Choosing a pet Food

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Choosing a pet food for your dog or cat can feel overwhelming with the amount of variety and products available. In this episode, veterinary nutritionist, Dr. Dan Su, goes through the WSAVA Global Nutrition Committee Guidelines on Selecting Pet Foods. These guidelines give pet owners the tools to decide whether a pet food company is investing in science and nutrition when formulating their diets, or if the company is simply investing in marketing to sell the food.

Welcome Dr. Dan Su, Veterinary Nutritionist!

[00:01:05] Dr. Lancellotti: Welcome, everyone, to today’s episode of Your Vet Wants You To Know. This is a really helpful episode that we’ve got for you today. We’re going to be talking about the World Small Animal Veterinary Association Global Nutrition Guidelines. And with me today, I have Dr. Dan Su, a veterinary nutritionist, to go over those guidelines and give you some really good tips on how to select a pet food for your pet. Welcome, Dr. Su. 

[00:01:30] Dr. Su: Hi. Thanks for having me. 

[00:01:32] Dr. Lancellotti: I’m so happy you’re here. Why don’t you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself, what your experience is, and why this particular topic is important to you?

[00:01:42] Dr. Su: Sure thing. I’m a boarded veterinary nutritionist. And during vet school, I was actually originally wanting to do emergency medicine, because I thought it was really fun and exciting, and fast-paced. And it still is. However, as time went on, I realized that I am interested in other things as well. Veterinary nutrition wasn’t even a thing that I thought of when I first started vet school. Personally, I love food, and human nutrition is also interesting for me, as well. So, it blended well together. 

[00:02:23] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s a nice little overlap between the two things. 

[00:02:25] Dr. Su: Yeah. It’s pretty fun. After graduation, I did a general rotating internship and then a specialty internship in nutrition at the University of Missouri. Then, I did a residency in clinical nutrition at the University of Tennessee. And now, I’m a boarded nutritionist. 

[00:02:50] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s great. To understand how much training goes into becoming a board certified veterinary nutritionist, this includes 4 years of undergraduate study, 4 years of veterinary school, a year-long rotating internship, a year-long specialty internship and another 2-3 years of a residency, just studying nutrition. 

Dr. Dan Su with his wife
Dr. Dan Su and his wife, enjoying life outside work.

What does a veterinary nutritionist do?

Dr. Lancellotti: A lot of training, education and research goes into actually being able to understand the nutritional requirements of our pets, so it’s a real treat having a nutritionist on with such a great background. What does your job entail? 

[00:03:31] Dr. Su: Basically, as a nutritionist, my job is to come up with the best nutrition plan for the dogs and cats that come see me. They may be healthy pets, sick pets, or hospitalized- so the nutrition recommendations can range from what to feed your pet on a daily basis, to coming up with assisted feeding plans (when they’re in the hospital) to help support them in their recovery, to specialty diets for chronic diseases (dogs’ kidney disease, cat diabetes, etc).

Choosing a Pet Food can be Overwhelming!

[00:04:16] Dr. Lancellotti: Perfect. I know that helping these healthy pets with their long-term feeding goals is something that you do on a regular basis. Why do you think it’s so important that pet owners have the knowledge to be able to pick a pet food for their pet? 

[00:04:33] Dr. Su: I think this topic is important because the world of pet food is, in my opinion, pretty big and crazy. Commonly, I run into brands that I’m not familiar with, even though I am in this field. It just speaks to just how many options there are out there for the pet owners. For healthy pets, especially, there are so many different pet food brands. They all have different ways to try to get the pet owners’ attention- all the snazzy marketing claims on why they are the best and why you should go with them. And it’s hard to figure out what would actually be the best food for their pets. 

[00:05:17] Dr. Lancellotti: This show is very much based on evidence-based medicine- finding the benefits and the risks of each decision that we make when we’re talking about the health of our pets. So, I think this will be a really good resource for pet owners when looking at the science, the evidence, and how we use that to guide our decisions for the animals, moving forward.

