Wednesday, June 9, 2010

How to choose a pet food

As a nutritionist and integrative practitioner, I’m asked almost every day what pet food I recommend. It’s an interesting thought – that I recommend one pet food.

At the same time, my nutrition training has led me to question authority. While the holistic folks like to vilify the big over the counter and prescription brands of food, my training has shown me that they employ some of the best – and some of the worst- company philosophies. And this is what I’m about today – choosing a company, and not a food.

Before I tell you what personal philosophies drive *my* company choices, I’ll paint a picture of the problem for you.

Over the past decade, I’ve had occasion to ask for more detailed information about a food based on my patients’ needs. You see, the guaranteed analysis on the food label provides only the barest guide as to the nutrient profile of the food. And while I care about *ingredients*, I also care that my patients are being provided with essential *nutrients* they require for continued normal functioning.

I’ve needed to know if the protein content was able to meet the minimum needs for animals who required caloric restriction of a high fat diet. I’ve needed to know if amino acid profiles were adequate in a vegetarian diet with a suspicious ingredient listing. And I’ve been disturbed by the digital equivalent of a blank stare I got when asking for this information from some of the most popular makers of ‘holistic’ and ‘natural’ diets. The ones you are feeding your pets right now, and the ones your local pet store employee is pushing as new and improved.

Here is a sampling of the problems I’ve encountered when trying to obtain nutrition information from the ‘holistic’ pet food companies:

  1. Labels with egregious mistakes showing either inaccurate information or terrible formulating errors.
  2. Company leaders who do not know what a nutrient profile* is, much less how to provide one to a nutritionist.
  3. Refusal by a company to provide nutrient profiles, stating that it is proprietary information (ok, but you will never hear me recommending your diet, especially if it is a certain new vegetarian diet). Honestly, the largest companies post their profiles on the web – do you really think it has cut into their profits?
  4. Diets (raw and processed) that are not complete or balanced when nutrient profiles are submitted to detailed analysis.
  5. A company that refuses to deal fairly with a veterinarian who discovers a major problem with its food.
  6. Companies that refuse to provide the names or credentials of their food formulators
  7. Naïve representatives making dangerous claims because they don’t understand the simplest feed concepts, such as dry matter conversions
  8. Company heads that misuse their meager knowledge of nutritional biochemistry and microbiology to make unfounded health claims and spread misinformation across the web.
  9. Advertising claims that tout health benefits that were disproven years before.
  10. Companies that for decades refuse to acknowledge new information and adjust their formulas, simply because people continue to buy their foods.

So how do you choose a pet food?

You don’t- you choose a company. So here are my criteria for recommending a food manufacturer:
  1. The company needs a track record. Even if it’s your best friend whom you consider knowledgeable, the company she owns or recommends needs to prove its ability to produce consistently safe formulations, hold onto the best employees, and is using profits to improve (and not just expand) the company.
  2. There should be a board certified veterinary nutritionist on staff. Not just a veterinarian – a veterinary nutritionist. I’ve seen some very questionable formulations even from companies owned by veterinarians. The only way the formulations can improve over time is if a nutritionist is constantly feeding updated knowledge into those formulations.
  3. The company philosophy fits with my clients’ standards** and my patients needs.

Once we settle on a few companies, I have these additional recommendations for my clients:
  1. Choose foods that carry an AAFCO feeding claim to be complete and balanced for the appropriate life stage of your pet. Some smaller pet food companies do not produce balanced diets, and others produce pure meat diets “intended for supplemental or intermittent feeding”. Nutritional deficiencies could result if any of these are fed long term.
  2. Rotate between various companies (i.e. use various flavors , but also from different companies)
  3. Avoid exotic ingredients like duck, rabbit, emu, pheasant, and venison. They aren’t necessary for healthy pets and we may need for them to be completely new to your pet when diagnosing or treating certain conditions later. There is plenty of variety to be had with chicken, lamb, beef, pork, turkey, fish, egg and vegetarian foods. It’s also easier to find organic versions of these ingredients.
  4. Feed your dog veggies and fruits as snacks or to beef up the amount of food in his bowl. It is may help prevent cancer, and they are low in fat. Avoid grapes, raisins and onions, which can be toxic to pets. Choose all colors, including carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, bell peppers, squash, apples, melon, berries, etc). Feeding more meats and starches is rarely necessarily, especially if you are already feeding a premium or Paleolithic diet.
  5. Don’t buy large bags of food for small animals- food should be used up within a month, especially if it is stabilized with natural preservatives instead of chemical preservatives.
  6. Avoid dry foods in cats and if your cat is currently eating dry, make an appointment to talk to a nutritionist about why this may no longer be recommended and how to switch stubborn kitties to canned or homemade food. At the very least, for heavens’ sake, do not leave free choice dry food down – for dogs OR cats. Most just get fat on it!
Seems like a lot to remember, but here is the simple version: feed balanced foods, with healthy ingredients, from different companies. Give veggies and fruits instead of junky treats, and maintain a lean body weight. If you prefer homemade, get the recipe balanced, and stick to the plan. And of course, check in with your vet for regular physical and biochemical exams to find emerging problems early.


