Today’s competitive pet food market offers the pet owner a wide variety of commercial feeds from which to choose. This large selection of commercial foods, combined with the pet owners increased awareness of their pet’s health, has resulted in a greater demand for high-quality food ingredients for the pet food market. The demand for high quality ingredients along with the increased cost of ingredients and manufacturing has led some companies to search for lower priced products.
While these ingredients might keep cost lower, the quality control standards from which these ingredients come might not be up to the standards that pet owners would like to see. While the FDA continues to investigate the exact cause of recent problems with several commercial pet foods, one possible cause continues to be associated with an ingredient that was used in the formulation of the pet foods.
While this is an isolated case, it does make pet owners more aware of nutritional needs of their companion pet. A nutritional background will assist the pet owner to better understand their pet’s requirements as well as problems that might be encountered from commercially produced feeds. Estimations of nutritional requirements of dogs and cats are complicated by the wide variation in individual pets. Hard and fast rules are impossible to make; feeding is an individual matter and requirements serve only as guidelines. With that in mind, let’s look at some nutritional considerations when selecting a pet food.
One of the first considerations when selecting a pet food is protein. Does the protein source of the feed provide all 10 of the essential amino acids needed for peek performance? Milk, eggs, meat and soybeans are protein sources that provide these building blocks to protein, while gelatin, wheat and flour do not.
Another factor when looking at proteins is digestibility. Beef products, cheese meal, fishmeal, soybean meal and dried skim milk are highly digestible protein sources while gelatin, collagen, low quality meat scraps and cereal waste are less digestible. Also remember that cats have a substantially higher protein requirement than dogs. Pets use protein for growth, reproduction, tissue repair and tissue growth.
Another consideration is the fat level. Fats and oils have an important effect on palatability. Fats and oils also supply essential fatty acids. Essential fatty acids should make up at least 1% of the diet dry matter. Inadequate fat in the diet, in addition to causing a fatty acid deficiency, may result in an energy deficiency resulting in poor growth, poor physical performance, poor reproduction and weight loss. An essential fatty acid deficiency also causes a dry lusterless hair coat, scaly skin, predisposes skin infection and impairs wound healing.
Also the absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K is associated with the absorption of fats making them even more important in your pet foods. Most fats present in pet foods are greater than 90% digestible and are frequently the most digestible nutrient in the diet.
Another nutrient consideration is carbohydrates. A large part of most commercial pet foods is carbohydrates. This usually supplies the least expensive source of energy. High levels of starch can lead to diarrhea. While carbohydrates are not essential for the cat, they provide a cheaper source of calories than other foods and are often added to pet diets. Wheat gluten, which seems to be at the center of the recent pet food recall, is a source of carbohydrates and protein.
After protein and energy, another consideration in a quality pet food is minerals and vitamins. The essential minerals for pets are calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sulfur, sodium, chloride, potassium and iron. Essential trace minerals are copper, manganese, iodine, zinc and cobalt. These elements are used by the animal for growth, reproduction, bone development, immunity and cell well-being. A quality commercial feed will provide these minerals in the proper ratios and in a useable form for utilization.
A complete pet food should also include both your fat and water-soluble vitamins. Vitamins are essential for mineral utilization, immunity, organ health and reproduction. As a pet owner, you should only consider a pet food that supplies vitamins A, D, E and K along with the B Vitamins that are thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pyridoxine, biotin, folic acid and vitamin B12.
The last consideration for selecting a quality pet food is fiber. Fiber has several functions in the digestive tract. Most fiber absorbs water and helps produce a more voluminous stool than non-fibrous diet. Fiber also aids in the prevention of constipation and other intestinal problems. Also fiber can be used as a way to lower the quality of the pet food. The higher the level of fiber in the food, the lower the quality of the pet food. Always look for a pet food that is no more than 5% fiber to assure a high quality food that will meet the needs of your pet.
Understanding nutritional needs of pets will help you to detect problems that might lead to organ system failure or premature aging. For a normal aged dog, you should select a feed that is at least 20% protein, 10% fat and less than 4% fiber. For cats, your feed should be at least 25% protein, 15 % fat and less than 4% fiber.
The recent recall for a large amount of pet foods has made pet owners more aware of what they are feeding their pet. While quality should always be the first decision when selecting ingredients, some companies find it difficult to turn down a lower cost ingredient. This will probably be the reason for the inclusion of the wheat gluten as an ingredient in the recalled pet foods.
While no company can guarantee that their feed will never have a quality issue, I can assure you that the pet food manufactures that produce pet feed for your local Co-op store will always strive to only use those products that have been tested for any foreign substance that could lead to a nutritional problem in your pet.
Jimmy Hughes is AFC’s animal nutritionist.