Choosing the Best Diet for Your Pet

By Canadian Academy of Veterinary Nutrition (CAVN), Sarah K. Abood, DVM, PhD

How do I choose the best diet for my pet?

With so many pet food options available, it can be hard to choose just one. There are a number of things to consider as you and your veterinarian choose a diet for your pet.

Consider your pet’s life stage

Match your pet’s life stage with an appropriate food choice that is balanced for growth, reproduction (pregnancy and nursing), adult maintenance, or a senior lifestyle.

For example, from the time of weaning until approximately 10 to 12 months of age, most kittens and small- to medium-sized puppies should eat foods formulated and balanced specifically for growth. Large breed puppies need a balanced growth formula until about 15 to 18 months of age, while giant breed pups need a balanced growth recipe until about 18 to 24 months of age.

Look for a nutritional adequacy statement

Many veterinarians and veterinary nutritionists recommend looking for a nutritional adequacy statement, also called an AAFCO claim (Association of American Feed Control Officials) on the product label or company website. This statement indicates that a product is “complete and balanced” for a particular life stage.

The term “complete and balanced” has a specific definition: “complete” means all the required nutrients are included and “balanced” means those nutrients have been adjusted or balanced to meet minimum AAFCO guidelines.

"Pet food products without an AAFCO claim have no verification 
that they are 'complete and balanced.'"

The nutritional adequacy claim also indicates whether the food was formulated on paper or if it was evaluated through feeding trials. Brands that are manufactured in the USA and sold in Canada (or vice versa) must have an AAFCO claim on the label; however, brands that are made and sold only in Canada are not required to have a nutritional adequacy statement. Pet food products without an AAFCO claim have no verification that they are “complete and balanced”.

Think about what matters to you

Consider where you want to shop and how much you want to spend. Convenience and cost are two key factors in food selection and purchasing, especially for people with more than one pet.

Consider the manufacturer’s commitment to, and transparency about, one or more issues that might be important to you and your family. For example, some pet owners want to know about a company’s quality control procedures, or the types of nutrition-related research they conduct, or the company’s actions to reduce environmental waste, or the types of donations a company makes to animal-related charities.

There are several different ways that pet food manufacturers communicate their values and their mission, starting with their company website. A company’s stated values and community actions may influence your choice of brands.

Consult your veterinarian

Talk to your veterinary healthcare team about the brands and companies they recommend. Ask them about specific criteria they use for selecting certain brands and ask for help in evaluating or comparing the product(s) that you are considering.

Which form of food is better for my pet – kibble, canned, homemade, or raw?

There is no single, best type of pet food, but there may be preferences among individual pets or their owners. For example, some dogs and cats might prefer kibble, while others prefer wet or canned food. These preferences are usually related to what the pet was introduced to when it was a puppy or kitten.

When introducing a new form of food, plan on doing it slowly over a couple of weeks to improve the chance of your pet accepting it and to minimize any gut issues such as nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.

"Rotate food types three or four times per year to encourage food flexibility."

It’s important to practice “food flexibility” by periodically offering your pet different forms of a balanced meal. Instead of feeding strictly dry kibble or only canned food, vary the form on a regular basis so your pet gets used to different types of food. This approach is helpful if a favorite brand goes off the market or is unavailable and a new product must be introduced; several options are available when a pet is used to eating more than one format. Rotate food types three or four times per year to encourage food flexibility.

I’ve heard that raw diets are better - is this true?

There are many anecdotal reports about the possible benefits of feeding raw diets to dogs and cats; however, there are no scientific reports or controlled dietary trials showing significant health benefits of pets fed a raw diet compared to those fed commercial kibble or canned food.

Unfortunately, there is substantial scientific evidence showing increased risks of bacterial infection for pets eating raw meat diets, and for this reason, many veterinarians and veterinary nutritionists do not recommend feeding raw meat diets to pets.

For those pet owners who wish to feed raw, there are several steps they can take to reduce the chance of infection or illness:

  1. Purchase raw food product from a reputable supplier and ensure the raw meat is safe for human consumption; for example, it is inspected by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) or the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
  2. Ensure the product or recipe is “complete and balanced” for the appropriate life stage (e.g., avoid feeding adult food to growing pups or kittens).
  3. Keep any raw meat or raw pet food frozen if it is not used immediately.
  4. Defrost raw meat in a refrigerator in a sealed container with no contact with other foodstuffs.
  5. Use any thawed raw meat within 48 hours or discard it. Do not refreeze thawed meat.
  6. Wash hands thoroughly after contact with raw meat or raw pet food and clean all surfaces, utensils, and dishes.

Should my pet drink city water, well water, or filtered water?

A consistent source of fresh, clean drinking water is the most important part of every pet’s diet, even if they eat a canned or fresh homemade diet. The source of water is a personal decision often based on cost and convenience. If your home water source is considered safe for human drinking, then it is generally considered safe for your pets, too.

There are no scientific studies published showing that dogs or cats that drink filtered water have significantly better health outcomes than pets drinking city water or well water.

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