*A nutrient profile shows the levels or concentrations of all essential nutrients in a food . This profile is compared to the nutrient requirements of a dog or cat to determine whether it is marginal, deficient, or replete for a particular life stage or condition.

**Philosophies and standards are unique to each pet owner. Some won’t tolerate commercial diets at all, while others don’t care if they are commercial as long as they are (pick one – raw, natural, organic, made of human grade ingredients, etc). Some trust larger companies and care only that the correct *nutrients* are provided, while others don’t care about nutrients and consider *ingredients* most important, absolutely prohibiting by-products. A few clients believe that locally sourced ingredients are best (necessitating a homemade diet unless you happen to live near a company that uses ingredients local to *you*). If you really want to know, my philosophy necessitates a complete and balanced nutrient profile, identifiable ingredients (although by-products of some types are just fine with me considering the true natural diet of dogs and cats), a veterinary nutritionist on staff, and a company that balances the need for economy with the need to document the safety of their raw ingredients (usually requiring domestically sourced ingredients). The company should be transparent in its operations (some have allowed the WDJ editor to visit their plants, and some regularly invite veterinarians for tours, while others won’t answer phone calls). And of course, I think homemade diets are superior as long as they are balanced. I’ve seen some awful sick animals eating weird homemade recipes, and I’ve seen so many improve if we just balance while incorporating the owners’ preferences!


  1. Can you recommend any brands of cat food that you know meet the criteria you discussed above? What do you feed your kitties?

  2. I can't make recommendations since I don't know what is available in your area, but if you know what your criteria are after reading this piece, I would write them down and take them to your vet or holistic vet - they should be able to help you.

    I feed my cats homemade food, prescription diets where necessary, Wellness and Natura brand foods, occasional Nature's Variety raw, and over the counter major national brand 'junk' foods when my ailing 17 year old won't eat anything else!

  3. Excellent advice! I have a couple of questions:

    1) Why rotate between companies? Is this a "just in case" recommendation, or is there a particular reason to think one company's prodcuts may be consistently inappropriate in terms of particular nutrients and another's inappropriate in terms of a different nutrient?

    2)How useful is the distinction between "ingredients" and "nutrients?" It seems like a lot of owners develop deep attachments or aversions to particular ingredients without any apparent rational basis. Things people consider "yucky" may be perfectly appropriate nutrient sources for dogs and cats, and things people imagine to be ideal foods (like muscle meats) may not be balanced or appropriate as sole ingredients. It seems like a lot of the mythology about pet nutrition centers on people's focusing on ingredients instead of nutrients, so while I understand we have to accomodate people's values or they will simply ignore our advice, I am a little reluctant to encourage excessive emphasis on "good" and "bad" ingredients.

    3) Why are homemade diets "superior." Again, is this a personal opinion or is there any research evvidence to support it? I certainly think they can be as good as commercial diets if properly formulated, but I have yet to see anything convincing that shows they are better. I've had clients who needed to feed a homemade diet to accomodate a specific clinical situation (e.g. food allergy and renal failure), and though it worked great it was a lot of work for them to do it right. Since the risk that homemade diets will be improperly formulated is very high (how many clients really seek out a nutritionist to help formulate thei homemade diet?), I see them as less likely to be appropriate nutritionally for most pets without exceptionally smart an dedicated owners.

