Reviewed for accuracy on February 4, 2020, by Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM
You should feel confident and comfortable with the pet food you have chosen to feed your furry family member. That means knowing who is manufacturing your pet’s food and making sure they can appropriately answer your questions.
Asking the right questions is also a great way to determine a pet food company’s transparency and honesty, says Dr. Tony Buffington, DVM, PhD, and Professor of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at the Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center.
But, what should you ask? Here are 10 questions approved by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) that can help you narrow down your pet food options to find the best one for your pet.
1. Do you have a veterinary nutritionist or some equivalent on staff at your company?
“A veterinary nutritionist—especially a board-certified veterinary nutritionist—is someone who has extra (and special) training in formulating pet foods,” says Dr. Joseph Bartges, DVM, PhD, and Professor of Medicine and Nutrition at the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Since dogs and cats have different nutritional requirements than other species, including humans, it’s important that someone with a strong background is involved in the food’s development.
2. Who formulates your diets, and what are their credentials?
While this seems similar to the first question, this one allows you to find out who actually formulated the food. A brand may have a veterinary nutritionist on staff, but are they involved in the formulation process?
“I think this is one of the most important questions,” says Dr. Ashley Gallagher, DVM.
It’s vital for pet food manufacturers to have a veterinary nutritionist—or someone with training in what cats and dogs need—either on staff or working as a consultant.
3. Are these experts available to answer questions?
“In my opinion, these experts should be available to answer questions about the diet,” says Dr. Bartges, even if that means over email. “This offers pet owners a chance to have any questions answered by a qualified source, and verify that a veterinary nutritionist is, in fact, involved.”
There may be a cost associated with this process, as it does take time to answer questions from pet parents, but most reputable pet food brands have this option even if it’s not advertised.
4. Which of your diet(s) are tested using AAFCO feeding trials, and which are tested by nutrient analysis?
There are two methods testing for pet food:
- Nutrient analysis: The most common requires that pet food diet ingredients be analyzed and compared against the AAFCO profiles.
- Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) feeding trials
AAFCO feeding trials are considered to be the gold standard. This is because through nutrient analysis, diets may look good on paper, but there’s no indication of palatability when fed to a real dog or cat.
“The upside is that the choice [of manufacturers to perform feeding trials] may reflect the company’s commitment to producing satisfactory foods,” says Dr. Buffington.
Be aware, though, that many pet food companies don’t perform feeding trials, since they’re the most expensive method of testing foods.
Do you know if your pet food brand does feeding trials? It’s as simple as checking the pet food label’s nutrition statement, which is found underneath the Guaranteed Analysis chart. Here’s an example:
“Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (Name of Food) provides complete and balanced nutrition for maintenance.”
5. What specific quality-control measures do you use to assure the consistency and quality of your product line?
“A company should be able to outline their quality control measures and provide proof of quality if asked,” says Dr. Bartges.
This includes separating raw ingredients from cooked products so there’s no cross-contamination. Careful and rigorous control of ingredients is important for pathogen or allergen contamination. For instance, you don’t want soy contamination in a diet that claims to be soy-free for dogs with allergies.
Also inquire about food testing throughout the manufacturing process and how recalls are handled. Companies that make safety a priority often test the food for contaminants and await results before releasing it for shipment to retail outlets.
6. Where are your diets produced and manufactured?
A product that’s co-manufactured—meaning a third-party plant makes food for the company—may have less ingredient control and be more prone to contamination and other issues. These third-party plants may also produce food for other companies that may include other species.
You’ll also want to find out if the meat comes from USDA-inspected plants, recommends Dr. Gallagher.
Large manufacturers might be able to provide more safety and quality control checks, as they own their facilities and have access to more consistent, quality ingredients.
7. Can the pet food plant be visited?
Visiting the plant where your pet’s food is made is “always an eye-opening experience,” says Dr. Bartges. If a manufacturer is local, it’s worth a visit, as it’s one more way of asking a pet food company for transparency.
8. Will you provide a complete product nutrient analysis of your best-selling dog and cat food, including digestibility values?
This provides much more information than what’s on the pet food label. “If a [pet food] company doesn’t have or won’t share it,” says Dr. Bartges, “then it would be worth looking at other diets.”
All pet food labels require a Guaranteed Analysis chart on the label to advise pet parents of the product's nutrient content. Guarantees are required for minimum percentages of crude protein and crude fat, and maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture.
The Guaranteed Analysis does not list all nutrients or how digestible those nutrients are, but manufacturers should be available to provide this information if you request it. For example, the full list of nutrients might include the amount of calcium; phosphorus; vitamins A,C, and E; omega fatty acids; taurine, etc.
9. What is the caloric value per can or cup of your diets?
Key to maintaining your pet’s svelte figure, caloric value is a fairly basic piece of information. You will find the caloric value listed as kcal ME/kg or kcal ME/cup on the bag or can of food.
It’s very rare not to see this on the packaging, but if it’s not, it shouldn’t require more than a phone call to the pet food manufacturer to find out.
“If a person on the phone can’t give you this information, I’d look elsewhere,” said Dr. Bartges.
10. What kinds of research have been conducted on your products, and are the results published in peer-reviewed journals?
It’s a bonus if a pet food manufacturer has any published food trials or scientific research, as these are not always required for new pet foods. This is because it’s expensive and time-consuming to run these trials.
So don’t be surprised if you can’t find this information, “especially for life stage diets and therapeutic diets used to manage diseases” says Dr. Bartges.
By: Vanessa Voltolina
Featured Image: iStock.com/Nataba