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When it comes to your dog’s health, food is a choice you make that affects her daily life as well as her long-term wellbeing. Naturally you want to make the right choice. So how to choose a brand of pet food among the many options and competing claims?
From the time you brought your doggy home you probably heard the term “premium food” bandied about in print, on pet care websites, even by veterinary staff. What does “premium” actually mean when it comes to pet food?
Surprisingly, “premium” has no legal or regulatory definition. It typically describes foods that aren’t store or “household name” brands. It doesn’t necessarily have a connection to the food’s nutritional content or quality. Some detective work is required to make sure “premium” isn’t just the amount you’re paying. Luckily, you can arm yourself with knowledge to make an informed choice.
Choosing A Quality Dog Food Brand
First, what is a brand? Generic or store brands have the name of the store or its generic label on the package, such as “Kirkland.” Private label brands are store brands packaged to look fancier, such as Wal-Mart’s “Ol’Roy.” Large-scale food manufacturers, such as Nestle Purina, produce “household brands.” This is where the gray area comes in. Brands that aren’t generics or household names are often considered “premium.” However, these brands are usually owned by the same conglomerates that manufacture more familiar — and less expensive — name brands: Nutro Max, for example, is owned by Mars. Vanity label brands are produced by familiar manufacturers, but with names like “Chef So-and-So’s Special Blend.” Prescription foods are another category entirely: they’re formulated for pets with specific medical conditions and are only available from veterinary facilities.
Premium status does not mean higher quality ingredients or more nutrition — it only signifies that a product costs more and may be more difficult to acquire. You can determine whether a premium food is worth the cost, or whether a less flashy food is just as good, by reading its AAFCO nutrient profile.
AAFCO is the Association of American Feed Control Officials. AAFCO doesn’t personally regulate, test, license, approve, or certify brands in any way — state feed control officials regulate pet food manufactured in their states. AAFCO defines nutritional standards for pet and livestock feed. Manufacturers must formulate their foods appropriately, and in order to use AAFCO nutrient profiles on their packages, they must test their foods to prove they meet certain requirements.
If food meets AAFCO standards, it will state “complete and balanced” and either “for adult maintenance” or “for growth and reproduction” somewhere on the package. If it says “for all life stages,” it meets the nutritional requirements for puppies and for pregnant and lactating dogs as well as for non-breeding adult animals.
If the label also states, “[Product] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO dog food nutrient profiles,” its nutritional content was analyzed in a lab. If it says, “animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that [product] provides complete and balanced nutrition,” it was analyzed in a lab and tested in animal feeding trials. If a product was tested and did not meet the standards, the label must state, “this product is intended for intermittent or supplemental feeding only.”
If a bag of dog food does not have an AAFCO profile, all bets are off. Not every brand meets profile requirements, and not every brand is tested, including premium and vanity brands. Some labels are intentionally misleading when presented without an AAFCO profile. Terms such as “all natural,” “human-quality ingredients,” “for all breeds and sized,” and “superior nutrition” are not regulatory labels and have no legal definition. They do not signify that a product has been tested in any way or that it’s superior to other products.
A Quick Note About Organic Dog Food
And if you’re looking for organics, be even more aware. In order to claim a product or ingredient is organic, pet food manufacturers must follow USDA National Organics Program regulations. However, these regulations don’t cover the word “organic” in trademarks or brand names — for example, you could make a brand name food called “So-and-So’s Organics” without any organic ingredients inside it. So make sure you’re label-literate before you shell out extra cash.
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