When I’m advising a client on what to feed their dog, there are several factors I take into consideration: the dog’s age, breed, weight, body condition score, pre-existing medical conditions, etc. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and I’d like to address a few of the ones I hear most commonly.
The MOST IMPORTANT thing when choosing a pet food is the Nutritional Adequacy statement. If I could wave a magic wand, all pet food would have this in giant letters on the front of the bag/box/can so everyone could easily tell which foods are adequate for which pets. But alas, this statement is usually in teeny tiny font somewhere on the back or side.
The Nutritional Adequacy statement is based on nutrient profiles and feeding protocols established by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). The purpose of AAFCO is to provide protection for the consumer (that’s you!) and minimize the risk of malnutrition. If you’re interested, there’s lots more info about who AAFCO is and what they do on their website.
The Nutritional Adequacy statement has a standardized format, so it’s easy to compare one food to another. It uses the terms “complete and balanced” which means that the food contains ALL the nutrients required (complete) and that those nutrients are present in the correct ratios (balanced). It also uses “life stages” which are gestation/lactation, growth, maintenance, and all life stages because different nutrients and ratios of nutrients are necessary for different life stages.
Here are the two formats used most often in AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy statements –
- [Pet Food Name] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO [Dog/Cat] Food Nutrient Profiles for [life stage].
- Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that [Pet Food Name] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [life stage].
The difference between these two statements is that a food with statement #1 has been formulated based on the Nutrient Profiles whereas a food with statement #2 has been tested on real pets – i.e. a group of dogs/cats was fed only this diet for a period of time (10 weeks to 6 months, depending on the life stage) and they were found to be healthy and without nutritional deficiencies during this test. There’s a really great article with additional information on testing over at Veterinary Partner’s website.
Knowing that a food has been tested with feeding trials provides an additional level of confidence that the food is a safe food for your pet, but I also consider it to be sufficient for a food to have the first statement.
What About Grain-Free Food?
There are two reasons that your dog may need to be on a grain-free diet: 1) they have a diagnosed grain allergy (rare); or 2) you have a diagnosed grain allergy such that interacting with pet food that contains grains causes you health problems.
I have worked with many, many clients who tell me some variation of the following story: Fluffy was on a food with grains and was super itchy, then I switched him/her to a grain-free diet and now his/her allergies are SO much better!
Nope, this still doesn’t convince me that your dog is allergic to grains. Why? Because most of the time you also switched the protein in your dog’s diet – maybe from beef to salmon or chicken to lamb, and this is much more likely to be the cause of your dog’s improvement.
It is more important than ever to switch your dog away from grain-free foods if they do not need to be on them. A recent study from the University of California – Davis has found a correlation between grain-free or boutique diets and a type of heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). This is a terrifying disease because often the pet doesn’t have ANY signs of illness as the disease progresses and then one day they essentially just “fall over dead.” I can’t in good conscience tell a pet owner that it’s “ok” for their pet to be on one of these diets when I know that there’s a chance their pet could suddenly die. Here are some additional resources on this topic from UC Davis and NC State.
So, What Am I Feeding My Dogs?
Lagavulin, my 5-month old, female intact Golden Retriever puppy, is fed Purina ProPlan Large Breed puppy food. I chose this puppy food over other puppy foods because 1) Large breed puppies need specific ratios of calcium to phosphorus; 2) This food’s nutritional adequacy statement is based on feeding trials; and 3) Purina as a company has veterinary nutritionists on staff, has strict quality control measures, and owns/runs their own manufacturing facilities.
Cora, my 2-year-old, female intact Border Collie, is fed Royal Canin Medium Breed Adult food because 1) She will actually eat it. She is the pickiest dog I’ve ever had and we tried SO MANY foods! 2) It has a nutritional adequacy statement appropriate for her life stage (maintenance); 3) Royal Canin as a company has veterinary nutritionists on staff, has strict quality control measures, and owns/runs their own manufacturing facilities.
Gabhyn, my 11-year-old, male neutered Golden Retriever, is fed Royal Canin Mobility Support Large Breed because 1) he has chronic arthritis (he’s also on other medications and supplements); 2) It has a low caloric density to prevent weight gain as he’s slowing down; 3) Royal Canin as a company has veterinary nutritionists on staff, has strict quality control measures, and owns/runs their own manufacturing facilities. However, choosing this brand was a little arbitrary – other foods I considered for him include Purina ProPlan Joint Mobility and Hill’s Prescription Diet Joint Care, but I started with the RC and he likes it, so I’ve stuck with it.
I know how important your pet’s food is to you and I also spend way too much time agonizing over it. I want to give you good advice grounded in reliable research. Nutrition is not my area of specialty, so I lean heavily on the guidance of boarded veterinary nutritionists, especially those at NC State’s College of Veterinary Medicine. I really love their Evaluating Pet Foods handout and recommend you take a look! Pick a food with an AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy statement appropriate for your pet’s lifestage, avoid grain-free foods, and rely on companies that hire boarded veterinary nutritionists.