Good Marketing does not Equal Good Pet Nutrition

Dr. Lancellotti: Is there a particular pet or patient that you remember treating or working with, as far as trying to figure out the best diet when choosing a pet food? 

[00:05:49] Dr. Su: Yeah! One of the pets that I saw during my residency, came to me feeding a brand I was not familiar with. The pet owner was wondering, “Should we just continue with this?” Since I didn’t know much about the brand, I told them, “Sure. I’ll look up the brand.” I went on their website. It had plenty of pictures of happy dogs and a lot of positive reviews. So, I found their contact info and learned a lot about the company directly from the owner. They basically told me the ingredients used in the product were based on whatever the company thought was healthy and wholesome for dogs. It wasn’t based on a dog’s nutrient requirements and had nothing about toxicity levels. The food was produced at their kitchen table. When I asked about the food-safety and quality control steps, there was actually a little pause. Then they told me, sometimes they wear gloves when they put the product together. 

[00:06:50] Dr. Lancellotti: Oh no! 

[00:06:51] Dr. Su: Yeah. I’m sure they were very well-meaning people. I thanked them for their time. However, based on what I learned about the company, I told the pet owner that I do not recommend continuing with this. These were things that I could not have learned from just their website, and definitely not something that most pet owners would consider, so I think that this is a great tool for the pet owners to have on-hand when they come across a company that they don’t know. 

[00:07:23] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. It definitely seems like the company that you looked into spent a lot more time on their website and marketing than they did on actual quality control, safety, making sure that the food was actually formulated for an animal’s specific needs, and that the food was not going to be contaminated with anything, or cause some type of food-born illness during the preparation. Oh my goodness. 

[00:07:51] Dr. Su: Yeah. It’s pretty crazy.

Safety procedures and quality control are important when preparing pet foods.

Who is the WSAVA Global Nutrition Committee?

[00:07:53] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah, and there are foods like this everywhere, so it is really important for pet owners to do their homework. And that’s one of the things we’re going to be talking about today- what sort of questions you should be asking when you’re deciding on a pet food. The recommendations that we’re going to be talking about come from the World Small Animal Veterinary Association Global Nutrition Committee. I want to start by talking about who they are. Who are they made up of? And where do their recommendations come from?

[00:08:22] Dr. Su: The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) is a committee made up of more than 200,000 vets from all over the world. The goal of WSAVA is to advance the health and welfare of pets. Within the organization, there are vets with different specialties and expertise that come together to form different committees, and make recommendations to benefit pet health in their respective fields. Nutrition is one of the fields, and that committee makes recommendations that help vets come up with nutrition plans for pets, and also help pet owners understand what to focus on when they are choosing their pets’ food. 

[00:09:08] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah, there are some really great resources on their website, not just for pet owners, but for veterinarians, as well. So, I was spending quite a bit of time, in preparation for this episode, looking through there and I was like, “Oh my gosh! This is really good!” So, I will have a link to the WSAVA Global Nutrition Committee on the show notes and the webpage for people to take a look at.

What are the Guidelines for Choosing a Pet Food?

Dr. Lancellotti: There’s one document, in particular, that we’re going to be talking about today- the WSAVA Global Nutrition Committee Guidelines On Selecting Pet Foods. I’d love for you to break this down for pet owners. According to these recommendations, when you’re choosing a dog food brand, what questions should a pet owner ask to avoid getting misguided by all the marketing that is done to get people to buy their products?

[00:10:00] Dr. Su: Sure. Let’s tackle this. The first set of questions in what to look for in a brand is number 1; do they employ a nutritionist? And the WSAVA guide is also helpful because they provide some responses that the companies may provide, which can help you determine whether their responses are what you should be looking for. Nutritionist is kind of a broad term, for example. And what does it really mean? Should you be taking the company’s answer as, “Oh yeah. They say they do.” Or whatever qualification they provide, you might think, “Is this acceptable for me? I’m not sure.” So WSAVA is helpful, in that they give you some recommended responses. 

