Dog and Cat Food Basics

By June 30, 2021February 13th, 2024No Comments

Feeding your dog or cat should be simple, right? You go to the store or jump online, pick the bag or can of food, and feed your pet, right? What? Oh, right there are aisles of foods to choose from and don’t forget the pop ups or clerk recommendations as well as a good friend or family member that recommended this or that because it works well for their pet.  From dry to canned, freeze-dried, all natural, organic, raw and puppy to large breed, small breed, indoor, and weight control formulas – All claiming to be the best for this situation or that disease! Overwhelmed?  Oh, and don’t forget the human factor that loves variety in dietary choices and wants the same for their pet! Let’s begin with basic terminology:

Protein: This is the “meat” of the food. Typical proteins include beef, chicken, lamb, fish, dairy, and eggs.

Carbohydrates: This is the “crunchy” of the food. Typical carbs include corn, oats, rice, wheat, barley and potatoes.

Fiber: This is the “bulk” of the food. Fiber is important to maintain intestinal health and is often high in weight reduction/management diets to help the pet feel full while keeping the calories in check.

Color (dyes): The bright colors of any diet are typically derived from dyes. While these dyes aren’t toxic, they tend to cause problems in allergic-prone pets. 

Natural or Holistic: These are fancy terms with no governing body to back up the claim. They are terms that make us feel good about the diet we have chosen for our pet. What a great marketing ploy to tug at the heartstrings of pet owners wanting to choose the best food!

Organic: This term does fall under a governing body. A food company using this term on their labels must follow the guidelines put in place to provide an organic diet.

Carnivore: This means “meat eater” Domestic dog and cat ancestors had a highly carnivorous behavior.  They would hunt and kill for food. When hunts weren’t successful, they had to rely on nuts, berries, and grains for energy. Cats are obligate carnivores. They must have taurine in their diet. Taurine is an amino acid derived from animal-based proteins and it is critical for a healthy cat.  While our feline friends need meat, our canine friends need grains! Studies indicate that a grain free diet in dogs may lead to dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). While cats need meat, dogs need grains!

Dry Food: This is the Kibble of food types. Dry food tends to be higher in carbohydrates and fiber. This is sometimes viewed as an easy way to feed a pet. Scoop some kibble in the bowl and move on with your day! Dry food tends to last long when kept in a sealed container protected from air and moisture. We recommend keeping the original bag or at least the label with the manufacturing information in case of a recall.

Canned Food: Loafs, pates and stews, oh my!  While typically higher in protein, canned foods may also come with a higher sugar content. That’s how they get that delicious gravy!  An open can may keep well sealed tight in the fridge for 3 days max.  Offering canned food is a great way to increase the moisture intake for your pet. This is particularly important in pets with urinary diseases like urinary stones or recurrent infections (UTI). Kittens should be offered canned and dry during the first few months of age. Studies show they are more apt to take to canned or dry later in life if a prescription dietary change is necessary to manage a disease.

Home Cooked and Raw: Sometimes the overwhelming choices and the many recalls lead a pet owner to choose a home cooked diet or raw. While it can be done, there are important things to consider.  Balanced – the diet needs to be balanced! We recommend consulting with a veterinary nutritionist if you are going to choose this route. Simply cooking some chicken breast and tossing it with some carrots and green beans does not provide the nutrients your dog or cat requires daily.  There are benefits to choosing a raw or home cooked diet including firmer stools in smaller quantities, improved digestion, healthier skin and hair coat, reduced allergies and better weight management.  When handling raw meat be sure to keep in mind the increased exposure to salmonella and/or E. coli. You will need to handle organ meat as well as bones -The wild ancestors consumed the entire catch after a successful hunt. There are options for prepared raw diets on the market.

Limited Ingredient, Novel Protein, Hypoallergenic – These terms are intended for an allergic pet. Food allergies in pets may present as skin irritation – especially the ears and feet. Intermittent or constant vomiting and/or diarrhea. The ingredients in these foods are meant to be gentler on the stomach and intestines. They may contain a protein source that isn’t typical (novel) (i.e.: rabbit, venison, kangaroo) and the pet may not have been exposed to before. See our article on Allergies for further explanation.

Prescription Diet: This dietary term means medicine.  A prescription diet has been specially formulated to aid treatment of a disease and should be viewed the same as a prescription medication. We offer diets to support patients diagnosed with diabetes, kidney disease, urinary disease, digestive disease, obesity and more. These diets are available in canned and dry formulas from several manufacturers. If your pet is placed on a prescription diet, it is imperative that they are only fed that diet. No extra treats, food, or table foods are to be given. 

Puppy/Kitten – Adult – Senior: These are terms for life stages. The American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) This organization provides nutritional criteria for food manufacturers to follow. If a manufacturer is following the criteria, they will provide an AAFCO statement on their label.  An AAFCO statement containing the words “all life stages” indicates that this food is meant for puppies or kittens.  This means a higher calorie count that may not be necessary for an adult pet. On the other hand, an AAFCO statement with the words “…complete and balanced nutrition for maintenance…” indicates this food is for adults and will not provide proper nutrition for a growing puppy or kitten.  Be sure to look at this AAFCO statement despite what the front of the label says!  

Now, what about the life stages of dogs?  So many of us know the multiply your dog’s age by 7 to get their “real age.”  Well, there is some truth to that!  The average is 7 human years equals one dog year. It varies by the size of the dog. The size of a dog is determined by breed. Generally, puppies need puppy food until they are about a year of age. Giant breeds will need that puppy food until 2 years of age because they go through a longer growth period. The nutritional needs of large and giant breeds are different that smaller breeds and you should be purchasing puppy food for large/giant breed dogs. The label will tell you this! Let’s fast forward to our senior pets. They have special needs too but again; the senior status varies based on size with the average being about 7 years – human years. Giant breeds are considered senior at 5 years of age while medium and large breeds are senior at 7 years. The small/tiny breeds are senior at 8 years of age. A senior diet takes into consideration the slowing of metabolism and therefore the need for less calories but also considers the change in organ function that comes with age. 

We could continue talking about food for days but this blog hits on key topics. If you find yourself still in a debacle for making a good choice, give us a call. A technician will be glad to look at your pet’s medical record and help you decide which diet would be the best.