How to pick a pet food
part 1 - assessing the diet
Choosing a pet food is an important process, but not all companies and foods are created equally in terms of quality. Finding the right pet food is also time-consuming and should not be taken lightly. Following the suggestions below will help you choose a brand of pet food that is made by a reliable company.
The first thing many pet owners do when finding a new pet food is start looking at labels. However, the pet food label is actually not a great source of information when you are searching for a quality diet from a reliable company. All commercial pet foods must abide by guidelines set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and laws set by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These organizations tell manufacturers what can be on the bag, from the words and pictures to the ingredients list. These factors essentially make a pet food bag a legal document. Pet food companies still use attractive marketing tactics on their labels to influence your decision, but the label is not a good place to form your opinion about a pet food company or their food. Even seeing words like “high quality” or “premium” truly tell you nothing about the quality of the diet. (See How to read a pet food label and Pet food marketing for more information.)
The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) is an excellent resource for nutrition information. WSAVA is made up of dozens of veterinary organizations worldwide, with input from many different specialties within small animal medicine. One of the specialties represented in WSAVA is their Global Nutrition Committee (GNC), which was formed in 2010. The GNC has developed a set of questions that pet owners can ask pet food manufacturers, so they can assess the honesty and reliability of the company. Finding the answers to the questions below can give you a good starting point when picking a pet food.
The first step to answering these questions is calling the pet food manufacturer. Their phone number is located on the pet food label, or may be found online.
Does the company employ a full-time, qualified nutritionist? What are their name, title, and qualifications?
A qualified nutritionist is either a board-certified veterinary nutritionist or a PhD in animal nutrition. A board-certified veterinary nutritionist has received a bachelor’s degree (4 years), a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree (4 years), then completed a residency in clinical animal nutrition (about 3 years), conducted research and become published, and finally taken and passed a board-certifying exam by either the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN) or the European College of Veterinary and Comparative Nutrition (ECVCN). Diplomates of these colleges will have either the title DACVN or DECVCN after their name, respectively. A PhD has received a bachelor’s degree (4 years) and then continued their education under the supervision of a mentor in the field of companion animal nutrition, where they conducted research and published papers for multiple (5 or more) years after their baccalaureate degree.
Pet food companies should employ qualified nutritionists because these people have extensive training in the field. Board-certified veterinary nutritionists have experience dealing with normal healthy animals, as well as animals who have digestive issues or other diseases. Their expertise is crucial when the formulating diets, conducting product research and feeding trials, and noticing any abnormalities with the diet that untrained people may miss.
A good pet food company will employ one or more qualified nutritionists full-time, and will provide their names and credentials to you.
Warning signs: Companies may occasionally consult with a qualified nutritionist, or they may only employ the nutritionist part-time.
Red flags: Unreliable companies may refuse to answer this question, or they may claim to employ “experts” or “nutritionists,” but they cannot give you their credentials.
Who formulates the company’s pet food, and what are their credentials?
As mentioned above, having a qualified nutritionist formulate pet food is very important for many reasons.
A good pet food company will have either a board-certified veterinary nutritionist or a PhD animal nutritionist formulating all their diets.
Warning sign: Companies may claim their “board of experts” or “qualified scientists” formulate the food, but these people do not have the credentials stated above.
Red flag: Unreliable companies will refuse to disclose information or give the credentials of the person who formulates their food.
Are the diets tested using AAFCO feeding trials, or by formulation to meet AAFCO nutrient profiles? If the latter, do they meet nutrient profiles based on formulation, or by analysis of the finished product?
Dogs and cats each require over 40 nutrients to be in their diet so that they can live a healthy life. AAFCO has nutrient profiles for the dog and cat, each listing the nutrients and proportions that must be in the animal’s diet. On a pet food label, AAFCO recognizes two different types of statements for complete and balanced pet food: meeting AAFCO nutrient profiles, or performing an AAFCO-approved feeding trial.
Meeting the nutrient profiles by formulation means that the recipe or formula contains the necessary percentages of each nutrient outlined by AAFCO. This is a good baseline to make sure the diet has the right amount of each nutrient and shows the diet will probably meet the needs of a healthy animal.
Meeting the nutrient profiles in the finished product is ideal. This is because when the pet food is cooked and processed, the nutrients can change. We want to see that the final product has the right amount of each nutrient for the pet, because this is what they will be eating.
AAFCO-approved feeding trials require that a group of dogs or cats eat the food for a specific period of time. This is a good way to make sure that the animals can digest and absorb the nutrients, that the nutrients are bioavailable (meaning they can be used by the animal’s body), and that the animals do not get sick on the food. It is also a way to find any toxic properties of the food that may have been missed on formulation.
