By Lisa Shumate, DVM
My short answer to this very common question is, “the best quality pet food that you can afford.” Good basic nutrition is the foundation of good health! The problem is, it is extremely difficult to determine what’s “best” in a multi-billion dollar pet food industry that is largely driven by unsubstantiated marketing claims and the latest fads that appeal to pet owners. Perfect examples from recent years include the incitement of fear of “by-products” and the advent of “grain free” being the solution to every ill. The truth is, the first parts of a prey animal eaten by a predator (canine, feline, or otherwise) are generally the “by-products”, and grains are very rarely the cause of any allergic issues!
I wish it was as simple as comparing ingredient lists, but it just isn’t! There are tricks of the trade that companies can use to make their ingredient lists look more attractive to consumers, but don’t necessarily comprise a diet any healthier than the one next to it on the shelf. My bottom line is this: choose a company that employs at least one board-certified veterinary nutritionist and is actively involved in furthering research in animal nutrition. The diet should be shown to be complete and balanced, preferably via animal feeding trials that meet AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) standards. Minimally, it should be “formulated to meet” AAFCO profiles for the appropriate life stage (puppy/kitten, adult, senior) of your pet. I typically steer clear of any companies that don’t have a solid reputation and history of meeting these criteria. Purina, Hill’s, and Royal Canin are the “big three” when it comes to being active in nutritional research and incorporating nutrition into disease management for dogs and cats. Find an excellent FAQ here: https://vetnutrition.tufts.edu/faqs/about-general-pet-nutrition/
It’s worth knowing that cats are considered obligate carnivores, meaning they must have meat protein in their diets to meet their amino acid requirements. A natural or “wild” feline diet is composed of large amounts of animal protein, moderate amounts of fat, and very little carbohydrate. There are those in the global veterinary community who are adamantly against feeding ANY kibble to a domestic cat, for these reasons. Canned foods are generally much lower in carbohydrates than dry foods. Canned foods are about 75% water, which favors urinary health. In my household, I’ve gone 50:50 for three of my four cats, just based on the added convenience and affordability of dry food. The fourth cat has lower urinary tract disease and eats only canned food. If I only had one cat, I’d likely lean toward a 100% canned food diet. Hint: Do not assume that a grain-free diet is low in carbohydrates, as this is often NOT the case. Furthermore, many grain free diets are very calorie-dense (ie, contain a LOT of FAT).
How much should I feed my pet?
There is no “one-size-fits-all” answer to this question. Every metabolism is different and many of our pets don’t get much effectual exercise, not to mention that every food has a different fat/calorie composition. A piece of fudge has a whole different impact on the waistline than a same-sized piece of rice cake! I might be able to eat whatever I craved if I also run 5 miles a day!
The feeding instructions printed on the package are often excessive for the average pet living his best couch potato life. Calculation of a pet’s resting energy requirement (RER – the calories needed to just carry on basic metabolic activity) is a good starting place, but daily requirements beyond the RER are dependent on individual factors. Keep in mind that energy needs should be calculated based on an individual’s IDEAL weight, not necessarily his/her current weight. For more, check out https://petobesityprevention.org/pet-caloric-needs.
Be well-informed about what is a healthy body condition so that you can adjust your pet’s daily ration up or down as needed. You can assess a cat, a Chihuahua, or a Great Dane using the same basic criteria. You should be able to EASILY feel your pet’s individual ribs, spine, and pelvic/hip bones using minimal fingertip pressure. Your pet should have a visible tuck in at the waist (just behind its ribcage), whether you are viewing him/her from above or the side. Learn more about body condition scores at https://vetnutrition.tufts.edu/2016/12/how-do-i-know-if-my-pet-is-overweight/.