My favorite morning television news personality skeptically raised the small cookie to her nose and took a whiff. Despite its sweet smell, she still hesitated to sample it. Finally, after taking a deep breath, she bit into the dog treat. This wasn’t a dare. It was a national news segment on pet nutrition, set out to prove the quality of “human grade” dog food.

Although the news story was meant to help people make better nutritional choices for their pets, it may have only succeeded in confusing them more. The diversity of choices available in today’s pet food market has made the simple task of feeding our pets more complicated than it need be. Should we only buy “human grade” foods for our pets? Should we look for “organic,” or “holistic” foods? What do “organic” and “holistic” really mean anyway? What should we do?

First and foremost, we should relax and not be deceived, wooed, or intimidated by the hundreds of competing pet food manufacturers out there. Instead, be thankful that the pet food industry has evolved enough to offer such a variety of foods for the specific needs of each and every one of our precious pets. It has been a long time coming . . .

The first dog food was produced commercially in the mid-1800's, and consisted of a biscuit made of wheat meals, meat, vegetables and beet root. It took more than sixty years after that for a new dog food to evolve, when canned food was produced in 1922 by Ken-L-Ration, followed by a dry food formula in 1925 by the Gaines Food Company. We waited almost three decades until 1948, when Hill’s Prescription Diet came out. This dog food was designed specifically for the treatment of kidney disease in dogs. It was the first commercially produced dog food specifically for therapeutic purposes. Nine years later, Ralston Purina came out with a fifth type of food, the coated kibble, in 1957. Since then, after years of trial, error, and research, pet food manufacturers have evolved, offering foods specifically formulated to include the nutritional ingredients our pets need, and then some.

As a result of the innovations in the pet food industry, we now have foods available to us that are as diverse as the animals we are feeding. That is the key. The question of what food to buy for your pet does not have a one size fits all answer. What you should do, is know your pet. Is your pet big, small, young, old, fat, thin, active, inactive, etc.? Know your pet and his needs, and you will be able to easily choose the food that is just right for him.

A dog’s basic needs are protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins A, B, D, E, K, and 20 small mineral elements. All dog foods, no matter what their fancy label says, must contain the minimum requirements of these fundamental ingredients as regulated by the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials). The law requires that these ingredients are listed in descending order on the label by weight. Therefore, the first few ingredients should be considered the “main” ingredients.

Once again, know your pet. If your dog is in need of more protein, you should look at the label and make sure this is one of the main (first three) ingredients in the food you are feeding him. If your dog has a unique condition, such as a sensitive stomach, you should find a food lower in fat to digest more easily. If you are worried about a vitamin deficiency in your dog, you should make sure the food contains a high enough percentage of the vitamin your dog is lacking. I could go on, considering the size of your dog, the breed, his weight, his age, his allergies, sensitivities, and so on, but meeting your dog’s basic nutritional needs is really that simple.

Don’t forget that as your pet changes, his nutritional requirements will change as well. The AAFCO mandates two nutritional categories, including an adult maintenance formulated diet and a growth and reproduction formula. Keep that in mind, and remember that your dog may develop special needs throughout his lifetime as well. Talk with your veterinarian frequently. If you are providing your dog with the specific nutrition he needs, you are doing exactly what you should do. Anything beyond that is purely personal choice.

Many pet parents prefer to feed their pets canned food over dry. As long as the foods contain the proper ingredients tailored to your pet, the choice is between six in one hand versus half a dozen in the other. Give him the one he likes best. Give him the one that fits your budget. Or give him the one that’s easiest for you to prepare. The same is true with some other pet parents’ preferences.

Many pet parents prefer to go all natural, purchasing products for themselves and their pets that do not contain any chemically synthesized ingredients or chemical preservatives. If that is your choice, the pet food industry has accommodated you with “100% organic” and “natural” pet foods. They are usually a bit more expensive, but the AAFCO regulates the use of these terms. Therefore, when you purchase a product with this label, you know you are getting what you paid for.

Some pet parents choose a “holistic” lifestyle, and purchase “human grade” foods for their pets. These are often very expensive and unfortunately, the AAFCO has no standards attached to these terms. In fact, the word “holistic”actually refers to the entire management of something, versus a specific dietary attribute. “Human grade” is usually used to describe products that contain ingredients from manufacturing plants that produce and supply ingredients for human consumption. Therefore, if you want to feed your pet foods only made from the same foods you would put in your own body (or give to your favorite newscaster), this is the choice for you.

Still other pet parents prefer feeding their pets a home cooked meal, and I don’t mean leftovers. This is another lifestyle choice that involves making everything from scratch, including pet food. This may have evolved as a result of fears associated with recent pet food recalls. Nevertheless, these pet parents, with guidance from their veterinarian or nutritionist, “cook up” the correct portions of meat, grain, vegetables and vitamin and mineral supplements for their family pets.

The opposite of this, is another new trend in pet food; the raw diet. Although there is no scientific evidence proving that raw food is beneficial, it has been shown to provide relief from allergies, improved skin and coat and better oral hygiene. The flip side shows studies documenting harmful bacteria and parasites in raw food that may cause more harm than good.

Whatever you choose there is a common goal of keeping your pet happy and healthy. America prides itself on having the freedom to choose, no matter what the subject. When you get to the cookie aisle in your local grocery store, you can choose anything from 100-calorie fat-free wafers, to soft baked, chocolate chunk brownie bites. So don’t get frustrated in the pet aisle as you look at the different boxes, bags and bins of dog foods. Arm yourself with knowledge and rejoice in the fact that you have the opportunity to get what’s best for your pet.

Kelly McCardy-Fuller is a freelance writer/editor residing in Westminster, Maryland with her husband and two children. She obtained a degree in Journalism, Summa Cum Laude, from Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. After that, she traveled extensively, working on United States Naval Bases as a Hotel Manager, all the while working on her freelance writing career. Settling down to raise a family, Kelly has been editing and ghostwriting for a Neuropsychologist at Behavioral, Medicine & Health Psychology in Ventura, CA for the past eight years. She has had articles published on various websites, in newspapers, magazines, and medical journals from coast to coast, and recently finished her first book, which is awaiting publication. To contact Kelly, please email:

Making the Right Choice in the Pet Food Aisle
                                                          By Kelly McCardy-Fuller

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