Whats in the bag? A checklist for evaluating pet food options

June 28, 2019
Kristi Reimer Fender, News Channel Director

Kristi Reimer is editor of dvm360 magazine and news channel director for dvm360.com. Before taking over

dvm360, dvm360 August 2019, Volume 50, Issue 8

Even a veterinary nutritionist cant be familiar with every diet available for dogs and cats. Heres how to tell quality from quackery.

Relying on pet food formulations (not crafty marketing) is clearly a good idea. Lindsey Bullen, DVM, DACVN, a veterinary nutritionist with Veterinary Specialty Hospital of the Carolinas, fields lots of questions from pet owners and veterinarians about pet food. One of the top queries? What's the best diet for x pet? Or, a variation: Is x diet a good diet?

“How the heck do you evaluate all these diets that are on the market?” Dr. Bullen asked her audience at a recent Fetch dvm360 conference. “No one can be familiar with all of them-I'm certainly not!”

Here's what it comes down to, she says: A diet is only as good as its formulation. And to understand a diet's formulation, you have to do some digging. Here are Dr. Bullen's criteria for a high-quality diet:

  • The diet is made by a reputable, longstanding company. There are reasons many of these companies have been around as long as they have, Dr. Bullen says.
  • The company participates in active nutrition research-and shares its findings. If a manufacturer swears it's done research on a diet but won't share it because it's “proprietary,” “What-am I supposed to just take their word for it?” asks Dr. Bullen.
  • There are veterinary or PhD nutritionists on staff. The more the better, Dr. Bullen says, because it shows that nutrition is a top priority. Oh, and these aren't “consultants” but on-the-payroll employees. “I've done a little consulting on the side, and guess what-these companies don't always do what you recommend,” she says.
  • The diet has gone through feeding trials. While feeding trials conducted by the the Association of American Feed Control Officials are not the “be-all and end-all” of quality, “they do help,” Dr. Bullen says. “If a puppy eats a diet for six months and doesn't just survive but thrives, that's far better than, ‘I know it's nutritionally adequate-I calculated it out.'”
  • Quality control processes are rigorous. Does the company test ingredients before they come into the facility? Are the tests looking at nutrient profile or just microbial contamination? Are they testing every batch? Does the manufacturer conduct post-manufacturing analysis and digestibility studies?
  • The company keeps a “diet vault.” This way if there's a problem with a diet, a reputable manufacturer can pull a sample from that batch to analyze. Remember the Hill's recall? The company was able to respond quickly because it had the diet in question readily accessible, Dr. Bullen says.
  • There are no unverified claims. “If a diet cures cancer, I'm going to eat that,” Dr. Bullen says. Short answer-it doesn't, and the manufacturer should not be claiming it does.
  • There's no promotion of nutritional myths. “If a company says grain-free diets are superior, that's a myth,” Dr. Bullen says. “I don't trust them.”
  • The company doesn't bash other manufacturers. “If you have to spend your marketing money bashing somebody else to sell your product, it makes me think it's not as good,” Dr. Bullen says.

So there you have it: Dr. Bullen's checklist for checking out a diet. It may take some leg work to collect all this information on a given diet, but once you do, you can be much more confident of whether that food has a place in your veterinary recommendations.

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