With all the food options available for cats and dogs, it can be confusing to know what is best. There are inexpensive store brands, pricier boutique brands, prescription foods, grain-free foods, homemade diets, and raw diets. We set out to explain a little about all of these options, and how to choose the best for your pet.

Selecting a Diet

The first thing to realize is that no one food is best for every cat or dog. You should start with a commercially prepared food that is marketed for your pet’s life stage. Diets will be divided into categories such as puppy, kitten, adult, senior, or all life stages. It’s best to use a commercial diet whose label claims that the food has undergone dietary trials to meet the nutrition requirements of the appropriate life stage as established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). This is preferred over foods that have simply been “formulated to meet AAFCO standards”. 

Raw and Homemade Diets

It’s best to avoid raw diets. While there are many claims to their benefits, there are presently no studies to support these claims. There is, however, plenty of evidence to show a high-level of risk associated with these diets, including certain dietary deficiencies and/or shedding of infectious bacteria. Handling these diets, or being around animals that consume these diets can be a significant infection risk for humans, especially young children, elderly people, those with immune-compromising disorders, or people undergoing chemotherapy. Homemade diets should only be employed under the supervision of your veterinarian, who may choose to consult with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist.

Brand Selection

Diets should be selected based on production by a reputable company with a long history of pet food production. Bigger companies often employ nutrition experts and invest in research to continually improve their products. Smaller companies and boutique brands often cannot invest this level of research into their foods, so be aware that this can put some of these brands at higher risk of being deficient in certain ingredients. 

How Much to Feed

Start by feeding based on the label recommendation for your pet’s ideal weight. You should learn to identify your dog’s body condition score and evaluate this on a regular basis. You can find a chart for evaluation of body condition score here. The amount being fed can be adjusted based on changes in your pet’s body condition score. Additionally, spaying and neutering will reduce your pet’s metabolism and caloric requirements, and may result in weight gain if the amount of food being fed is not reduced. 

Feeding Puppies and Kittens

Puppies and kittens should be placed on diets specifically formulated for their life stage or formulated for all life stages. Kittens and small to medium-sized dogs can be fed a kitten/puppy or all life stages formula for up to one year of age. Large and giant breed puppies should be fed a specific large breed formula puppy food for up to 12 to 18 months of age.

What Not to Feed

Another important point to remember is that it’s best to avoid feeding human and table foods, even as snacks. This often trains dogs to avoid their dog food and can create a picky eater. Not only does this prevent your pet from receiving their proper nutrition, it can also severely limit treatment options, should your pet develop a medical condition in the future that requires treatment with a specially formulated prescription diet. Treats of any kind should be limited, as these are often a significant cause of weight gain and obesity. Remember that every time you toss your pet a snack, you’re essentially giving them a candy bar. Just like you wouldn’t eat candy bars as your sole source of nutrition, you should never allow your pet to have a diet composed mostly of treats.

Grain-Free Diets

And finally, a word about grain free diets. These diets have become very popular over the past several years. This is due to strong marketing techniques by some pet food manufacturers. However, there are no medical requirements to back up the recommendations for these diets. Food allergies are often cited as the purpose of many of these diets. However, food allergies in cats and dogs are typically due to allergic reactions to protein sources and are rarely associated with grains. Currently, there is emerging research to suggest that many of these diets may be associated with a certain form of heart disease in dogs called dilated cardiomyopathy. For these reasons, grain-free diets cannot be recommended as a primary nutrition source for your pet.

Additional Resources:

Recommendations on selecting pet foods

Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University

American College of Veterinary Nutrition

Diets and heart disease in dogs and cats