[00:10:48] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. They break down, “What is the definition of a nutritionist?” They want someone who has those really in depth qualifications, like you have, or someone who has gone on to get a PhD in animal nutrition – somebody who has spent years and years studying nutrition, not somebody that had just taken a certification course or something. This is an actual expert in the field.

[00:11:12] Dr. Su: Yeah. Like you said, appropriate qualifications are either a PhD in animal nutrition or board certification by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN). There’s also a European equivalent, which is the European College of Veterinary Comparative Nutrition (ECVCN). If the company can also provide the nutritionist’s name, qualifications and employment status, that would be great, because usually companies that follow or fulfill these guidelines, they’re very proud like, “Hey, we work with a nutritionist. This is who they are. These are their qualifications.” And there’s usually nothing to hide. There are also companies which do work with a nutritionist, but the question is just whether it’s on a full-time or a consultant basis. Partially, this is because there aren’t that many boarded nutritionists out there, so you may not have the ability to have someone full-time. And there’s nothing wrong with consultants either, but keep in mind that consultants may have limited influence and limited time, compared to a ‘full-time staff’ nutritionist. 

[00:12:26] Dr. Lancellotti: Right. Ideally, we’re looking for companies where nutrition is their top priority, which is evidenced by having these experts on staff. 

How do we know a pet food is safe?

[00:12:35] Dr. Su: That’s right. And then the next question is; who formulates the diet? Are the recipes developed by an experienced pet food formulator? Recipe development is pretty complex. You need to know about nutrition, obviously, but also about raw materials and processing. There are different members on a development team where, in addition to a nutritionist, they may have a food scientist that is familiar with how ingredients are going to work together or how the final products are going to end up being effective and safe. Especially, when it comes to different forms of food. It’s pretty straightforward when you deal with a ‘fresh food’ model or a homemade-style model, where you put cooked ingredients together and don’t transform them into a different form- versus putting all those ingredients together and it gets turned into dry food or canned food. There are different processes and different expertise is required. The next question is; what is the quality control process for ingredients in the finished products? This is a very important question because, in addition to the nutrients being correct, you want the products to be safe, in the end. Manufacturers of the pet food should definitely have appropriate and adequate quality control to ensure that pet owners and the pets using this product are both safe. This should include ingredient validation- certificate of analysis of ingredients that come in, testing results, checking if ingredients are free of bacterial contamination, free of foreign objects (etc.). Final diet nutrient analysis; for example, after the food is made, the company should send it into a lab to see that what was intended to be in the food is all in there, and that the nutrient levels are where we want them to be. Also, there is regular testing for bacteriology, toxicology, shelf-life testing, etc, just to make sure that what we’re saying we’re making here is safe and it is what we intend to sell.

[00:15:04] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. There should be testing along the way, not just what we’re putting into the food, but how this food is being changed as it’s being processed, and then what’s happened to the food at the end, before it goes out to the consumer. One of the companies that I work with, on a regular basis, for animals with food allergies- I love the fact that they are very transparent about testing each batch of food, after it’s finished, to make sure that there’s no contamination from other possible proteins in that food. That’s something that could really cause harm to some of my severely food-allergic patients. And that’s not something that they have to do, it’s something that they do because they want to hold themselves to the highest standards of nutrition and safety for their food. So that’s a really good thing to look for, in a company, is that they are holding themselves to this high-quality standard.

[00:15:58] Dr. Su: Yeah, that’s definitely right. None of these are required, per se, but it is nice that the company is willing to devote resources to ensure that their products are effective and safe.

Food scientist looking under a microscope
A food scientist is an important team member in formulating a safe and effective pet food.

Do pet food companies perform research studies?

[00:16:13] Dr. Lancellotti: What about companies that are involved in research? Is that something that a pet food company has to be involved with? 