  4. 1. In the past, whenever companion animals have died from eating commercial food, the owners were usually loyal to one brand (hills and taurine, diamond and aflatoxins, and even melamine and some brands that used more wheat gluten than others). So safety is one reason to rotate brands. The other reason is that companies formulate their diets based on company philosophy. For instance, the Hills directive would seem to be based on not using too much protein to protect kidneys, while the Natures Variety directive is that all dogs are wolves and do best on low carb diets. Some companies include more antioxidants as a matter of course, etc etc. Since dogs (and I think to a much lesser extent, cats) are genetically unique between individuals and breeds, they may not do well on some brands. It helps if people do the kind of experimentation required by rotating to see what their pets look best on.

    2. I guess we are in complete agreement on point 2, but as long as state feed laws follow the decidedly overgeneralized AAFCO guidelines it is sometimes necessary to talk about ingredients as well as nutrients.

    3. My assumption (and thank you for making me state it if I did not) is that homemade diets should be properly balanced, and if people do not feed a balanced homemade diet, it is the worst kind of nutrition (and a lot of people do seek nutritionist input - I formulate homemade diets for sick and well pets almost daily). I think the superiority in homemade diets comes from having some control over the ingredients - if your dog has a food allergy, you KNOW what's in there. If your cat needs a low fat diet, your homemade formulation has a more firmly understood fat content than OTC diets with a guaranteed analysis of "no less than x %". Homemade diets allow for people to choose from their own choices - for instance, if they want to support local farmers and buy local ingredients, or if they prefer all organic, kosher or biodynamic ingredients. Doesn't sound like your client population, but it is definitely mine!

  5. thank you for the info. I am in need of a homemade diet for my 6 year old labradoodle therapy dog who has had 3 seisures that I know of. He is now receiving acupuncture every other Sunday and it is helping. He had one seisure in may, june and when we moved his acupuncture to 3 weeks instead of two he had another seisure.
    I now feed him raw organic chicken, turkey, cooked veggies - alot of sweet potato, some brown rice. occasional egg, cottage cheese and yogurt. He gets ground egg shell 1 a day for calcium , human grade b-vitamins, zinc, one human grade packet of 1000 vit. c with glucosamine and con.,from Dogzymes he gets their ultimate, phytoflex, and digestive enzymes. Do you have any further advise for me? Am I doing the correct thing in balance?
    Thank You for any help you can give us.
    Carol Mitchell
    Sunshine School for Dogs

  6. Veterinarians are legally prohibited from giving advice about a pet's medical condition (including nutrition therapy) without a valid Dr-patient-owner relationship (meaning you have personally met and the doctor has examined your dog). However, if your veterinarian refers you, I can analyze the diet and if necessary, make changes (for a fee). If you are interested, you can fill out the history form on my website:

  7. Hello,
    I came across this blog want to ask about the food I'm feeding my two dogs right now it is Holistic Select Duck Meal Recipe

    I would like to know your input on this food?

    I would like to find what's better for my dogs that is grain free, and low fat

    Thank you

  8. Can I please have permission to share this with the Facebook group "For the Love of a Shih Tzu?"

    1. Sure - how refreshing for someone to ask permission!

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  10. Hi Dr. Wynn-

    This article was written some time ago and I am curious as to what you currently feed your animals.

  11. I have real-life limitations the way most people do, but I still try to include as much variety and fresh food as I can, and I make sure that their foods are complete and balanced.

    I feed brands from the big companies you find at big box pet stores (think Hills/Purina/Royal Canin/Iams/Nutro-the natural/preservative free brands within those companies) to the midsize natural companies like Nature's Variety/Blue Buffalo/Wellness and lots of others.

    There are certainly some natural foods available in big pet stores that I avoid, so don't assume they are all good. And I do avoid most of the smaller "boutique" brands because I have been alarmed by the lack of knowledge within the companies.

    As for what's NOT available in big box stores, I like complete/balanced dehydrated diets like Honest Kitchen and complete/balanced and pressure-pasteurized raw diets like Nature's Variety and Stella and Chewy's.

    Finally, I do make homemade for my cats and dog - if I feed it consistently, I make sure it's complete/balanced as well.


    1. Thank you for your indepth answer. I'm curious about your choice to use Blue Buffalo and The Honest Kitchen as they don't seem to meet your criteria set forth in this article for choosing a company. Could you elaborate on why those companies are part of your rotation?

      Thank you!

