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ASK THE VETS: For good-quality pet food, check two things
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ASK THE VETS: For good-quality pet food, check two things

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Dr. Betty Myers, Dr. Rachel Dodson, Dr. Hunter Hamblen and Dr. Michael J. Watts

From left, Dr. Betty Myers, Dr. Rachel Dodson and Dr. Hunter Hamblen pose with Dr. Michael J. Watts. The foursome is the vet staff of Clevengers Corner Veterinary Care in Amissville.

Last week’s column discussing the dangers of feeding raw diets to pets led to many other questions on pet nutrition. This week begins a three-week series on veterinary nutrition. You may submit additional questions for future columns through ClevengersCorner.com.

I get lost in the pet food isle at the grocery store. Every week I just buy what’s on sale. Is there anything really wrong with that?

Choosing a pet food is a difficult and confusing proposition. The nutrition fact labels on the bags make the task even harder. You will usually only find minimum or maximum levels of a select few nutrients. One bag of food with 32% protein and another bag with 19% protein will both say, “minimum 18% protein.” Besides, how are you supposed to know how much protein your pet needs? When looking at a bag of food, I rarely pay attention to that information.

The first thing I do look for on the bag is the manufacturer name. Store brands and generics will usually have a distributor name or a statement that the food was manufactured for the store. It will not have the manufacturer. Store brands look the same every time, but may have very different formulas in each bag.

When a store is running low on a diet, it will send a bid sheet to many different manufacturers. The bid sheet will describe the size, shape, texture, and type of diet desired. Manufacturers will use commodity markets and “book values” to formulate the cheapest diet that fits the description. The lowest price wins the contract and makes the food you find in the bag. The next bag looks the same, contains the same type kibble, but may be a very different diet. If you cannot find the manufacturer, do not buy the food.

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The second thing to look for is the AAFCO statement. The American Association of Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO, regulates pet foods. This statement should be labeled for the appropriate life stage of your pet. Categories include growth, maintenance, and pregnancy/lactation. Some are even labeled “for all life stages.” Be sure to buy a food approved for the correct life stage.

The AAFCO label statement should also include the words “animal feeding trials.” This means that after the food was formulated, it was actually fed to animals for a period of time to ensure it met their nutrient needs. Since this method is expensive, it also means manufacturers are unlikely to change formulations frequently. To save money, pet-food companies frequently skip the animal feeding trials for lower cost and lower-quality diets. If the words “animal feeding trials” are not on the label, the company used book-value formulation.

Book values are lists of ingredients and their average nutrient contents. The final nutrition information is based on adding up the nutrient “book values” for all of the ingredients. The problem with this method is that it doesn’t account for differences in ingredient quality. Corn from the farmers market is quite different from Indian corn from the nursery. Yet the book value method can’t tell them apart.

In addition, book-value methods allow manufacturers to change the ingredients fairly easily. These methods are frequently used in the lower cost, lower quality diets. They are designed to make life easier for the food company and are not in the best interest of your pets.

You should insist on purchasing food by a reputable manufacturer that has used animal feeding trials to ensure the food meets the needs of the appropriate life stage. The manufacturer name and AFFCO label have just given you more information about the diet than everything else on the bag put together. By looking in only those two places, you can be sure you are feeding a good quality food to your pet.

Next week’s column will explore additional information you may consider when purchasing pet foods.

Dr. Michael J. Watts operates Clevengers Corner Veterinary Care in Amissville.

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