(MNN.com) -- Dogs don't exactly have discriminating tastes. Many will even eat their own poop. What dogs do have working in their favor is a multibillion-dollar pet food industry vying for a place in their food bowls. The ever-growing list of options -- all natural, holistic, organic, human-grade -- can cause plenty of consternation among pet owners. Here are a few tips to help identify the best food option for your pets:
Read the label
Avoid falling for fancy descriptions that promise holistic or human-grade ingredients and focus instead on brands labeled "complete and balanced" by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). This organization sets guidelines that help ensure pet food has been formulated to cover basic nutritional needs. You will find this label on many of the tried and true brands that have long occupied pet food shelves at your local grocery store.
"These are companies that have done the research -- hundreds of pages of studies -- proving the quality of their food," says Dr. Annie Price, owner of Ormewood Animal Hospital in Atlanta. "With a lot of over-the-counter, high-end food, there is no research to back what they claim as true. That's not to say it's not good food; we just have to be careful."
To help dog lovers navigate the food aisle, Dr. Jennifer Coates, a Colorado-based veterinarian and pet nutrition blogger with PetMD.com, worked with Hill's Science Diet pet food company to create an interactive nutrition guide called "MyBowl." Like the food pyramid, MyBowl breaks down the percentage of carbohydrates (50 percent), fats and oils (25 percent), and proteins (25 percent) dogs need as part of a complete and balanced diet.
"In the past you just grabbed whatever was on the shelf, and that's not the case anymore," Coates says. "Choice isn't always a good thing; it does make for more confusion."
When it comes to proteins, Coates tells clients to look for a predominance of food that sounds like what they would want to eat. Ingredients are listed based on quantity, so look for high-quality proteins to be listed among the first few items. Price adds that pet owners should buy food based on the appropriate life stage, particularly during those puppy years, and seek formulas specifically made for your breed.
"If you buy puppy food that has not been broken down into breed sizes, you can have problems," Price warns. "A German shepherd does not grow the same as a toy poodle. Large and giant breed dogs are prone to juvenile skeletal cartilage issues that we can prevent by having them on a proper diet."
The same rule applies to senior formulas. Pet food companies have upped their game by offering formulations with fewer calories and supplements such as fish oil to support joint health.
Avoid the hype
Even with a shaky economy, the pet food category continues to gain momentum. The American Pet Products Association reports that pet owners spent about $18.76 billion on food in 2010, up 6.8 percent from the previous year. Pet food expenses are expected to reach $19.53 billion this year as more pet owners connect the dots between health and nutrition. But pet nutritionist Dr. Martin Glinsky cautions pet owners to avoid the hype.
"We have got to be careful to distinguish between the marketing and nutrition end," says Glinsky, who consults companies seeking to formulate high-end pet food. He points to grain-free brands and limited-ingredient diets as the latest trends captivating pet owners. Restricting the number of proteins and grains, and introducing so-called novel proteins, such as buffalo or fish, help reduce the possibility of an allergic reaction. But not all pets need limited-ingredient diets, which often come with higher price tags than your average kibble.
"Documentation for all these allergies people profess their dogs have is totally out of whack," Glinsky says. "If everyone who told me their dog was allergic to corn is right, then we have an epidemic in this country. But people like to think that feeding a certain food is good for their dog and they are doing the best for them; that's human nature."
Rather than buy into limited-ingredient diets, Glinsky advises pet owners to focus on the manufacture date and toss kibble that is more than six months old. When pet food languishes for months on warehouse or grocery store shelves, natural ingredients break down and fat oxidizes, turning into harmful free radicals. For super-quick kibble, consider his line of Dr. G's Fresh Pet Food, which is made-to-order pet food and shipped about 48 hours after preparation. To promote oral health, Glinsky also recommends chews, but warns against rawhide.
"Pretty caustic materials [are used] to process the hide," he says. "Often this material is not rinsed completely."
Consult an expert before changing food
The farm-to-table movement has piqued curiosity about the origins of beef or chicken meal listed on pet food labels. Recent recalls also have fueled an interest in raw diets for cats and dogs. While slightly more expensive than dry food, proponents note that raw diets, which are free of chemical preservatives, promote healthier coats and more closely resemble a pet's diet in the wild. Because raw diets involve uncooked meat, safe handling practices are vital to avoid the threat of salmonella. Before you try a raw diet, dabble with home-cooked meals, or simply change your pet's kibble, it's important to consult an expert. Veterinarians or veterinary nutritionists can walk you through the steps to make a healthy transition for your pet.
"A lot of people think we get kickbacks for these foods, but we don't get wined and dined," Price says. "I don't get anything for free, trust me. I just see the research that companies have done over the last 20 years."
Based on pet nutrition research, Price vehemently opposes raw diets, which can expose humans to potential health risks such as salmonella. She also says that raw diets lack the presence of trace minerals that pets need, introducing the risk for disease. If you have the time and the money, she does recommend home-cooked meals, if done with input from veterinary nutritionists.
"They can help you come up with an actual recipe for the meal based on the dog's weight and caloric need," she says. "You don't just get a doggie cookbook because they are not nutritionally sound, either. You can publish anything you want and it doesn't even have to be peer-reviewed."
What about cats?
Whenever I chat with Price, she always offers information about our feline friends, and this time was no exception. For years, veterinarians have recommended dry kibble as a way to promote good oral health. Price points to new research that indicates wet food may be beneficial, particularly for cats.
"We realized a lot of animals don't even chew their food, so it doesn't really matter if it's canned or dry," she says. "Cats love to keep themselves a little on side of dehydration and the latest recommendation for cats' urinary health -- and to prevent diabetes and weight gain -- is to increase fluid intake."
Access to water helps, but Price says that a high-quality canned food can be beneficial to cat health, particularly if they are prone to urinary tract issues or kidney disease.
Hopefully this information will help ensure that your cats and dogs are happy and healthy for years to come.
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