Deciding what to feed your pet isn't easy these days, especially after the FDA's unprecedented pet food recall in 2007 that pulled more than 100 brands off store shelves. The culprit of the contaminated food was wheat gluten poisoned with melamine, a chemical used to make plastics and fertilizers. The tainted food caused kidney failure and other illnesses, and may have killed thousands of pets.
Frightening recalls and poisonings aside, there are plenty of other reasons to be aware of what's in your animal's food. A good diet keeps your pet's coat healthy and keeps his digestive system running smoothly. Also, you pay for what you get: Foods with a lot of fillers are cheaper but less nutritious. Just as with human food, good ingredients will go a long way toward giving your pet a long, healthy life.
Learn to decipher labels on commercial pet foods. The most important parts of the label are the nutritional adequacy statement and ingredients list. The former tells you whether a food is suitable as the sole nourishment for a healthy pet, as judged by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. The label will specify that the product "provides complete and balanced nutrition." Look for labels that state that the food has been tested using AAFCO procedures. A well-formulated cat or dog food will list chicken, beef, lamb, poultry, or fish meal first (ingredients are listed in order of weight).
Cats are carnivores and dogs are omnivores, so both need their meat. Bonemeal and other meat by-products are poorer sources of protein. Soy, rice, oats, yeast, wheat, corn, and other fillers provide protein but aren't as digestible, so look for foods that list these lower in the ingredients. Manufacturers sometimes try to mask the amount of fillers in pet foods by breaking them into components.
For example, corn may be listed as cornmeal, corn gluten, and ground corn. If all three were grouped together, corn would appear much higher in the ingredients. At the end of the list, you'll find preservatives. Ethoxyquin is one of the most controversial, because it may affect a dog's liver. Look for foods preserved with Vitamin C (also referred to as ascorbic acid) or Vitamin E (frequently listed as tocopherol) instead.
Buy organic pet food. The "USDA Organic" logo guarantees that what's in the can or bag is certified 95 percent organic, and that the majority of the ingredients meet the same guidelines as organic food produced for humans (see Produce). The food won't contain pesticides or antibiotics, and it's preserved with natural substances like Vitamins C and E. As with any food, the organic option will be more expensive, but it's healthier for your pet, and the way it is produced is definitely better for the environment.
Make your own pet food so you know exactly what you're feeding your animal. Ensure you're preparing nutritionally balanced food, or your pet may suffer from malnutrition. Consult your veterinarian or an expert with an advanced degree in animal nutrition who is certified by the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition. You can also research homemade pet food at petdiets.com and the AAVN's website. Homemade food tends to be the most expensive option, but may be worth your peace of mind. While some pet owners feed their animals raw meat, you'll be hard-pressed to find a vet who thinks it's a good idea; there's always a chance that you or your pet could be exposed to E. coli or salmonella.