  12. Hi Dr. Wynn,

    I'm hoping you'll answer these questions to help me better understand your position on choosing pet foods. 1. An owner on a very tight budget posted she was going to try the new reformulated Beneful for her dogs( removed propylene glycol, sugar, meat and bone meal and all ingredients are now named sources) Multiple posters advised against this and recommended generic "house branded" foods and a few others citing "better" ingredients ( no corn or by products)

    I posted that I liked your recommendation of choosing a company and since Purina met your company criteria, if the food met the poster's and the dog's preferences it was a valid choice. This did not go over well.... So I'm asking... when needing to feed a low cost food is it better to choose a low cost food, like Beneful, from a major company that has a good track record and nutritionists on staff vs a "house brand food or a food from a company that has a sketchy safety record (aflotoxin outbreak, human Salmonella outbreak and FDA warning letter which reported that the company used duct tape and cardboard to "fix" it's equipment) even though the other foods had more "stars"

    2.I want to understand your recommendation for The Honest Kitchen. Does the company now meet your criteria of employing a veterinary nutritionist and engaging in ethical research or did you set those criteria aside? I like the concept of the food but I've never felt the company understood some very basic nutritional concepts Here are examples 1. Puppy feeding recommendations for a food that barely met the Ca requirement for adult. 2. Posting N A's that don't meet AAFCO. Many of the nutrient numbers were changed after I specifically asked about them. 3 Feeding guidlines for their base mixes that don't meet nutrient or caloric needs. 4. Reporting that to make a lower protein diet suitable for a kidney patient you should mix equal parts of rehydrated base mix at 6 % protein( this was incorrectly calculated) and fresh chicken at 20% protein and the resulting diet would be at 20% protein. If you increased the protein component to 2 parts chicken to 1 part rehydrated mix the overall protein level in the diet would then decrease to 15.3% protein and so you may need to add eggs bring it back up to 20%. To me this was simply frightening! When I inquired about this, the article was immediately pulled.

    When I fed this food most of the identifiable food elements came out exactly same way they went in. I found many similar reports on line when using the chunkier recipes and numerous reports of excessive stool when fed these diets. I inquired about digestibility and the company told me they don't do any digestibility studies but that Raw food is 90% digestible, dehydrated foods are 80% digestible and cooked foods are 60% digestible. They advised me to add digestive enzymes to my dogs diet.

    I think you can see from these few examples why I have concerns about this company. As I said I like the concept and the customer service is excellent and very quick at removing things and changing numbers around on the website whenever I make an inquiry but I can't get past the frightening amount of misinformation they have given me. So now I'm struggling to understand why you recommend The Honest Kitchen as they seem to have many of the problems you've found with other holistic companies?


    1. Aimee:

      I apologize for the late response.

      I can give you a general answer to your questions.

      I think that there are pluses and minuses to every diet, and the whole point of what has been called the "iterative process" is to determine what the pet needs, and what the owner can provide.Owners have cost constraints, philosophical boundaries, physical issues and a host of other problems that impact how you choose a diet. You then need to fit that against what what you know of the various companies out there.

      Companies can spend their capital on equipment, ingredients, personnel and expertise. Some choose to cut corners in some of those sectors, especially in supplies and in expertise. I am extremely concerned about companies that don't invest in expertise.

      Ingredients can be controlled in cost by using different grades or quality - the big multinational companies use secondary products from the human food chain that contain all the necessary nutrients, and are very consistent as food ingredients. The sketchy companies might actually substitute ingredients for what's on the label, or use adulterated ingredients. I would rather have the big companies' guaranteed quality and safety than the smaller companies' sketchy ingredients and safety checks. These are 2 ends of the quality spectrum.

      But people also have personal philosophies about food, such as wanting to provide sustainable food (GMO-free, raised organically or without cruelty, whole food ingredients rather than fractions). When you impose these philosophies on the other considerations, you end up having to compromise somewhere - cost, expertise, or something - on that spectrum referenced in the last paragraph.

      So I don't really recommend any one diet, but I do think that there are companies out there that try to provide everything they can for every owner, while keeping their pet foods nutritious and safe. The only way to really evaluate a pet food is to evaluate the company. I've had good experiences with Royal Canin, Hills, Purina as the really big companies although I have a personal philosophy that leads me to make homemade food for my animals as much as possible. There are smaller companies out there that try for consistent safety, and do make use of veterinary and PhD nutritionists even if they aren't on staff - I feed foods from Nature's Variety, Wellness, Blue Buffalo, FreshPet, The Honest Kitchen, and many others because I know some of the nutritionists involved. But there isn't any way that I can know for sure how a company does things unless I visit their plants (I have for Nature's Variety and the big companies).

