Eating well is tough. It's tough for us humans, and it's tough for our pets. It seems that everyone has an opinion on what to feed their pet. You talk to friends. You browse the Internet. You look at cute commercials and pretty pictures on the bags, so you end up feeling dazed and confused. Should you feed an all meat, raw diet because long ago man's best friend was a carnivore? Your best friend is a Great Dane or a Dachshund, and you notice there's a food made just for that breed. How about Organic or Natural diets?
For 2014, it is estimated that $56 billion will be spent on our pets in the United States. Of that, food will comprise a major chunk at $21 billion. It is no wonder that more and more companies are joining the fray and clamoring for pet owners to buy their food. The pet food industry is highly creative and under no scrutiny from the FDA. It is truly buyer beware (hence, the many recalls). Let's start with the basics and consider what is best for our senior, golden pets.
How do I know if my pet food is high in quality?
Read the label! The first level of quality assurance is a statement that the food is "complete and balanced" for your pet's life stage, meeting standards set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). The second quality statement is that the food has passed feeding trials according to AAFCO standards. This means the food was fed to REAL animals (not just formulated on a computer) to ensure product digestibility and safety. These pets maintained their health and body weight while fed the food for at least six months. Feeding trials are becoming less common because they are expensive.
Should I feed canned or kibble (dry) food to my pet?
They're equally nutritious, but differences do exist. Canned diets are higher in fat so they're more palatable. Your pet will LOVE them! Picky dogs and cats, those who are thin or not doing well because of illness will do better with these. Pudgy pets should steer clear. Certainly the higher water content is helpful for those who don’t drink much or are diagnosed with kidney disease (common in cats). Dry food has tooth-scraping benefits so teeth stay cleaner of bacterial decay which leads to heart and kidney disease. 70% of older cats and 80% of older dogs have gum disease, which causes bad breath and health problems.
What about special diets?
These diets are worthwhile. Puppy and kitten food is important. They need a food that is formulated to meet AAFCO standards for growth. Large and giant breed puppies further need a special formula to help them avoid developmental bone diseases, so a diet with controlled levels of calcium, phosphorous and calories is helpful.
With our aging pets, we seek a Mature or Senior diet that is lower in protein (to spare the kidneys), lower in fat and higher in fiber (to keep a lighter body weight to avoid arthritic problems) and lower in sodium (to spare the heart). Additives of fatty acids, oxidative enzymes and joint supplements are all helpful but are an area of much controversy (which ones? how much?). Special diets for specific physiologic problems, such as: Kidney, Liver, Intestinal, Heart, etc., are also available and extend lives.
So-called special diets available from pet supply stores (like Senior, Joint and Weight control foods) have no legal definition regulated by the FDA. Be careful! It is much smarter to go to a veterinarian and purchase a prescription diet. These must meet FDA standards.
How much food should I feed my pet?
Pet obesity is a growing (no pun intended) problem. Many humans think food is love and overfeed. They do not adjust food intake for age or lifestyle. There may be multiple family members noticing an empty food bowl so a constant overflowing bowl occurs. You should be able to feel ribs and see a waistline behind the ribs. Pet foods vary widely in percentages of protein, fiber, fat (all shown in the AAFCO analysis), and calories (not always printed). A cup of food can be 200 or 600 calories per cup. If you switch foods and keep feeding the same amount, you could be drastically changing the caloric intake without noticing.
Do NOT feed human food as the primary diet (perhaps this should be at the top of this list)! Our pets eat simply to satisfy the appetite stimulant center of their brain. They do not chew to savor. They do not have taste buds similar to ours. They rip into their meal and simply swallow. In addition, our food is too high in fat (frequently causing Pancreatitis) and does not have the necessary ingredients or percentages needed for balanced nutrition. Simply put, a dog is a dog and a cat is a cat.
Good nutrition is complex. Any food that meets AAFCO standards, is appropriate for your pet's life stage and comes from a reputable company is probably fine. If diagnostic tests show a physiologic problem, then a diet made specifically for that disease is appropriate. As a rule, if you notice changes in appetite, water intake, bowel movements or body weight, don't dismiss these as "part of the aging process" — they may be signs of serious disease and should be discussed with us.