A good pet food company will use all three of the above methods to ensure the diet has the right nutrients and that it is good for the pet long-term.
Warning sign: The pet food might only meet one of the above criteria (usually meeting by formulation).
Unreliable companies may claim to do feeding trials, but they really mean palatability tests. Palatability tests are basically just taste tests and don’t tell you anything in terms of nutrition.
The company or manufacturer may be against performing research, or think research is “cruel.”
Feeding trials are used to circumvent the regulations in place for meeting AAFCO nutrient profiles. This is extremely dangerous because the food’s nutrient percentages may not match AAFCO’s profiles, but the food still passed a feeding trial. Feeding trials may not be long enough to pick up on these nutrient deficiencies or excesses, so pets may suffer after eating the food for years.
Where are the company’s foods produced and manufactured?
A good pet food company will have US-based facilities which are owned and inspected regularly by the manufacturer.
Warning signs: Facilities are overseas, the manufacturer does not regulate the facilities, or the facilities are shared with another pet food company.
Red flags: Unreliable companies may refuse to provide information, or the manufacturer never supervises facilities.
What specific quality control measures does the company use to ensure the consistency and quality of their ingredients and end products?
A good pet food company:
Provides you with detailed information because they have nothing to hide.
Has stringent selection criteria for their partners and ingredient suppliers.
Has specific analysis procedures for their raw ingredients and end products.
Performs daily safety checks and routine physical inspections.
Does nutrient testing before making their food, as well as before packaging the food for sale.
Warning sign: The company may claim extensive quality control but cannot provide you with details.
Red flags: An unreliable company refuses to disclose the information, or they have a history of demonstrably poor quality control, such as involuntary recalls (see Recalls for more information).
Will the company provide a complete nutrient analysis for this specific pet food?
A nutrient analysis may be a bit too detailed for a typical pet food owner to understand, but it is extremely important that a manufacturer can give you this information.
A good pet food company will provide you with a complete nutrient analysis, including all nutrients, not just the ones on the label. They will give you these numbers on an energy basis (grams per kilocalorie), not as a percentage or a minimum or maximum.
Warning signs: The company can only provide the nutrient analysis of a select few nutrients on an “as fed” or “dry matter” basis, or they can only give percentages, minimums, or maximums.
Red flags: An unreliable company may be unable to provide this information, or they will refer you back to the guaranteed analysis on the label, which only lists about five nutrients out of the 40+ that your pet requires.
What is the caloric content of a gram, cup, or can of this specific pet food?
This one seems simple, but is actually very important. While calories per cup or calories per can is legally required to be on the bag, the company should know how many calories are in a gram of food as well. This is because a “cup” is not a good measurement for solid products, and can vary widely based on what kind of scoop you use. The most accurate measurement of caloric content is by grams. (Visit How to accurately measure your pet's food for more information.)
A good pet food company will give you both calories per gram and calories per cup or can.
Warning sign: The company may only be able to give calories per cup or calories per can.
Red flag: If the company is truly unable to give you any calorie information, this means they likely fudged the labeling and/or are breaking the law, since it is legally required to be on the food label.
What kind of product research has been tested? Are the results published in peer-reviewed journals?
Some diets, like therapeutic pet foods, are required by the FDA to have research and testing. This is because they are making a drug claim stating the food can be used to treat or prevent a disease (visit Therapeutic diets for more info). Normal over-the-counter pet foods do not legally require research.
Good pet food companies are based in science and are committed to optimal pet health and nutrition. They will perform product research on all their diets, not just therapeutic diets. They may also have side projects that may not be in the field of nutrition but are still focused on pets’ overall well-being.
The company may claim to do research, but they cannot provide the results.
The results of the research are not published in peer-reviewed journals.
The results are not accessible to the consumer.
Red flags: An unreliable company may refuse to answer your question, openly opposes research, or simply does not conduct research at all.
Now you have the tools you need to go out and see if a pet food company can answer the questions provided by WSAVA. These questions will help you assess the integrity, honesty, and transparency of the company, as well as the safety and efficacy of their foods.
These are questions that all reliable companies should be willing and able to answer. If they won’t, or if they fall into the "red flag" category, it’s recommended to avoid the food or manufacturer. The best pet food companies will fall into the "good" category in their answers to all eight of these questions. These companies have the money and staff necessary to do these things; it’s expensive and time-consuming to employ specialists, perform research, and have good quality control. Believe it or not, most companies actually do not meet these guidelines! So, call your company today to find out if they do.
Doc of all Trades: "WSAVA Recommendations Explained"
FDA: "Regulation of Pet Food"
Pet Nutrition Alliance: "Dare to Ask"