      So I agree that you may have found some problems in your evaluation of the food, though I would be doing different mathematical evaluations in all likelihood so I can't confirm the problems. I have certainly had problems like these, not with THK but with other natural food companies. It's out there. It's one reason that I recommend not sticking to a single company as you rotate through various brands of food.

  13. Thank you for your indepth answer. I'm curious about your choice to use Blue Buffalo and The Honest Kitchen as they don't seem to meet your criteria set forth in this article for choosing a company. Could you elaborate on why those companies are part of your rotation?

    Thank you!

    1. Hello Anonymous, I am researching dog food for my Wheaten who is allergic to many things and has sensitivities to certain foods and have been researching Blue Buffalo as al alternative, why do you feel like they do meet the criteria set forth by Dr Wynn? Thanks in advance! p.s. I emailed the BB folks and they have been very helpful and responsive and seem to have a team of animal nutritionists and holistic vets to answer questions. I like a lot of what I hear and plan on adding BB to our mix. Any insight that you have would be helpful. Thanks!

  14. Hi, can you recommend dog kibble that meets the criteria you list? I have had difficulty finding kibble that has been *tested* and determined to be nutritionally complete - 95% or more of the kibble, even from major brands, is formulated to meet the nutritional profile published by AAFCO. My vet says that is a meaningless statement and recommends food that has actually been tested. I would appreciate your suggestions. Also, is there an online resource that provides recipes for homemade nutritionally complete dog foods?

    The only kibble I found that has been tested seems to have a less than ideal ingredient list - such as what I've copied below.

    Here is a partial ingredient list: Whole grain corn, meat and bone meal, corn gluten meal, animal fat preserved with mixed tocopherols, soybean meal,poultry by-product meal, egg and chicken flavor, whole grain wheat,animal digest,

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    1. Hi Katy:

      We don't tend to get as concerned about sodium content on a preventive basis when dealing with formulated pet diets - the companies generally conform to AAFCO standards that ensure requirements are met without inducing toxicity.

      For animals with hypertension, kidney disease, or heart disease, looking at the sodium percentage isn't accurate enough for a couple of reasons.

      First, over the counter diets will have variations in sodium (and other nutrient ) contents naturally. This is in contrast to prescription diets, where the nutrients that are key to management of that condition are held very tightly to within certain parameters by strict manufacturing controls.

      Second, animals have different metabolic rates, and they will metabolize nutrients and energy on a very individual level that we presume reflects their metabolic rate. In practical terms, this means that one 10 lb dog might need to eat 195 kcal/day to maintain a normal 10 lb weight, and the other may require 300 kcal/day to maintain that weight. Now say that one food contains 200 kcal/cup and another contains 400 kcal/cup. On food #1, dog 1 would need about 1 cup/day, and dog 2 would need about 1.5 cups per day. But on food #2, dog 1 would need 1/2 cup per day and dog 2 would need 3/4 cup per day. So this is a scenario where a 10 lb dog could need anything from 1/2 - 1.5 cups of food per day. Now if the sodium content is set at 0.1% of the food's weight, the actual sodium intake would be all over the map in this scenario. This is why nutritionists don't look at percentages in a diet - we look at the concentration of a nutrient on an "energy basis", or the amount per 1000 kcal or 100 kcal of the diet.

      For dogs that need sodium retention, we try to keep the sodium below 100 mg/1000 kcal of diet - and strict sodium retention below 50 mg/1000 kcal of diet.

      So the shorter answer is that the sodium content of most companies that follow AAFCO standards for formulating diets will be fine for a healthy dog.

    2. This is great to many armchair nutritionists out there with opinions all their own! ;)

      I accidentally deleted my question, so I'll repost it here just so other readers know what you were responding to.



      Hi Dr. Wynn,

      Thanks for your insight on what can be a confusing decision. I'm wondering if you have any experience with Zignature? I've heard that many of their formulas have high sodium content (1% or greater), but since I'm not certified in veterinary nutrition, I'd like your opinion! What would you consider an appropriate sodium level for a dog food?


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