Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Sizing Up the Dog Food Aisle

Pet Column for the week of January 14, 2008

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

Dog owners are bombarded by countless brands--Purina, Hills, Eukanuba, Iams, and the list continues. How do owners decide between lamb and rice, prime cuts in gravy, or all natural? What about a $7 generic feed, or a premium brand for $20?

According to Dr. Kelly Swanson, assistant professor of nutrition in the Department of Animal Sciences and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Medicine at the University of Illinois, "All complete foods marketed for dogs must meet the minimal AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) requirements, which should satisfy the needs of most pets." Although agencies such as the FDA regulate the sale of pet foods, AAFCO guidelines are followed by most state regulators. Technically speaking, every pet food on the shelf at the grocery store should be adequate for the average, healthy dog. Of course to every rule there are exceptions.

If your pet has a medical condition and your veterinarian has prescribed a specific diet, you don't have to waste your time debating over whether Fido should be dining on duck or chicken for supper tonight. Puppies should be fed puppy food; cats should never be fed dog food. Although dogs are similar to omnivores, cats are strict carnivores and need much more protein and have special requirements for other nutrients such as vitamin A, niacin, taurine, and arachidonic acid.

The difference in food pricing can be drastic. Dr. Swanson explains that "in general the higher the price, the greater the digestibility of the food, so the less the animal will need to be taken out for bathroom breaks." For a Pekinese living on the 15th floor of a New York City high rise, it is convenient to feed the animal a more expensive, highly digestible diet. On the other hand, a farm dog that is free to roam hundreds of acres probably won't mind being fed a less expensive, less digestible feed. Either way, both feeds should meet the dog's nutrient requirements.

Although pet foods are highly regulated by federal and state laws, anything labeled as a "treat" does not have to meet AAFCO nutrient standards. For both feeds and treats Dr. Swanson recommends, "as long as you stay within the major brands you should be safe." Another caveat within labeling regulations is the terms premium, super premium, or gourmet. Don't be fooled by the hype; legally speaking they mean nothing.

In short, feeding any name brand dog food should keep your pooch happy and healthy. Despite the recent large-scale recall in pet foods contaminated with melamine (a toxic product used to increase protein levels), the biggest issue in companion animal nutrition is not regulation--it's obesity.

Dr. Swanson mentions that owners should use the feeding guide on the back of the bag as a general recommendation, not a rule set in stone. Although the package may suggest feeding your dog two cups per day, it may need much less--especially if its main occupation is resident coach potato or kitchen floor vacuum cleaner. Owners should feed according to their pet's exercise habits and current body condition.

With the majority of dogs in the U.S. overweight, most animals need a run around the park much more than that bag of gourmet dog food.

For more information about feeding your pet, contact your local veterinarian.