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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Pet Nutrition & Labels #6--Questions To Ask

After all of this discussion on pet foods and labels, I'm sure you're even more confused than before and are simply wondering "which foods should I feed my pet?"  Luckily there is some help, though it requires calling the food manufacturer and asking some very specific questions.  The following list is commonly used by board-certified veterinary nutritional specialists when trying to determine whether or not a food is of good quality.

Do you have a veterinary nutritionist or some equivalent on staff in your company? Are they available for consultation?
A good food company should have a specialized veterinary nutritionist (not just a veterinarian) or a PhD in animal nutrition on staff.  For basic consultations they should have a veterinary technician or someone with similar credentials who can speak to you to answer questions about the diet, and that technician should have specialized training in nutrition.  If the tech can't answer your questions, they should have a doctor that they can refer you to at the company.  If they don't have anyone like this to speak with you and you are left just with a customer service representative you should avoid the company.

Who formulates your diets and what are their credentials?
A company should have their diets formulated by a board-certified veterinary nutritional specialist, someone certified by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition or a similar regulatory organization. If not, they should have someone with a PhD in animal nutrition.  Anyone without either of these certifications is likely not as qualified to develop foods.  I wouldn't recommend any company without one of these kinds of doctors responsible for food formulation.

Which of your diets are AAFCO Feed Trial tested? Which of your diets have been AAFCO Nutritional analyzed?
AAFCO stands for American Association of Feed Control Officials and is an informal regulatory body established by animal food manufacturers.  Though they have no official legal regulatory authority, they establish standards for various kinds of animal foods and are responsible for giving those guidelines to the food companies.  All good food companies will abide by the standards established by AAFCO (or a similar organization in other countries), but they are not bound by law to do so.  Some food companies actually do feeding trials, where they feed a diet to animals then check their feces and overall condition to determine the digestibility and appropriateness of the nutrition.  Other companies simply make the food according to a formula and never actually test it by feeding it to real animals.  However, some of the companies who manufacture by formulation still have the nutrition analyzed according to AAFCO standards.  Others simply don't.  It's important to know how they determine the nutritional content and quality of their foods, as some methods are more accurate than others.

What specific quality control measures do you use to assure the consistency and quality of your product line?
Do not accept an answer like "we check them regularly"!  You should be given very specific information about the methods and frequency.  You should be told by what method they are tested for consistent ingredients, bacteria, etc. and how often.  For example, Royal Canin has a probe that they can put into a shipment of meat that will immediately tell them if it is the proper animal source.  If it's anything they aren't expecting, such as horse meat, they can know right away and will reject the shipment before it ever makes it into the manufacturing process.  If the company cannot give you specific, detailed information you should avoid their foods.  Do not accept vague answers in this category.

Where are your diets produced and manufactured?
Not to bash China too much, but there have been a lot of foods, treats, and ingredients from that country that have been a problem and have led to numerous recalls.  Even if some of the ingredients are safe (and they are being watched much more closely now), I would want to know who actually produces the food.  Many food companies don't actually own the manufacturing plants, and outsource their foods to a different company.  This outsourcing means that they have much less quality control over their diets, which is one of the big problems that Blue Buffalo has had in recent years.

Can you provide a complete product nutrient analysis and digestibility results of your best-selling canine and feline foods?
If they give you the ingredient list, press them for more.  Remember that the list of ingredients and the guaranteed analysis say little to nothing about the specific nutrients in the diets.  You do NOT want an ingredient list, as it is not the same thing as a complete nutrient analysis.  Press for details on the 35+ nutrients that dogs and cats need.  Besides that you should be able to get results of analysis on digestibility.  Just because something is added to the diet doesn't mean that the animal properly digests and absorbs those nutrients.  A nutrient analysis tells you what is put into the food.  A digestibility analysis tells you how much of that goes into the pet.  They are not the same thing and both are important.  If the company can't give you this information, avoid the food.

That's a lot to find out, isn't it?  I'll bet that the vast majority of pet owners will never do this kind of work, and that will include most of the people reading this post.  It's a lot of work, which is why I don't even do it myself.  I rely on food recommendations from board-certified nutritionists, the ones who are teaching the classes and doing the research.  They're the ones who have gone through the additional education and research and I trust their judgement when it comes to pet foods.  If they choose to feed a food to a pet, I trust their recommendation. 

Which foods do they recommend?  Typically brands from Royal Canin, Iams (including Eukanuba), Hill's Science Diet, and Purina.  If you strongly disagree with any of these companies you're going against the specialists, not me.

That should do it for nutrition topics for now!  I hope you now are better informed as consumers and pet owners.