What’s for supper? More pet food choices, more pet owner confusion

SBS in Vineyard Haven carries an array of dog food. — Photo by Kelsey Perrett

Variety may be the spice of life, but when it comes to choosing a pet food, it’s mind-boggling.

It once was easy to pick one of the handful of well-known brands to feed Fido and Fluffy. Buy a big bag and a few cans with a familiar name and cheery label. The animals devoured it and all seemed well. But these days, supermarkets, pet stores, and health food shops stock an ever-expanding inventory of brands and types of animal food. There have been recalls, worrisome to consumers wanting to keep their pets safe and healthy. Recalls affected both larger commercial brands and smaller, specialized companies.

Pet owners have become more vigilant about purchasing the best and most healthful foods. Many Vineyard pet owners even cook for their companion animals.

Healthy Additions in Vineyard Haven displays a bountiful array of higher-end, premium animal edibles. Supermarkets carry moderate price, well-known commercial brands with a few “gourmet” items. Both Healthy Additions and SBS, also in Vineyard Haven, offer many premium brands. Packaging proclaims “all natural,” or organic. Gluten-free, grain-free, all-meat foods are available. Many are tailored to age or health. Ingredients may include duck, venison, salmon, bison, blueberries, flaxseed, and apples.

Products are available for adding to home- cooked pet food to provide necessary nutritional elements. There are dehydrated meats and vegetables: add water to produce a raw meal.

“I’m amazed how much we sell,” said Healthy Additions manager Bill Ewart.

He reported that many customers seek out the premium foods, do not balk at higher price tags, and are committed to certain brands.

Mr. Ewart said his three dogs eat much better since he began working here and learned more about pet foods.

Though not everyone sees eye to eye on specific foods, there is widespread agreement that reading the label tops the list for becoming an informed consumer. Karen Ogden of Positive Rewards dog training recommends Whole Dog Journal as an excellent source of information on dog foods and nutrition. She advises choosing a food as she does for her four dogs.

The label should list a minimum of two different named meats, she said. “Animal fat,” a low-grade rendered product, and “animal by-products,” and excessive salt or sugar should be avoided. Foods should not include large amounts of corn or soy, since dogs digest animal protein best.

Ms. Ogden stressed the importance of knowing food sources and advised against any product with ingredients from China. A number of recalls in recent years resulted from problems with Chinese products.

“It’s worth it to buy high quality dog food because you have to feed less than with the empty calories in fillers in cheap dog food,” said Ms. Ogden. Owners should make sure the caloric value of a food is right for their individual pet, she advised. “If you’ve got a couch potato you don’t need to be feeding them what’s appropriate for a sled dog.”

She avoids all commercial treats in favor of the small steak chunks she uses in training. “If my dogs want a treat I’d rather give them steak instead of Twinkies and potato chips,” she said, referring to the low nutritional quality of commercial treats.

Veterinarians contacted were reassuring about the acceptability of commercial pet food. “I don’t have any particular brand loyalties,” Times Visiting Vet columnist, Michelle Jasny, DVM, wrote in email. “You have to consider the individual animal as well as family philosophy and finances. If you shop organic for yourself, and can afford to do so for your pets, that’s great, but as long as your pet doesn’t have special needs, such as food allergies, gastrointestinal or kidney disease, and so on, I think any commercial product from a reputable company is fine. The best bet is to talk to your vet.”

Veterinarian Catherine Buck, VMD, agreed that feeding most reputable commercial products is fine for your pet’s health. She emphasized that recalls have not been limited to lower cost foods but included premium foods.

Dr. Buck stressed the importance of reading labels and being knowledgeable about ingredients. She said meat, not meat by-products, corn, or wheat should top the ingredient list. Be wary of preservatives and artificial colors. She emphasized that pet foods should have an AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) label, listing many important details.

Dr. Buck was adamant that pet owners need not buy premium foods with exotic ingredients.

“Dogs and cats can live on chicken and beef,” she said. “It’s all marketing. It’s not healthier to feed duck and salmon.” She said some of these gourmet foods add ingredients like berries or flaxseed, “that there is no evidence pets need,” and these can throw the diet out of balance.

Cats differ from dogs in dietary requirements and need high meat diets, not vegetables, Dr. Buck explained. Dogs, like humans, are omnivores, thriving on a variety including meat, grains, and vegetables.

Though countless cat owners rely on dry food, Dr. Buck said that a canned food diet is best. Canned foods contain more moisture, protein, and fat that cats need, and not sugars and grains that can be detrimental to health.

Kerry Scott of Good Dog Goods is passionate about natural, healthful ingredients both in her baked treats and pet foods. She is skeptical about the quality of most commercial pet foods, whether modest price or high-end organic, and believes only a few brands are acceptable.

Ms. Scott sells Bil-Jac, all-natural raw and dry dog food from a small company in Ohio. She swears by the brand that she discovered through dog show connections many years ago.

Ms. Scott explained that although companies have good recipes, foods are made in large plants and may contain ingredients not listed on the label. She said it is imperative to know the original source of each ingredient and that it is pure and healthy.

“Call the company,” she advised pet owners. Ask who manufactures the food, what is the source of primary ingredients, and if any are from overseas, she recommended.

Valuable resources for pet food information:

Whole Dog Journal

A monthly guide to natural dog care and training. By subscription. whole-dog-journal.com

Recommended by Karen Ogden of Positive Rewards dog training, each issue contains one well-researched, detailed article on a specific aspect of dog nutrition.

Pet Nutrition Alliance

Recommended by Catherine Buck, VMD, this website is packed with valuable information. Includes nutritional guidelines, recall lists. Addresses frequently asked questions, such as: how to decode pet food labels, choosing a pet food, food safety, supplements, cats and dry food, nutrition for prevention. Are pet foods labeled “natural” or “organic” better? Why is corn in pet food? Are grains unhealthy for dogs and cats? Are raw food diets better?