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Food Facts and Fiction: What to Feed the Beast
Mad cow. Chicken flu. PCBs in fish. If ever there was a time to consider vegetarianism, this might be it. And if it seems like feeding ourselves is becoming more and more like a leap of faith, just take a look at the pet food aisle.
The good news is that there are more food choices than ever for your beloved cat, dog, fish, turtle, bird or other companion pet. The bad news? Making the best nutritional choice for your pet can be a bit like playing the slots in Vegas-if they're all blinking "jackpot", which one do you choose?
New York Tails embarked on writing this article because we always overhear conversations between pet owners and pet store owners about what they should feed their pet. In researching this article, we quickly found out two things. The first was that, once a person finds a pet food that works for their pet, they will defend their choice with an almost religious fervor. The second was that there was no way we were going to be able to write everything there is to know about pet food in the space of one article. Therefore, the following is meant to be just a very basic guide to help pick the right food for you and your pet.
To begin, we contacted two top experts in the field of veterinary nutrition today. They are Dr. Rodney Noel, chair of the pet food committee of the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), an industry group that works with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and Dr. Rebecca Remillard, vice president of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition and a doctor at Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston, one of the top veterinary hospitals in the world.
Foods, Dinners and Flavors
First, Dr. Noel explained what AAFCO is and why their stamp of approval should be on the label of every commercial pet food you buy. In order to ensure minimum nutritional standards are met by the food product, it is fed to test groups of animals for six months. The animals are then weighed, have their blood drawn, and have other vital signs measured in order to see whether the food under review helped maintain or increase the animal's health; in other words, meeting minimum nutritional standards. If so, the food gets AAFCO approval. Legally, it is only these foods with the AAFCO label that can claim they offer "complete and balanced" nutrition.
Just as important, if not more so, is the ingredient list. Like human food labels, the ingredients must be listed in descending order. It's a good sign when you see a recognizable meat (beef, chicken or fish) listed as the first ingredient. (That's not to say the quality of the meat is going to be a choice cut. To trim costs most commercial pet food manufacturers use slaughterhouse leftovers in their food.)
Foods that list any kind of "meal" as their primary ingredient (i.e. chicken meal) aren't as high quality, as the word "meal" indicates the meat has been "rendered" by boiling or other processes (think chicken fat rising to the top of the soup.)
Words like "beef dog/cat food" and "beef dinner" on pet food labels also mean two very different things. In order to describe itself as "beef dog food", the product must be at least 95 percent beef, chicken, etc. But if it is called "beef dinner", then it must only contain at least 25 percent beef. The "dog food with beef/cat food with fish" moniker need only contain at least 3 percent beef, so it might contain literally a spritz of beef, or chicken or fish-just enough to make it palatable to the animal.
It's important to note that AAFCO only uses these statements for dog and cat food. No formal nutritional standards exist for exotic animals like birds, fish, and others. For these pets, an exotic veterinarian or private group knowledgeable about these pets may be the best, and only, resource.
Dr. Noel warns consumers to be wary of pet foods that claim they have "human grade ingredients." "That's just a marketing term," he said. It's either edible, or it isn't." He also advises caution with foods labeled "all natural." "It's almost impossible for an all natural dog food to be complete and balanced without added vitamins," he said. It must say "all natural with added vitamins and minerals."
"Natural, "organic, "vegan," "holistic" and "raw" diets made by small and medium-sized companies are becoming immensely popular. But nutritionists are extremely divided as to whether these choices are better than commercial food. Just because a food is "natural", they warn, doesn't mean it's without problems. Petcurian's Natural "Go" food for cats and dogs was voluntarily pulled from the shelves late last year after several dogs and cats allegedly got sick-some died-after eating the food. The problem may have been caused by mold in the wheat used to make the product. Raw foods (BARF diet) must be handled with extreme care to avoid contamination, as dogs and cats are capable of getting and spreading salmonella, e.coli, and other dangerous illnesses.
Mixing it Up
So your friend at the dog run or vet's office swears by pet food X and has convinced you to try it. Instead of giving your dog's or cat's food the heave ho and giving them something completely different (which can make them sick if done abruptly), Dr. Remillard of the ACVN said new food should be introduced gradually to your pet. Try mixing gradually larger portions of the new food with the old one. Whether the new food be dry, canned, frozen, raw or home-made, be especially alert for vomiting, diarrhea and other signs that the new food may not be agreeing with him. If you have any questions, there should be a number clearly indicated on any package of pet food where an owner can call with questions.
"A pet is an individual and not one product will fill all of the needs for all pets," Dr. Remillard says. "Be patient and see what works for your and your pet.
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