Many caring pet owners fall into one of two categories when it comes to what they feed their pets: either they take it for granted that what's on the grocery shelf is healthy and balanced enough for their pet because the label says it is, or they already understand that it's just as important to know what is in their pets' food as what they're feeding their human family members (especially if their pet has developed some type of health issue like itching or stomach upset). But even folks in the latter category might feel confused about just what is best to feed their pets. With recalls, companies coming under fire for inhumane testing, and terms like “non-GMO” popping up on labels, many people feel at a loss as to what to choose and what it all even means.
Some pet owners have gone the fully raw, home-prepared route, citing that this is closest to what a cat or dog would eat in nature and is, therefore, healthier. While this can be an extremely healthy option for a lot of pets, it's not for every pet...nor is it for every owner. For many pet owners, preparation time, trepidation about getting the ingredients right, and the part where you have to handle bloody meat do not make feeding a raw diet feasible. So how can you ensure that your pet is getting fed the best possible diet he or she needs and save your sanity?
For starters, it's a good idea to get a sense of how to read the labels on pet foods beyond just the list of ingredients. Consumers are fortunately starting to realize that corn isn't a great ingredient in pet food, especially if it's listed first or second, and that “meat by-products” aren't nearly as healthy – or as safely acquired – as the less mysterious “chicken.” (You aren't going to find foods like that in our shop to begin with.) But other important components to note are protein, fiber, and fat percentages. These can vary widely between brands or even categories within brands, and your pet might need 3% fat or 8%, for example, depending on a lot of elements. For instance, if your dog can't seem to be satiated by his diet but gains too much weight if you feed him more, he might need a diet higher in protein and fiber to help him feel full. You can find this percentage information under the Guaranteed Analysis section on the label. “Best by” dates are also important, especially with premium foods that use natural or no preservatives. (Don't worry; we are already watching the dates for you to make sure we're selling the freshest foods.)
Next, let's break down the three most common types of commercial pet foods:
For many years, there was the misconception that dry food was better for pets' teeth. Now, we are learning that cheaply-made dry foods contain far too many carbohydrates that carnivorous animals just don't need (not to mention sweeteners and artificial colors that the pet could care less about). Higher-grade holistic dry foods, however, often contain some healthier types of carbs, without the overload, with antioxidants and probiotics that can be very beneficial for animals. Sweet potatoes are becoming a common addition to both wet and dry holistic food, even though they're carbs, because of their antioxidant and fiber benefits.
It is impossible to ignore the convenience factor and lower cost of dry food, and many pets enjoy the crunching sensation. But on its own, a kibble diet doesn't provide enough moisture for your pet. Think about how much moisture is in actual meat by itself, and then think about how the word “dry” is used to describe kibble. So it's a good idea to add canned food, raw food, freeze-dried or dehydrated food, or healthy table scraps to the mix as well. Extra water consumption doesn't properly compensate and can also cause problems in excess.
Also, kibble is very dense, so weight gain is more likely. If your pet is prone to weight gain, you might want to limit or skip kibble. We do carry Natural Balance Fat Dogs kibble for weight loss, and many dogs love the taste.
CANNED/WET FOOD (or pouches, trays, etc.)
Canned food provides far more meat than kibble can, just because of how it's prepared. The ingredients are cooked right inside the can without removing the moisture. It can also assist in weight loss for portly pets and is more easily digestible. However, you would need to feed a lot of canned food to match the calories in kibble or freeze-dried food, or your pet could become malnourished. So a canned food diet might not be ideal on its own either.
If you've been feeding your pet wet food from the grocery store that looks like chunks of meat, it's quite possible that those chunks are mostly wheat gluten made to resemble meat chunks for your benefit. Binders in wet foods are common, but definitely avoid any foods that list gluten among the ingredients. Pumpkin and the aforementioned sweet potatoes can serve as a much healthier binder or thickener. Canned food should always be mostly meat.
DEHYDRATED OR FREEZE-DRIED
This is raw food with less effort, but it does require rehydration – but it is really just a matter of adding hot water versus scooping kibble or spooning from a can. It is generally a more expensive option because of the amount of high-quality food that needs to be procured and the machines used, but there are so many likely health benefits that many people feel outweigh the cost (such as potentially much less vet costs due to less disease and issues). These foods can be a great alternative for folks who like the idea of a raw diet without the fuss. They can also be used to supplement a home-prepared raw diet, especially when traveling or when someone is watching your pet who doesn't want to handle raw food. In addition, they can be used to supplement a traditional dry-and-canned mix diet to occasionally give pets a more naturally-textured experience; this option will also reduce the expense.
This type of food takes up much less storage space. In addition, rehydrated food with water provides a high moisture content. Finicky or ill pets will often eat this type of food when nothing else interests them because it's so palatable (read: stinkier in a good way), so it could be a good choice if your pet has a condition like Irritable Bowel Syndrome or dental problems. Some are labeled for intermittent or supplemental feeding only – meaning you will need to supplement with multi-vitamins, minerals, oils, etc., to meet your pet's nutritional needs. Others are labeled as “complete and balanced,” which means vitamins and minerals have already been added to comply with AAFCO standards.
Freeze-dried or dehydrated food can offer you some extra peace of mind if you're concerned about processing conditions of kibble and canned food. One brand that we carry, The Honest Kitchen, uses only human-grade ingredients, manufactures in a “human food” facility, and requires all ingredient vendors to pledge humane treatment of the supplying animals.
High- or low-protein...senior formula...grain-free...all the various choices in pet food on the market today can feel daunting. Luckily for you, we've already done all the research for you on the very best commercial brands available today, and we stay on top of what's going on in the industry. We're a small shop, but that works to your advantage: you don't have to go around a huge store comparing and contrasting twenty labels without a knowledgable employee to offer you pros and cons. And you will be pleasantly surprised at how competitive our prices are to the big box stores (oftentimes even less expensive – just read our Yelp reviews).
Our staff prides itself on being able to help you make sense of the mysteries surrounding pet food and can assist you in narrowing down the best choice for your pet's specific needs...even if the need is just a picky eater who hasn't found something suitable for her discriminating palate yet. We aren't vets and don't claim to offer medical advice, but we can assure you that when you come into our shop, we will do our very best to help you select a great choice for your baby.
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Victoria Park is the owner of Park Pet Supply in East Atlanta Village, established in 1999. Park Pet's goal is to help your pet live the healthiest and happiest life possible, with affordable prices and incomparable customer service for you.