I hear this question on a daily basis! Many pet owners spend hours researching options by looking at pet food websites, reading blogs, asking friends and family for advice, and browsing the local pet store food aisle. As a result, the amount of information that is found is vast and overwhelming, so our clients often ask for our advice.
Honestly, veterinarians are not trained in choosing a pet food. We are extensively trained in nutrition - i.e. what happens if a pet doesn’t get enough of a particular vitamin, what is that mineral used for in the body, what diseases have a nutritional component, how do we treat that condition, etc. Choosing a pet food can be as daunting to us as it is to a consumer, especially now that the overall number of pet foods in the marketplace has skyrocketed. So, how do we answer this question?
Our team of veterinarians review 5 different categories of information when evaluating a pet food company. And believe it or not, it doesn’t include an assessment of protein, ingredients, by-products or health claims! We first look at the company, decide if the company is one we can trust, and recommend to our clients, then we look at the individual diets to choose the best option for our patient from there.
Is There a Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist on Staff?
First, we look to see if the food company employs a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. It is our belief that a veterinarian trained in nutrition is the best resource to building a trustworthy pet food. Some companies will employ human nutritionists or general veterinary practitioners, like myself, to help develop the pet food. It is our belief that these companies do not produce pet foods that are comparable to those developed by a board-certified veterinary nutritionists.
Do They Make the Food Themselves?
Second, we look at whether or not the company makes their own food, in their own facilities. By making their own food, they have complete oversight of all ingredients, and thus the quality of food produced by these companies is superior. Many pet food brands are produced by one of two major production centers in the United States, and those companies do not have any oversight into the production process.
Companies we endorse not only produce their own food, but they have very stringent quality controls and all ingredients are thoroughly tested prior to being used in the food production process. Any ingredient that fails the quality control assessment is turned away. It is this high level of quality control that adds another level of trust for us as veterinarians when recommending a pet food to our clients.
Do They Do Their Research?
Next, we look at the research that individual pet food companies contribute to the veterinary industry. How do you know that a particular ingredient is important to the health of the pet unless you perform tests to prove that it has a beneficial effect? The companies we endorse spend millions of dollars to prove any health claims they make, and those studies are available to us, your veterinarian, so that we can see for ourselves that the claim has merit. Many pet food companies add ingredients to their food, or make a health claim, simply because they feel it makes their food more attractive to the consumer - which brings me to the fourth category we assess.
How Do They Market Themselves?
Companies that spend millions on marketing their food get the "raised eyebrow" look from us. If a company is advertising their product in every magazine and commercial break in your favorite TV program, why is that? It appears that they are investing more in their influence on you to buy their food, and less on research to support their claims, and less on expenses such as improving quality control or hiring a veterinary nutritionist. While I cannot prove that these companies ignore these more important areas, it certainly does create a feeling of distrust and skepticism.
In addition, I tell my clients to look at the pet food bag as a billboard trying to get your attention. Food companies will employ advertising tactics such as making a claim that may or may not be true just because they know that pet owners are attracted to it, such as "added fruits and vegetables" to keep your pet healthy. Other strategies include pictures of ingredients that are designed to look healthy and attractive, using celebrities to encourage a feeling of trust, or providing a picture-perfect dog on the bag to imply your pet will "look like this" if you feed that food.
Can We Visit the Facility?
Finally, we endorse companies that invite us to visit their facilities, see where their food is made, and learn how they protect their customers with their quality control laboratories and state-of-the-art DNA screening of ingredients they accept. We learn how they manage their food production to meet demand to keep food fresh as possible when it reaches the consumer. We see how they wash and sterilize, and then DNA screen their processing equipment when they make hypoallergenic foods to prevent cross-contamination. And we discuss the process of developing the food with their veterinary nutritionists. This open-door policy goes a long way to letting us know that they are not hiding anything or making false claims.
As your veterinarian, we still put a high emphasis on the protein, preservatives, and other ingredients (such as by-products). But we know that the food we carry is going to meet our standards, thanks to veterinary nutritionists, quality control standards, and open-door policies employed by those companies.
We are proud to carry food that meets all these criteria, and are happy to suggest alternative foods that still fit this profile that may meet your pet's needs, if we are unable to do so with what we have available. As always, decisions we help you make for your pet is a collaborative approach, and we will be here to answer your questions and give advice on your pet's nutrition whenever you need us. If you would like to know what we would recommend your feed your pet, ask us at your next Wellness visit!
Dawn Brooks, DVM, is Chief of Staff at Countryside Veterinary Hospital. She has been a part of our veterinary team since 1999, and is passionate about making sure families are making the right nutritional choices for their pets.