What's In Your Pet's Food?

Just like human food, pet chow is full of health promises. Packaging boasts formulas that are grain-free and high in omega-3s. Cat food brands brag they’re “holistic.” After all, if Americans are ditching gluten and GMOs in their own food, it follows they’d spare their pets the same ingredients. But as with labels on people food, those on pet food can be confusing. Learn the truth behind common nutrition terms so you can offer a bowl of grub you feel good about.


When half the humans you know are going Paleo, it’s natural to wonder if your animal pal should too. But for the vast majority of pets, it’s not necessary to avoid grains. What’s more, while allergies do occur in pets, grains are not among the most common allergens found in foods. In fact, most food allergies in cats and dogs are to meats or other animal products.

Fiber-rich grains like millet, barley, and oats support an animal’s digestion and boost good gut bacteria. That said, if you want to put your whole house on a grain-free diet, your pet likely won’t suffer. Just note how well your pet digests substitutes like lentils or beans and tweak its food accordingly.

Grain-free doesn't mean carbohydrate free. In many grain free foods, ingredients like potatoes replace the grains in the food and these ingredients can have more carbs than the common grains used in pet food.

The FDA  announced a potential link between a grain-free diet and a common type of canine heart disease, called dilated cardiomyopathy, in which the heart weakens and becomes enlarged. The concerns is with certain pet foods containing peas, lentils, other legumes, seeds or potatoes as main ingredients. in their primary source of nutrition for time periods ranging from months to years.  


Not all omega-3s are equal. Look for fats from fish; they have stronger anti-inflammatory effects than those from flaxseed and canola oils (high in omega-6 fats). The corn and soy in pet food contains higher levels of inflammatory omega-6 fats and only a fraction of the omega-3 fats. Limit that. Some type of fish oil should be listed in the top 15 ingredients. Your dog might also like mackerel, sardines and anchovies every now and then, or consider a supplement

“Ash Content”

This refers to the amount of ground-up bone and other minerals in food. While ash does provide important nutrients, a high ash content may mean the food’s protein balance isn’t as strong. Call to find out the ash content because manufacturers aren’t required to list it. Around 6 percent ash is typical.

“No Fillers”

This is perhaps the most meaningless term commonly used on pet food labels. Even ingredients that don’t deliver calories, vitamins, or minerals can bring health benefits. Fiber, for example, doesn’t provide nutrients directly but can support good gastrointestinal health. To ensure your pet is getting the nutrition it needs, look for products that have the Association of American Feed Control Officials’ (AAFCO) nutritional adequacy statement indicating they’re appropriate for your pet’s life stage.

DIY or Buy

Studies show homemade pet food only rarely provides the same balance of nutrients as the commercial type, which is required to meet specific standards. If you really plan to cook for your pet on a regular basis, ask a veterinary nutritionist for recipes that are right for your pet and following them carefully.

Does Organic Matter?

While there’s no harm in feeding your pet organic grub, there’s also no scientific evidence it improves their health.

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