[00:16:18] Dr. Su: Yeah! That’s actually a good point, and that is the next question on the WSAVA guidelines; what kind of product research or nutrition studies have been conducted? Is it published in peer-reviewed journals? Pet food companies, to be clear, are not required to conduct or sponsor nutritional research in order to make and sell a food. When they do, it shows that what we’re saying this diet does, it does- because we’ve done studies on it. It also shows that they are willing to devote extra resources to commit to animal health and wellness and contribute to the field of nutrition, so we can gain more knowledge. So, it’s not so much required, but it’s a nice thing to have.

What should you look for on a pet food label?

[00:17:06] Dr. Lancellotti: So these are all questions that the pet owner can contact the company and ask them about. But what if they’re just in the store and they’re browsing through the aisles of pet foods and they’re just looking at the label? What are some things that they can use to make an educated decision when they’re selecting a food? 

[00:17:25] Dr. Su: On the labels themselves, there is a nutrition adequacy statement, which tells the pet owner that whether this a complete diet or if this is meant for either like a treat or some other uses. For example, if it says, “This is basically the diet that your dog or cat should be on as his main meal,” it will have a statement saying that it’s for maintenance. If it is intended to be a treat, or if it is a veterinary diet that is meant to address things like kidney disease, liver disease, etc (where it’s not meant to be a complete and balanced diet), then it may carry the statement saying that it is for short-term, intermittent, or complimentary feeding. 

[00:18:23] Dr. Lancellotti: So, anything that’s labeled ‘short-term,’ ‘intermittent,’ or ‘complimentary,’ it’s not what you want the main calories to come from. It’s something that can be given as just like a little special bonus. Is that the correct interpretation? 

[00:18:39] Dr. Su: For a healthy animal? Yes. If your dog or cat has special needs (for example, if they have kidney disease), there are certain nutrients that we want to restrict. Those diets, naturally, are not complete and balanced, but they are intended to be fed long-term for those kinds of pets. Even though those diets will carry the term ‘intermittent to short term feeding only,’ they can be used long-term for those pets that have special needs.

[00:19:10] Dr. Lancellotti: So, that’s something where if you have an animal with a specific disease process or a medical condition, it would be a great idea to reach out to your family veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist to ask them what exactly you should be looking for (on the label) for your specific animal? 

[00:19:28] Dr. Su: Yeah, that’s right. There are also different stages of life. For example, if you have a puppy, you would want to find a food that says, “This diet is intended for growth.” The same thing obviously applies to kittens. You want to make sure it’s intended for growth. There are also diets that are meant for pregnant or lactating animals, because they have increased nutritional requirements in those stages of life. Those statements will be labeled on the diet, as well. But for the most part, the majority of owners are looking for maintenance diets for their dog or cat. 

[00:20:09] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah, definitely. Those pregnant and lactating animals are going to have more nutritional needs than regular animals. I can remember immediately after having both of my kids, I did not do anything except eat constantly, because my caloric requirements were through the roof when I was taking care of those little babies. 

[00:20:30] Dr. Su: The most physically demanding stage of life is that part. 

golden retriever puppies nursing
Different life stages have different nutritional requirements, such as growth, pregnancy, lactation, adult maintenance, and senior.

What is AAFCO formulation?

[00:20:35] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah, absolutely. Tell us a little bit about this label that you’ll see on pet foods; the AAFCO formulation. What does that mean? What does it tell pet owners if they see AAFCO on the pet food label? 

[00:20:49] Dr. Su: AAFCO is the body that sets nutritional requirements or recommendations for dogs and cats in the US. They’re not a governing body or anything like that, so they don’t enforce the rules, but they make recommendations for a regular healthy dog or cat. These are the nutrients that should be met in the food, and they also set nutrient levels which should not be exceeded in certain nutrients. So these complete and balance foods related to AAFCO requirements, AAFCO recommendations or AAFCO feeding trials, telling us, “Hey, we followed AAFCO’s guidelines to create this food.”

