By Sherri Romig CPDT-KA

When looking for a suitable food for your pet, the most important thing is to look at the ingredient panel. After all, a food can be no better than the ingredients it is made up of!

The main ingredients in the food are the first several, up to and including the fat, which may be listed as a fat or an oil. While you still need to scan the rest of the label, these first ingredients are what you will focus on.

Ingredients are listed in order by the weight that they contribute to the food. This is the first opportunity manufacturers have to mislead you. Often, you will see a good meat, like chicken, immediately followed by a grain, or an inferior meat source, like by-product meal. While it may look as though this food is mostly chicken, it is not. The chicken is measured here with the water weight included. Since meat is as much as 70% water, once you take the water out of the chicken, the grain or by-product meal is actually contributing more solids to the food.

While by-products are not necessarily bad in and of themselves, it is best to avoid any food that contains them because it is not possible to verify whether it is quality by-products, like livers, or other inferior parts of the animal. Plus, by-products are much cheaper than muscle meat, so they are often not handled as carefully, which could lead to spoilage.

So, a quality food will have either chicken meal (which is the dehydrated chicken) as the first ingredient, or will have chicken followed by a meal or several other meat protein sources. (The protein can be any specified meat, we are just using chicken here as the example.)

The next thing you will look at is the carbohydrate source. Grain-free foods will usually use sweet potatoes. Foods that include grain are a bit trickier. Make sure it has a whole-grain (rice, oats, etc.). Avoid any grain partials like brewers rice, flours, or glutens.

This is the next chance manufacturers have to mislead you. The food may have chicken, or even chicken meal as the first ingredient, but it is then followed by several grain partials. If they have several grain partials listed after the meat, it is actually a grain-based food. The manufacturer separates the grain parts out so that they can list them after the meat (everything is listed by weight), but if you put all of those partials together, they actually weigh more than the meat source.

Another thing to avoid in pet food is corn. While corn is not necessarily bad in and of itself, it has several problems. First of all, it is the least digestible of the common grains. This means that your pet will absorb fewer nutrients from the corn and therefore need to eat more of it to get the same nutrition they would get from a more digestible ingredient. Second, corn offers protein into the formula. This means that when they measure the nutrient levels for the guaranteed analysis, the protein in the corn will show up just the same as protein from meat. The problem here is again digestibility. The nutrients in corn protein are not as usable to the animal as the proteins from meat. Animals need the highly-digestible proteins found in meat in order to fully absorb and utilize the nutrients and amino-acids from the food. Soy and, to a lesser extent, wheat are also grains that offer inferior proteins to a food. Finally, corn, soy, and wheat are all common allergens in pets.

The fat in a food may be an animal fat or an oil. The important things to look for here are that it is from a named fat source (chicken fat vs. animal fat), and the way it is preserved. Preservatives in food can be natural (mixed tocopherols, citric acid, rosemary extract) or they can be chemical (BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin, propylene glycol). These chemical preservatives have been linked with things like cancer and liver disease. It is important to note, however, that food naturally preserved has a shorter shelf-life once opened, so don’t buy more than you can expect to use in a reasonable amount of time and store in an air-tight container.

Also to avoid in pet food: ANY artificial colors, added salt, and added sugar (look for sugars with names ending in -ose, like fructose).

Another thing to keep in mind is to look at the treats you are feeding your pet as well. It makes little sense to carefully select a quality pet food, and then give your animals snacks filled with those very ingredients you were so careful to avoid! (It is a great idea to give your dog fresh fruits and vegetables as treats, but be careful to avoid grapes and onions.)

There is much more to learn about choosing a high-quality pet food, but this will give you a good jumping-off point for evaluating foods. Good luck, and congratulations on your commitment to keeping your pet as healthy as possible!