What I AM trying to do is have a REAL conversation about nutrition, pet needs and why packaging and marketing can’t be trusted. It's like the scene in Elf where Will Ferrell's character Buddy enters the coffee shop and profusely congratulates everyone working for having "The World's Best Cup of Coffee".
So back to the question at hand. There is NO single best pet food for all dogs. Your first pass at culling down a list of potential diets starts with eliminating the brands that claim to be! Here is my step by step Q&A for people that are looking for the “best” diet:
1. How old is your dog?
A dog’s dietary requirements change as they age. The industry usually separates it into Puppy, Adult and Senior but depending on the breed, these “milestones” are reached at different times. A Golden Retriever should stay in a “puppy” food until aged 15-18 months but most people stop around 12 months. Nutritional deficiencies made while your dog is still a puppy will have more severe (and potentially irreversible) lifelong consequences. For example, the established AAFCO minimum protein level for puppies is 22.5% vs 18% for adult maintenance. Breaking down protein to the essential amino acid level, while a puppies Methionine requirement is roughly the same as an Adult dogs, their Histidine requirement (critical to growth) is 2.3x more! The same holds true for Minerals. Puppies require 3.8 x the levels of an Adult dog for Sodium and Chloride. Senior diets often offer less calories, higher protein, lower sodium and fewer carbohydrates. The funny thing…none of what I listed is discernible from (or required on) the packaging label!
2. What breed is your dog?
Knowing the breed is important not only for the milestones stated above (how long should they be on a puppy food and when they should be transitioned to a senior food) but also for the varying nuances and nutritional requirements of different breeds. Animal nutritionists and veterinary researchers have shown that dogs, like people, have their own unique metabolism and nutritional requirements. Feeding guidelines on packaging are meant to be a starting point and not the “holy grail”.
3. How much does your dog weigh?
Is the dog’s caloric requirement being met? If your dog is malnourished, their body begins to turn against itself by slowing its metabolism and their organs will readjust how they perform their tasks. Lethargy, skin conditions, organ and neurological conditions are possible as the body is competing for too few amino acids, vitamins and minerals. On the other side, an overfed/overweight dog is prone to many ailments and diseases too. In 2002, Purina completed a 14 year life span study that showed when diets were restricted in order to maintain an “ideal body score”, the dogs median life span could be extended by 15% or nearly 2 years!
4. Do you know if your dog has any health issues?
Genetic predisposition to diseases can sometimes be held in check through proper nutrition. UC-Davis identified 10 heritable conditions that were most prevalent in purebred dogs including; allergic dermatitis, dilated cardiomyopathy and hip dysplasia. More immediate conditions and health concerns (gastroenteritis and food sensitivities) can also be alleviated through diet.
5. What is your dog’s activity level?
Not rocket science but if your dog is more active, they will have greater caloric needs and fewer if they are less active. It is also important to consider if your dog spends more time inside or outside and if the external conditions are hot or cold. Each scenario will impact your dog’s resting energy requirements (RER).
6. Do you have any constraints or limitations in regard to pet food?
Human food allergies (e.g. peanuts) and/or religious doctrine (e.g. pork) may require new considerations for your pet’s food. The amount of dry storage, refrigerated or frozen space available may also influence your form choices (e.g. raw, fresh, frozen).
7. What do you want from your pet food?
Convenience? Lifestyle choices? Accessibility? Exclusivity? You (or yours) will be responsible for feeding your dog so it is important to make sure that you can maintain your choice and that it meets your needs and requirements.
8. Where do you prefer to buy your pet food?
Do you shop at Food, Drug, Mass, Club, Specialty or online? More and more brands are available across channels but there are more than a few that are only available in certain stores or outlets. If you hate shopping online or don’t like going to the Club stores, you’ll either have to suck it up or find another brand.
9. What is your budget for pet food?
No one wants to say they are willing to settle for anything but “The Best” for their dog but financial constraints are a real concern. Look at the cost/day feeding; is that within your range? You may see a brand that costs $29.99 and think “wow, that is less than the $49.99 brand, I’ll buy that!” only to discover that on a cost per day feeding the $29.99 provides 3 daily meals ($9.99/day) while the $49.99 provides 8 daily meals ($6.25/day).
10. What does your pet food ACTUALLY deliver from a health nutrition perspective?
By now, your list should be fairly manageable. The last question deals with transparency and nutrition…NOT ingredients and marketing. What I usually say here is, “If a manufacturer doesn’t share this with you, look for another pet food.” There is nothing proprietary here and if they are doing the right things, they have all of this data.
i. What is the digestibility of your food and will you share the results?
ii. What is the typical analysis on vitamins and minerals?
iii. Will you share your amino acid profile for your diet?
Once you have the information, sit down with your vet and make sure it’s what is best for YOUR dog!