[00:21:33] Dr. Lancellotti: Great. So if a company has gone the lengths to make sure that their food meets those guidelines, that’s something that reassures the pet owner that they’re taking the nutritional needs of the pet seriously. 

[00:21:47] Dr. Su: Yeah, that’s right. 

How many calories are in pet food?

[00:21:48] Dr. Lancellotti: What about this obesity epidemic in pets across the country? What’s something that they can look for, on the label, to help make sure that their animal maintains a healthy weight? 

[00:21:59] Dr. Su: As of now (and this started a few years ago), the caloric information of pet food needs to be on the food label. Believe it or not, this used to not be a thing, and a lot of veterinary nutritionists and vets fought very hard for it to it to be legally required on the label- which helps a lot. 

[00:22:20] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah, that’s always something that I’ll give to pet owners if I’m worried about an animal being obese or overweight. There’s a really helpful tool- the Pet Nutrition Alliance website has a really awesome calorie calculator. That’s great for veterinarians to be able to put in the animal’s body condition score and their current weight, and they (very quickly) tell you what the ideal weight should approximately be, and then how many calories per day you should approximately feed that animal to get to that weight. I’ll equip pet owners with the calories that I would like the animal to be eating, and then they can quickly look on that bag of food or can of food and see how many calories are in each cup of kibble or each can of food, and make sure that they’re staying within that caloric requirement. So that’s a really great way of making sure that the animal is maintaining a healthy weight, when they’re eating that food for maintenance. 

[00:23:16] Dr. Su: Yeah, definitely. And that’s where the calorie information on the bag, itself, really helps. Right? You can’t figure that out if you don’t have that information. A lot of the times, pet owners will just go from, “Oh, Fluffy eats one cup of his current diet right now. So this new food, I’m going to continue feeding one cup a day,” without realizing that maybe the previous diet was 300 calories per cup, but then the new one is a lot more calorically dense. And now, it’s maybe 400 to 500 calories per cup (or something like that), and then feel like, “Oh, how come he gained weight while eating the same amount?” 

[00:23:58] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah, each food is different in how many calories there are per cup. So if you’re feeding an animal a cup of lettuce, if you replace that cup of lettuce with a cup of quarter-pounders, you’re going to have a much more calorically dense meal. So it’s always important to look at the calories on the label and see how much you’re actually giving, instead of just using the volume of food as a measurement.

What other information should be on the pet food label?

Dr. Lancellotti: What else should a pet owner be looking for on the label? Are there any other things for them that would be helpful? 

[00:24:30] Dr. Su: Some basic info that, honestly, should be on every one of these labels; immediate contact information, such as phone number or email address. The goal is for the company representatives to be very easily reachable, should you have any questions about the product. Also, who makes the food? Do the companies, themselves, make their own food? Or are they distributing something that’s made by a third party manufacturer? And there’s nothing wrong with not having your own facilities, or having a reputable co-packer make your product, it’s just more information for you to have. Also, when you own your own product and manufacturing lines, naturally, you have more control over what’s going on in the food-making process. So that’s just something to think about. And you look for that by seeing if the food is made by a certain company, or made for or distributed by a certain company.

[00:25:39] Dr. Lancellotti: Right. That wouldn’t necessarily stop a pet owner from feeding that particular diet, but it’s just more information when making that decision of, “is this the right food for my pet?” 

[00:25:49] Dr. Su: Right, because honestly, there’s a lot of overhead that is required to have your own line, and not everyone has the resources to do that. Personally, I would not fault the company if they don’t own their own production. But it is just more information. 

How should you choose a pet food?

[00:26:07] Dr. Lancellotti: Sure. So we talked a lot about how to select a pet food. What are some of the big takeaway points that you want pet owners to remember when they finally go through this process of figuring out what to feed their pet?

[00:26:19] Dr. Su: My big takeaway points: when selecting a food for your pet, definitely make sure to dive deeper than just what the marketing material and the packaging say, make an informed decision based on the responses that the company provides to the WSAVA guideline’s list of questions, and discuss them with your vet. This is a great tool, for both the vet and the pet owners, to learn more about the brands out there. Like I said, there are just so many brands. It is hard to know them all, so if you are interested in a new product, this is a good guideline for you to walk through. 

[00:26:56] Dr. Lancellotti: And I think that’s a really important point. Every pet is different. Having that relationship with a family veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist to help guide your decision-making process, and having that conversation about what your individual pet’s needs are, is going to be really helpful for making sure that it’s the best decision for that individual animal.

[00:27:20] Dr. Su: Definitely. 

[00:27:22] Dr. Lancellotti:  A lot of family veterinarians are comfortable working with pet owners to figure out what the animal needs for healthy feeding, but there’s a link to find a veterinary nutritionist near you on the Your Vet Wants You To Know website, underneath the resources tab. That’ll take you to the American College of Veterinary Nutrition website, and you can look for a diplomat in their directory there. 

Scratching the Itch

[00:28:00] Dr. Lancellotti: I like to end each episode with a segment called Scratching The Itch. This is a short segment that will highlight something- either a human interest story, a product, or a website- just anything that provides relief or makes you feel good. Hence, ‘scratching the itch.’ Dr. Su, I was wondering if you had something that scratched the itch for our listeners today.

[00:28:24] Dr. Su: Yeah! Personally, I am a big fan of learning, just in general, about random things. I like going to trivia and things like that, so just random facts really intrigue me. One of my favorite podcasts that I listen to is called ‘Stuff You Should Know.’ I know they’re already a popular one, and they don’t really need any more advertising from me, but they are really fun. Each episode covers a random topic- it can be something about elephants for one episode, and then the next episode will be on the sun, or any random topic that they can come up with. And I really like the podcast because, besides the interesting tidbits that I learn, the hosts are also very down-to-earth and relatable. They’re very nice people. And it really helped me a lot when I was commuting (during our clinical years, driving from one location to another) and stuck in traffic, to have something fun to listen to, instead of the radio (which just keeps repeating the same songs). So this was a really big lifesaver and entertainment source for me.

[00:29:41] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. I like that podcast too. My husband listens to it quite a bit. 

[00:29:44] Dr. Su: Yeah. It’s awesome. 

[00:29:45] Dr. Lancellotti: I’m a big fan of their sister podcast, ‘Stuff You Missed In History Class.’ That’s really fun. There are different hosts, but they’re kind of along the same lines. It’s all history based, so they’ll talk about different events or people, and just really fascinating stories that you might not recall, because they’re less well-known than the major historical events learned on a regular basis. So, those are great recommendations- ‘Stuff You Should Know’ and ‘Stuff You Missed In History Class.’ 

[00:30:15] Dr. Su: Yeah. I love both of those. 

[00:30:17] Dr. Lancellotti: Dr. Su, thank you so much for coming on and talking to pet owners, today, about how to pick a pet food for their animal. I hope people found some value in this episode, and that they’ll use that information and those resources to go through and ask the questions that they want answers to, and help guide their decision-making, so that they can improve the lives of their pets and help them live happy healthy lives. Thank you very much, Dr. Su. 

[00:30:43] Dr. Su: Thank you so much for having me and letting me share this information. 

[00:30:46] Dr. Lancellotti: And for everyone listening today, I look forward to your next visit with Your Vet Wants You To Know.

References:

  1. “PNA: Nutritional Calculators.” PNA: Nutritional Calculators, https://petnutritionalliance.org/.
  2. “Selecting the Best Food for Your Pet – WSAVA.” WSAVA Global Nutrition Committee: Guidelines on Selecting Pet Foods, https://wsava.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Selecting-a-pet-food-for-your-pet-updated-2021_WSAVA-Global-Nutrition-Toolkit.pdf.

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